Thanks to the mega-hit Outlander, it’s impossible to wander through the Scottish Highlands without thinking of standing stones and portals to the past. But that’s not what I’m writing about today. Scientists have yet to find a pathway back in time. The past, however, occasionally travels forward in time to visit us. The first time I encountered this phenomenon I was a child, riding on a public bus in Buffalo, New York, with my Scottish grandmother. The bus pulled to a stop outside a florist’s shop. The front window featured a badly faded Easter display even though it was late August. And all the flowers were dead. “Why are the flowers black?” I asker her. “Ah, well,” she answered, “the day his wife died, poor man–years ago this was–he locked the doors and never stepped inside again. Everything is exactly as he left it that terrible day.”
I’m sure I inherited my affinity for the macabre from my grandmother. The fact that the flower shop was frozen in time fascinated me. Stepping inside, I thought, would be like time travel.
I had the same experience in Glasgow last week when my husband and I visited the National Trust for Scotland’s “Tenement House” at 145 Buccleuch Square in Glasgow’s city center. The two-room-and-a-kitchen flat on the second floor of a tenement block built in 1892 was lived in by Mrs. Toward, a widowed dressmaker, and her only daughter, Agnes, a typist. After Mrs. Toward’s death, Agnes continued to occupy the flat in genteel poverty until her own death in 1972–a total of 54 years. Here’s the amazing part: not only was Agnes a bit of a hoarder and a person who couldn’t see the wisdom in updating what was working perfectly well; she also spent the final 10 years of her life in the hospital, leaving the flat exactly as it was the day she left.
After her death when the rent ceased to be paid, the property manager decided to clear the place and modernize it for new tenants. But first an elderly man who’d helped Miss Toward in her later years showed up to claim six dining room chairs she’d left him in her will. With him was his niece, the actress Anna Davidson. This is how she described that day: “I felt like Pip in the film of Great Expectations when he stood at the door of Miss Havisham’s room. Under layers of dust Miss Toward’s flat was exactly as it had been ten years earlier when the door closed behind her for the last time. The box bed in the kitchen was covered with cobwebs, but the stone hot water bottle was still between the sheets. There was washing on the pulley suspended from the ceiling, coal in the wooden bunker, jars of jam in the cupboards, and unwashed iron pans on the cooking range….I knew I just had to save all this for posterity and I decided then and there to buy the flat–although I already had a place of my own (as told to Margaret Henderson, in the blog Scotiana: Everything Scottish, 2015).”
Anna lived in the flat for seven years, scrubbing, polishing, and restoring it to its original condition. In 1982 the National Trust for Scotland purchased the flat with the intention of opening it to the public. The only major change they made was to restore the gas lighting. They opened the doors in 1983. Last week my husband and I had the privilege of entering Miss Toward’s private world. Time travel.
If you could travel to any period and place in history, where would you go–and why? Would you right a wrong or just observe? And one more thing: I’ve never found anyone who remembers that florist’s shop in Buffalo, New York. If you live in that area and remember anything, please let me know!