(1889-1987) - A Portobello life
The oldest of Portobello's three remarkable Torrance
sisters, Mona spent her teenage years at Mount Lodge, her early marriage at
Hamilton Terrace and the largest part of her very long life at her house in
Durham Road, Portobello. She died
visiting her daughter’s family in
drawn largely from notes by her niece
Mona was born just before Christmas 1889. She was the first child of Willie and Christina Torrance. Mona always declared that she was born prematurely during a thunderstorm on the 22nd of December. In January she was christened Christina Mary Cusiter Torrance. Her chosen name Mona came from a popular song of the time: "Mona, my dear one". She was never to use her real name.
Mona’s parents Willie Torrance and Tina Cusiter had
married in the spring before her birth. Willie,
christened William Baillie Torrance, had been born in Corstorphine in 1860, the
youngest child of Henry Torrance, a ploughman, and his wife Jane Baillie. His
family moved around
Willie became a grocers’ boy in Croft Street
Dalkeith, where Tina Cusiter was living at the gasworks with her brother
George, sisters Macgregor and Margaret, and widowed mother. Willie was
apprenticed early to the grain trade and at that time met Dick White, a fellow
apprentice who came from Markinch in
Tina’s clan were all technologists, involved in gas
and water supply, electricity, shale oil and coke production. This was the
Young family into which her Orkney-born father had married. George Firth Cusiter had been the
schoolmaster at the Buccleuch Schools in Croft Street Dalkeith. He had given up
his job, and joined his wife’s father and brothers in their gas and oil work;
but he died before they did at an early age.
The widowed Mrs Cusiter and her family had now moved to Bonnyrigg, next
door to old Mrs Young (neé Christian Clapperton). Tina and her younger sisters looked set to
follow their father’s original teaching vocation, while Tina’s older brother
George went off to
William Torrance was working as a commercial
traveller when he married Tina Cusiter at her mother’s villa Gracemount in
Bonnyrigg. Riding about the Lothians
with his pony and trap in the 1880s he met some odd characters in the locality.
One was called Spring-heeled Jack and would loup out at you from the hedgerow
as you trotted round a bend. Was it in
his wedding year that Willie attended the Paris Exhibition with his friend Dick
White? Whether they went to
Willie and Tina were renting the romantic
novelist Annie S. Swan's house in Gorebridge at the time when Mona was
born. Annie S. Swan’s parents lived at
nearby Mountskip, and she may have known Christina from earlier days: they had
both travelled in to
Annie S Swan in later years
After a while, Willie Torrance became part-owner of Catcune Mill. Grandma Cusiter had an investment in it. Much of his trading was done at the Leith Corn Exchange, where someone pointed him out with the remark: 'You don't want to pay any attention to what he says. That's leein' Wullie.' He was a gambler in the widest sense of the word. In spite of his faults or maybe because of them, Willie did well, with a bit of help from his wife's relations. Catcune Mill was highly efficient because of its state-of-the-art gas engine, probably installed on the advice of Tina’s uncle, Willie Young.
Mona takes pride of place in the Young clan outside uncle Willie Young’s house: Priorsford, Peebles.
What a sweet child Mona was, looking out of sepia photographs, her little face with its distinctive rosebud mouth above above the neck frill of her beautifully smocked dress. One imagines the pretty pink cheeks which lasted a life time. The hair is chopped, attractively to our modern eye, in short curls. The nose shows no sign as yet of its aquiline maturity. Her mother, Tina, a strikingly elegant woman, apparently suffered from poor health, but even when she was supposed to be ill, she looked good in photographs. She was a competent needlewoman and made a lot of her daughters' clothes.
Mona was a tomboy as a child, afraid of nothing. When they moved to Catcune, at Fushiebridge, where her father managed the grain mill, she was out and in the house and the barns all the time, playing with the farm boys. She was the only one of the three sisters never to be afraid of mice. In the farmyard she was probably a leader and very likely wilful, or so her character in later years would suggest. She had a very strong personality.
She went first to school at Borthwick. Her name is on the roll there for several consecutive years, along with Jessie Young, slightly younger, probably a niece of Tina’s who lived with the Torrances at the time.
