Northern Lights – Episode 18

It was a white Christmas, as Amy had predicted. Christmas Day was an ordinary working day for everyone, but Lilias was reluctant to let the joyful occasion pass unmarked.

In Auchmithie her clootie dumpling had always been well received by friends and neighbours on celebratory occasions. Lilias decided this fruit dumpling, steamed in a floured linen cloth, would be the very dab.

She assembled the ingredients, starting with suet donated by the friendly butcher. Raisins were essential but almost unobtainable thanks to Napoleon’s blockade of Channel ports.

However, the obliging Samuel produced a quantity of dried fruit from under his counter, along with a twist of mixed spices in a paper cone and a jar of treacle.

Lilias began preparations after the bairns left for work on Christmas morning. A big pot half filled with water was soon heating on the hob while she set to work mixing the ingredients in a bowl.

A hunt through the linen press uncovered a suitable square of linen. Having scalded it, she floured it lightly and tipped in the mixture. As an afterthought before tying it tightly, leaving space for growth, Lilias dropped a silver sixpence into the mix, grinning as she anticipated the children’s excitement.

Carefully, she lowered the clootie dumpling into the simmering pot to steam gently for four hours . . .

*  *  *  *

Cathy Mary found the sixpence at supper, much to Lilias’s secret joy. She worried about the bonnie girl, who unlike the others had little to say for herself.

Although she never complained, Lilias feared Cathy Mary was unhappy at work. She worked long hours in a crowded basement with 15 other women and girls, sewing canvas breeks for sailors.

Vital work, with the Navy desperate to outfit recruits to man warships, but drudgery for a lass coming into womanhood.

Wee Amy was a different kettle o’ fish. She was happy working in the sail-maker’s yard with a group of young lassies.

They fashioned smaller canvas items for sailors’ use when at sea, such as canvas buckets with wooden bottoms that were quiet in use and would not scar decks, and ditty bags to store tools or clothes.

After the turn of the year, Amy had news to impart at supper one evening.

“I spliced a monkey’s fist today.”

Lilias gave a shriek.

“Whit? Ye dinna want tae meddle wi’ monkeys!”

She had met a monkey once at the Greenmarket Fair in Dundee when she was a lassie.

“It’s a knot, Grandma,” Amy said.

“First ye say it is, now ye say it’s not?” Lilias frowned, bewildered.

By now the bairns were killing themselves laughing.

Alec took pity on her.

“Amy’s learning to tie sailors’ knots, Grandmother. A monkey’s fist is just a twist o’ hemp woven into a ball and spliced on to a heaving line. It gives weight to the rope and is easier to catch at the moorings when the line’s thrown from ship to shore.”

Alec had news to impart.

“They’re to start work soon on the Bell Rock work yard in the Ladyloan, two hundred yards north o’ the harbour and handy for loading and unloading stones for the rock.

“If the smith’s called to work on the lighthouse it’s likely we’ll be working ashore at the yard, and not on the rock.”

Maggie brightened.

“That’s good news.”

“Aye, maybe.”

He met Lilias’s eye. They knew the authorities intended commandeering private property to lodge the huge influx of men required to prepare the nearby site.

Lilias was glad the others remained in ignorance of the threat to their home. Time enough, should it happen.

Lucy Crichton

Fiction Editor Lucy is always on the look-out for the very best short stories, poems and pocket novels. As well as sourcing enjoyable content, she enjoys working with our established contributors, encouraging new talent, and celebrating 155 years of 'Friend' fiction!