Am Bratach No. 223
May 2010

JD Williams’ catalogue

I remember it well — how could anyone forget — the night Peter the post delivered the new edition of THE CATALOGUE. Its arrival had been anticipated for weeks and each night went by with only the delivery of a few papers from the Board of Agriculture or a demand for a payment to “His Majesty”. The mail was often pretty mundane and poor Peter was usually held responsible for the fact that there was no catalogue included. Although it was completely out of his control he would pedal on his way, full of guilt, having been told if it didn’t come the next day, “we will have to go to Thurso”. (No nicer man ever pedalled a bike in the red and gold livery of the Royal Mail and he was loved by everyone in the parish.)

Time was running out — the big dance was in three weeks and the Sacrament was at the end of June — so there was an urgent need for new things to wear. Dresses, hat, shoes and perhaps a handbag to match. Mr Williams in Manchester was well aware of this. Our ladies’ waist, bust and hip sizes were filed in his warehouse, recorded from previous orders. He knew their every move, everyone from the Western Isles to the Scottish Borders, and was waiting for our orders.

The Book duly arrived and was seized from Peter’s hand like a dog after a fresh bone, and although his esteem was reinstated immediately, he left without as much as a “Good night”. Herself was off to the glow of paraffin lamp to browse its contents and imagine herself in the latest fashions.

The following day, Granny arrived and Aunty was summoned so that the process of selection could begin. They waited long enough to savour the occasion and study the black and grey artists’ sketches that made up catalogues in those days. There were no full colour photographs or beautiful models like today — just painted people and painted things with a little description of the colours and materials they were made in. As young, adolescent boys, my brother and I, when we eventually got a chance to have a look at the book, turned to the pages with the young girls, who even in the grey pen-and-wash drawings looked very attractive and we derived a certain pleasure in learning what they were wearing was a available in peach, pink and lilac, although I must confess that, even to this day, I don’t know what was meant when they said “with fully interlocking gusset”. Granny could not understand that the black hat she had selected for Communion was only an artist’s impression and was only available in green, magenta and turquoise — hardly suitable colours for this particular event. It reminded me of the words of the Melness bard who wrote:

“Some were and pink and red
And some of them resembled that utensil
Oft times found beneath the bed”

It took a week of debate and doubt to be sure their selections would be a perfect compliment to their shape and size. Then off went the order form, sizes, colours, knee length, inside leg and whatever other specification was asked for to ensure a perfect fit. And the whole, tedious business of waiting got Peter the Post started all over again in anticipation of the arrival of their new outfits. I often wondered what would have happened to him if the goods had failed to arrive on time, but thankfully they always did.

The night of the “hop” arrived and bedecked in Her new, printed frock She set off for the ball, confident that there wasn’t a ghillie or shepherd in Sutherlandshire that would not fall at Her feet.

But — just as She entered the hall — there she was — her from the next village — in exactly the same dress. The colourful azaleas and honeysuckle that made up the print were blowing as if in a gale as she gyrated to the screech of the fiddle in the Eightsome Reel. The gaiety drained from the Gordons and the White Sergeant lost his dash in an instant.

There was no room for a duplication of couture in Tongue Village Hall and the long-awaited night was in ruins. Without even removing Her overcoat, She sat throughout the rest of the evening reassuring Herself that Her rival looked awful and had far too full a figure to wear the same dress that fitted Herself so perfectly. I do seem to remember an anxiety for its contents to escape through every opening in the fabric as she bounded in response to the beat of the drum.

I was glad that Peter had not turned up as, no doubt, he would have had to take the flak. There was no logic in Her wrath and, after all, he did deliver the parcel.

— Willie D Mackay

Willie was born and brought up in Colbackie and has lived in London for many years.

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