The McPake Sisters of Peebles
There is less than an hour of recordings of Minnie, Betha and Mary McPake but they symbolise the significant contribution that 'ordinary' people have made to the archives. They were recorded in 1969 by Miss Sheila Scott who donated them to of the School of Scottish Studies.
The three sisters were born in Peebles at a time when the tweed mills played a considerable role in the town's prosperity. Minnie was the eldest sister and was born in 1908 to parents who worked in the mills. Her mother Annie Savage started in the mills when she was eleven, working from 6.00am to 6.00pm for five shillings a fortnight. Minnie wanted to be a weaver like her mother and her two year apprenticeship began at the age of fourteen.
By the time of the recordings, she had been a weaver for 45 years. In her spare time she was involved in the Girls Guides and Brownies and had a great love of nature. She was very knowledgeable about local history and also enjoyed poetry. Please click below to hear her reciting a poem entitled 'The Borderland'. (School of Scottish Studies ref. no. SA1969.187.A10.) According to the sisters, it was composed in a Glasgow poorhouse by a tramp who played the flute to earn a living.
Betha, the middle sister, was born in 1912 and did both shop and mill work. She married Torrance Buchan, a warehouse man at a local tweed company, in 1938. Shortly afterwards Torrance was transferred to the company's London office and Betha went with him. At the outbreak of World War II, Betha returned home to Peebles and Torrance signed up with the Gordon Highlanders. He then trained as a bomb-aimer/navigator and was killed in action in France in 1943. By that time Betha had two daughters, Anne and Mary. Her sisters were a great support to her during this difficult time and took a great interest in the care of the girls.
The three sisters used to sing together at church socials and family gatherings. Betha's daughter Mary commented that 'they would sing at the drop of a hat.' Please click below to hear them singing 'Three Lovely Maidens in Bannion'. (School of Scottish Studies ref. no: SA1969.187.A14)
The youngest sister Mary was born in 1914. She originally wanted to be a nursemaid but had little choice but to go into the mills, where she trained as a tweed darner. She emigrated to New Zealand in 1949 as part of the £10 assisted passage scheme. She very much enjoyed her time there and made friendships which lasted throughout her life. However, as an unmarried woman it was difficult for her to get accommodation on her own and she returned in 1952. Please click below to hear her talk about what happened once she had completed her three year apprenticeship in the mill. Betha and Minnie also join in the conversation. (School of Scottish Studies ref. no: SA1969.187.B3)
Stories had been passed down to them about family members, including their great-grandfather, who had been robbed by highwaymen while taking their grandfather to be christened in Hawick. These and other pieces of family history can be heard on the tape. Betha's daughters Anne and Mary knew nothing of this treasure of stories and have really enjoyed hearing them told by their mother and aunts. It has been an emotional experience for them but one they would not have missed.
A love of poetry ran in the family and the sisters' father and grandfather both wrote poetry. This interest in poetry was inherited by Betha's elder daughter Anne who has written poetry from a young age. Please click below to hear Minnie's rendition of J K Annand's poem 'Teenie Tit'. (School of Scottish Studies ref. no: SA1969.187.B8)
Although Minnie, Betha and Mary's formal education ended when they were fourteen, they maintained an interest in education and learning throughout their lives. They were well-respected in the Peebles community and Minnie was considered 'a local worthy'.
Mary died in 1980, Betha in 1985 and Minnie in 1995. All three of them were buried in Peebles Cemetery and large crowds attended their funerals.
This is just one example of the many treasures to be found as part of the Kist o Riches project, treasures relating to family history and communities, and relevant to anyone with an interest in Scotland's culture and heritage.
Many thanks to Betha's daughter Mary Lindores for her contributions to this article and for permission to use the photographs. Thanks to Arthur Morris for permission to use the photograph of the sisters taken in the 1970s.Thanks also to the Scottish Language Dictionaries for giving permission to use JK Annand's poem 'Teenie Tit'.
Mary (left), Minnie (middle) and Betha in the 1960s
Betha aged seventeen
Betha and Torrance on their wedding day. Minnie is second on the left and Mary is second on the right.
Mary (left), Minnie (middle) and Betha in the 1970s. © Arthur Morris