CCA Annex is an online project space for Essays, Films, Interviews, Performances, Publications and live events


21 June 2023

Artist Artist



2.1. Three Grandmothers Excerpt

Seán Elder

A woman is walking out from a small wooden boat towards the edges of a harbour’s banks with her husband atop her back. He is bigger than her, and heavy with thick clothing, moleskin trousers and a serge jacket that protects him at sea from wind and rain. She walks towards the vessel, a small nimble thing known as a Zulu that will take him and several others up to the far North and drops him off, dry, ready for days at sea.

Those days, he has endured them many times before, with a net heavy with silver fish as his reward, only to arrive back to the harbour of his home and have his wife carry him once again to dry land on her back. The harbour itself will in some decades be constructed, constricted by piers designed to avoid the worst of the severe gales that make their way across the firth, but for now it remains simply where the river meets the sea. It bloats and floods sometimes and other times its sediment underneath is revealed as it recedes with dry sunny days that are surprisingly abundant here. The beaches on either side of this estuary are used only for temporary docking, repairs and the like, and the western bank where water laps up against the dirt and paths of the fishing village is where most of the ships, the zulus, find themselves deposited.

To write about it (read: this, that, all of this) had begun as an exercise in conversing and helping to keep sane a grandmother, one of the three, on the other side of a mobile phone or computer screen. In her own home, alone, unsure of when the conditions that kept her as such might change. Repetition, routine, structure, some time in the morning during that hot summer that we all now tell each other in low voices that we miss, both for the hot days that extended towards nothing and for the lack of expectation. For the agreement that was made between all of us that all we had to do was nothing, as if surviving was nothing. As if surviving and nothing looked the same to everyone then.

It began in talking, looking for something to talk about, and landing on the family, tracing lines through mothers instead of fathers. A method and a politic easily mocked, subsumed into some relatable brand of feminism regurgitated in these late capitalist days. Women’s stories matter, says Reese Witherspoon, echoed infinitely in retweets and duets.

Another grandmother, her mother, a difficult and intelligent woman who was known to us into our adolescence before she disappeared once in mind and then again in body. We represented a relation that occupied what was for her, a small fraction of a long life, and what was for us, everything we had ever known. That is, until we had grown to know life without her. So odd to think of yourself as the signifier of the twilight of someone’s life. People made it to be Great-Grandparents, but almost never Great Great (Great, Great).

When we first became aware of ourselves, stretching our mouths to make sounds that eventually became sentences, or stretched our arms and legs that became walks and blows, and touches and hugs that allowed us to know these three grandmothers; The Spice Girls were dominating the charts; Tony Blair was Prime Minister and illegal wars were not even present in our mind; nearly two decades of Tory rule was leading to something else, something new, something better, we all thought; North Sea oil was being pulled up from the underwater ground without second thought; Charles was telling Camilla it would be his luck to be reincarnated as a tampon carried around inside of her; the oldest of the three grandmothers didn’t even have one walking stick, eventually she would have two, and with them she would hobble.

These images and things that now represent something quaint, the past, represented for our three grandmothers some kind of new world that would have been alien to their younger selves. Their lives represented a past that stretched back further than we could imagine. A memory of first understanding that if a film was old to a certain degree it was in black and white. The youngest of the three grandmothers watching Casablanca and Roman Holiday with you on her knees, in front of a television with a tiny screen, when images on screens were not yet fluid and the illusion of their perfection was still broken by lines and squares. And you, asking the eldest grandmother if she remembered the black and white days. She answered yes, thinking you meant that she remembered the days when film and television existed only in black and white. But you heard her answer, aye, and thought that she lived through some kind of great transition of life and the world into colour, that she suddenly found herself not in Kansas any more.

It began in talking about her and her, the maternal side of a family which began in images of two distinct strands, that as in any remote, rural community on the edges of the conception of a nation, eventually spill over and bleed into one another if we were willing look hard enough (we weren’t). The horrifying realisation that every strand up in this part of the world found itself entangled with another somewhere along the line.

Two sides of the family, fishing stock, we were told, we were christened. Our lives innately bound to an industry that barely existed any more, that our only connection to was glances across the harbour, with memories communicated to you of the days when it was still used for work. Of where your grandfather used to come in, when finding space in the harbour for one more boat amongst many others felt impossible, when fish spilled from every net carried ashore and it was their silver you saw reflecting in the sun, not the silver of tourists’ cars and vans. It existed maybe still, somewhere, but not in the form that was elicited in these namings, in these utterances and rememberings of the generations that came before us.