In family legend, Willie is supposed to have laid out the golf course at Fushiebridge, and Mona (or Jessie) appears in the opening photographs.
When she was old enough, Mona travelled by train
from Fushiebridge to
Often Mona would go with her mother in the governess
cart to Bonnyrigg, where her maternal grandmother Mrs Cusiter and
greatgrandmother Mrs Young lived side by side in Maryfield. It was not very far from Fushiebridge to
Bonnyrigg by the little country roads.
Grandmother and greatgrandmother on the
Mona with her parents Tina and Willie Torrance, Greatgrandma Young and Grannie Cusiter
Mary Cusiter and Christina Young, the maternal grand and great grandmothers, lived next door to each other in Maryfield, Bonnyrigg. Old John Young had bought the houses side by side, probably new-built, around 1880. The one, Ellen Villa, was for himself and his wife in retirement and the semi-detached Gracemount was for his widowed daughter. Mona would run from one house to the other: and from one garden -scrambling over the wall- to the next. Great-Grandma had a maid called Rachel. One story went, 'Go with Rachel, dear, and she'll give you a pear.' Another, 'What naughty girl has been taking pears from my garden?' Probably they are both true. When Mona was at Great-Grandma's house she once said, 'This is a weariness house, this.'
Daisy Linn, the daughter of the Linn family was a contemporary of Mona's. The Linns had some investment in Catcune Mill, of which Pa Torrance was manager. He must have been for some years dependant on their support as he was also of the Hamiltons, another fairly wealthy family. Later you will hear of Ernie Hamilton. Daisy Linn was the first person to tell Mona’s wee sister Norah the story of Cinderella. She was so delighted with the lovely story that she never forgot the occasion. One imagines that Norah was would be about three at the time. Eight years younger than Mona, she was born in 1897. Roma, youngest, of the three sisters, was born in 1901,
Norah at Priorsford with Greatgrandma Young (Christian Clapperton) around the turn of the century.
them they spanned the years from
Great-grandma Young died in 1902. In the spring of 1905 the Torrances moved
from Catcune to Portobello, where they rented the elegant Mount
Lodge and its couple of acres of ground at the top of
Mount Lodge: The approach from Windsor Place
On the day of the move, Mona, by her way of it, was
In Mona's day and even in the early years of her
younger sisters Norah and Roma at
Roma and Norah with Mama, Grannie Cusiter looks on.
Mona was never exactly academic, as her sisters were always at pains to point out. "But," said Norah, "she won prizes for her beautiful hand-writing and she was good at art and painted very prettily." Her picture of roses still survives. Probably Mona left school as soon as she was allowed, at fifteen or sixteen - to indulge in a round of social activities, roller skating, tennis, dancing, parties sprinkled with a few mandatory good works, church bazaars, fêtes and such like. She was conscious that she was her Mama's assistant and "kept her up to scratch." That is her story, which shows Mona as ever so capable and her poor Mama as a bit of an incompetent. It was not necessarily so.
San Toy –Daly’s Theatre
Mama and her two younger Cusiter sisters Geegie and Meg, were gifted in the way well brought up girls were expected to be in those days. They drew and painted and played the piano and sang. Meg had a pretty voice, Norah said, and her party piece was: "Oh Rhoda had a Pagoda, sold ice cream and lemon and soda" from the musical San Toy. As a young woman she was probably the most striking-looking of the three Cusiter sisters. She was of small stature, but with a neat and shapely figure as had all of them, but in contrast to the other two she had a very white skin and black thick wavy hair which she brushed vigorously with a hundred strokes a day. Her colouring probably came from her father. She had large dark brown eyes and it was suggested that it was her Orcadian inheritance -with its links to the Spanish Armada- that gave her the white skin and black hair. Of her sisters, Geegie was mousy and Tina dark brown. Nor was their hair very good. They both had to take pains with it and their complexions were not so pale.
