Keeping Warm in a Scottish Winter

Jolande saw me shivering and said, “Come here by the Esse and get warm.”

It was my first chilly morning at Finlaystone and I had no idea what the Esse was, but I joined Jolande beside it and did appreciate the warmth. While Jolande explained the daily breakfast routine, I happened to notice a skillet of burning bacon and without much thought, reached over and pulled it aside. The bacon and its tantalizing fat simmered down and I turned back to Jolande, who terrified me by telling me that there’d be 14 for breakfast that morning so I must fry 14 eggs. I glanced at the Esse and realized it was a stove. I would have to fry eggs on this stove? How? Where were the burners? Did it even have burners? Fourteen fried eggs?! FOURTEEN?!

For perhaps the first time in my life, I attempted to negotiate. “Do the eggs have to be fried? What about scrambled eggs?”

Jolande shook her head. “No, they must be fried. We had scrambled eggs yesterday.”

Esse Cook Stove

Later Jolande told me that she knew I was born to be a cook when I rescued the bacon. An immigrant who had fled Hungary during World War ll, she had decades of experience in the hospitality industry, running hotels and restaurants in northern England’s scenic Lake District, and ruled the kitchen at Finlaystone as well as working for the estate’s florist business. She taught me how to cook and welcomed me into her family. I became an adopted sister to her daughters: Sari (a 15-year-old student at a secondary school in nearby Kilmacolm) and 19-year-old Jenny (a “slave” like me) and soon began calling her Mummy H.

The H was for Hepworth, the surname her alcoholic ex-husband gave her, along with a broken nose during a drunken fight (she told me quite openly that both of them had been drunk). At the time, Jolande spoke English, German, Hungarian, and quite a lot of French; later she learned to speak Spanish. When she couldn’t think of the right word in English, she would substitute one from another language, and if all else failed, made up a word on the spot, which could be very entertaining.

Most of my conversations with Jolande took place in the kitchen, where cookery was nothing at all like heating a Swanson’s TV Dinner. Finlaystone’s kitchen hadn’t changed since the Victorian era, so we cooked on the Esse coal stove (Esse is the brand name), washed up in the scullery nearby, and stored food in the “cold room” because we had no refrigerator, even in 1971-1972.

Finlaystone Victorian Kitchen

Although I had been to Finlaystone with my parents when I was five, I remembered little about the mansion’s interior and sometimes felt as if I was living in a museum.

I had I moved to Scotland a few months after my 17th birthday, living with and working for my clanspeople, General Sir Gordon and Lady MacMillan. Sir Gordon was Chief of the Clan MacMillan (note: a clan is like a tribe of people) and it was Lady M’s family that had owned Finlaystone, a forested 500-acre estate and mansion on the Firth of Clyde (an estuary of the River Clyde) outside southern Scotland’s big city of Glasgow, for several generations. Sir Gordon inherited his title but Lady M earned hers; the Queen bestowed the “Lady” upon her in recognition of her work caring for London evacuees (mostly children) during World War ll, while Sir Gordon was serving in the British Army as Governor of Gibraltar.

Finlaystone Mansion

I was too young for a Scottish work permit so basically worked for my room and board. Starting with their children’s friends and classmates, the MacMillans employed low-paid young people they called “slaves” to do what you could call scut work - mostly menial, sometimes nasty chores like shoveling chicken manure (frightfully good fertilizer, you see), raking leaves in the rain, washing dishes in the scullery, and picking bulb flowers in the cold, damp early Scottish spring to sell at the Glasgow flower market.

We “slaves” were a longstanding tradition at Finlaystone, which is now open to the public, offering a variety of outdoor activities, a tea room, falconry, gift shop, tours of part of the mansion’s interior, concerts, and 10 acres of beautiful gardens to explore, including one called Slaves’ Paradise. [Ironically, an 18th century occupant of Finlaystone was the owner of real slaves who made a fortune from his Jamaican sugar plantation.] When I try to imagine a garden that would be paradise to a Finlaystone slave, I see one without weeds, thorns, fallen leaves, flowers to deadhead and insects to avoid, and needing no compost , be it chicken or any other fecal matter.

But back to the Victorian kitchen, where my cooking career began under Mummy H’s patient tutelage. I confess that I’ve never come to terms with frying 14 eggs for breakfast, but I learned countless useful things about cookery that I still practice on a daily basis. Mummy H passed away some years ago but sometimes I feel she’s at my elbow here in my own modern kitchen. I still consider her daughter Jenny as my sister though I haven’t seen her since 1982, when I visited the home she shares with her Spanish husband and their family on the Balearic Island of Menorca, off the coast of northern Africa. Nowadays when I have a cooking question, it’s Jenny I ask, and she always gives good advice as well as funny stories.

Built in 1764, Finlaystone’s current mansion was made of stone and had no central heat. The Esse coal stove made the kitchen the warmest room in the house, followed closely by the Linen Room directly above the Esse (where laundry was hung to dry and then ironed).

Close by was the servants’ sitting room, where we spent our free time huddled before the “electric fire” (a small heater set on the hearth of the real fireplace) with our feet resting on the Hepworths’ large and loving black Lab, Berry (after whom I named one of our black dogs), Berry being short for Blackberry. We had no television; ironically (again) to watch Masterpiece Theatre’s Upstairs, Downstairs show, we went to the top floor of the house (at one time the nursery and the butler’s flat) to join the tenants who rented it and who had a black and white television set.

A rear entrance to servants’ wing led to what used to be stables, and a mountain of coal for the Esse sat in one of the stalls. We took turns filling the Esse each night, lugging the coal in a tin scuttle back to the kitchen and into the belly of the stove.

I dropped the loaded pail on my left foot one night, which was extremely painful but excused me from outdoor chores for a month. I spent that time painting a sign for Finlaystone’s garden centre and experimented with baking, using the marble-topped Victorian baking table. I became quite good at making scones, but unwittingly ended my baking career by having the gall to put cinnamon in the scones for our daily afternoon tea. Sadly, we had no elevenses (morning tea break) but since dinner, served in the huge formal dining room, wasn’t until 8:00 pm, the 4 o’clock tea was a necessity.

My bedroom was actually the dressing room for a much larger, very grand room that was reserved for guests. Each night I slept under a mound of blankets so heavy that it was quite a job to turn over. There was an electric fire in my room that I was allowed to use only when dressing and undressing. My one window looked out at the rear of the house where Lady M’s formal rose garden waited for weather warm enough to bloom. In the distance I could catch a glimpse of the river’s Firth, which had once been home to a thriving shipbuilding industry.

The only room in the house with a wood fire in its fireplace was the formal drawing room. Slaves weren’t banished to the servants’ sitting room – the MacMillans encouraged us to spend our free time upstairs in the drawing room – but I felt more at home downstairs, laughing with the Hepworths. In truth, it was their friendship that kept me warm during that long, cold winter. When I came in from picking snowdrops in the damp, chilly woods, Mummy H would hug me to warm me, just as she hugged her own daughters. She was a flawed and troubled person, but I loved her just the same.

And truly, finding the warmth of fellow humans is a wonderful reason to explore our world.


Note: pencil drawings by Jean McMillan

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1 comment

  • Very good story ! Your descriptions took me along for the trip. Ps. I’d add cinnamon too.


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