In 1917 my dad’s mum, Emily Smith, became a servant in a big house in London. She was only eleven, but maids were scarce during the Great War, and Emily had a gift for needlework.
Her skill as a seamstress helped her to work her way up from scullery maid to housemaid to parlour maid, to silver-service waitress and eventually running her own dressmaking business.
Sitting in her garden, by her old Anderson shelter, she told us stories of both World Wars and the Blitz while teaching me how to sew and make clothes for my dolls.
Some of her stories – our favourites – were slightly spooky, even though she ‘didn’t hold with the supernatural’. She was a no-nonsense, practical person with no time for self-pity. “Cheer up, Droopy-Drawers!” was her motto and her battle-cry against everything life threw at her.
I came to Orkney in 2013 and began renovating Highland Park House, the former home of James Grant the distillery owner.
This big old Gothic house was in a sorry state. As we scraped and scrubbed and stripped and sanded I found myself thinking again about Nan’s life and stories.
Stripping an old house to its bones makes you think about the folks who built it and worked in it. A big house like this would have had several servants raking the fires and sleeping in the attics, just like Nan.
Sometimes, when I’m repairing antique furniture or vintage fabrics, I hear her voice in my head: “Do it properly or not at all” and “Elbow grease costs nothing, you Silly Sausage!”…and at times when I’ve felt like giving up, “Cheer up, Droopy Drawers!”
“A Stitch In Time” will be a collection of Nan’s stories, interwoven with my childhood memories of her, remembered again while working on the restoration of Highland Park House, and illustrated because she taught me how to draw, too.
Like many thousands of working class people, Nan thought her stories weren’t important and didn’t matter… “Silly Sausage!”
Áine King is a London-Irish writer, storyteller and award-winning dramatist currently living in Orkney.
Read more about the restoration of Highland Park House and some of Áine and Antony's ongoing Orkney adventures on this page.
Mermaid image (Rhonda's pages) and storyteller image (Tom's pages), and all other illustrations except where noted are here by the courtesy of our dear friend - Stromness author, artist and historian, Bryce Wilson MBE, who owns all copyrights. Thanks, Bryce!