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Mary 'Netta' Mackay, Bettyhill

By SPP Reporter

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Mary 'Netta' Mackay.
Mary 'Netta' Mackay.

MARY Nicolette Mackay, or Netta, as she was known, passed away unexpectedly on Tuesday, 30th October, at Pentland View Nursing Home where she had spent the final three years of her life.

Netta, (pictured) of Tigh na Bhradan, Naver Bridge, Bettyhill, was not used to a sedentary existence, preferring to spend her time in the open air as an active crofter and lively citizen who loved to be out and about. Despite that, and her increasing disability, she never complained and, whenever she was able, displayed aspects of her cheerful, mischievous and gregarious character to the very end.

Netta was born in the Keeper’s Cottage at Skelpick on 8th March 1928, fourth of the five children of Nicol and Catherine MacNicol, and attended Skelpick Side School, or ‘Skelpick Academy’ as she liked to call it, where she passed her Qualifying Exam and went on to Helmsdale Secondary, then a senior secondary school.

Unfortunately, her hopes of proceeding in education were dashed by her father’s illness which forced her to leave school, aged 14, to help her mother look after him.

Nicol died after a short illness and Netta, together with her younger brother, Ronnie, moved to Tongue with their mother.

Extensive roadworks were then ongoing between Bettyhill and Borgie and she found work at Wimpey’s quarry for a time before becoming a housemaid in The Bungalow, the establishment now known as the Ben Loyal Hotel.

Later, she became nanny to the Tongue minister’s family when he found a new calling at Kinghorn in Fife, and moved south with the Reverend Robin Gilmour to look after the daughter of the household.

She very much enjoyed her time in Fife but, when her mother then fell ill, and her two sisters, Martha and Marjory, were on war service, she returned once more to help out at home.

While working in Bettyhill Hotel she met ex-serviceman, Hughie (Brown) Mackay, and, after they married on 5th October 1951 in Bettyhill Church of Scotland, the young couple lived initially in Newlands with neither electricity nor piped water.

Their first child, Jenny, was born there in 1952 before they moved to the newly built Cruden Houses at Park Drive where, in 1956, their son, Cathel, was born.

By 1964 Hughie had finished building their own house, Tigh na Bhradan, overlooking Naver Bridge, and this became the family home though subject to constant improvement over the years.

Hughie had the use of two crofts in Bettyhill, one near the village at Achneiskich and the other adjacent to Tigh na Bhradan. This was crofting in the old style with sheep and cattle the order of the day, together with the cropping of tatties, turnips and oats – not to mention the weather dependent labour of the hay and the peats.

Netta threw herself in to this activity with all her usual enthusiasm, singling turnips, raking and coiling the hay, ‘storrowing’ the peats and keeping a practised eye on the sheep and cattle. She particularly enjoyed the lambing and, being a little person with very small hands, was well suited to what can be a delicate task.

Hughie passed away in 1991, which was a great blow, but she kept the croft, especially the sheep, going until well in to the new millennium, albeit with a modicum of help, before passing it on to her grand-daughter, Joanna.

Nor was crofting her only occupation. She also, at various times, worked in Bettyhill Hotel, looked after the old manse in Clachan when, long before it became the FBI, it was converted into flats, looked after Jim and Julian Mackenzie before they went to school (they knew her as ‘Teeta’), was a home help in Bettyhill and Borgie, and worked in Skelpick Lodge during the fishing and shooting season.

Latterly, Netta suffered from a variety of illnesses but through all those trials and tribulations, her loving, cheery nature prevailed.

No matter what happened, her interest and care for her family and friends remained unaltered and, whatever adversity faced her, she kept on smiling.

She was proud of the achievements of her grandchildren and, although she could not even speak by then, was able to indicate that she was pleased to see her first great grandchild, Isabella, in the days before she died.

She was, of course, my mother-in-law and you never knew when or where she might pop up.

In my first week teaching in Farr School, I happened to mention in the staff-room that Netta, together with the then Church of Scotland minister, the Reverend Robert Sloan, had turned up at our house in Gordon Terrace, for some unknown reason, at 11.30pm the preceding night.

The Reverend Sloane arrived in the staff room a few minutes later and came in for a bit of ribbing from the HT, Donald Macleod, for turning up at the newly-weds house in the middle of the night.

"I’ll have you know that Mr Johnston is very fond of his mother-in-law, whatever the time of night," declared the Reverend.

And that was certainly true, not just for me but for all who came to know Netta and who packed the church to support her family and pay their last respects on Saturday, 3rd November.

The funeral service was conducted by Superintendent Colin Mackay, Netta’s nephew by marriage, and pall bearers at Clachan Cemetery were: Cathel Mackay, son, Mrs Jenny Johnston and Mrs Joanna Mackenzie, daughter and grand-daughter, Lee Mackay, grandson, Mrs Lynda Mackay and Miss Ellie Mackay, daughter-in-law and grand-daughter, Scott Mackenzie, grandson by marriage, Donald MacNicol, nephew, Neil Reid, nephew, Tommy Mackay and Brian Mackay, nephews by marriage, Maurice Mackay, neighbour and Jim Mackenzie and Julian Mackenzie, whom she looked after as infants.

Jim A Johnston.

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