We learned names of relatives we didn’t know existed, who had died many years before, which seemed at once to expand the very world that this family had occupied and made for itself, as well as making evident the smallness of the extent of all of this. A family bigger and more implicated, your grandmother struggling to remember the full names and birthplaces. An uncle and branch of the family from East Sutherland, and an aunt, another branch, extended just past the Moray border. Lines and arrows joining together names and ideas of faces and persons across notepads and books that were eventually discarded in a naïve hope that poetry might instead prevail as a form with which to engage with these histories.

Her hair is tied up in a patterned cloth and despite it being midsummer she is wearing layers needed to keep her warm in this far north. Her legs are in the water of the harbour, nearly up to her knees, and she trudges forward the couple of metres that separates her husband’s boat from the old road they call the magadh. 

The hope is that keeping his feet from getting wet will prevent him suffering any illness, which will in turn prevent his family from falling into poverty. When her back is not carrying the weight of her husband to keep his feet dry, it is carrying wicker crates of fish, either before or after smoking. The fish he catches are carried by her through the village that is surrounded by sea on several sides, an outcrop of a market town further up the brae, separated from it by wide and better-built roads that draw lines not only between wealth and poverty but also between what the past looked like and what the future might come to resemble.

The act of preserving these narratives, small and from an inconsequential family, from an inconsequential part of the world which was much more easily thought of as an image, as an ideal, as mountains and sea and glens, but not poverty or addiction or even simply the people that lived there, seemed futile. Much easier to give into the intoxicating ease of such images and allow ourselves to become highlanders, teuchters, sheep-shaggers, And despite the futility of the exercise there did exist a wakening relation, moments shared; waking; morning coffee; familiar sounds of technology bringing to my home my grandmother’s face and bringing to her home my own; stories that became exchanged and misheard, misunderstood, badly translated, assumed to signify something more than was intended. The stories themselves and the exchanging of them became something different than routes being traced or an understanding of where ‘we’ or indeed, any of us, ‘came from.’

I grew up with many mothers – a mother, two grandmothers, a great-grandmother. Grandfathers were absent both in life and death from a very early age. And lucky for it too because what grandfather ever raised a proud fag.

The histories of the women of my family is not a singular one, but the specificity of the violence which traversed their lives links them together, not only one to another, one side of my family to another, but also ties them intimately towards every woman that shared their era’s hardships, the deficiencies brought to their lives by their class, social standing, and poverty. To read, to write, to imagine these stories inspires a feeling of familiarity, a closeness with two of these women that is not only impossible to me now, with their deaths years gone by, but also was impossible in life, as the ways in which conversation passes through generations is restricted by social cue, sensibilities, and ideas of what is appropriate.

I grew up knowing these three women without men. They were romantically singular entities, no longer wives, but still connected, still mothers. Because of course let’s not let a woman be defined by herself but instead by her relations to others, by those that she brought into the world and for whom she still cares for, still attends to, still occupies herself with.

One of their children will laugh on hearing a sibling tell one grandmother that it is now her turn to become the matriarch of the family, now that their mother is dead. Despite the laughter, despite the ease with which a comment like that can be called ridiculous or stupid or old-fashioned, it did point to an embeddedness with a family within which men were markedly absent, and within which I grew up and learned from.

Three grandmothers, one of whom will see a life she once felt escaping from her, lay itself out before her in a moment where divorce finally separates from a man who took her 16,000 kilometres away.

Another, whose husband, having promised her that spending the entirety of their meagre savings on a boat was no folly, once assured her that he would have her farting through silk someday, will be known her longevity and her independence. Her mind and her thinking, eventually breaking down quicker than her body. The boat, however, will break down in the first few days of its use and they will begin the process once again. Saving, spending, existing on a precipice of the void. And she will at least have faith in her husband and the second boat because hope was all they had left to spare.

Her daughter will one day spit fire at a husband who took her across the sea to live on an island that is experiencing troubles that in other contexts might just be called civil war. She will scream and shout and he will respond with calm and that will result in only more screaming and shouting, words that sacrifice coherence and structure for emotion and exasperation. Her, shouting across to him, not caring whether her children can hear her or not, SHOVE YOUR CATHOLIC CHURCH. UP. YER. 


