Am Bratach No. 195
January 2008

Fiona Burnett talks to
Cathie Barbara Mackay, Tongue

An interest in people and surroundings began early in life for Cathie Barbara Mackay, a former Tongue councillor, and district nurse respectively, who, at the age of ten found her voice.

There are many people who influence our daily lives and for Cathie Barbara, who at the tender age of two and a half lost her father during WW2 when he was just twenty-nine, these people came in the form of her mother, grandfather and teachers, among others.
Cathie was an only child born in 1936 to Williamina (nee Mackay), Eilean nan Ron, and Thomas Mackay, Embo, and spent her childhood living with her mother and grandparents in Embo, often visiting an uncle in Skerray. Cathie is married to Johnnie ‘the bread’ Mackay, formerly of Messrs Burr’s of Tongue, They have two sons, Graeme and Ian, and two grandchildren.

Although just a toddler at the time Cathie Barbara clearly remembers the day her father, a naval reservist, left to go to war. “All the people calling that day. I remember lots of visitors that weekend. His great big kit bag against the kitchen wall,” she says. Oblivious to the seriousness of the situation, the toddler danced around touching the kit bag. singing “That’s my daddy’s bag and he’s going away,” believing he was simply going on holiday and leaving from the railway station.

The next time she went to the station in Embo it was to see her father’s coffin being carried off the train. Holding her grandfather’s hand and dancing as she so often did, she knew it was him and was pleased that he was home at last, not realising the significance of what she was witnessing.

The one prominent feature from the past that Cathie cherishes is a heavy dark wooden chest of drawers which sits in her living room. It is a piece of furniture which sat in the family home, beside her father’s coffin as she danced round the room, touching the coffin as she passed. “It’ll go out the day I go out,” she says. Years later, on Armistice Day, Cathie Barbara wrote a poem “Dancing Feet” in honour of the father she never knew.

With the absence of her father it wasn’t surprising that Cathie had a very strong bond with her mother, increasing as she got older. “She was a great disciplinarian and I was a bit wayward,” she laughs. “I’d forget about time — I was never home in time for tea,” but adds, “she was also full of fun, a very jolly and humorous person but very serious at the same time and I had to toe the line. Somebody would feed me on the road! That was me!”

Grandfather Embo spent considerable time with the young Cathie Barbara, often taking her to political meetings in the village hall where such gatherings were considered social occasions with much discussion. At one such meeting the ten year old, who was speaking to Robert John Mackay, a relation of her grandmother’s and a Dornoch councillor, complained to him about a public path full of weeds and nettles. “It’s a disgrace that path. No-one can walk on it,” she said, to which the councillor replied, “Put it in writing,” which she promptly did and shortly afterwards the path was cleared.
Looking back on her school days Cathie talks highly of the many teachers in her life. “My first teacher came from Kinlochbervie, Katie Morrison. A bonny girl. I absolutely adored her. She was always organising concerts, plays and dancing. She later became Mrs (Andrew) Marshall and I met her again when the new Kinlochbervie school was opened.”

At Dornoch Academy she studied Gaelic for two years and remembers Flossie Strachan, her English teacher who “gave me a great love of story and verse,” although embarrassed her by making her read out her essays in class.

Leaving the academy, she remembers Miss Hay, an army person who was a postmaster’s daughter from Lairg. Her words to the departing pupils had a profound effect on Cathie. “Now you’re all from this beautiful county and some of you will be going to different countries and some of you may not be coming back. What I want you to do when you’re growing up is reflect on your lives here and all the beautiful things in the environment you grew up in and all the things you’ve been taught. And some day when you’ve experienced other things, and other peoples, remember…this county needs you…and come back!” Cathie Barbara says, “That always stayed with me.

As our conversation steers towards her former nursing career I learn of Cathie Barbara’s caring side. “I was determined to be in the health service one way or another.” As a child she bandaged up her dolls and was determined to make them better.

Next stop for Cathie Barbara was Elgin to the nurses training college where she enjoyed “tough discipline”. There she studied theory and some practical work for two years before heading for the hospital wards. She later worked in the Lawson Memorial Hospital, Golspie.

Referring to her training days she says, “I always look back on that time of my life as being very rewarding. And you had a purpose in life.”

Memories include times when she and her friend Mary Sutherland from Caithness would take the matron’s dog, Buster, for a walk. According to Cathie, “it was the only way we could get out and speak to a boy in the street!” On a Friday night the trainees were allowed to go to a boy’s club between eight and ten o’clock but only if they had put their names on a sheet of paper in matron’s room. One night she had dressed in her new red dress and as she was about to leave the matron asked her if her name was on the list. Poor Cathie had forgotten and wasn’t allowed out. “You know the rules,” bellowed matron. Poor wee lassie — all dressed up and nowhere to go!”

During her days as district nurse throughout Melness, Tongue and surrounding areas she found it a “great priviledge” to be nursing and had a special affinity with her patients particularly the older generation at the time. “They were a wonderful generation,” she offers. “Just wonderful.”

Snow has played a major part in the Mackays’ lives. They got married in Embo during a snowstorm in February. Johnny phoned Cathie from a telephone kiosk, saying, “If Charlie and I can’t get through the wedding can’t take place!” Fortunately with the help of snow ploughs Johnny eventually made it through with his best man, Charlie Burr, who headed to Lairg the next morning to collect the “stranded” wedding cake, initially from Burnett’s bakery, Inverness, on to the Burrs’ lorry which was stuck in a drift.

When their son Graeme was born they endured a tricky journey to the hospital in Thurso. Both stories got a mention in local newspapers.

Cathie Barbara was a county councillor from 1967 until 1975 and has fond memories of this period of her life too. While councillor, she played a leading part in getting the Tongue Causeway built, saving motorists a 10-mile drive round by Kinloch. Dolly Burr, who ran the Post Office in Tongue, gave her the idea to stand. “Who are we going to get as councillor?” asked Dolly in her shop one day. “You’re not doing anything, Cathie Barbara,” she said. “Why don’t you stand?” Cathie stood, beating three men for the seat, with no animosity on their part.

Remembering Donnie MacLeod, a councillor for Farr district, she says, “Donnie and I were great pals. He was a great character. He loved his cups of tea,” which was served at three o’ clock. “Donnie would give me a poke and say, ‘Don’t get up just now to speak until we get our tea!’”

If they were on an overnight stay, the councillors would often enjoy a ceilidh. “Donnie MacBain, convenor, would take out his boxie and Christy Campbell would sing in Gaelic. And Donnie MacLeod had his fiddle.”

Commenting on recent newspaper reports of stormy meetings between the new councillors and their electorate, Cathie said: “I’m so sad for them because they’ve got to hang in there, because life’s worth living and if you don’t have humour between council and the electorates, you might as well burn your boats.”

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