Margaret was a spinster all her life. But that does not mean her life was empty. She had a large extended family who feature in her writings regularly.
She had been born in 1862 at Gartsherrie, near Coatbridge. Her father, James, the manager at the massive iron works there, and mother, also Margaret, had moved from Dalry in Ayrshire, where James had been employed in the iron works.
There were already three sons: Hugh aged eight, James aged six and William, two or three years old. Two years after Margaret was to come Helen and, then, finally, Robert. Helen had died in 1867 and Willie in 1869.
The Shanks family had then gone to Egremont, Cumbria, not long after the birth of Robert in 1870. There, father James was the manager of the surface mine and, in 1885, he also took up Woodend Farm, Egremont. This was for his health’s sake, it was said later. By this time, Hugh had emigrated to New Zealand and son James had gone to sea. The two remaining members of the family at home were Margaret and Robert.
Margaret was from the beginning, an earnest and serious lassie, keen on her lessons and quick to learn. As a result, her school teacher in Egremont encouraged her to go to Glasgow University. Women were not able to graduate from that university until 1895 but special arrangements had been made, offering teaching as near as possible to that given to the men in the Arts Faculty.
When she went to Glasgow in 1879 (aged about 17 and living in lodgings at Woodlands Road) she won the junior bursary the first year and the senior bursary the following year. It would appear, however, that she suffered a nervous breakdown at the close of this and was unable to fulfil her ambition to become a schoolteacher or similar position.
It was therefore back to Egremont in 1881 and what filled the years between then and 1893 there is no way of knowing. Suffice to say that in later years Margaret wrote of spending time with Ayrshire farming folk and also of visiting relatives farming in Essex. Her father took the farm of Woodend near Egremont in 1885, said to be for the sake of his health. It seems likely that Margaret also benefited from the farming exercise
Margaret Smith, mother, eldest daughter of a Kilmaurs farming family of five girls. had maintained over many years a regular and strong connection with farms and farming folks. Almost certainly young Margaret bought Scottish farming publications. Most likely she read the North British Agriculturist, published in Edinburgh, which celebrated its 50th birthday in 1893. That year saw the launch in Glasgow of The Scottish Farmer which was to be fiercely competitive with the NBA. Margaret appears to have been an inveterate reader.
Margaret Shanks saw The Scottish Farmer and noted that, it had a Household column, with separate writings on household matters, some of them by an author who signed her name ALOS. It did not, however, appear to have a regular woman writer. This was, in her opinion, a serious ommission and she wrote to the editor pointing it out. To read through, week by week, an up-to-date farming paper, one would think, she suggested, that the wives and daughters never did anything but cook and clean furniture.
She was to say at the time: “As a member of an old fashioned Scottish farming household I know the real facts of farm life: that the knowledge, and skill, and labour and brains of the women supply half, and often more than half, the driving force in the districts with which I am most familiar.”
She continued: “Accordingly, with some diffidence — for I was very much younger then than I am now, and conscious of not being at all an important member of the farming household — I asked the editor if he could grant space for an occasional article on farm life from the woman’s point of view. To my astonishment he promptly replied not merely that he would do so, but he thanked me!”
Margaret’s articles were at first rather tentative. They were written under the by-line, Gretchen, and dealt first with the farmer in abstract, then the farmer’s wife and his daughter. In fact, they drew a particular reply from ALOS who questioned in the paper’s correspondence columns whether the new writer was skilful enough to cope with the subject.
She asked: Did Gretchen really know farming and farmers? (It is suspected that ALOS was a formidable dairy farmer’s wife who had written regularly before-hand, had won a prize for an essay and, being skilled mechanically and otherwise in dairy farming, had written up dairy farming equipment).
This was to stir up in Margaret a strong sense of hurt, even polite anger. When she replied to the effect that she was well acquainted with the subject and that she had strong support in her household (probably from her mother) ALOS backed down and left the field open to Gretchen.
Meanwhile Gretchen was to lose her father, James, by sudden death that same year of 1893. James was the eldest son of William Shanks, a weaver in Paisley where he was also the church officer of the Paisley United Presbyterian Church. His father also had four other children — John, Helen, Andrew and Arthur. John and, in later years, Andrew, were to found the now internationally famous sanitary waste disposal Barrhead business of Shanks.
James, however, had previously gone to Dalry in Ayrshire to work at the iron ore mines. There, he met Margaret Smith, eldest daughter of farmer Hugh and Margaret, who had four other girls. He married Margaret and they had six of a family.
The articles written by Hugh’s grand-daughter, Margaret, continued week by week, often just recipes and household topics but gradually including matters of general interest — weather, harvest, farm servants, although never once mentioning anyone by name. Discretion appeared to be paramount in Margaret’s writing where she never betrayed a name or an address. Even, in later years, when writing of her brother Robert’s children — whom she obviously loved and greatly enjoyed — she used nick names.
Robert’s marriage in 1901 and the birth of his son Hugh that year followed by other offspring —- Margaret, John (b 1907), William, and Mary (b. 1914) also provided interesting material.
The family then moved down nearer the sea coast to a larger farm, Aigle Gill, where they stayed till 1914.
The war of 1914-18 also made special demands and Margaret rose to the occasion changing her by-line to Margaret as the Germanic Gretchen seemed unsuitable.
After the war, Robert moved down to Sussex and Margaret continued her writing about these parts, although nowhere indicating whether or not she moved to live there permanently or depended on holiday visits.
Margaret Shanks, had a mind of her own and had made many friends. One said of her that her staunch attitude towards correct procedure in business matters was often a trial to a few. But even these, she added, were, in the end, among those who could not but admire her sterling qualities. Many a time had she gone long distances to engage in public work, lectures, executive committees and the like, when obviously unfit.
And every week, for almost 30 years, she had been writing for The Scottish Farmer.
One writer commented after her death, “Under the somewhat cold exterior there was an extremely sympathetic nature, and gratitude for trifling personal attentions was one of her chief characteristics. It was in the hospital ward on visiting days that these friends were to be found, so many of them in fact that their visits were almost too much for the patient.”
A constant reader, among her possessions removed from the hospital after her death was the book, “My life for Labour,” by Robert Smillie.
She never hesitated to speak to people in her various travels about the countryside and she appears to have been welcome in all sorts of homes, not least the poor of the countryside. These were the days when all kinds of people came begging round the doors. While Margaret does not appear to have been unduly sympathetic she had interesting conversations, many of which were later reported