Sunday, April 06, 2014

Edinburgh's child(ren)

Son and Daughter-in-Law came down yesterday and stayed till today. We all went with Daughter 1 and the grandchildren to the local playpark. It's particular fun in the playpark when your fit young uncle is prepared to go on the equipment with you.

I've just finished rereading a book I found in a second-hand bookshop a few years ago. It's called "Edinburgh's Child - some memories of ninety years" and it was published in 1961 when its author, Eleanor Sillar, was 92. She was born in 1869, not all that long before my grandparents (1880, 1885, 1893 and 1895). It's a series of essays about the Edinburgh of her childhood as the child of a Sheriff - a judge in the lower courts, as opposed to one who would deal with very serious crimes. I've just looked up the current salary of a Sheriff and it's about £130K. So her family was quite well-off. They had at least three live-in servants - mind you, there were six children and the mother died when the youngest was born, so they would certainly need help in the house.

Edinburgh as she describes it is clearly recognisable, though almost all of the shops have changed and the customs and attitudes are in some cases extremely different. As you get older, you realise how short a period of time a century is - if you remember 50 years back (and it doesn't seem such a long time ago) you are aware that 100 years is just twice not-very-long (and 1000 years just ten times that...). And yet she describes being a debutante - I never knew that Edinburgh people used that term - and going to balls at the Assembly Rooms. The Rooms are still there - I've been to a couple of dances there in my youth, but not with chaperones, candles and corsages as she describes them. And when she got home, at four in the morning, her nanny/maid was "awake and alert, ready to unlace me and to brush my hair, and eager to hear all about it. She pulls the flowers in my bouquet off their wires and puts them in water."

Eleanor writes very appreciatively of the three woman servants who were with the family for over fifty years. However, she writes that "they had been bred to think that to earn their living in this manner was their high calling". That doesn't feel too comfortable nowadays. She says that "our maids shared in all our holidays and outings" which sounds good, but adds "my memory pictures Christina weighed down with her enormous basket stuffed full of picnic fare and Ann wandering along, her arms laden with our discarded coats". Hmm.

Ann had joined the household when the writer's mother heard that she had had a baby by her betrothed, who had been killed in an accident before the wedding. The writer's mother, being a kind woman, immediately "sent for her, and kept her, earning thereby the selfless gratitude of a gentle being". But there's no mention at all of what became of Ann's child. This child had been born in Ann's mother's house so presumably remained there with its granny (no mention even of whether it was a girl or boy). When Eleanor Sillar married, Ann went with her to help with the next generation of children, not retiring till the age of seventy. I wonder how she really felt about all this?

But things were hard even in an affluent family. Two of the writer's brothers and her only sister died in infancy before Eleanor was born; her mother died in childbirth with Eleanor's younger brother; and her father died when she was thirteen. My grandfather too had several brothers and sisters who died before he was born; I remember asking him about them and he couldn't be sure even of their names.

In some ways it's not long ago. The buildings are much the same. I can Street View the addresses she mentions. And yet in other ways it seems a very long time ago. So interesting.


  1. Your book review about Elinor and Edinburgh sounds so interesting I just bought a copy on eBay, just the sort of book I love. You have the advantage of being able to see the places Eleanor writes about.
    Am always watching for updates on your beautiful grandchildren, love them.

  2. No, it's not that long really.....but it might as well be a thousand years ago, because it was such a different life! Some years ago I read a book, fiction but based on fact, about the woman servant who went to Europe with Elizabeth Browning - she later married, but always put her mistress first and her husband last. I think it was "Lady's maid" by Margaret Forster.

  3. That sounds like a wonderful book, especially as you are familiar with the city she lived in.

  4. I was just thinking how short the centuries are the other day. It occurred to me that my grandchildren (if I ever get any (ha!) would know me, and I knew my g-g-grandmother who was born in 1888. They could (and likely will) live until 2088 -- that's a 200 year span with me being the link in between. When we're young, we think of the time before us as being SO long ago, but it really isn't!

    Your book sounds wonderful -- especially where you live in the same city!

  5. In 2010 our D.E. Stevenson group met in Edinburgh and one of the places we wanted to see was the Assembly Rooms because DES was a debutante in 1913 and they are mentioned in some of her novels. There was a book sale downstairs that day, which was a great delight for all of us, and we did succeed in seeing a glimpse of the Assembly Rooms, but not for long because the Girl Guides was having a princess event and they were worried about us being potential child molesters or abductors! So we left as streams of little dressed up "princesses" flowed past us. Yes, I think Edinburgh must have changed!

    But I will be 70 on my next birthday and well understand your thoughts about the shortness of time. Change is much faster than one realizes when young.

    My grandmother was born in 1873 and one of my husband's grandfathers was born in the 1860s. My mother in law's great grandfather fought at Waterloo. Somehow these facts still have the power to astonish me.

    And I bought a copy of the book you mention for very little money and am eager to read it.

  6. Anonymous6:08 pm

    I deo enjoy reading social history so I shall investigate your book, it sounds very intresting, thank you for letting us know about it.

  7. Like everyone else who has posted a comment, I enjoyed your commentary about the book too, and wouldn't mind reading it myself. The concept of time is indeed fascinating, looking back on our own past and seeing how some things have changed while others stay much the same.

  8. So interesting to read this blog. My father knew Eleanor Sillar back in 1954. He, my mother, my younger brother and I used to go to tea with her. She was such a lovely old lady; she knew I liked donkeys and one time gave me a picture of them which was taken round the world on many travels but now lost, sadly. We all loved Edinburgh's Child and have very fond memories of Mrs Sillar

  9. And this is from my father:

    I met Eleanor Sillar in February 1954, soon after I joined the Military Hospital, Wheatley, near Oxford. She was then in her 80s, and learning Greek. When Margaret, my wife, and Mary and John (my children) and I went to tea with Mrs Sillar the children always had a picture postcard on their plates. We kept up a correspondence with Mrs Sillar when we moved to Cyrus in 1956. We heard Mrs Sillar interviewed on Woman’s Hour shortly before her book Edinburgh’s Child was published in 1961. I have a signed copy .She inspired the character ‘Aunt Eleanor’ in my romance novel ‘Enduring Love’, published on Kindle. Eleanor Sillar has been a great inspiration to me for over 60 years.

  10. Anonymous5:49 am


    Thanks for posting that for me