“Horses” by Mima Robertson, born 1901
(From Miss Robertson`s papers at the Dunfermline Carnegie Library and Galleries)
Looking back on my childhood it seems that horses and ponies played an important part in it. John Goodall had a large livery-stable, which provided cabs for the station – luggage on the roof – carriages or landaus for special, with sometimes two horses, gigs and pony-carts, hearses with handsome black horses decked out with black plumes. Father used to hire a Shetland pony for me to ride when I was about five but that did not last long as Mother was afraid I would fall off and injure myself. (Later I got a bicycle on which I performed far more hazardous feats – tramlines made cycling dangerous as it was easy to catch ones front-wheel in one when speeding down the steep Townhill Road).
But my great delight was when Father summoned a `trap` from Goodall`s, perhaps in a late summer afternoon when he had returned from the office. This was a lightweight vehicle with two high wheels and a seat for two perched up behind the dashboard and usually a mettlesome animal between the shafts. With a rug round my black-stockinged legs and my feet not touching the floor I would sit by Father`s side while he, expertly handling the reins and the slender whip, would take us out into the country, down to Limekilns perhaps and round by Saline. Then, as there was very little traffic on the roads, I was allowed to experience the thrill of driving the horses myself, learning to hold the reins properly as we went along at a smart pace that only slackened when climbing a hill. That was a real treat and I`m sure Father enjoyed it as much as I did.
Then there were the tradesmen`s horses, tramping down the avenue to the yard where they took sugar from me while the baker – Allans, with a very smart van high-sided with gold lettering on red paint – or the butcher or the grocer had a chat with the housemaid at the back door. Our Doctor Fleming who had a small brougham in winter, an open Victoria in summer, also made frequent calls. His coachman, Peter McArthur, was a firm friend of mine and he sometimes took me off for a turn round the Park while the doctor was taking Mother`s pulse. He was never in a hurry and never complained when we kept him waiting. Changed days indeed!
Ashes and house-refuse were collected by another horse-drawn vehicle belonging to the town corporation from the stone-built rubbish-container at the top of the garden between the greenhouse and the wash-house. I met other horses on my way through the town and often stopped for a chat as they stood patiently by the pavement. There were always two or three horse-drawn cabs waiting at the Lower Station – in those days Dunfermline was an important railway-junction and one could take trains to Edinburgh, Perth, Stirling, Alloa, St. Andrews, etc. at frequent intervals. The bus that went to Limekilns and Charlestown was horse-drawn and for some years after the `14 War could be found waiting at the Glen gates near the Abbey.
When I was about eleven Mother and I stayed one summer holiday at the Athol Palace, Pitlochry, and went on a wagonette to Braemar. There were four horses, passengers inside and out, and when we reached the Devil`s Elbow everyone except the driver had to walk up – and later down – the steep curves of the road. I was on the box beside the driver – trust me! – and was allowed the honour of holding the reins for a short spell. Driving four horses, spanking along – I have never forgotten it.
As a postscript I might add details of the rocking-horse that stood in the nursery before that was transformed into a schoolroom by hanging up large shiny maps of Europe and the world. I had inherited the horse from my seniors. It was a rearing animal on large rocker, a shabby grey with flowing grey mane and tail. It had flaring scarlet nostrils, wild eyes with heavy lashes and seemed to be snorting fire with its mouth wide open. There was a pommel for riding side-saddle as well as stirrups and its pommel could be removed, leaving a large round hole, so inevitably there were things rolling round in its hollow interior, mostly marbles and reputably a silver thimble. I don`t know what happened to that horse or the doll`s house when the nursery became the schoolroom but no doubt they would go to some children`s home.
That seems to be all about horses but as it seems a pity to waste the rest of this page I shall go on to say something more about the room that played such an important part in my life. Known first as the day-nursery, below the room above which was the night-nursery, it changed over the years into the schoolroom. And finally it became My Room, where I shut myself off from the rest of the house to work at my various literary efforts. But no matter what it was called it was a very pleasant, square-shaped, rather shabby room and when the French window was opened it was full of sunshine and of the scent of the wallflowers that grew in a bed by the west gable of the house that also had a cherry-tree spreadeagled against the unwindowed wall. Neil used to cover this with a net but the birds always got there first. In its nursery days the room contained a large, flat-bottomed toy-chest as well as a rocking-horse, a stool for me to sit on when small, a high guard before the fire on which my vests were aired, and the cherished doll`s-house. It was not very big but the front swung back to reveal four or five rooms with a stair-case, all suitably furnished, cutlery on the dining-table, tiny fire-irons in the grate. I really loved that house and the things I could do with it, peopling it with what were called `penny dolls` – small figures with china heads and floppy stuffed bodies. I never had any interest in large, blue-eyed, fair-haired dolls that walked and talked – I did own one once – but I liked to dress those little ones in scraps of silk or velvet taken from the scrap basket – black and white for the maids, of course, and checked gingham for the cook.
