Remembering two landladies
The ladies of the Dockers club are a hoot. Sharp as tacks; funny, mischievous, do not (I think) suffer fools gladly, swear like stevedores (some), dress for the occasion and take no nonsense. Back in the day, some hauled their husbands out of the pub on Friday to get their housekeeping money before it was gone.
Jessie Laing didn’t have to do that, she was behind the counter of one of Leith’s ‘legendary’ bars. The Trafalgar on Henderson Street. Rumour has it her entirely lovely husband, Rab, liked to take care of ‘front of house’.
I first caught sight of her when I became a member of the Dockers club, bombing back and forth between the bingo in the back hall and the outside smoking area - she didn’t like to miss a card! Her appearance was slim and elegant, with twinkling eyes, a ready smile and boyish pixie haircut.
After a while she said “Hallo You” and I “Hallo You’d” back. In time, like children or spies, we made this our wee secret greeting. Or calling card.
Sometimes she joined me after bingo, often with Rab or her daughter Karen… and the stories would flow. Like children everywhere in the 50s, the Cowan kids used the warren-like streets of Leith as their playground and, though Jessie was the 3rd youngest, she was the ringleader.
In those days kids were out all day, only returning home to get a Jam Piece thrown out of the window. If it landed on something nasty Jessie would whisper a quick “God before the devil” demolish the lot and head back into the teeming streets.
When she was eight they moved to Granton to a bigger house with a back green to cause more havoc, she recalls these times as her feral days. They would tie a button to a piece of thread and hit people’s windows with it, just to be annoying. If the adults chose to chase them that was a double bonus for they knew where to hide.
She and her brother James became quite the little Robin Hoods. In the school holidays Jessie worked in a store where she made up bags of groceries and arranged for James to ‘collect’ a few, instructing him to say, “Mr, I’m here for the messages, my mum couldn’t carry them, they’re paid for.” These would be distributed to neighbours.
Soon enough they discovered Granton Pier and the trawlers! They would pilfer a palette of fish, and their mum would make fishcakes for everyone on the stair.
Jessie only talked childhood with me, so at this point, I’d like to thank the wonderful humanist Barbara Douglas at the Warriston service for a look at her notes.
Rab and Jessie married in November in 1973. The day of the ceremony proved bitterly cold so, on the way to the reception they stopped at mum’s house to warm up. The bride stood by the hearth and her dress promptly caught fire! Rab ripped it off before it went up in a puff of smoke. A quick trip to Kirkwoods in the Kirkgate for a snazzy trouser suit was required.
The Registry Office where they exchanged vows was on Fire Brigade Street!
They were blessed with Karen in 1976 who gave them a grandson, Neal, in 1997. Neal, in his turn, provided great grandson Louie, who his great Granny doted on.
She looked after him in the summer holidays, once taking him fishing at Cockenzie Power Station.
During Covid, Jessie helped all her neighbours in Constitution St with food parcels. Her efforts saw her receive a large bouquet of flowers from POLHA. She had in fact been running messages for years. An excuse, perhaps, to stand in the Kirkgate gossiping for hours!
My other meets with Jessie involved our dog’s, she walked Karen’s dog Hugo. She hated dogs, brother James had lost a chunk of knee to an Alsatian.
Though she loved Hugo, she would only stroke him with her hand in a slipper and she fed him nothing but the best red pudding from Bowmans. Both these things are so Jessie.
Rab, her daughter Karen, grandson Neal and great grandson Louie, have lost a belter.
All of us have…
The passing of Mary Moriarty, a presence in many of our lives on so many levels, was not sudden, but shocking none the less. We have in essence lost our Leith compass.
Without her crusading fundraising for local charities and a whole bunch of other Leith based initiatives the landscape today would be very different.
She hosted Tea Dances, Ladies Days and Burns suppers, even climbed into a skip to rescue some furniture for the Festival office! That’s how I first met her, on top of a skip: “Could you help me out of this young man?” She was relentless…
However, her masterpiece, along with a cabal of very formidable women and many others, was to bring Leith Festival & Gala Day out of the shadows and back into the light.
To see her on the Links on Gala day was to see the whole of her. In vintage haute couture and workie’s yellow jacket, snogging policemen whilst holding her litter pickup stick and black bag - the while acting as the most charming ambassador for all that Leith stands for.
She never laboured us with the logistics of getting the whole show on the road - not only in this instance - she was over everything that might benefit Leith and its people. All of us in Leith are diminished by her passing…
There are some religions that believe in the efficacy of numbers. If that is the case, Mary, I truly believe there is a number for you.
And it sings to me. It sings. ■
Jessie, landlady of The Trafalgar and Mary Moriarty in the Port ‘o’ Leith 1990