Many people with Scottish ancestry will find Agricultural Labourers among their forebears, because so many people in Scotland prior to the industrial revolution were engaged in working the land in one form or another. Their living standards were basic. Most were born, lived and died in the same area. Belief in witchcraft and faeries was commonplace and people who were believed to have ‘the gift’ – the ability to see into the future – were feared and ostracised.
They lived in a time of political unrest and religious fervour, fuelled by the belief of many that witches, ghosts and goblins played a part in their fortunes or misfortunes.
It is a fascinating period in history, and one which should be visited from time to time, to remind us of the freedoms we enjoy today.
AN EXTRACT FROM FAERIES, FARMS AND FOLK
Chapter 1 (1659)
WEEDING OUT THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATES
The bedraggled creatures, dressed in rags and looking bewildered and dishevelled, stood huddled together in the small, dark room. Their eight inquisitors laughed with each other and looked derisively at the accused collaborators with the Devil. Elder John Brown was the first to speak.
“Who among you has danced with the Devil?” Brown asked. The youngest of the accused, Agnes Comenes raised her hand but it was quickly pulled back down by the oldest woman Janet Corsane. Agnes giggled as Brown continued. “Which of you cursed Farmer McMurray’s cow so it refused to give milk, and his hens so they refused to give eggs and his crops so they failed to thrive?”
Not one of the women spoke – some stared straight ahead while others looked at the floor. Another elder, Mr William Hay, thought he would try a different tack to elicit confessions. He aimed his question at Helen Moorhead, a rake thin widow of just forty years of age who had relied upon the generosity of a local farmer for scraps from his table upon which to live.
“Now Helen, you could have some of this fine piece of beef if you’ll just admit that you have carnal knowledge of Satan himself,” Hay said pushing a large side of roast beef to the edge of the table. Helen’s eyes surveyed the feast which had been set out for the elders – the goblets of wine, roasted chicken and beef on pewter platters, boiled eggs and pies.
‘Ah,’ she thought to herself. ‘I’ll no’ give them the satisfaction. I’ll die hungry, just the way I’ve lived.’
Helen looked Mr Hay straight in the eyes and spat on the floor. There would be no confession from any of the women today.
In a bid to get the evidence to prove their guilt, the women were kept awake and some began to hallucinate after days without sleep or food. Some were hung from wooden rafters by their thumbs, and lighted candles set to the soles of their feet, while others were forced to wear hair shirts dipped in vinegar to rub off their skin. Those who stood strong and refused to confess to being witches were forced to watch their family members endure the same agonies. It was torture for the women but necessary so far as the members of the Session were concerned to get the required outcome, so feared were witches in the burgh. It was the kirk that inflicted these agonies, without apology, and the men of the Kirk Session drank wine while the indictments against the accused were drawn up, before handing them over to the magistrates for final disposal.
By the fifth day of April, the kirk elders, after due consideration, were satisfied that all but one of the ten accused women were guilty of devilish practices and should receive the severest form of discipline that the kirk could mete out.
One of the accused, Helen Tait, escaped punishment as the claims against her could not be clearly proven. She was released on a good behaviour bond and required to find the huge sum of fifty pounds sterling before banishing herself from the parish. Helen sold her meagre possessions but could not pay the fine, instead fleeing the parish without leaving a trail behind her. The rumour quickly spread around her local village that she had disappeared in a puff of smoke never to be seen or heard from again.
The remaining nine were not so fortunate. The court room was packed with onlookers curious to see the witches, and sympathisers who felt pity for the women. The hum of chatter abated as the trial began. It was a swift affair, and merely a matter of the Kirk Session being seen to do the right thing. All of the nine accused women were convicted of committing the sin of witchcraft against the kirk and the congregation. They stood together, weak from lack of sleep and food, as their punishment was read out by the magistrate.
the Parish of Dumfries, on the fifth day of April, in the year of our Lord 1659, the Commissioner
adjudges Agnes Comenes, Janet McGowane, Jean Tomson, Margaret Clerk, Janet McKendrig,
Agnes Clerk, Janet Corsane, Helen Moorhead and Janet Callon, as found guilty of
the several articles of witchcraft mentioned, to be taken eight days hence to
the ordinary place of execution for the burgh of Dumfries, and there,
betwixt two and four hours of the afternoon,
to be strangled at stakes till they be dead, and thereafter their bodies to be
burned to ashes."