But she did have to admit that the holidays across the border into the North were very cheap back then. They always got away to the north coast for their holidays, even if the constant worry of car bombs was lingering somewhere. You can’t complain too much with such reasonable prices.

Another, dedicated to a husband who was to die years before her, eventually brought to reveal her secrets to children who could understand little of what she went through in body and in mind when, as a scared and confused teenager, something began growing inside her. She saw it as past sins catching up with her, whilst those around her tried to convince her that from hardship and difficulty there was a new thing born, a new relationship formed late in her life. Beauty. If you allowed it to be.

These three grandmothers, uncoupled for my entire understandings of them, both single and inherently entwined within the families and friends that surrounded them, an attempt to envelope in life and love.

Between them, what was witnessed was the end of an industry to which their fathers, mothers, husbands and siblings belonged. The last of the small, nimble boats traded in favour of larger and more fearsome beasts.

She will walk through the village with a basket of silver fish, silver darlings, to the sheds and smokehouses where she and other wives, mothers, daughters and sisters will cut and prepare thousands of these herring. They will keep some for themselves, smoked or salted, speldings, they called them up there. The majority, once prepared, will be piled back into the basket and carried by her from the village to the market, then on to the next one and the next one, covering dozens of miles in a day, with the basket being slowly emptied as she makes her way along the old routes that traverse the firth and the hills of this part of the North East. 

When gutting, her hands and arms move quickly. They are deft and adept at holding a knife and emptying a fish of its guts in one fell swoop. She has been doing it for several years now and can gut sixty in a minute now, one fish per second, sliced open and tossed aside for the next stage of its preparation. The methods by which her hands work, the seasons across which this industry extends itself, the language which she has in common with the other fishwives with whom she works, all these things make for a sense of intense locality and intimacy within this way of living – and yet it is this industry that connects this small village to an entire world, with salted herring in the summer, and haddock the rest of the year destined for crossings across the North Sea to countries now called Germany, Lithuania, Poland and Russia. Sales here happened either by foot and hand or by boats that turned something local and modest into an exchange of daunting proportions. 

Generations before had seen a clearing from crofts, people scattered across coastal towns like the one where they all lived, or towards North America, Australia, New Zealand. They heard about the scattering and wondered if they would still be looking to the sea with such fear if it hadn’t happened. If they would have become accustomed to the water and everything that was in it if their forebears hadn’t had to. That previous generations feared the sea so much, that it was alien to them, felt like a bizarre thing to come to learn. Even if your grandmother would tell you often about the family who walked out to the old bar, a spit of sand on which gorse and some trees grew, only to find themselves trapped by the tides on the return route. They would be dead by the morning. She also told you that there was a sea that touched both Europe and Africa where the tide did not exist, its ends and limits only changing in the most miniscule of laps.

Then, the first Labour Prime Minister, from the town in which she grew up, the betrayal of the left with the first taste of power, or perhaps simply the first taste of failure. Him, an illegitimate child, something common in that part of the North East. A fallen saviour of (some of) the working classes who once said that no one would ever dream of saying that all races are equal.

Her father, learning to read, thanks to her mother. Him telling his daughter, making her promise, that she would learn to read and write and learn.

Brothers, cousins, fathers dead in the war to end all wars and then again in another war ended with weapons none of them quite understood. All that was to be understood was that they had won, and the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had perished, had hands and skin burnt onto bicycles, had witnessed a new type of horror. Your great grandmother, by that point a young woman, had heard about it on the radio, through conversation, in coming months in newspapers, and even hearing about it only in sound and images that were distant from one another, trying to piece together the gaps between the two, she found herself for the gaps that remained in her understandings. Ignorance, a thing she had set against in herself for her whole life became a brief moment of refuge from comprehension of the scale of terror.


The loss of a language that went hand-in-hand with the loss of an industry and a community. They used to speak a different language to those who lived at the other end of the high street, but now they all spoke one. There were a few families where the old tongue remained. They called themselves poets and writers while their hands did the same manual work as us.

The signing of the Good Friday Agreement, brought together by a man she didn’t trust, blue labour red tory whatever way you swing it, and a woman who she felt she could, bringing some kind of peace to the island on which three of her granddaughters were growing from children into young women.

The transition from a one roomed-shed, where she took home her first daughter, to a small bungalow, seeing surroundings of poverty followed eventually by some relative working-class success, brought on by the discovery of something black that lay deep in the North Sea, which was really only a stone’s throw away. They were, after all, a country of engineers her husband would tell her, as her son would repeat to her grandsons.

