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A minister’s grandson remembers

The Reverend Alfred Ernest Fee became the minister at Temple church in 1935. He and my grandmother Anna Wilhelmina Fee emigrated to Scotland from their native Ireland before the First World War and had lived in Aberdeenshire and Glasgow. On my grandfather’s retirement in 1952, they moved to Stoke on Trent to be near their eldest son Samuel Rutherford Fee who was a GP there and his wife Winifred Fee, formerly Mitchell who had been born and brought up at Arniston near Temple. My grandmother died in 1953 but my grandfather lived for another nine years – the loss of his wife weighed heavily on him.

My uncle Sam Fee and his sister - my mother - Sarah Gwendoline Fee studied medicine at Glasgow University where they qualified as doctors. They never lived at the manse in Temple but their younger brother, my uncle Walter, aged 15 in 1935, accompanied his parents there, cycling each weekday to Gorebridge to catch the train to Edinburgh and attend school. After war service in the Navy he continued to live at Temple with his parents while he studied medicine at Edinburgh University, leaving home only after he too qualified as a doctor.

I was born in England in 1941 and the name Temple was in my vocabulary from the time of my earliest memories. My grandparents used to come and visit my parents and me, their first grandchild. My grandmother loved children and no doubt spoilt me – when I was about four years old I can recall telling my mother following a row with her that I was leaving to live at Temple. I got to the end of our road in Preston, Lancashire but there was no sign of Temple or any indication how I would get there. Later when I learned to read and write I remember asking for my grandparents address and writing "The Manse, Temple, Midlothian" on the envelope containing a thank you letter for a Christmas or birthday gift. No post codes in those days. I also developed a love of maps and would pore over a map of Scotland searching for Temple – usually in vain, although from my grandmother’s stories I knew the name Gorebridge and that name I could find.

The first visit to Temple which I remember was in April 1948. One day I was playing on the flat expanse of East Anglia; after a night in a train I was in Temple early next morning and looking out of the windows of the manse in wonder at the hills all around and the river which ran on three sides. In those days children were allowed to roam unsupervised and I lost no time in setting out to explore. My attempts to make friends with sheep were unsuccessful and I recall my grandmother explaining to me on my return home -  "a sheep is a stupid animal".

In April 1951 when I was nearly ten my parents and I arrived at Temple on another visit late one evening. I recall the car stopping and suddenly there was the familiar steep hill down to the manse with stone walls on each side and my grandmother waiting for us in the road.  In the morning I got up early and unlocked a side door; I remember the sweet-smelling air and the sound of the river. On both that and my earlier visit I climbed up and down its steep banks – on one occasion I caught a glimpse of the nearby road bridge from underneath and after a perilous descent to the river level I looked up at the curved arch and supporting walls to satisfy my curiosity.

In those days going "down the glen" usually meant crossing the road and passing down a rough road to the right of the church. At the end of it there was a small house; in 1948 it stood empty and I recall looking through the window and seeing a bird trapped inside and desperately trying to get out. In 1951 a lady lived there with children with whom I became friends. Occasionally I went off along the river with them; sometimes we met other children who accepted me and my English voice without comment. Sandy’s bridge was the limit of our walks and I remember a girl telling me a story that when the man who built it saw it completed he jumped from the parapet to his death. Whether this was true I never discovered.

Close to the bridge over the river which flowed past the manse there stood a house where a young couple lived. I recall my grandparents talking to my mother about these neighbours although they said that they kept to themselves and did not attend the church. On one occasion I went down the glen with my uncle Walter where we met the husband; I recall my uncle enquiring after his wife. My grandfather later told me that she belonged to "the League of Health and Beauty" and that he often saw her out running up and down the hills. By the time of my visit in 1951 the talk was though of her suicide some time before.

Other neighbours were the Mackendrick family who lived on a farm up the hill on the other side of the river. I got to know their daughter Margo with whom I soon thought I was in love – fortunately my departure arrived before I took matters further. I was welcomed into the family home and Margo came to the manse with the family dog Bruno more than once.

My grandmother

I have said that my grandmother loved children and by the time of my visit in 1948 I was old enough to converse with her on most topics. In those days adults who were willing to listen to children and treat them in conversation as equals were few, but my grandmother talked to me at every opportunity and took a close interest in my doings.

