A True Story

Old croft house and sheds

My father was born in a croft cottage built exactly like this, in the Shetland Islands. It was 1907. When he was born, my Aunt Mary was seven years old, born August 12, 1900. I loved her dearly. An amazing, and loving person, she lived to be 103 years old.

I wrote this story based on fact that she had written down. The conversations are how I imagined it might have played out.


The hand-piled stone house was positioned on a gentle slope that provided a small degree of protection from the constant gales. It was a crofter’s cottage on the distant Shetland Islands, the year 1907. The one room inside held a fireplace at each end, one of which served as the stove and the other, if it got lit, was meant to provide heat and comfort. Scarcity of money meant this was a decidedly rare event. Instead, the wind whistled down the chimney and around the cracks adding to what was already coming in through the walls. The floor was dirt and in winter it happened from time to time that the cramped space was shared with their bony cow.

Mary had just celebrated her seventh birthday in August. She was a century baby, fifth in the family of seven. She was dimple-cheeked, with wide blue eyes that didn’t ever miss a thing, and a smile that would melt your heart. Her hair was reddish blonde, a riot of curls.

Two smaller children, Grace and Davie, competed for Mary’s attention, always needing to be fed or dressed or played with. Mary lavished them with her time and her love, something that came naturally to her. Life was hard but they survived.

It was many long months since their father had last been home. He would leave at a moment’s notice, and stay away longer each time. He had not returned since the last visit, which their mother had borne with a resigned air, not having much to say. Now, in October, there was a new wailing baby boy. They called him Robert, and he immediately became Mary’s own Robbie.

She appointed herself chief guardian of this newest addition. Her mother, still recovering from the birth, welcomed the girl’s help. Mature beyond her years, the baby was safe in her arms, and he was quiet, easily lulled to sleep with her humming.

Then with no warning, one morning her mother said, “Child, you’re to put on your best dress, not before washing yourself, mind you!! Then, you’re to come with me.”

It would be no use to argue or cry and make a scene, so just after breakfast on a cold, late November day, mother and daughter set out over the hills together. Three hours later the mother returned to the two toddlers and the baby. Grace and Davie were bickering, and baby Robbie was crying in his cradle, despite the attentions of the neighbour that had come in to look after them.

No, the mother told herself sternly. I’ve done the right thing. There isn’t enough to feed this new mouth, so now at least Mary will be looked after. In return Mary would be scrubbing, fetching water, and helping with the children in the big house over the hill. If she was lucky she would get a little schooling, but there was no guarantee. Then when Grace was older she too would be given to the care of a well-to-do family, and would work to earn her keep.

The afternoon wore on, and a strange feeling of emptiness pervaded the chilly cottage. She had finally coaxed the baby to sleep and the other two were each given small chores to do. She busied herself with the pot hanging over the fire, and checking the potatoes, carrots and turnip in the large pot. Then she placed a few small pieces of fish on the top of the bubbling surface to poach. Her mind in turmoil, she turned to pull a few bowls off the crude shelf and her gaze settled on the little figure that had just stumbled through the door.

She took a fast step toward her, raising her hand. “What are you doing here? You were to stay, you were to stay!! Now what will happen? What have you done, child?” she shrilled.

Mary, chilled to the bone, her feet blistered from the long walk, burst into huge convulsive sobs, rooted to the spot. Robbie began screaming, and the other two were gape-mouthed with fright.

At last, the mother nodded, “See to him, Mary. See to him.” and turned back to the kettle, her eyes brimming. The children must not see her tears. Behind her, the baby became quiet in Mary’s arms. Her littler sister and brother snuggled up close to her knees, adoring faces upturned.

There would be no more talk of the big house over the hill.


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