The inescapable pathway that led to physical labour, despite the grades achieved, the languages learned and spoken, the potential for academic success. The necessity for a family to have an extra income as soon as the child was of age to provide it.

The first encounters with a telephone, a neighbour, the only person on the street who had one, calling her over telling her someone needed to speak to her, and then hearing through its unfamiliar crackling tone in a flat voice that her mother had died.

An abandonment of religion, on seeing a minister refuse to let a homeless man in the town sleep under the shelter of the Kirk’s hall.

An attachment to religion, that was always there, but strengthened with the conviction that maybe one of her sins was forgivable if she held on tightly enough to her faith and to God.

A left breast, exchanged for better health, a cancer cut away from her successfully while every nurse, doctor, porter, cleaner and staff member wears a mask through which she cannot see.

And still, life – well now I feel a right tit.


When the oldest of three grandmothers is born it is only ten years since the death of Queen Victoria. It is three years before the Great War will begin. The industries and ways of living that felt only just situated, only recently stabilising themselves, will soon be emptied, gutted, with the land upon which they take place being left scarred and empty.

Children running barefoot after a motorcar, along dirt roads, seeing one and hearing it roar for the first time.

Oats, water and salt stretched out every morning to feed nine hungry mouths.

The seventh of seven children brought into a house where a small attic became yet another makeshift bedroom.

The first glimpse of a plane flying in a sky that in a few decades would be replete with them, training in a base on the edge of this very village to drop bombs on civilians, only a few dozen miles from a three-hundred-year-old fort, built originally with the intention of fending off future Jacobite rebellions that would never come to pass. It now made for the best dolphin watching site in the area. You went more for the dolphins than for the men dressed in red coats or in traditional highland dress who tried to teach you the history of the place.

Hers was a childhood spent during cycles of history that promised improvements in each turn, and every time revealing repeatedly that the worst damage was always endured by the poor, the working classes, families like her own.

Her father, not knowing how to write or read, encouraged all his children in their schooling, as much as was possible for poor men of that time. She was bright and excelled in school. She consumed books, taught herself French far beyond the necessary levels imposed by the teacher in the school who taught it. Leather belts rarely met with her hands, studious as she was. But not never, because as we would all grow to experience in her later years, she had a mouth on her.

She returns home with an empty bucket, waiting for children to have returned from nearby woods with pine cones that make the best fuel for smoking. The labour of every day folds and curdles into that of the next. Hands smelling of fish, smoke, wood, and earth eventually are washed in the small outhouse shared with the other cottages in the village and turn to the task of feeding hungry mouths. 

With her hands, rough and sore; children are reared and sometimes skelped; tired friends consoled, encouraged, handled intimately; nets are mended and lines baited; husbands are pushed off and told, no, sometimes successfully and sometimes not; animals are plucked, skinned, prepared; blows are interrupted.

This work was not what was done by families like hers a few generations previously, and in a few generations again it will disappear again. It is a fleeting moment in history which became a necessity following displacement and poverty, a small success in a few generations both preceded and followed by its absence. The industry will falter in the Great War where men die for a country they are told is good and honourable, only a couple of hundred families continuing to do work like this along the coast, and then it will be nearly disappeared by the Second World War, when great and terrifying machines entered the sea in its wake.

The route out from cycles of poverty in that day was education. It maybe still would be if it wasn’t both so ubiquitous and so inaccessible. With encouragement from teachers and positive enforcements communicated to her parents it seemed at some point that there might be a route to teaching for her. There was no question then of whether one should seek to exit the class of their birth – it was a necessity for survival in an era where around her, both in her family and in the village community that extended beyond, children died and parents rushed to replace them and the lost labour they represented. Around seventy miles south-east of her home there was the University. At the time of her birth it is already nearly five-hundred years old, already ancient. It is the assumed route for any young person born in the entirety of the North and North East, anyone capable and intelligent, and with a possibility for exiting the life they are born into.

For only brief moments in her long life, there opens up the possibility that she might study there. She might become a teacher of English, or French, or of general teaching, and that the time she has spent putting the words and thoughts of others deep into herself in reading and study, might lead her to a life that is more livable.