Miss Margaret Cusiter: Auntie Meg
When Willie and Tina took their family from Catcune
Meg was a great walker. Every morning she went for a regular walk
before going to school. It was along the
Promenade then up by the Figgate Burn, then on into Fishwives Causeway and then
along Baileyfield to
Suffragette procession in
Both Meg and her older sister Geegie were
suffragettes. They followed in the
processions organised by the redoubtable Mrs. Grieve of Coillesdene House. They both smoked and behaved like Bernard
Shaw's New Women. They earned their
living all their lives and they had definite opinions. Their young nieces Norah and Roma thought very
highly of them. They boosted the little
girls' morale. Roma particularly drew
attention to that. The two aunts always
greeted them with compliments and admiration, when Norah and Roma ran down
Miss Macgregor Cusiter: Auntie Geegie
In 1905 Mount Lodge Portobello was about a hundred
years old, having been built by a predecessor of
Colonel Johnson, home from the East, in the style of an Indian bungalow. From
the very earliest days, the Torrances had a telephone. Mrs. Torrance was known in Portobello as
well-dressed and good-looking, especially when she went with her daughters to
Bertie Cavaye remembered seeing Mrs. Torrance and her daughters in their finery coming from church. Norah would describe her as a very pretty, elegant woman. One of her evening dresses had trails of green ivy down the creamy velvet. The one she wore to the opening of the King's Theatre in December 1906 -a gala performance of Cinderella- was of white satin with tiny little canaries sitting on the shoulders. Cecil Beaton later designed Leslie Caron almost exactly such a dress for the film Gigi. Was it at the opening party after the performance that one of the girls remembered an actress telling another who’d collapsed on a sofa “Pull yourself together, Diamond!” It certainly became a family saying. No, on second thoughts, that story comes from a much later encounter at Fairlie’s Ballroom on Leith Walk.
Leslie Caron in Gigi Kings Theatre opening in December 1906
Phyllis Dare (Cinderella) & Dan Rolyat (Baron Archibald) open the Kings Theatre in December 1906
In later years Mona tended to pooh-pooh her mother's
elegance. She told me in the sixties how she and Mama came down in a tram from
town to go straight to a bazaar in the
A rather untidy scrapbook -recipes, household hints and the like culled from newspapers- has come down from Mama. It gives off an aura of carelessness, not unfamiliar. Tina was neither as robust nor as self-reliant as her Cusiter sisters, perhaps because they were unmarried. They were suffragettes. She was not. They smoked. She did not. She seems a gentler character, obviously nothing like as strong in personality as her daughters, especially the unsquashable Mona.
Portobello pier in 1911. Mona was 21. The structure by Thomas Bouch was a good bit older
Norah had an image of her mother, which remained clear in her head always. " It was Spring-cleaning time and Mama, wearing a man's cap, was beating carpets on the line in the low garden to the west side of Mount Lodge." Surprisingly, Norah suggested her mother was a stickler for cleanliness. She insisted on clean combs and hairbrushes at the same time as clean hair and brought up her daughters to be at least clean if they couldn't all be beautiful. Norah said also that her mother was fanatical about the cleanliness of the W.C.
She had a pretty voice and her song was, 'What are the wild waves saying' based on Dickens’ Dombey and Son. A whole set of magazines with Dickens novels serialised lay in piles on top of a cupboard in the upstairs pantry. Norah would sit up there and read them. They must have dated from long ago. Maybe they came from Great-Grandma Young's house, Ellen Villa in Bonnyrigg, and Mama had read them too.
When visitors came to
As a child and later as a grown-up, Mona attended quite a few fancy dress parties or balls. These seem to have been very popular in Edwardian times. Dressed as a calendar, she won first or second prize at one of these. Later she went to another as a French doll. Short black cotton low-waisted dress with silver moons and stars on it and a huge round pink cotton-woolly wig, worn, of course, with black stockings and high heeled shoes. Mona said, "That wig suits our noses."
Talking of "our noses" is a reminder that Mona's way of looking at things was always subjective. "We would have done something else." or "That's not our style of behaviour." "We all have wee eyes and wee faces." "When you're tired, dear, your face shrinks to the size of a threepenny bit!" It was said that to avoid their having pug noses, as some acquaintance of hers did, Mama pulled and pinched all her daughters' noses.