Far Across the Sea picks up after the death of family matriarch Mary Hamilton McMurdo, with her grandson George going down the mines in Ayrshire, despite her wishes. He’s a headstrong lad (a McMurdo family trait) and ends up in the trenches in France during WWI. It was a difficult time in Scotland after the war and during the Depression years and WWII. George’s son William (known in this book as Willie, and later as Bill) becomes the new hero of the story and you will laugh at some of his mischievous escapades and cheer him on through life’s difficulties.
Walk down the streets of Cumnock Ayshire Scotland and visit the tea room as George and Mary find ways to spend time together without incurring the wrath of her father.
Visit Brisbane and Ipswich in Australia in the 1950s and experience life for a 'new chum' from 'the old country'.
It's a story of fierce determination and true grit. A story that takes a young man from the coal mines of Ayrshire to life in a new land - far across the sea.
AN EXTRACT FROM FAR ACROSS THE SEA
Chapter 8 - September 1916
YOU'RE IN THE ARMY NOW
The recruitment office was bustling as George timidly stepped through the door. He watched in silence for a few minutes, trying to get his bearings and listening to the chaos that surrounded him. A thin, young lad with red hair and freckles walked a few steps past him, up to one of the many recruitment officers who stood straight-backed, resplendent in their uniforms.
“I’m here to join the army and serve at The Front,” the lad shouted over the din.
“How old are you, son?” asked the recruitment officer.
“I’m eighteen,” said the boy. The recruitment officer looked him up and down.
“You’d better take a walk down the street, pick up a birthday while you are out and come back and try again.” The bewildered lad did as he was told and after a few minutes he was back standing in front of the recruitment officer.
“I’m here to join the army and serve at The Front,” the lad said again.
“How old are you, son?” asked the recruitment officer.
“I’m nineteen,” said the boy.
“Right, take this paper and see the sergeant.” The boy beamed and grabbed the piece of paper and walked over to the sergeant.
George still had a couple of months to go until his nineteenth birthday, but he was desperate to serve overseas. He had been watching the pageantry unfold between the thin young boy and the recruitment officer.
‘Aye, well he’ll do me,’ George said to himself and
strode confidently over to the recruitment officer and presented his call-up letter. He knew that you had to be eighteen to join the army, but nineteen to be sent to The Front. By the time he finished his basic training he reckoned he’d be old enough to be sent into the thick of the action.
The recruitment officer looked him over and then he was directed towards a cubicle where a doctor weighed and measured him and gave him a general health check. Then he was handed some papers and moved on to the next station. The sergeant looked him up and down, read the papers and thrust them back in front of George.
“Sign on the dotted line. Welcome to the army, son.” He was handed one of the papers and a travel warrant. “Now hold out your hand,” said the sergeant as he placed two six-penny pieces on George’s palm. “Here is the King’s shilling,” he said as George’s eyes lit up, “and I’ll be taking a sixpence for myself.” George looked at him. “It’s called commission, son. Every man for himself in this man’s army.”
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Far Across The Sea
"I stayed up all night reading this book as I wanted to see what happened next. The hero of the book dodges danger so many times in his life, and I cried when he finally passed away."
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Bob and Anna McAllister are a retired couple living a comfortable lifestyle in Australia. When Anna's breast cancer returns and Bob's heart condition deteriorates, they are worried about dealing with the end stage of life. Their adult children all have busy lives and they don't want to be a burden to them. They have enjoyed many cruises to the South Pacific and, after much discussion, they decide to take one last cruise - have one last hurrah - and not return. Their decision not only affects them but also has a great impact on their family. It is a love story about two people who cannot bear to be without each other and a family who are so busy rushing through life that they miss the signs that they are needed.
