Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Belle Isle: III



Miss McDougal arrived at Belle Isle from her home in Lockerbie, Scotland, when she was a very young woman in the 1920s.

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.

By the time of my arrival on the scene in 1948, the indoor servants had reduced to three and been transformed with changing times from servants into domestic help!

These were Minnie Cathcart, my mother Pearl Brown and Miss Ellen McDougal. 

By the early 1950s Miss McDougal, known to all as ‘Dougie’, was a very accomplished cook, keeper of the kitchens and chief bottle washer!

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.

The Dougie  of my childhood was approaching fifty years of age: slight of stature, her grey hair firmly held within the confines of a hairnet and usually dressed in a lengthy ‘wrap around’ floral pinafore. 

A pair of steel rimmed glasses were perched on her sharp nose but could not hide the bright gleam in her all seeing eyes.

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 being in 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. 

I remember him being slightly ill at ease in her presence, her clear devotion somewhat unsettling him but he was very fond of her and valued her highly.

It was prudent to be ill at ease with Dougie.

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! 

A tirade of abuse was common and she was not averse to throwing the odd implement or chasing the offender with her rolling pin!

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 “he’s a little bugger that’s what he is, wait till I get my hands on you.” 

I was always playing pranks on Dougie but her bark was worse than her bite as far as my sister Audrey and I were concerned.

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.

Wary we were, but everyone adored her.

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. 

An earlier cook at Belle Isle had trained her in basic skills but she had a natural talent.

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 souffl├ęs!

 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.

An old metal Nabisco-Frears biscuit tin was permanently lodged at the back of the Aga hotplate filled with meringues the like of which I have never seen anywhere.

Golden and tasting of honey. 

Dougie could always rise to the occasion and dinner in the evening was eagerly anticipated.

Whenever a special occasion or party event took place the food was of exceptional standard, beautifully cooked, presented with style and garnished to perfection. 

All this in the days before cooking became a national obsession and even pre-Elizabeth David.

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.

Dougie’s kitchen was the central room in a complex of rooms. 

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. 

The south facing kitchen window was placed high up in the wall.

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! 

The other table under the high window was where the household dined in the evening and where the workforce dined at other times.

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.

The west facing window wall had floor to ceiling wooden dressers atop of wider cupboards.

The dressers filled the entire wall and framed the window.

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. 

I never saw any of the copper covers used, they belonged to another era but they sparkled and gleamed in the oil lamps glow reflecting in what I now know were rare and valuable plates.

To the rear of this kitchen was a scullery with an assortment of sinks and I remember a mechanical ‘separator’ that Miss McDougal filled with milk to make butter?

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. 

In a covered outhouse adjoining this (now demolished) game was hung to season: pheasants, hares, and other birds.

This was a source of consternation to my father, Esmond.

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! 

The Belle Isle folk used to laugh at him and try to educate his palate:
“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. 

We would sing and recite and I suppose we thought we were most entertaining. 

Everyone was amused and indulgent (on most occasions!) but with reflection they were being kind we must have been an awful nuisance!

Finally at the end of the day Miss McDougal would trundle up the steep scrubbed wooden back stairs to her room. 

This was fitted with a large brass bed and an assortment of unmatched Victorian furniture. 

There was a real fire with logs burning in the winter and some shabby black curtains a remnant of the blackout in the war at the windows.

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. 

This happened rarely but was an adventure!

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.  

An all in one garment with leggings attached of quite course material that covered her from top to almost the ground known as ‘combinations’.

A fierce garment of immense fascination to us. ... and so to bed....clean combinations and another day tomorrow....

Dougie lived out her life at Belle Isle. 

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. 

She is buried along with the Belle Isle household of her era and rests beside Mr Henry Archdale Porter, Mrs and Miss Brunt and Mrs Leigh.

They are all together on the grassy bank at the top of the gentle slope behind Derrybrusk Church. 

There was no distinction in death. She had become part of the Belle Isle family. 

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."

The photograph above is of Miss Ellen McDougal; Julian Brown's mother Pearl Brown; his sister Audrey; and Julian himself, as small children. A rare day out for Miss McDougal.

First Published in 2010.


Sharon Owens said...

What a delightful story, I have a tear in my eye now. My gran Rose was a maid of all work in Belfast and then in Rugby and she too could cook anything, attend to six fires around the house, and mind "The Master and Lady's" children all at the same time. She died in 1994 aged 94. We'll never women like that again.

Anonymous said...

What a stunningly evocative tale of those days. Thank you for that. Salt of the earth indeed.

Irishlad said...

Yes a lovely story about Dougie, the bit which describes them all buried together under a grassy slope is full of the most wonderful tear inducing pathos.

mem said...

I loved reading this . You have a gift for writing .What a great story