When she is fifteen years old and the 1920s are roaring for some, the need for her family to earn more, not in an attempt to pull themselves from poverty, but instead to simply, survive, results in her mother telling her that she must leave school and find a job.

When, decades later her own daughter asks her how this felt, she tells her that it wasn’t about feelings, it was about necessity. She will tell her daughter, who will then decades later repeat these words to me – what else could I do? Generations of trauma, poverty, and displacement will do that to a community. It will imbue it with a sense of routine, of duty, that circulates and settles deep in the hearts of those within it.


It is more difficult to get a sense of who another of the three grandmothers was in her youth. She had been an old woman all my life, she had been ill all my life. Every story recounted by her was one that would be recycled throughout our lives. The roster of stories were things she relied on to maintain an image of herself that remained firmly within that which we already imagined of her. They were domestic, light entertainment, the difficulties and challenges of bringing up a family in some sort of poverty present but never centered enough to depress the listeners.

Eventually her hands forget the rhythms of the work, and it is easier for her to speak in a tongue different to the one that proliferated in the smokehouses and sheds of the fishing village, the idea of her carrying a man across water to keep feet dry becomes absurd, and the women and the industry find themselves further and further from one another, until there only remains one operating port, somewhere far away from them on the very edge of the long coast they occupy at its elbow. Her children, grandchildren, maybe great-grandchildren will move to a small council estate built after the war that the locals call Shanghai. This place has a tendency, as with the zulu boats, to name things in a way that might formally connect them to somewhere far from them, an oddity in the assumed parochial remoteness of the place.

By the time the youngest of three grandmothers is a teenager she has both seen and heard how it is that generations of men died, industries died or transformed, and there remained only the moniker of ‘fisher families’ to tie them to a livelihood that at different points felt so abundant, or so precarious. 

the shed in which she lived as a newly-wed, kept warm by a stove with a small hob above it, on which she cooked

a bath full of fish, thrashing and still living, poached from the nearby river by her sons, waiting to be sold to local hotels for cheaper than those of the fishmonger

a few weeks spent living in Aberdeen, then, a big city to her, the roar of trams that rattled down a granite mile, and tenement flats four-stories high, where she lived whilst working at the post office, the first experience of a music hall, of noise,

and then occasionally, or just once,

news of a brother’s death in the English Channel reaching home by letter,

She would tell you about her brothers’ deaths with a smile. Not a smile at the death-thing but a smile directed towards the brother-thing. The memory of them. The reality of them. Something. A memory of a postcard he sent her from Ireland, telling her that it was a beautiful country and when the war was over he would take her there across the sea.

And despite the smile it would crack the quietness of the time and space you were used to not so much enjoying as enduring, not so much sharing as waiting patiently to depart from. Watching the old clock in her house, your phone with no reception in her cramped bungalow, silent to the outside world. Her smile did little to distract you from what was an obvious and still-present sadness. Their lives were with her temporarily, in her childhood, but their deaths were stuck with her, around her, for the rest of her forever.

So sometimes there would be leaks, things briefly or momentarily unveiled in her delivery or in her parlance, you’d get a sense of the young girl that was sent away from her parents through an act of love that instead brought her much harm, as well as, an entire life. A funny thing, to be sent away as a child for love.

These grandmothers become each other, become themselves, become images. They are one and another. Their stories are singularly theirs, and at once, everyone else who was like them, who lived like them, who experienced what they did. Hunger, poverty and roads dissolving into u-turning pathways perpetually returning you to the life you felt was not yours to live are not necessarily particular and specific experiences.

That small cold bodies crammed into a room, brothers and sisters holding each other close trying to keep the cold out from the uninsulated attic in which they sleep, is not special.

That someone would see men of two generations die in the name of two wars, once in her youth and another as she became what we might call here, a woman. First her father’s and then her brothers’.

That violence could be inflicted on a body just as the land where she grew up was used to train the same men in combat, in killing, in defense. Defense they called it when they erected the first walls of a fort following the last war fought on the island, with hundreds of dead men whose dead language lay dying and still lies dying. Defense they called it when they built training centres for men to fly over lands over five-thousand miles away and bomb homes and schools and weddings,

that a town could know what was growing inside her and why it was growing inside her. They told themselves how it had happened, had decided that it was a fault of hers as all of these things were back then, now, always,

none of this was unique.

For every knowing nod, a concerned and understanding hand on shoulder, there was another story like this.

    This website collects data via Google Analytics. Click here to opt out.