I delivered this little speech at my mother’s 80th birthday. Barbara Harrower died five years ago at the age of 82, These words give some indication of the qualities of a remarkable lady and throw some light on the times she lived in. I had tears in my eyes when I read it again:..
Dear friends, I am pleased to see that so many of you have managed to come to Barbara’s birthday party. Looking at her, who would imagine she is on the eve of her eightieth birthday? Doesn’t she wear her years lightly? I hope she will forgive us for springing this surprise on her, but this important birthday of a much-loved lady called for something special. So here we are – at least those of us who were not prevented by illness or other circumstances.
It is a great privilege to address to Barbara’s family and friends these words of appreciation. It is a great sadness that Dad is not here to deliver his tribute .It would have been a glowing one, because he had reason to know Barbara’s qualities better than anyone. I hope my words reflect some of the things he would have said.
I know that on a birthday such as this Barbara will be looking back over the past years because memories are precious to her. I hope she will not mind if I too reflect here on the experiences that have shaped her life and her character. Her sisters Anna and Jenny, and her brother Joe will remember with her the poverty of their childhood in Cowie. It must have been a great struggle for their parents, Jimmy and Belle, to bring up nine children on a miner’s wages. The three eldest children, Peter, Colin and Jimmock were from Jimmy’s first marriage, and Belle accepted them as her own, just as the younger children accepted them as their brothers. There was never any talk of step- children or step- brothers in that house. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why this family of eleven managed to cope with living in a two-roomed miner’s cottage. It wasn’t always easy though. In these days the men of the house who were working were given preferential treatment and sometimes the younger children were at a disad vantage. As the eldest daughter Barbara tended to be landed with the baby-sitting, and she has spoken of those Saturday afternoon trips to the cinema with Jenny, Anna and Joe in tow. They had something like a penny each for the fares, cinema seats and their sweeties. There is no doubt that too much responsibility rested on her young shoulders but she found it difficult to protest at this. He brothers Colin and Tam understood her situation and were very protective. Little wonder that the three were so close. We youngsters don’t know what it was like to live in those times when children sometimes went to school in their bare feet, and relied on the soup kitchens during the General Strike. Even a visit to the dentist was a nightmare because there were no anaesthetics then. It must have come as a relief for Barbara when she got her first job as a maid in a hotel in the Hillfoots. Oddly enough the manageress’s name was Harrower. But isn’t everybody in the Hillfoots called Harrower? A local historian once told me that all the jail records of the Hillfoots district were full of the name Harrower! I can well believe it! I suspect most of the people here are members of the Harrower clan or are related to them by ties of blood. Surnames are a funny thing. We take our father’s family name but don’t we all belong to our mother’s family as well. I am as much a Harrower as a Malcolmson and proud of it. In some respects I am more Harrower than Malcolmson, and vice versa – Glyn will know what I mean. So in this hall there will be Harrowers who are also Stevensons, Aulds, Jenkins, Dunlop, Malcolmson, Mills, and Oliver. There will also be Malcolmsons here who are Malleys, Gallaghers, and McGuires. The reason I have gone on about this is because the Harrowers have always been a tight-knit family who have always made newcomers equally welcome, even when they joke about the in-laws and the outlaws. I think Barbara is a very good example of this. She has always accepted our friends and our partners without reservation, regardless of background. I don’t think any of her daughters-in-law could say have they experienced any of the negative feelings that mothers-in-law are supposed to have about their sons’ wives. Indeed they are regarded as friends as well as daughters-in-law.The War changed many people’s lives and Barbara’s was no exception. The hotel where she was working had to close for the duration, and Barbara returned to Cowie. She got a job in the nailworks in the Weaver Row in St.Ninians, where she became used to lugging about hundredweight bags of nails. Her brothers Tam, Colin and Jock went off to the War even though miners were exempted from war service. It was at this time that she got to know a young miner from St.Ninians by the name of Davie Malcolmson, and the rest, as they say, is history. Once they got hitched Mum moved from one overcrowded house in Cowie to another in the Bannockburn Road, St.Ninians. Besides themselves there were old Davie, Martha, Frank, Wullie, Sadie, Agnes, John and old Sarah Devlin. With her gift for friendship and her consideration for other people, Barbara soon fitted in and gained the love and respect of her in-laws. I remember well our little room with the table by the window where I used to have my meals with my parents. As a little boy there I was spoiled by the grown-ups, and basked in that warm glow of indulgent affection that only a child can know. As is the way with children I was barely aware of a new unhappiness that entered her life. When I was about fifteen months old Mum lost her only daughter in childbirth. It was a loss that that was to remain the