Generation: C

Malcolm Nicolson

Helen Mackay

Born: 1862 Died: 1941
Father: William Mackay
Mother: Janet Murray


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A fine, kindly very hospitable lady, generous to our family.

Malcolm was from Skye. Cellar man at Heilbrons, Glasgow. Gave RLM foreign stamps. Alcoholic breath, whiles.

RLM 25/3/71

Helen Mackay. 1863-1941. Mrs. Malcolm Nicolson.

Helen was the eighth in the family. I wrote to my cousin, Willie Nicolson, seeking his contribution to this history of our family, and received a cordial reply but not enough to provide a story. William was always a bit shy. So, Kinsfolk, you have to rely on my memory, in great part:

Somehow, I always seemed to have an Aunt Helen in my youth. It was as if she was always a player on Life's Stage, or else behind the scenes, pushing one of the actors on or off. Perhaps "pushing" is the wrong word, for she was not hyper-motile. "Encouraging" or "assisting" would be better. She was big compared with me, massive in fact. Her face and hands big, hair brushed straight back, the brow large, the lips determined and down-turned at the ends. She had bright eyes, scrutinising yet kindly.

When she came to our house (we lived at the top of a hill) she always had to sit down to get her breath back, for I think that from early days she must have been overweight. She usually wore black. Her complexion was pale but not unhealthy. When she sat her hands were usually folded on her lap, or placed on her knees. She never gesticulated, never swore. Often, like other Scotch folk, she said "Well" or "Ugh Well" or "augh". A common phrase with her, as with my father, was "We'll see". Her voice was subdued, most pleasant, the accent Highland. I would have said West Highland, for she married a Skye man, Malcolm Nicolson.

Hers was a dominant personality, awe-inspiring at times, but I never felt fear in her presence. She had a pleasant smile and an appreciative laugh. Although her sleeves were usually rolled up over her strong arms, she was always so gentle.

Helen had the Mackay tendency to wander, and it persisted through her whole life. But, unlike other members of the family and unlike her two sons, Donald and Willie, she only wandered within an area of less than one square mile. I visited her with my father frequently. She was most often around the West End of Argyle Street, Glasgow, but in a different house each year. There were always plenty of houses to let in those days of private landlordism in Glasgow. Hers were usually modest for Uncle Malcolm must have had a poor income. But the interior was always bright and homely. Invariably one received a piece of delicious cake with sultanas or cherries on it, or home-made scones, and some milk. This milk, without doubt, would be bacterially contaminated for there was no bottled or sterilised milk in those days, and milk was delivered to the houses in open cans or tins.

An unusual feature of these visits to her was that I often heard the most remarkable noises from the room next door. This was most marked when she rented a flat in a block owned by the Salvation Army. The noises were due to the fact that her younger son, Willie, had joined the Salvation Army and was learning to play the cornet. He was certainly blowing his way to Salvation! Later he became an expert performer on several wind instruments, and even today, he is an active member of two orchestras giving concerts around Glasgow. Age 80+, and plays two rounds of golf per week!

Helen always had a good fire going in her kitchen, which was the centre of her Universe. I seem to remember she specialised in flats only one story up, and that there was often an arc lamp ablaze outside the front room, on the street, along which trams ran frequently, and to add to the life of the place there was often a tram-rail junction or overhead cable junction just outside, operated by the driver and perhaps by the conductor. As often as not, there would be some visitors in the house when we arrived. It might be some young girl down from the North to get a job in the city, or a young man from Skye, a probable recruit for the police force, in which her brother was serving. She became a valued information bureau for all the doings and miss-doings of the Mackay family and their descendents, far and near.

Helen had two sons, Donald, who died perhaps in his thirties in New York, and William who was an electrical engineer, and now lives at 1414, Paisley Road West, Glasgow. She adopted a young girl, Leda, by name. I do not know her fate, or the extent of her gratitude.

My father certainly thought very highly of his elder sister. I think he visited her at least once per month, for we lived just across the park from her, a mile away. She was a very great help and comfort to him during my mother's last long illness. I did not see much of her after War I. She gave a home for a short period to my medical student cousin, Bill Mackay, whose parents died early. With friends and neighbours always coming in for cakes and bins, a chatter and gossip, study was difficult for him and he got digs nearby.

She came to our wedding in 1925, all dressed in black and sat in a corner near the door, where there was more air, hands folded on her lap. As I took Margaret over to meet her, she remained seated like a duchess, and without waiting for an introduction said to Margaret "A am Roebert's Aunt Helen!". She knew her place alright!

I last saw her a few years later, comfortably installed in a wee house in Helensburgh (how appropriate!). There was a fine fire going and the house was spotless, and the fire grate shining. I must have been with my father for this visit. She died well into her seventies, and I was pleased to see after my father's death that through the years he had been appreciative of her kindness.

Jessie Petterson wrote: "When my father died in 1905, she begged my mother Sarah to allow her to adopt me, but Mother said "NO" even although things were very bad for us at that time".

Frank Macdonald records that after he was discharged from hospital after being wounded in War I, Helen met him at the station. Later he stayed at Helen's house when he had to attend hospital Out-patients. In spite of her weight and breathlessness Helen went down to Sandbank during War I to see Isabella, who had already lost one son in the war, and whose other six were abroad.

Margaret Carruthers, Canada, wrote: "She was real good, and I remember so well she brought a nice new suit to my mother (i.e. Mrs. Brechin) and how it fitted my mother as if it had been tailored for her. Actually it was your mother's!"

Jessie Howie asked: "Where did everyone sleep in Aunt Helen's house?"

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