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memories of old boys and girls from the orphanage

Memories of a childhood in the orphanage – edited from Dennis Smith’s own writings.

Dennis arrived, with his siblings, at the Aberlour orphanage on the 22nd February 1944, aged 10 and the orphanage was to be his home for the next 6 years.

Sadly Dennis, one of Dundee’s most prominent hoteliers, passed away in January 2013 and it was only after his death that these memories came to light. They are shared with the kind permission of Dorothy Beer, Dennis’s partner, in memory of Dennis.

I remember the day we set off for Aberlour. My father, the social worker, my siblings and I. We took the train to Aberlour and changed at Craigellachie. As we approached, the orphanage seemed to get bigger and bigger. We were greeted by Canon Dean Wolf, who gave us sweets from a jar. Eventually farewells were said, and the parting of the boys and girls as brother and sister was final. The boys were sent to the infirmary, a justifiable precaution as there was a chance that we could bring in infectious diseases and there were 450 children in Aberlour to protect.

The infirmary was airy and the beds were covered with red blankets with black borders. When we arrived in the infirmary there was a boy named Gordon who was a patient. He looked pale in comparison to us ruddy Aberdonians. Gordon received a lot of medical attention but later passed on and was buried in the Orphanage cemetery. I often wondered how many boys he must have seen passing through into the orphanage.

After we received the all clear from the infirmary we were sorted into our various ‘houses’. This was the breaking up of the boys as a family, but we were always around to help fight their battles, and they were numerous.

We each had a bed in two dormitories, over each bed there was a small brass plate with the name of some kind benefactor. Each house had its own day room, a set of toilets and bathrooms.

We all ate in the large dining hall on large trestle tables; each table had an area designated for children from each of the houses. Each trestle table had a pecking order and new boys were at the end – the lowest of the low. If you looked up the table and you could in a very short period of time sum up who ruled, who you would have to fight. Not because you had anything they may want but this is how things were done and how you made friends. The strong looked after the weak and many a fight was started because of an injustice to the very weak. Many a bloody nose I had received and many I had given.

When you were older you moved onto ‘Jupp House’ and then onto ‘Gordon house’. When I became a proud ‘Gordon’ then I had to start the pecking order all over again. In time you gained your reputation and were left alone, you had your own followers and were rarely called on to physically protect yourself or your friends. As one became older one became wiser and more responsible.

While we were getting on with our own day to day problems, out in the big world the Second World War was ready to be fought in Europe. Food was always at the uppermost of our minds. We were clothed, sheltered and fed and, little did we know, better off than a great deal of the population.

Breakfast was porridge served from what appeared to be an old coal scuttle and the usual custom of dipping into your mug of milk to cool. It was very rough porridge and contained barley kernels which we believed were the cook’s toenails – it took me years to get rid of that myth! Lunch was soup and a pudding; such as the famous tapioca frog’s eggs and at night we had bread and butter and tea from the famous coal scuttle. This is where my hate for bread and butter pudding was born.

The senior houses took turns in dining hall duties a week at a time. If it was your turn, you made sure that your friends had the butter and the flat crusty bread and they did the same for you. Sometimes we got the seat wrong and someone thought it was their birthday. There were certain days we looked forward to; one of which was spicy pudding day (our name for clootie dumpling) and Christmas day breakfast which was sausage and a fried egg. The treat of the week was the hand out of the toffee bars and chocolate bars. Sometimes an extra bar was given by the Dean on Founder’s day and his birthday. I always chose the toffee as it lasted longer.

The Orphanage school was between the two sexes, the various boys’ wings and the girls’ wing which contained a nursery. We were taught History, English, Arithmetic, Geometry, Geography and Algebra. Then we separated into wood working for the boys and domestic science for the girls. The teachers at the School were much more human. They lived in the village and had their own homes and families and brought in a different world.

The main benefit of school was that you mixed with the girls. They were dressed in black in the winter and come the summer they all appeared like a bouquet of flowers in their various shades of summer dresses. Being manly we did not show our liking through affection but in the time honoured custom of our day and wrestled with her. Giving a girl your last piece of toffee was the ultimate sacrifice and a sign of your true affection.

I had scrimped and saved bartered and bullied for enough money to send away for this pair of roller skates. They duly arrived and in time I thought myself the Fred Astaire of the skating world. I was warned by the matron of the girls that I was upsetting her girls and skating on her territory. She confiscated my skates. I never saw them again. It was a sad loss and more so as it was harmless and great fun.

At Aberlour we had our own farm and we were given the responsibility of picking the tatties and bringing in the harvest but we also went out to other farms to work. The work was paid and the job had the added bonus of a lovely lunch made by the farmer’s wife. During the threshing the rats would run from the haystacks. Some of the boys would bring the baby rats, pink skinned and hairless, into the classroom desks. Never me. I couldn’t and never could stomach the sight never mind the feeling of rodents. We were also allowed to go grouse beating on the local estates. This was also paid and provided a good lunch.

Our haircuts were given by the two gardeners. One of them was called Willie, he whistled all the time and over the years it became my goal to be able to whistle like him.”