In the style of an Indian bungalow - Garden front, Mount Lodge, Portobello
Mama’s sisters Geegie and Meg, living with Grandma
The drawing room windows and garden balcony, Mount Lodge
Mona was always bossy. Roma didn't seem to mind, but Norah always
resented it. Norah was clever. She was
exceptionally good at English and very well read. She read everything she could lay her hands
on, including the old Dickens magazines on the stove room cupboard. She wrote poetry and always had something in
the school magazine. She was good at
French and History and Geography, talented at art and a brilliant dancer and
gymnast. She was in all the school plays
and dancing exhibitions and in Patrick Geddes's Masques. But remained afraid of her elder sister's
disapproval to the end of her life. Pa
and Ma Torrance would go off "abroad to the
Mona, Norah, Grannie Cusiter and Roma with parents Willie and Christina Torrance celebrating their silver wedding on the steps of Mount Lodge, Portobello in April 1914. By mid-July Christina was dead.
In 1914 Tina developed a brain tumour. Roma recalled that 'She was supposed to be delicate, but she was always doing things. Even when she was dying, she was busy sewing away at summer dresses for Norah and me.' At the end of the school year in June Norah came home from school full of herself and all the prizes she had won, bounding into her mother's bedroom to tell her. "I'm too tired, dear, not now please. " Mama lay back on her pillows, while poor wee Norah fell back with all the stuffing knocked out of her.
When Christina Torrance lay dying, her sisters and Mona (by now twenty four) were in constant attendance. The night she died, Geegie crept through to the main bedroom, where Norah was sleeping. Norah remembered her saying, 'Willie, she's gone.' And then he cried.
It was a big funeral. After all William Torrance was comfortably
off. The full pomp of black horses and
By this time Mona was going out with Charlie
Gerrard. Their two mothers had been
friends. On Christina Torrance's death,
Ma Gerrard took over at
As soon as the funeral was past, Pa Torrance took
his three girls away for a holiday at Kinghorn in
Charlie Gerrard stayed in the same Kinghorn hotel as
Grandma Cusiter died the next year at
Conservatory below the drawing room balcony: Mount Lodge
It's not now clear exactly when Mona and Charlie got engaged, but, as for all her female relations, it was to be a long engagement. In the evenings, when Mona was going out to some party or dance, Roma would watch her getting dressed. "I always thought she looked lovely," Roma said. "You know she never had very nice hair, so she saved all her combings and stuffed them behind the pompadours fashionable at that time. Sometimes Charlie would slip a box of chocolates for her through the conservatory window. He knew she loved them. He used to call her Sweetie." The War was nearly over when they got married on March 12th 1918.
The Scotsman - Wednesday, 13th March 1918, page 10
GERRARD-TORRANCE.-At the Royal Hotel, Edinburgh on the 12th March, by the Rev. James Ray, St James', Portobello, Charles Reid Gerrard, Capt., Yeomanry , second son of James Gerrard, Esq.; Portobello, to Christina Mary Cusiter (Mona), eldest daugher of W. B Torrance, Esq., Mount Lodge, Portobello.
Nora and Roma standing, Mona seated, with her husband on the right
took no interest in her niece's wedding in 1918. Indeed she was rather upset by it, still
suffering the recent loss of her mother and two sisters. Mona arranged her own wedding, so she
said. Nor did Geegie take any
responsibility for Norah and Roma at the wedding, when as bridesmaids they
found themselves the focus of attention of a bunch of drunk young officers on
leave from the front. It was Ma Gerrard,
Charlie's indomitable mother, who swept them out of danger, from the Royal
Hotel down to the Waverley Station and away home to
As soon as the War was over, Geegie was given the
task of taking Norah and Roma to
Willie Torrance had always lived up to and later
beyond his income and gave his daughters everything they could desire. There
was even talk at one time of having them presented at court. A local lady of
standing offered to chaperon them. Roma always said, 'He was a really good
father to us.' In the grounds of
Both Norah and Roma were Sunday School teachers for a while, as Mona had been before them. Father paid the subscription for Norah to join the Theosophical Society and she was able to use their library. She was always interested in things philosophical and spiritual. She tried burning incense to evoke spirits in her room in the semi-basement, terrified herself and screamed, "They're coming out now!" and had Mona coming in to put a stop to it. Egyptology was a bit of a craze.
