Wartime life at Kemnay House, part 2

In the second part of this post, I wanted to remember a hugely important member of the family - Nanny. Her commitment, love and hard work would have made an invaluable contribution to life here during the War years. Although not a blood relative, she devoted her adulthood to caring for the Burnetts of Kemnay. She is remembered fondly by all, as my mother Letitia (the 10th of Kemnay) recalls with great warmth:


Ethel Burrows, known to the family as Nanny, joined Muriel Burnett, my grandmother, in India in the early 1920s to look after you mother Susan, born in 1922 in Calcutta, and Jean, born in 1924. Nanny came from the small village of Enmore in Somerset and was known by Muriel’s family, the Andersons who lived at nearby Smokham. She returned briefly to Enmore with the family in 1928 before moving permanently to Kemnay when Arthur Burnett inherited the house and estate. Nanny is pictured in my mother Susan’s history of her family, “Without Fanfare” walking up the Beech Avenue holding hands with Jean and Susan.

She was diminutive in stature, barely 4ft 11in tall, but what she lacked in hight she made up for in personality. An exceedingly talented lady who mastered the arts of embroidery, sewing, cooking and gardening and was without doubt one of the most important members of the household at Kemnay. When Susan and Jean grew up and joined the Wrens during the Second World War, Nanny became Muriel's companion and remained so until Muriel’s death in 1963. During the war she would have turned her hand to whatever was needed and I can imagine the family and visitors tucking into her exceedingly good omelettes, fresh vegetables from the garden and a wonderful Victoria Sponge for pudding. Unlike many in cities, food rationing was less onerous for those living on farms and in rural locations. Meat may have been in short supply, but eggs were plentiful and two cows supplied milk and cream for butter. When I came to Kemnay from South Africa in 1964, Nanny was still making butter from the Home Farm cows and using the buttermilk to make the most delicious scones. She taught me to cook and to this day I use her scone recipe and make her omelettes.

After the war and my grandfathers death in 1947 my grandmother and Nanny were left on their own in Kemnay House which they gradually found difficult to manage. Nanny and Muriel moved to the Home Farm House in 1955 leaving Kemnay House empty. They must have felt the emptiness of the big house after the active wartime life when Kemnay House offered hospitality and respite to Czechoslovakian and Polish Airman. Two of these airman became friends of the family and I particularly remember Joseph Heubler, a Battle of Britain pilot, as he continued to visit Kemnay in the 1960s and 70s. Joseph was a teacher by profession and when he returned to Czechoslovakia after the war he was imprisoned by the authorities for being a western sympathiser as were several airman seconded to the RAF during the war. He spent four years in prison and told me that he kept his sanity by conducting an imaginary orchestra playing Beethoven’s ninth symphony.

Two years before Nanny and Muriel moved to the Home Farm, my mother, Caroline my sister aged three and me aged six and a half spent six months at Kemnay. We sailed from South Africa on the Durban Castle of the Castle Liners and arrived in Southampton in August 1953, then traveled by train up to Aberdeen we were met by Nanny and my grandmother. We all squashed into my grandmother’s Morris Minor. I’m not sure how we managed to fit in with our luggage but I remember it being fun and the beginning of a great adventure. My 7th Birthday at Kemnay was one I’ll always remember because it was a child’s delight; cakes of all sorts baked by Nanny and my mother. Even the sandwiches made from pink and blue bread sit firmly in my memory. This wonderful feast was enjoyed by my class of fellow pupils at Kemnay Primary School where I attended for the six months. These months included Christmas and this memory brings Nanny’s inventiveness to the fore. Most of the presents were hand made; dolls and pretty dresses sewn and evocative pink spotted ribbon tied cellophane bags full of toffee and peppermint ice. This was shear magic remembered by both Nanny and me when we met again in 1964.

Here is a photograph of Nanny with Susan and Jean, on the avenue leading to Kemnay House (late 1920s/early 30s).

Nanny enjoying the view at Margate, South Africa, in the 1950s.

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Kemnay House,

Kemnay, Aberdeenshire,

Ab51 5LH