My grandmother did though have a darker side; she perceived the consumption of beer as being intrinsically evil and wanted my assurance that I would never drink it. She denounced the closure of churches and their conversion to secular purposes such as  cinemas. She told me the story of the earthquake that struck San Francisco in 1905, a time when she was a young woman working in business. Evidently this event made a strong impression on her. I do not remember her attending services in the church but she was, I believe, deeply religious; a prayer she tried to teach me has the words ”if I die before I wake”. This always seemed an odd concept to me and these words alone have remained in my memory.

I remember that my grandmother seemed well-informed about local affairs although where she got her local information I am not sure. I do not remember her going out of the manse to the village or there being any shops there. On my 1948 visit I met Meggie who was a very infirm - looking old lady who came to help with the housework – she was full of good cheer but I found it hard to understand her. Perhaps from Meggie or visitors to the manse my grandmother heard local news: I can remember her story of an accident where a local man had been crushed by a machine. She also spoke once disapprovingly of local men stealing coal from an opencast mine. I believe that the  kindness I had known from her would have been extended to all; my mother commented ruefully that men were the principal beneficiaries. I recall my grandmother telling me how she had once met some boy scouts who told her in response to her enquiry that they would sleep down the glen. Horrified at the prospect she insisted on giving them supper, bed and breakfast at the manse.

From my grandmother I learned local place names such as Dalkeith and nearby  Gorebridge – probably some shopping was done there and I certainly remember being told that the batteries needed to make my grandparents’ antique radio set work had to be recharged there.

The manse had no electricity. I remember noticing on my first visit the gas lighting in the dining room and my grandmother complaining that one of the lamps did not work properly. In 1951 my grandmother took me to the attic room where I was to sleep and I remember her strictures to be careful with the candle which was my sole source of light.

The manse must have seemed a dreary place for those living there. I remember long corridors and stone-flagged floors on the ground floor and the daylight being poor in most parts. I recall asking why it was so big and being told that ministers in the past had large families. How my frail and elderly grandparents managed there I still do not know but certainly their situation was of concern to my mother and her brothers.

My grandfather

My grandfather had a car. I can remember him allowing me aged six to steer it along the road to Gorebridge. I also remember my view from the back seat of the stone walls near the manse as my grandfather made several attempts to turn the vehicle round in the narrow road. The existence of the car meant that my grandparents could get to Edinburgh easily; in practice this they did once a week.

I have few other memories of my grandfather in Temple. I remember entering his study on one occasion when he was not there, the smell of leather chairs  and the sight of  the ashes of a fire which had gone out; my grandparents’ elderly spaniel Barney growled from his basket. My grandfather often went out visiting his flock; when at home he kept mostly to his study. He always wore clerical dress; an odd accessory often was a hen under his arm. He was a keen  gardener and kept the hens to be self-sufficient in eggs. I recall attending his Sunday school for children and attending the church once with my mother. I recall being surprised at the seating for the congregation facing different directions – gathered round the pulpit.

In volume 1 of his autobiography "My Life before Penicillin" my late father Dr. S.M. Laird devoted an entire chapter to "Father Fee". The book is not in print but should be available via the public library system.

Stories from the minister’s daughter

In the last ten years of her life my mother told me that my grandparents had sought a move from Glasgow after medical advice that the emphysema from which my grandfather suffered would kill him if he continued to breathe the city air. For him Temple with its clean air was an ideal final posting. When I talked enthusiastically about my memories of Temple, my mother replied that she had hated the place. She had had the anxiety of seeing her  mother – often unwell - struggling to adapt to life there, far from the facilities and the social life which she had enjoyed in Glasgow. In Temple my grandmother had just "a graveyard to look out on". My mother said she wished she could have got my grandmother a flat in Edinburgh where she could enjoy her own life, go the shops when it pleased her, go to exhibitions and the cinema. But my mother had no money of her own with which to do that. She recalled once going to Edinburgh in the late nineteen thirties and trying to find a shop which sold champagne – my grandmother was confined to bed following another bout of illness and the doctor had prescribed the drink to cheer her up - notwithstanding her stand on temperance. The story went that when champagne was bought no one knew how to open it; my father stepped in and removed the cork. My grandmother frowned and commented that he had "done that before".

My grandfather had a reputation for being absent-minded or generally oblivious of his surroundings. My mother spoke of him being well-known to Edinburgh policemen due to his habit of driving his car past traffic lights at red. His reply when stopped was that they had been green when he last saw them.

I do not remember my first visit to Temple which I think was in 1942. My mother and I arrived by train early one morning at Waverley station during an air raid. My mother finding herself on the platform with a baby among her hurrying fellow passengers was panic-stricken. She had expected to be met but knew that it was now unlikely as civil defence regulations restricted movement. Then suddenly she saw her father among the crowd bearing down on her with a great smile on his face. She had never been so pleased to see him in her life. Seemingly unaware of the sound of gunfire and searchlights in the sky and certainly impervious to the idea of danger he gathered us up and drove us out of the dark city to Temple.

