A singer and entertainer all her life, Margaret was 89 when she died. A member of ‘The Russell Sisters’, she performed a cabaret mime act for many years in the many social clubs around Easter Road, Leith and Abbeyhill, and her sons, Rikki and Raymond, made sure that her last appearance was a hard act to follow!
Her favourite tipple wasn’t a cup of tea, or even a wee dram. It was Mountain Dew, the bright yellow, hyper-caffeinated, massively sugar-rich soda drink favoured by gamers and other young people who like to stay up late.
Margaret loved it so much that her family had to order it by the case, and as a special surprise for her funeral, they decided to have her coffin covered in its branding.
It wasn’t the last laugh that Margaret raised that day. The stories I told about her were all in her own words, thanks to a remarkable initiative by Liz Hare of the Citadel Arts Group.
Liz and her company create original, collaborative theatrical productions and they aim to reach people in communities where live theatre isn’t a part of their lives. They have also produced a number of books called ‘Living Memories’, written in collaboration with people living in sheltered housing around the city.
For the last twelve years of her life, Margaret lived in Gordon Court, and her stories about her life were recorded for posterity: you can find out about some of their other projects here
This is how Margaret described her early life.
I’m from Leith. I was born in Henderson Garden, next stair to Willie Merrilees. His brother played the piano. Willie Merrilees was short. How he ever came into the police, I don’t know. He dived into the docks to save people – but he used to throw them in first! at least, that was the story.
When I left Henderson Street it wasn’t very far away, just round the corner to Giles Street and there was just two of us in the stair. It was one of the times the coalman had come and left the bag of coal at the door. I asked my neighbour, ‘Can I borrow your son to carry it for me.’ She said, ‘You can but it’s my husband.’ I just aboot died!
We used to have some great parties. I went to Dr Bell’s School then I left there to go to DK’s (David Kilpatrick’s). My auntie was a dress maker, so I got clothes from her.
Margaret left us with lots of memories, and she also introduced me to a poem by a man called Peter Sellar, who styled himself The Poet Laureate of Leith. I can’t find anything about him online but if you know who he was or is, I hope you’ll let me know. Here’s the poem, and as Margaret said, ‘Enjoy!”
Just a Walk Through Sunny Leith
My childhood days in Sunny Leith I wander back in dreams,
to when I was a little lad, so long ago it seems.
Kids playing in the cobbled streets, or cowboys ‘doon the Links’
That smell coming from the sewers, by god it really stinks
The jam works doon at Links Place, where the smell wis awfy nice
Beside Crawford’s biscuit factory, wi’ lassies called ‘White Mice’
Leith’s beach, the Tally Toor where we went if it was fair
Or doon Seafield Road tae Porty, the smell of salt was in the air
Dancing up the assembly rooms eyeing a’ the girls.
Doing a quickstep or a tango showing off yer fancy twirls
Home along auld Bernard Street where Rabbie stands on high
White patches lying at his feet an’ we ken the reason why.
It’s frae seagulls dropping dirty doo on Scotia’s National Bard
And ‘The Pool’ where a’ the seamen went tae stamp their Union Card
Courting in ‘back entries’ where we cuddled and we kissed
The day I started smoking fags, and the first time I got pissed
A pint o’ heavy in The Jungle by the brig doon at The Shore
Men all lined up at ‘the broo’ now gone, thank god, no more
Up Tollbooth to the Kirkgate, past the graveyard in South Leith
Where many Leithers lie at rest, just bones and some auld teeth
The matinees in Laurie Street then up the Restalrigs
Then along the road tae Hawkhill near the home ground of the Hibs
Doon Easter Road tae Duke Street just at the fit-o’-the-Walk
Stands Queen Vickie’s statue where men jist spit and talk
They shout at a’ the lassies, ‘ye hae a bonny leg’,
And when the lassies shout right back, it brings them ‘doon a peg’
Smith and Bowman all in gold, by The Palace dancing hall
Playing wee heedies on a wall with a Woollies ‘tanner baw’
Up the walk through the ‘hole-in-the-wa’
but the Cappie’s now long gone
Where every week on Sunday night Leith’s talent sang their song
Doon the street tae the Alabam’ where a sit and tak a rest
Remembering the matinees where Tom Mix beat the best
Then a saunter along Great Junction Street,
past Rankin’s ‘chipped fruit’
Stoddart’s the undertakers where they laid deid Leithers oot
The Sally-Ann goes marching past wi Big Samson in the lead
Doon Bangor Road tae their temple
where they prayed against man’s greed
Along Junction Road past Doccy Bells kids puzzled about their maths
Past the auld fire station and the guid auld Vickie baths
A ‘shivery bite’ in Costa’s, a bag o’ chips was our ‘fast food’
We scoffed them in a minute: by god they tasted good
The Leither college, DK school,
where the Keelies learned their skill
Buy a banana split at Angelosanto’s just along from auld Todd’s Mill
Behind the Caley Station stood Tancy Lee’s wee gym
A boxer who won three Lonsdale belts – Leith’s very proud of him
Dockers gathered at dock gate all hoping tae get jobs
If they didn’t get a ‘shooder tap’
they’d mebbe get hired at Robb’s
The Whisky Bonds that smell so good made ye thirsty for a nip
Put a tanner bet on some auld mags wi’ the Bookie in ‘The Ship’
Up Admirality, said the Leithers way
then along tae the water o’ Leith
And gaze doon at a’ the bonny swans
with the lemonade works underneath
Up Mill Lane past Leith hospital and along tae Ferry Road,
Past the Junction Bar and the auld Toon Hall
and Leith library’s abode
The ultramodern State Picture House, with the snooker hall upstairs,
The Eldo where the dancers done ‘the Eldo Dip’ in pairs
Along past auld Leith Provvie where Leithers liked tae shop,
They gave a secret number and watched their ‘divvie’ mounting up.
My journey’s almost at an end, I’ve wandered through the years,
As the memories went fleeting past I’m greetin’ sair wi’ tears
But there’s yin mair stop I hae tae make afore my trip is over
Doon tae Warriston’s crematorium and hae a wee word wi my mother
She rests among the roses, I still see her in my mind
An angel tae me through the years, she was ‘one of a kind’.
I whisper words of thanks to her: she’s been missed doon the years,
She’s now at rest, in Sunny Leith, and I try to hide my tears.
I often see her in my mind, and though she’s long passed on
Her memory will live with me, forever and anon
Peter Sellar, the Poet Laureate of Leith