source of an enduring sadness throughout her life. In 1947 we moved to our very own home in the Old Town in St.Ninians. It might have consisted of two rather damp attic rooms with gaslight and cold running water on the landing but it was home…Eventually Auntie Jenny and Uncle Andra came to stay with us and the atmosphere was really cosy. By then I had a little brother, Colin, whose company I appreciated, and we were very close. The Old Town in St. Ninians remains a magical place for all those who lived there, a steadily diminishing number I’m afraid. It seemed a very ancient place with its closes and pends, its single-ends and rambling tenements. It was home to a close-knit community with a wonderful sprinkling of characters, of whom Annie Lowry is the last remaining survivor. This great sense of community barely survived the eventual move of the residents from the Old Town’s crumbling buildings to the gleaming new housing schemes in the Bannockburn Road and Cornhill Crescent. I think Barbara will agree that the years we spent there were among the happiest of her life. These post-war years had a great community spirit and we children were made much of. The highlights of the year were the trips to the seaside, usually Burntisland, Rothesay and Aberdour. Then there were the birthday parties for the children. There would be silver threepences in the cake, and we youngsters had to do our party piece, either singing a song or reciting a poem. I think anything was an excuse for the Harrowers to have a party because there always seemed to be one going on at our place, at Millhall or Cowie. I particularly remember the singing of Auntie Annie and Uncle Andra. She had a very pure soprano voice and his was a tenor of lovely quality. But of course the Olivers had the gift of song (and still do).
By 1955 Barbara had four sons who, I hope, have brought her more happiness than heartbreak! She reared us well in spite of the illnesses which she experienced during these years. We learned much from observing how she coped with adversity. There was never any self-pity, she just got on with it, and we did our best to help on those rare occasions when she found it difficult to cope. Her innate goodness and compassion never wavered during all those difficult years. She was always ready to help out friends in a practical manner or lend a sympathetic ear to their troubles. Her sons could always rely on her in times of hardship and she was ready to give them a roof over their head when they had none. She has so many fine qualities which have been difficult for her sons to emulate. Just as her children were growing up and getting ready to leave home there was another blow. Dad had a serious stroke at the age of 48 and was never able to work again. For several years he experienced a degree of independence. With the aid of a stick he would go to the shops to get the messages and he would take his beloved Rover for walks. Unfortunately his mobility worsened and he became house-bound. Further strokes robbed him of his independence and impaired his speech. This was undoubtedly the greatest test Mum and Dad ever had to face and both found the courage to make the most of a damaged life. Dad coped by reducing his expectations, and Mum coped by learning the best means to meet his needs and preserve his self-esteem. It definitely demanded great sacrifices from her and she met the challenge of these eighteen years or so of his illness with amazing forbearance. She nursed him with willing hands and a patient heart. This period of my parents’ life was a time of sadness for all of us and we wondered whether the ordeal of looking after Dad would eventually break her own health. Miraculously it didn’t, and it is wonderful to see her once again having a life of her own since Dad passed on. She has now joined Wilma and James in their home and has her own cosy little flat where she can receive her family and friends. We are all extremely grateful to James and Wilma for all they are doing to make her comfortable and secure there. When you reach Mum’s age the loss of dear ones from your own generation are compensated for by the love of your children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews. I know Barbara’s grandchildren adore her and they are a great solace to her. She is also once more able to visit her sisters on Sundays, something which had not been possible during Dad’s illness. I think the shared experience of widowhood has drawn them closer, if that is possible.
[On occasions like tonight it is proper to remember all those dear ones who are no longer with us, and to draw closer to our hearts those still experiencing the pain of recent loss. Let us remember those most recently gone,……….There are others who left us earlier, and they too are held dear in our memories and our hearts. So many have already gone down that road which we all must take some day. When we are gone our most enduring memorial lies in our reputation and in the memories of those we leave behind. So let us remember our departed friends……. a roll-call of names…….). If I have missed any name from this roll-call the reason is my faltering memory rather than disrespect. The purpose of life (and death) is a mystery that is revealed to few. What we do know is that, without the experience of sadness we could not fully appreciate the joys of life, such as family and friends. Of family and friends there are plenty tonight, and I am sure they will join with me in toasting our birthday girl, Barbara. May her autumn years be full of joy, in the bosom of her family, and may the remaining years be many. Who knows, in ten years time we might be gathering here in this same hall to celebrate a ninetieth birthday! ]