Johnson family. Photo courtesy of Larry & Beth Sutherland.
I remember my great-grandmother – Grandmam – well, she was a petite woman who was quiet and kind. She possessed a power so great; a strength of character that carried her family through life with an incredible unity. She was a quietly determined woman with a kind and gentle heart. I remember her at home, occupying a chair in the corner, surrounded by her makkin. Her seat of power and command, to me, it was her throne, and she was the Queen. She was the head of the family but was neither demanding nor harsh, her soft eyes, infectious smile and intuitive ways invited respect, it didn’t demand it.
What struck me in each of the letters was her care; whether that be knitting blankets to send to Albania or blanching carrots for the freezer to prevent needless waste. She came from a large family, they had very little growing up, but what she did possess was a strength of character that I can’t fail to admire.
Grandmam, or Barbara (Babsie), was one of six children born to George and Eliza Johnson (nee Fraser). I never knew my great-great-grandmother Eliza, and I can’t remember her being talked about, probably because I was too young to remember or listen. My own granny said that “Aald Mam was one of the kindest people there was. The last thing she did was give away her last half-a-crown.” A selfless woman, she brought up her own family of six before bringing up a second family of four. She lost her husband young, leaving her to bring up the children. All of this she did from their croft at the Hillend in Voe, nestled on the slope leading towards Lower Voe. Hillend was described as “a very poor croft but one that brought up a family”. Later she moved to Easterscord where she brought up a second family after her daughter was lost during childbirth. My granny explains how Aald Mam had struggled her whole life but would always give her last to anyone who came to visit.
I am very much connected to Aald Mam, or Eliza, whether it be in the lines I trace on our family tree, or in my own home, sitting proudly on a dresser. A year or two ago I was given Aald Mam’s mixing bowl; a wide, shallow earthenware bowl, mottled and worn through age and use. It was one of her few personal possessions. She was born in 1878 on the island of Papa Stour, her six children, including Grandmam, were all born between 1910 and 1921; a time of hard work, war and loss.
We have just had Remembrance week, where we think back to the 11th November when the guns fell silent for the first time in four years over Europe.
Trench cake is a homemade fruit cake that was released as a recipe by the Ministry of Food using readily available ingredients. During the war every hen was engaged in ‘active service’, and anyone keeping poultry was expected to donate their eggs to military hospitals to aid wounded servicemen in their convalescence.
It was a nostalgic process (one that I shared on my blog last year, and am revisiting) and I thought a lot about my own family as I made the cake. I wondered whether Aald Mam had made trench cake in the bowl and whether Grandmam had licked the spoon clean as my daughter, Lena (then 2) had done. I wondered what worries and woes she mixed out in the bowl. Perhaps they too worked together in their busy kitchen in Voe, mixing up cakes, as Lena and I did on that rainy Saturday morning in November.
I’ve decided to share the recipe again and hope that someone else will take a morning to remember the lives lost, changed or affected by war and how so many gave so much in the trenches, oceans and kitchens to provide us with the freedom we enjoy today.
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