A Parcel of Memories
by Murdo Morrison
Every week day the mail van would arrive in Bragar. Early enough of a morning for the driver to be included in breakfasting in “Lakefield” adjacent to the village Post Office and the drivers were a living connection with the distant town of Stornoway – all of 16 road miles away and the centre of civilisation and all things modern.
Changing shift patterns brought different drivers and for a week or even longer periods those heroes of Wells Fargo fortitude would come through rain, hail, snowdrifts or winter blizzards to bring get the mail to its destination.
Always in uniform and smartly turned out with the peak cap of Royal Mail authority complete with trumpet badge borrowed as a symbol from days of yore. The uniforms were dark serge material with red piping on trousers and de rigeur appeared to be substantial black boots. Rebels would wear shoes.
The driver would sit in to the kitchen table with the family and await the arrival of a big plate of porridge from the pot which my mother had been nursing to “hottering” state on the black stove – a Modern Mistress fuelled by peat.
Some drivers carved trenches in the porridge to take the cooling milk, some excavated inter connecting canals, some had cups of milk beside the plate in which to dip each welcoming spoonful but each talked as they ate and relayed news of happenings in “The Town”.
Young ears listened in awe and amazement as the tales from the big city unfolded and the credentials of the participants described in convoluted terms of “the brother of the man whose Uncle was a cousin of the Harbour Master” who had been in an altercation with “John Alec Murdo Smith’s brother in law from out in the country somewhere” Our parents would nod in understanding.
Most drivers spoke with the accent of that centre of their world – Stornoway. In their language were words found nowhere else as women could be “blones” all men were “coves”, herring were “skeds” and these additions distinguished the true Stornoway-born post driver as opposed to the occasional one not so well versed and had their origins in the hinterland – itself being under the blanket description of coming from “The Country”
Townies were the true people, country people were tolerated and everyone else from Paisley to the Punjab were “from away”
We youngsters saw them through young eyes and young opinions were shared around and thus they were cast forever in that name and role.
Their names were actually many and varied. Skellow – whatever that stood for - always wore his cap at a jaunty angle which befitted his jolly approach to life in general and his willingness to do anything for anybody. There was a Big Donald and a Little Donald – a very large and substantial Domhnull Mor and a diminutive dapper Domhnull Beag. Gerny was dubbed grannach (bad tempered) but although he had a tendency to growl he did not deliver even a snarl. Roddy Wilk was also smartly dressed at all times and was willing to kick a football with us if required.
Brand was of a very gentle nature and was a drummer in a Stornoway Dance Band and that elevated him to a platform of respect in our collective opinion.
In the long summer holidays there was an opportunity to accompany the drivers to the next village – a round trip of three miles – to empty a Post Office letter box bolted on to a telegraph pole in the next village of Arnol.
An astronaut heading for a distant planet would possibly experience the thrill that we got if the driver allowed us to steer the post van. The method was to keep the engine temperature device on top of the front of the bonnet pointing on to the middle of the road whilst the driver sat with nerves of steel and with instant access to brakes. The drivers were assessed for acceptability by us on their tolerance of this practice.
Some would let us handle the gear shift as we bowled along and experience gained in so many aspects of driving were invaluable.
The mail bags used had their own aroma – not pleasant, not unpleasant, but very distinctive. Spinning through many years I was walking one day along Waterloo Street, Glasgow, and as I passed the then sorting office with doors and ventilators open to counteract an unusually hot day – that specific aroma unchanged by the years came floating out. Instantly I was transferred to riding the ribbon road and guiding a Morris Commercial Post Van where undoubtedly I was King of the Road.
The Post Office vans are smaller and speedier and the vast distances of yesteryear have been shrunk through having good roads and all duties timed and studied to maintain and improve efficiency.