I asked my mother about how in wartime he managed for petrol to drive the car. She replied that he kept the car going partly on paraffin and that wartime regulations forbade this. My grandfather once put paraffin in the petrol tank and then asked my mother to stand behind the car as he started it and tell him whether she could smell it. Getting no reply from her he shouted to her but she had her hankerchief over her face and was too overcome with paraffin fumes to speak.

I recall my grandmother speaking of the Germans coming over. When I was a child I asked a lot of questions about the war because people around me often told stories about it. I recall asking my mother whether my grandparents had to go to an air raid shelter as we had done and my mother replying that in a remote place like Temple there was no need. However on another occasion my mother told me how my grandparents both saw and heard German bomber aircraft flying over the manse and then returning hours later presumably after raiding Glasgow.

On a lighter note, my mother recalled visiting Temple when she and my father were engaged to be married and were still medical students. One of my grandfather’s hens was found unconscious with a broken neck and normally there would only be one outcome. My parents decided to see if they could save it. They used communion wine to revive the bird and placed its neck in plaster of Paris.  After two days the plaster was removed and the hen had made a complete recovery.

I believe my mother made a visit to Temple long after my grandparents had left as I heard her make a sarcastic reference to the Church of Scotland having spent some money on the manse for the benefit, I assume, of my grandfather’s successor. I understood that the building I had known dated from 1890.

Return to Temple

An enduring memory of Temple for me is standing on a hill and looking down on the manse with the setting sun in the background. That was in April 1951 and I was full of excitement at the prospect of going with my family to live abroad. I was not to see Temple again till 1988. In that year, aware that local public transport was minimal, I brought my bicycle on a visit to Scotland and one day cycled out of Edinburgh intent on paying a visit. The tram lines which my grandfather’s car seemed to follow for miles had disappeared and nothing seemed familiar till I reached Gorebridge and suddenly recognised the cleft in a hill on the left where I used to see railway trains. Then outside Gorebridge I sought directions from elderly people at a bus stop by a crossroads and I recognised the telephone wires going out in four directions. To a child everything looks big and they had made a corresponding impression on me. A few more miles and suddenly there was first Sandy’s bridge and finally the hill down to the manse. For a moment I was back in 1951.

At the private house which the manse had become the owners Mr. and Mrs. Phillips welcomed me and showed me over the house – a much modernised and more comfortable place but the half landing on the first floor I remembered was still there and the attic had not changed since I once slept there.

I did not investigate the church – also a private house - but have often wondered what happened to the people who had formed the congregation. My mother had told me that my grandfather’s ministerial style involved "great Bible-thumping".

Another memory I carried away from this my last visit was the inscription I found on a stone in the churchyard. It related to a man buried elsewhere in the eighteen-thirties  and the stone had been erected by his sister-in-law whose purpose was to advertise her complaint that the elders of the kirk in question had refused to allow an inscription of her choice to honour the memory of a man she much admired. I have since been told that such inscriptions are not rare in Scotland but I have never seen such outside it.

The magic quality attached to my memories of Temple – at least that part of it in the valley round the manse -  may be attributed to the contrast between the scenery and circumstances there and those in East Anglia where I then lived and my childish immaturity at the time. Many years later though, talking to an adult niece of mine who had not known my grandparents I learned that she had visited Temple and had found it enchanting.

Epilogue

My grandparents’ children have now all died – the youngest first and the eldest last – as have their spouses with the exception of Walter’s widow Rosemary who was living in Dundee when I last heard. Most of their grandchildren live in England; my Uncle Sam’s younger son Callum Fee who died tragically young a few years ago was buried in Scotland by his own express wish.

My grandfather had inherited a quantity of rented property in Belfast. On his death this passed to his children who, I understand, regarded it as a liability and sold it. An unexpected legacy – which involved also the fact of my mother’s birth in Belfast in 1911- was Irish nationality which I only discovered by accident some eighteen years ago. Following my 65th birthday I received from Dublin an Irish pass port free of charge.

I wonder what my grandparents would have said to that.

Bruce Laird
Deal, Kent
March 2008

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Our thanks go to Bruce Laird for offering and taking the time to compile these memoirs of Temple in the mid 1900s. It's a fascinating insight to not only life in Temple, but also the way of life on those times.

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