THE TALE OF MISS ELLEN McDOUGAL
She came to Belle Isle to work under the direction of her aunt, an earlier Miss McDougal, who was the Housekeeper at Belle Isle in the halcyon days between the great wars.
At that time a full complement of servants were on hand to ensure the smooth running of the castle.
Miss Ellen McDougal joined the brigade as a humble scullery maid.
These were Minnie Cathcart, my mother Pearl Brown and Miss Ellen McDougal.
I don’t know when she gained full charge of culinary activity but she was firmly in control from my earliest memories and remained so up until almost the end of the 1960s
Slight of stature, her grey hair firmly held within the confines of a hairnet and usually dressed in a lengthy ‘wrap around’ floral pinafore.
Dougie worked tirelessly from early morning till late at night all day, every day (she did have the odd half day off but grumbled about it).
It was not that she was put upon but just that it was her kitchen and she loved beingin it.
She did all this for the princely sum of £5.00 per month, but did live in, all found!
Dougie was of the old school; she knew her place and wanted everyone else to know theirs.
She had immense respect for Mr Henry Archdale Porter, ‘The Master’, and he often popped his head round the kitchen door for a cheery word with Ellen.
For while she had a solid heart of gold there was also a fierce temper, easily lost.
It did not matter who you were, if you were in the firing line heaven help you!
It did not matter if you were Mr. Porter or Mrs Leigh attired in her finest new London creation or a naughty little boy like me!
When the temper was up - flee, "scarper" quickly! Stand on your dignity at your peril!
On one memorable occasion I boldly rode my tricycle into the kitchen and pedalled as fast as I could round and round the central table.
Dougie was making pastry at one end of the table and gave chase with a threatening fist raised and shrieking at the top of her voice “E’s a little bugger that’s what E’ is, wait till I get my hands on you.”
She loved us with a passion.
She had no family of her own and made us hers.
She was a great help to our mother by looking after us while she was at work elsewhere in the castle during the day.
She had been there forever, as far as most people were concerned and could have given any of today’s television chefs and celebrity cooks a run for their money.
It was astonishing to watch her ‘throw’ ingredients together without weighing scales or any apparent measures.
The most wonderful, cakes, breads and puddings would result, even soufflés!
She could turn out any entree or concoction to a very high standard.
The most amazing smells wafted from the Aga, oxtail, Jugged Hare, Partridge and the best rice pudding ever made!
All manner of braises and ragouts would bubble away in huge cooking pots on the Aga hobs.
Golden and tasting of honey.
Whenever a special occasion or party event took place the food was of exceptional standard, beautifully cooked, presented with style and garnished to perfection.
Of course as a boy this all this seemed absolutely normal, it was not till later when out in the world I appreciated just how good Miss McDougal was.
A cavernous room with two large windows. One to the west and one facing the southern front of the castle.
The south facing kitchen block is recessed and not in line with the main block, which houses what were then, the Dining, Drawing and Morning Rooms.
Presumably so that in the former days of elegance to which the castle belonged, ladies and gentlemen strolling in the formal gardens at the front of the castle did not have their view sullied by ‘scullery maids a scrubbing’ behind the kitchen window.
The kitchen had two huge tables. One in the centre under an old blackened gas fitting where the preparation of food was carried out.
The home-made gas supply had been a product of a bygone period and no longer functional. The fitting was used now to hang sticky papers to catch flies!
This included some of the men who worked on the home farm who came in for luncheon and tea, except during hay-making when tea was taken out to the field in large enamel jugs and generous wicker baskets.
The huge Aga commanded one wall almost in its entirety.
These fixtures were painted a dirty brown colour and some of the shelves were of scrubbed pine.
The dressers were filled with large gleaming copper domed covers for meat serving dishes and an assortment of porcelain.
Beyond this were some pantries and at least one of these had wire mesh in the windows and not glass.
This was before refrigerators arrived in Belle Isle.
He used to say that they hung there till they were rotten and stinking and that they were crawling with maggots!
He could not understand how they could then be eaten!
“Come now Esmond, you shot it and should be rewarded, now do try some, it is delicious! “ – “No thank you madam, I will take your word for it!” Gales of laughter. “We really will have to see what we can do with you!” “No fear of that madam!”One last memory of the old kitchen at this time is of my sister Audrey and I climbing up onto the cupboards from a chair and standing in the large west window recess as small children.
The window sill was wide and deep and there were curtains that could be drawn by a cord.
Everyone was amused and indulgent (on most occasions!) but with reflection they were being kind we must have been an awful nuisance!
This was fitted with a large brass bed and an assortment of unmatched Victorian furniture.
My father, mother and we children shared a set of rooms with Dougie for many years and on occasion as small children we would sleep with her in her big bed if our parents were away.
We would open a sleepy eye as Dougie came into the room and watch her divest herself of her glasses, hairnet, footwear and finally her outer garments.
In the flickering firelight she was revealed in her bed attire.
A fierce garment of immense fascination to us. ... And so to bed....Clean combinations and another day tomorrow....
When she became old and infirm they created a beautiful bedroom for her on the ground floor and put in a ramp for a wheelchair.
Her final days were spent in the county hospital.
They are all together on the grassy bank at the top of the gentle slope behind Derrybrusk Church.
She was a lovely lady. The salt of the earth. A rare character, I cannot do her justice.
I knew her all my life and yet I did not really know her. I wish I had spent more time with her."