When my nurse departed and I began to attend a private school, aged five, the rocking-horse and the doll`s-house stayed on for a little while but in due course they were supplanted by a treadle Singer sewing-machine, a real piece of furniture with the machine folding down into a curved hollow and the flat top of good, polished wood, forming a flat table-top. It produced a variety of stitches which I was taught to use. Miss Nimmo used it a great deal, making all my dresses, and blouses for herself, Madge and Mother. It came with us to 9 Cameron Street and during the war I gave it in perfect working order to the Red Cross. I believe it is still at work somewhere.
There was always an ironing board in the cupboard and on it Miss Nimmo would put the finishing touches to her handiwork. She used a bolt iron – yes, a bolt iron. It was considered very up-to-date before the `14 War, being hollowed out to contain the small oblong bolts that were thrust into the heart of the fire where they remained till they were red hot, then they were fished out with a long-handled hook and put into the iron. They did a good job while really hot but had to be replaced at regular intervals. There were other irons heated I think by methylated spirits, and gas-heated ones in the wash-house.
(Miss Robertson begins to describe the telephone in the old nursery, but unfortunately the next page is missing).
MIMA ROBERTSON, 1901-85
by Jean Barclay
Jemima (Mima) Simpson Taylor Robertson was born in 1901 in Comely Park Place, Dunfermline, to John Whyte Robertson and his wife Jemima Taylor. Her father worked in the family firm of Hay and Robertson, linen and cotton manufacturers, and her mother was the daughter of John Taylor a West Indian merchant. The couple already had two children, Margaretta Primrose born in 1889 and William born three years later. In 1891 the family lived at Dunsloy Villas, New Row, in 1901 at 3 Comely Park Place, and from 1906 at Witchbrae, Townill Road. Witchbrae had been built in about 1860 for the Hay family and was advertised for sale in 1926 as a `fine dwelling house` set in two acres of grounds with excellent views to the south. It was lit by electricity, had several public rooms, six bedrooms, bathrooms, two bedrooms and a bathroom for the maids and numerous utility rooms and outbuildings. The family kept at least three female servants as well as the outdoor staff and in 1906 Mrs Robertson advertised for a `nurse and sewing maid for one girl 4½ years`.
After an early education at Rosebery House, a private school in the Masonic Lodge, New Row, Mima was sent to boarding-school, but was so unhappy there that she was brought home to be educated by a governess. The governess had taught classics at a boys` school and now included Latin in Mima`s curriculum, something which she claimed was invaluable to her vocabulary and to her writing.
Mima Robertson had written stories from early childhood and when she was 19 she received her first payment, 20 shillings from Punch for a humorous article. She loved to travel, especially to France, and in 1928 had a story called A Change of Air, set between Brittany and Dunfermline, published in London, under the title The Leopard`s Skin. She went on to publish five more novels between 1928 and 1931, either with a Dunfermline connection – The Sport of Circumstance (1929) and Bitter Bread: a Tale of Old Dunfermline (1929) – or based on her travels – After Stormy Seas (Brittany) and Music in the Air (Gottland in the Baltic).
Miss Robertson did not like her given name and published Bitter Bread and Music in the Air as `Alison Taylor`, Taylor being her mother`s maiden name. In 1930 came Evil Enchantment, a psychological thriller which Miss Robertson felt would have made a good film.
Miss Robertson never married and during the depression of the 1930s, when the family fortunes plummeted, the income from her writing became even more important. At this time she was invited to contribute serials to the magazines run by Leng Publications of Dundee, particularly the People`s Friend. She was associated with the People`s Friend for 40 years, publishing some 40 serials, and found that writing to order involved a strict routine unlike the free-and-easy hours she had been used to. Some of the serials were published separately as novelettes, costing £1, for example Gateway to Romance in 1940, Miss Robertson continued to publish novels including in 1941 Margaret Takes Charge, And One Stood By, and Three on Their Own and, in 1953, The Castilian, a historical account of William Kirkcaldy of Grange, who was executed for his attempt to hold Edinburgh Castle for Mary Queen of Scots.
Mima Robertson had talents other than writing. For 30 years she played the violin in the Dunfermline Amateur Orchestra, rising to first violin, and was an artist, a needlewoman and a flower arranger. She captained the ladies team of the Dunfermline Tennis Club, became President of the Dunfermline Soroptimists and played her part in local events, including co-writing `The Masque of Dunfermline` in 1957.
From Witchbrae, Mima and her parents moved to 9 Cameron Street. Her mother died there in 1944 and her father in 1959. Miss Robertson then moved to a flat at 15 Cameron Street and it was here in 1979 that she wrote her magnum opus, Old Dunfermline, a history of her native town. She died in Milesmark Hospital in February 1985 aged 83.
In Miss Robertson`s article on horses, the house referred to is Witchbrae and one of the six bedrooms probably became the schoolroom and what Miss Robertson called `My Room`. `Neil` was the gardener Neil McLean, and `Miss Nimmo` was possibly the governess who did sewing as well. The sources for this biography come from various on-line genealogy and newspaper sites, from Dunfermline Press, March 13 1970, and March 1 1985, and Miss Robertson`s papers, which include (possibly unpublished) stories and plays, and are currently being archived at Dunfermline Carnegie Library.