During the War Charlie Gerrard had been in
Mama had been a good cook, said Norah. After Mrs. Torrance's death, the cooking, now
under Mona's direction, deteriorated badly. There were maids, of course, but
they needed someone knowledgeable in charge.
Norah said the food remained pretty awful until she and a really
interested maid, Barbara, took over the running of the kitchen, when Mona got
married. Once installed in her own home,
Mona used to come round once a week from Hamilton Terrace to
Established as a comfortably off married lady, Mona, with Charlie of course, used to take her younger sisters away on holiday to exciting venues of the day like Peebles Hydro, Kyles of Bute Hydro, Dunblane Hydro and other such high spots where one could see and be seen. With their grand ballrooms and dance bands it was all razzle-dazzle and social whirl. Lots of opportunities for Norah and Roma to show themselves off! They were both good-looking girls and had a very indulgent father and they loved dancing. Papa kept them supplied with fashionable clothes. Once a year, in the spring, he ordered a bespoke suit or costume as they called it from Mr. Ferguson the Tailor in Easter Road. Probably Mr. Ferguson had earlier had a shop in Portobello High Street.
Mona did the organising and Roma was a bridesmaid when Norah married Bertie Cavaye in 1923. Norah believed, for it is written in her diaries, that Mona had a miscarriage some time when her daughter was a child. Mona sometimes mentioned in Norah's presence "my little son". Anyway, Mona didn't really like children and was relieved to have only one –a daughter, while Norah had first a daughter then two sons. These niece and nephews didn't much like Mona when they were younger. She was generous but had no idea of how to treat them and when she had them for the day "to relieve poor wee Norah," she always tried to force them to have a sleep. It was good of her though to sweep them up from their messy living room and carry them off for the day to her posh establishment. She didn't have too much of a problem with her niece, whom she could always hand over to her daughter for entertainment, but the two younger nephews were another story. They all came to appreciate Mona in later life.
Willie Torrance flanked by Roma and Mona. Norah sits with Mona's daughter and her own
Roma travelled about the town more than the other two. She was very much more of a modern young woman than her sisters, who always kept a trace of the pre-war sweet young thing about them. Roma went to McAdams, a secretarial college for a year or two and then applied for the Civil Service and got in. She had a career. She earned money. She bought an expensive freestanding gramophone from the music shop in the High Street. Roma learned to drive when Pa Torrance bought a motor-car. Newly-married Norah at Inchview Terrace didn't have Roma's spacious Mount Lodge base and efficient maid nor Roma's career nor was she anything like as well off as Mona. Roma might call in on the way home from the office (Register House) and there would be a smart new outfit to admire and very likely envy.
But in 1926 Roma fell in love with an overseas Scots
mining engineer, and went to
When the crunch came to Willie Torrance and the
grain trade with the depression of the late twenties, it was Roma who tried to
sort out the difficulties at the mill. She loved business and was well able to
drive her father around
Then Willie Torrance began to go senile. He was a disappointed man, who sat in his corner at Rosefield, smoking his pipe. He began behaving oddly and had to have someone with him all the time. Roma gave up her job to bear the burden of him day and night. She felt let down by her sisters, who seemed unwilling or unable to help, but her brothers-in-law gave a hand. Pa had to be played cards with every night. Bertie Cavaye used to come down once or twice a week and so did Charlie Gerrard, to enable Roma to have an evening out away from the strain. As Bertie always said, 'The Torrances can't stand strain.' Pa Torrance's last year was a succession of card games, cronies coming to the house and obligatory wee nips. Once, they said, he went out in the street in his pyjamas. He died in 1936 and his pocket watch was hanging on the end of his bed, waiting for his grandson Bill to inherit it. Mona always said Bill was very like her father.
Roma had given up more than five years of her life
to looking after Pa Torrance, but she was good at it and knew she was. "He was a damn good father to us,"
she said. After he died she married
David Scott Hay the youngest son of Baillie Hay, whom everyone in
Much as she loved her growing daughter, Mona was
unnecessarily domineering. Her husband
Charlie was a more sympathetic parent.
