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Hard times for gamekeepers: how things have changed in 100 years

Lindsay Waddell recalls the harsh rural living conditions endured by gamekeepers in the days before running water and electricity

A pint in the local was one of the few luxuries for an early to mid 20th century gamekeeper

I had a very dear aunt who made it to — and past — her century of birthdays. Her recollections often made me think about the changes she had seen in her long life. She was born before World War I into a life of few houses with flushing toilets or electricity and almost every single household utility and gadget we now take for granted.

Those who lived in the countryside had one advantage over those in city slums, as they at least had a garden in which they grew vegetables to feed the family. That one factor alone made a huge difference to how well people were able to live and survive — for that was what it was, survival. The other advantage they had was clean air because the countryside had that in abundance.

Hunt met

Working in the clean air of the countryside is one of the few aspects of the gamekeeper’s life that has not changed over the past 100 years

Gamekeepers were part and parcel of the countryside community. Their role as effectively unpaid police meant that they were often held in higher regard than the lowly farm labourer. That status was also reflected in the houses they were allocated as part of their terms of employment. However, they were still a far cry from anything we would recognise today. Stone-flagged or rough concrete floors, no running water and an outside toilet were run of the mill.

Winters were marked by a good coating of ice on the inside of the windows from the condensation during the night, such was the temperature of a house heated by coal, wood or peat.

I have recounted this tale in a previous piece, but it is more than relevant to this topic — the story told to me by a gamekeeper’s daughter who is still alive and well. She recalled her mother in tears trying to clean out what was more or less a shed that was to be their home, scrubbing the stone-flagged floor with water carried from a spring.

When I was trying for trout one year on South Uist and was blown off the lochs by a howling gale, I recall visiting a small museum where I recognised most of the exhibits from the housing of my childhood. It perhaps said something about my age. The reality is that the way we live has taken a huge step forward in the past 100 years compared with the few centuries before that.

Hard times for gamekeepers

I have in my library a lovely book written by Colin Gibson, Highland Deerstalker, about the life of Allan Cameron, who lived most of his working life at the top of Glen Clova in Angus, moving to Moulzie in 1911. He wrote: “Water had to be carried from a spring, lighting was by candle and paraffin lamp, and Jeannie Cameron did all her cooking and baking on an open fire.” The floor was covered in deerskin rugs, about the only nod to warmth in those long-gone days. They also had a milk cow and eggs from their hens, as well as a pig that ended up as dry-salted bacon.

Allan was nothing if not a man of many talents, installing running and, eventually, heated water, an indoor toilet and electricity by means of a generator. These things did not happen in a hurry, as he served in and survived World War I. He did not leave his house at the head of the glen until 1953, by which time it was rather more comfortable than it had been when he first found it.

However, even in the mid-1950s, one of the houses that I lived in had no piped running water. What we had came via an old handpump that emptied into a large, white Belfast sink. The sinks are well and truly back in fashion, but the same cannot be said for the pumps. I wasn’t very old at the time and, much to my amusement, it made some rather rude noises when cranked, not unlike a horse passing wind.

Water pump

Running water is now taken for granted, but handpumps were still in use up to the 1950s

Many years later, when we came to Teesdale, our house, along with most of the farmhouses, still had a tiled range that contained an oven as well as a boiler to heat the water. Many of the older Dales residents were skilled at controlling the heat in the oven by means of the various flaps that directed the hot air to wherever you wished it to go.

There was a snag if the wind got too strong when baking was in progress. I have memories of the waft of baking scones and so on drifting from one house as the oven door was left open to keep the temperature down. These tiled ranges were replacements for the huge cast-iron versions. They had a very large tank on the side of them, into which cold water was poured and then heated by the fire.

There are remnants of those old ranges in the remains of countless old buildings across the countryside, broken when the chimney or fireplace collapsed as the building fell into disrepair. The water heated in these large cast-iron tanks was then used for all household purposes, including filling the zinc bath in which the whole family would have washed in the good old days. At least the next generation of tiled ranges had a built-in boiler at the rear, which heated the water that served the copper water tank for the whole house.

Gamekeepers cottage

A gamekeeper’s cottage, one of the perks of the job

Back of the queue

Not surprisingly, mains gas has not featured in remote rural communities. It still surprises me that workers at the call centres dealing with our energy supplies find it hard to believe that such places still exist as they try to sell you a combined package for electricity and gas.

The reality was that we were also at the end of the queue when it came to the installation of any utility, with many areas not being connected to the electricity grid until the 1960s.

At a stroke, the pressing of a switch was the key to a whole new way of life. Fridge, freezer and washing machine, the whole works came with electricity — if you could afford them, of course, and it took quite a few more years for all that to become common. These household items also led to the demise of the travelling shop as fridges could store perishable foodstuffs for much longer, without the need for covering them in salt.

For those in their double-glazed, triple-insulated houses, complete with thermostat-controlled central heating, everything that has gone before will be an unknown, simply a part of history. However, for many who are still alive today, it was the reality of life, with little choice — and it could be harsh at times.