AN EXTRACT FROM THE LAST HURRAH
Chapter 1 (March 2016)
Robert and Anna McAllister sat in plush leather chairs in the oncologist’s office. They looked around at the certificates on the wall and the examination table and the plastic skeleton standing in the corner of the room. The sight was very familiar to them for they had sat in that office many times over the past four years.
Anna, who was now seventy-five years of age, had been diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago in 2012, and it had taken a terrible toll on their daily lives. She underwent radiation treatment, chemotherapy and a mastectomy, and Bob looked after her as best he could. She had been his carer for the previous two years after he had suffered a major heart attack and she nursed him through the after effects of open-heart surgery. He had had two more heart attacks in the ensuing years but he took things slowly, and lovingly held her hand and cleaned up after her as she endured her breast cancer treatment.
Anna had been given the all clear from cancer early in 2015, but a month ago she had felt a small lump, the size of a pea, in her remaining breast and she had been feeling unusually tired, nauseous and sore all over her body for some time. Even though it was in her nature to be an upbeat, happy person, she had only recently come off of the emotional roller coaster caused by her breast cancer treatment – the depression, the anxiety, the anger and the sadness of living with a serious illness - and she put off going back to the doctor for fear it would be bad news. She didn’t know if she had the strength to go through it again. When she finally summoned the courage to go back to her oncologist, he sent her for a mammography to see if the lump was malignant. This was followed up with a Positron Emission Tomography or PET scan, an ordeal in itself, which required Anna to be injected with a radioactive drug to help reveal how her tissues and organs were functioning, and to see if the cancer had spread. They were both now waiting for the test results.
Bob leaned across and took Anna’s hand and squeezed it. He winked at her and smiled. The door to the office opened and the oncologist, Dr Weise, a tall man in his early forties, walked in wearing his crisp white coat, with his black-rimmed glasses perched on the end of his nose. He greeted them both and turned to his computer where he opened Anna’s file. He looked at it for a moment, then sat back in his chair.
“There is no easy way to say this, Anna,” the oncologist said. “The cancer has returned.”
Anna swallowed hard and stared at the floor. She had feared the worst but had hoped for the best.
She wondered what Bob must be feeling at this moment but she dared not look at him or she would start to cry and she didn’t want to do that. She looked up at the doctor.
Anna’s mouth was dry as she opened her it to speak. “Will I lose my other breast?” she asked.
The oncologist sighed quietly. “I’m afraid you will. And there is something else, Anna,” he said. “This may come as a shock to you but the cancer has metastasised – there are secondary malignant growths throughout your body.”
Anna shuddered and found the courage to look at Bob whose face was pale and drawn. She fumbled in her purse for a tissue, as the tears that she had tried to restrain now fell from her eyes.
“You are telling me that, not only will I lose my other breast, but that this cancer is eating other parts of my body as well,” she said.
“When you had surgery to remove the original breast cancer we removed all the cancer that we could see, but sometimes isolated cells may survive radiation therapy and chemotherapy and can spread and grow into a tumour. There is evidence from the scan that you have a growth in your liver and also in your bones.
“ We will make arrangements for surgery to remove the cancer in your breast, which means taking off your breast and removing lymph nodes from under your arm, followed by a course of chemotherapy and then radiation therapy.” The oncologist paused for a moment. “After that, we will see. You most likely will require palliative care to help you stay comfortable.”
“No, just stop for a moment,” Anna said. “I could barely function the last time I had chemo and it was no picnic for Bob having to sit with me while I vomited and barely had the strength to stand up. And all the care after the operation – it was just too much for him, and I won’t put him through it again.”