It was wisest to keep anything with which she might disagree away from
her ears. Mona and Charlie had a sort of soiree on Sunday evenings, to which
the young and amusing had come in the thirties and forties and the old and
accustomed continued to come until Charlie died in 1959. And in the forties once a year at Hogmanay
they'd had a festive do with dancing in the hall. If you met Mona by chance in town she would
always take you to lunch. Often she had
the intrepid Ernie Hamilton with her.
She liked a male escort, even if he was very small. Of course she made him wear his naval
uniform. He lived with them for a bit
after the war. She tried to be useful to
the family's younger generation, showing them where the "Ladies" was
Mona fancied herself as an organiser of
weddings. She had had quite a lot of
experience. First her own. She, not Aunt Geegie -who was apparently
devastated- had arranged everything.
Then Norah's, then Roma's. When
it came to her daughter's in 1946 she was really able to go to town. The War was over and money was no object, so
it was a very expensive dress for the bride, four bridesmaids and a flower
girl, (all done by a "Court Dressmaker") St Giles Cathedral - “not
just the Moray Aisle, dear, it wouldn't hold us all! - and the
Roma and David Hay
After Charlie's death in 1959, Mona's house on the
Everyone loved Mona in her ancient years. They would call, many of them after visiting Norah on a Sunday morning, and she'd give them foul sherry or warm gin with flat tonic out of dirty glasses and biscuits or nuts long past their sell- by dates, but they loved it and wouldn't have missed it for the world.
She was never known to offer tea or coffee or anything real by way of food, but there was often a fire and always a smiley face and a cheery welcome for one and all, maybe not for the little children, but we know how Mona felt about children. The "lounge" (Mona was the first to use that name for what would previously be the drawing room) would have been very expensively painted and decorated in 1930 when they moved in and it remained as it had always been until 1987, when Mona died; pale peachy wallpaper with a dangling fruit frieze, creamy gloss paintwork, mirror above the fireplace, long narrow velvet cushion on the floor in front, the huge tapestry on the opposite wall, Charlie's precious ivories on the corner shelves next to the glamorous film star portrait of their daughter and "Roses of Picardy" on the music stand at the piano. Have you ever heard that haunting song? It gives a real flavour of Mona's period.
Throughout her long life Mona enjoyed perfect
health. She walked about Portobello and
went up town on buses a lot, until she was past eighty. After that she stayed mostly at home. She would go down to her daughter at
Nottingham for a long stay at least once a year, always avoiding the worst of
the winter in
During her last year, she had become quite frail and small. It was then that she said she'd gone off fudge. Unlike her two sisters, she was always able to hear very well and she never seemed to wear glasses, but then she didn't read much, just the tabloids and Titbits, in earlier years. Her grandaughter said that in spite of Mona not being particularly educated, she was able to talk intelligently about any subject with anybody. On reflection that was true. How did she do it! Like the other two sisters she didn't like any upset or anything going wrong. We can understand the feeling. She liked everything to be just so. At Roma's wedding, when one of Roma's bridesmaids decided to wash her hair on the wedding morning, Mona went mad. On the eve of her daughter’s wedding, when Mona had got the downstairs bathroom all nice and lovely, she went berserk when the groom and his best man went and used it. Once she had got everything orderly and pretty she didn't want anyone messing it up. Although she did a bit of basic housework, she never seemed to do any cooking. She preferred, when possible to eat out and would take her visitors in the sixties to the Royal Hotel, Portobello for lunch.
Mona, the oldest, was the sister who survived the
longest. Perhaps when Mama Torrance was
dying, she'd asked Mona to look after her girls, for the other two were not yet
grown up. So it was, if you like, that
Mona went on living and saw to the younger ones as far as she was able. Once they had gone, she could relax and contemplate
dying herself. She lived eleven months
after Norah and Roma and died at her daughter’s house in
She was always generous, bearing flowers and gifts, always a delight as a visitor. Norah would say, "Give her sloppy food, dear. That's what she prefers." Her sisters Norah and Roma worked hard. Mona never appeared to. Why, though, did Mona -and Roma too- persist to the end in creating the image among their friends and relatives that it was Norah who was the scatter-brain, the butterfly mind? As her descendants know, Norah was the cleverest of the lot! They were great characters, all three.
Mona Torrance family tree
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