The Scottish Sisters
/ The Scottish Sisters /
The Steele sisters say they feel Scottish. “Well our mother was born in Berwick but our father’s from Glasgow. Aye, and our accent sounds a little bit more Scottish too,” Iris says. “I think it was the way we were brought up,” Nancy adds. “We used to go on holiday to our grandparents who lived in Lanarkshire.” Iris laughs. “Those weren’t holidays!” she corrects Nancy. “We’d just be sent to go help dig the tatties. We were duped!”
We’re sitting with sisters - Nancy, Iris and Sylvia - on a bench on the bank of the river Tweed on the outside of the wall that surrounds the town. Across the river, in Tweedmouth, plumes of smoke puff out of a chimney. “That’ll be Simpsons Malt,” Nancy tells us. “We’re famous for barley here.”
The Steele sisters’ identification as Scottish, even though they were born and brought up south of the border is quite common in Berwick. In fact, whether or not Berwick should be part of Scotland instead of England is a question commonly put to the people of Berwick. A few years back a TV channel conducted a fake referendum and Berwick voted to join Scotland.
It’s not really surprising. Most consider Scotland to have better public services and historically the town has been Scottish. Berwick is also more north than a significant chunk of southwest Scotland, being at the northeastern tip of the diagonal borderline. Also many older men in Berwick are Scottish having once come to train at the Kings Own Scottish Borderers barracks, which recruited from the whole of the Scottish Borders region.
“Lot’s of men came from Scotland to join the Kings Own regiment and then married local girls like my mother and me.” Iris explains. “My Billy came to Berwick, from Scotland for the army in 1960. He joined the boy services when he left school. He’s dead now, god rest his soul.” “Which makes her a real Scottish Widow!” Nancy says as she bursts out laughing. Noticing my uncertainly in not knowing how to response Iris reassures me, “Oh it’s alright. You’ve got to laugh haven’t you?”
Both Nancy and Iris continue to celebrate their Scottish heritage. Nancy is a Highland dance teacher and Iris plays the bagpipes. Sylvia is the quietest of the three but always comes along to watch.
That day we’d spent the afternoon watching Nancy teach Scottish Highland dance to a class of six to fifteen year-old girls in a community hall in town. Nancy had invited us to come and watch a rehearsal, asking all the dancers to come in full Highland dancing costumes for our benefit. With bagpipe music blaring out of the little CD deck the little dancers remembered most of their steps, with the older ones a little more slick.
When the class was over we sat with Sylvia, who had come down to watch, and Nancy. They mentioned that their older sister, Iris, was a bagpipe player and got on her phone and made arrangements for her to come and meet us. Iris was at work in the Salvation Army charity shop in town and agreed to meet us outside the walls. She agreed to bring her pipes but was too tired to get dressed up in her Tartan.
Iris is 65 and only started playing when she was 40. “I’ve always wanted to ever since I could remember,” Iris tells us. “I just never had the chance before. I taught myself the basics by learning the tunes that I’d get in books from gift shops in Edinburgh. I’d start with the basic ones and then just buy better books.”
“Our late uncle was a pipe major in the Kings Own Scottish Borderer Regiment here in Berwick. And our late cousin John was a pipe major in the Scott’s Guards. My mother’s brother’s family - there was 9 of them - and all but one played the pipes. So it runs in the family.” I ask Iris if she ever plays for Nancy’s dancers. “I used to play, aye, but I’m not very keen in case I make a mistake and put the dancers off their steps or in case the dancers put me off.”
Nancy tells Iris to stop talking and play a tune. “Well, I’d better do what I’m told” Iris gets up and walks towards the city wall. She looks tiny stood beside it. She adjusts herself and her pipes and starts belting out a tune; “Scotland the Brave,” Sylvia leans over to tell me. The skirl of the pipes bounces off the wall and fills the entire area. Immediately people sitting along the river turn to look at where the sound is coming from. As if on cue, a group of children run over to where Iris stands playing and start jumping and skipping around her. When she finishes we clap and the children bow. The people sitting a few benches along from us shout a request; “I don’t know that one I’m afraid,” Iris shouted back. “What about Highland Cathedral?” Aye, I know that one.