Bob took her hand again and spoke is his gentle Scottish brogue. “Don’t be worrying about me at a time like this. I can look after you and will do it willingly – you’ve nothing to fear there.”
Anna smiled at Bob and looked back at the doctor. “I need to understand this in plain and simple language, doctor. Are you telling me that I am terminally ill and that I am going to die?”
The oncologist sat back in his chair and removed his glasses. “The treatments have very good results at extending your life span.”
Anna dabbed at the corner of her eye with the tissue. “If I have the chemo and the radiation and you take my breast, how long will I live?”
‘There’s no way of knowing for sure,” he said.
“But if I were to push you for an answer, and I want the truth, how long would I live?”
“I would say that, if treatments to control the cancer failed, and it is at an advanced stage, we would do our best to ensure quality of life and control your pain.”
“How long could I live if I have all of these treatments?” Anna insisted.
“From this moment on, an optimistic estimation would be up to eighteen months.”
“Eighteen months,” Anna repeated, nodding her head.
“I see. Up to eighteen months, with a lot of that time spent in hospital having an operation and getting treatments and recovering from them. And without the treatment – how long have I got?”
The doctor hesitated. “Without the treatment, I would say six months. Either way, there are options for places that you could go to take care of your daily needs and administer pain relief.”
Anna looked across at Bob who was now silently crying too. She didn’t want him to
be upset as his heart may not be able to take it. The cardiac surgeon had insisted after his open- heart surgery that he take things easy. She couldn’t put him through the stress again and she knew he wouldn’t even consider the idea of her moving into a nursing home or hospital to be cared for by strangers.
“Well, it seems to me that I have months of excruciating pain and discomfort and lying in bed to endure, to gain another twelve months of life and for most of that time I’d be no use to anyone. Or, I have a few months of a reasonable quality of life to enjoy and to get my affairs in order.”
“If you want to look at it in black and white terms, that would be a fair assessment of the situation,” the oncologist said. “But don’t underestimate the pain you will endure at the end stage of life. You will be able to function reasonably normally for a short time longer, but you are already experiencing fatigue and soreness
and your body will continue to weaken and you will be in pain. As I mentioned, we can provide medication to keep you as comfortable as possible. But don’t think that you won’t require palliative care, because you will, however we can arrange for that to be administered at home.”
Bob had been silent while Anna got the information she needed, and he now felt it was time for him to speak.
“We have had a terrible shock, doctor,” Bob said. “We would like to go home and discuss our options before you set up any treatment appointments
. Could we have a couple of days to talk it over and get back to you?”
“Of course,” Dr Weise said. “The decision about treatment is yours to make – I can only advise you. But I urge you to consider a treatment plan. New discoveries are being made in medicine every day and if we can prolong your life you may be able to benefit from any breakthroughs.”
Anna was in no mood for ‘maybes’. “And I could go through months of painful and debilitating treatment and will still die.”
Bob could see that Anna wasn’t thinking rationally and he stood up. He held out his hand to shake the oncologist’s hand and then helped Anna to her feet.
“We will be in touch in a few days,” Bob said as he held his hand under Anna’s elbow and guided his wife out of the doctor’s office. They walked in silence, arm in arm, to the car park and he gently helped her into the car. They drove home in silence – Anna’s mind racing at the news she had just received and Bob thinking of a life without her. She didn’t want to leave him and he didn’t want to say goodbye to her.
They sat down together on their well-worn couch, and Bob reached across and touched Anna on her knee. “We will have a good night’s sleep and discuss it in the morning when we are rested and our heads are clear,” he said. “It’s a lot to take in and we need to weigh the options before making a firm decision.”
Anna nodded. They had always made major decisions together. This was one of the biggest decisions they would ever have to make.
FEEDBACK FROM READERS:
The Last Hurrah:
"It speaks to us all about the need to confront our own death. It also poses many societal questions about the role of family and our attitudes about who should control how and when we die. The subject matter is not easy to read about but important."