Mary McDiarmid lived at No. ½ Geddes Village, in what had been the schoolhouse until a larger school was built nearby in the 1900s. An aged lady called Jessie Ross lived in rank squalor at No. 2, which was the old schoolroom with a small lobby and office adjoining. Jessie was taken into care shortly after I moved into No. 3., leaving behind a remarkable collection of pink corsets. There was no No.1.
Mary was a neat and kindly single lady who had devoted her adult life to the service of successive Lairds and their families at the Big House. Her first language was Scots Gaelic. She never married, although she may have had a liaison with a First World War soldier, whose sepia photograph was pinned to the wall in her house. She would have been in her mid-70s when I first knew her. She lived without water, sanitation or electricity by her own choice, preferring to keep her domestic arrangements as she had always known them. She cooked meagre meals, mostly porridge (which she referred to as 'them') and mince-and-tatties, i.e. mashed potato with boiled mince, on a Calor gas cooker. In the evenings she lit paraffin lamps and read the papers, the Sunday Post, the Aberdeen Press and Journal and on Tuesdays The Nairnshire Telegraph, a paper so concentrated that it was - and still is - commonly known as the 'one minute silence'. Once a week Mary got out her sit-up-and-beg bicycle from her shed and rode it a mile or two to her brother's, where she had a bath.
Several years after I got married and the children arrived we got permission from the Laird to expand into No. 2, where Jessie had lived. The clearing out of Jessie's and the everlasting corset bonfire are tales for another day, but when work was finished the old schoolroom made a very pleasant family sitting room, and the office just beyond became my study. Until I started working late in there I hadn't realised that Mary's bedroom lay the other side of a pitch-pine partition through which sound carried easily.
At about 9.30 in the evening there would be extensive rumblings and scrapings, the sounds made by someone heaving heavy furniture about. This would be Mary securing herself for the night by manhandling a chest of drawers against the door. Then - at first to my deep embarrassment, which made me loath to use the study at night - came the unmistakeable sounds of her night soil bucket being used.
By the time we were thinking of moving away from Geddes Mary had become aged and fairly infirm. We looked after her general welfare, but it was clear that she would need someone to look after her once we had left. In winter she was beginning to suffer from chilblains, so badly was her house heated. She used to rub her fingers and toes with an ointment which smelt strongly of camphor and wintergreen. It was an udder-salve, something her farmer father had sworn by. Winters were hard in Geddes, and the snow lingered long into the spring. (In the photo below you can see Mary's shed on the left, our two kids, our house Cruachan with the dormer windows we put in and the snow-blanketed village stretching down to No. 6.)
When we left the Laird moved Mary out of No. ½ and into No. 5, further down the row of cottages, which was empty and where there was water, sanitation and electricity. It didn't suit her. She didn't last the winter. However, she lived long enough to be guest of honour at the Geddes Rural Women's Institute 40th birthday celebration. Inexplicably, her image in the press photograph of the event - I've copied it above - started to fade after her death. Although Mary is sitting in the middle, she has now all but disappeared.
However, it soon became clear that there were much starker reminders of her existence...