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Elie & Earlsferry History Society

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Cumming the Grocer

Edited by Graham Johnston

This article is based upon conversations with Anne and Robin the grandchildren of the original Robert Cumming and their memories of the shop and their grandparents.

Cumming granpaRobin starts “I very well remember my grandfather’s shop in Earlsferry High Street – Robert Cumming the grocer was his shop. We came to stay the first fortnight in August every year from when I was born.  I don’t know when he first started the shop but he came from a long line of Elie Cummings who were into property of some sort although they may also have been farmers. [Indeed in the Parochial Register for the parish of 1861 there are two Cummings, Peter and Robert both described of “independent means” and from Mill Hill although I am not sure where that is now – Ed].

stiarhouse12In any event in addition to the shop on the seaward side of the road he also bought the small house on the other side of the road at the corner of Allan Place known as St Leonards Cottage which was rented out in the summer time but, as a keen gardener, he tended the garden at the back himself. He also owned the pink house or stair house next door – now famous as being the only house left with the stone stairs to the second floor – which he used it as a store room and dispensary of whisky. I recall finding whisky labels there in the 1950s with his name and address on it. We still have the measures and hygrometer he used at the time. Whisky was sold at that time by volume but also by alcohol content so each delivery had to be measured for its alcoholic content.

The main shop was also the post office as he was the subpostmaster and I still have a roll of the paper string that he used to make up parcels in his shop. The string reads “Robert Cumming Post Office and General Grocer Telephone Elie 1”

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Anne says “I remember the shop vividly. There were large metal bins behind the counter for rice, self-raising flour, sugar, lentils, tea etc. In fact Robin has done a sketch of the lay out as he remembers it…..

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…..as a very small girl if I misbehaved I was put into one of these bins. I am not sure if I suffered much in later life but it certainly brought me to my senses! The back shop had a trap-door to a basement storage area which my grandfather used to debone the ham/bacon before slicing it up in the shop in the traditional way. The layout was very much according to this sketch.

Robin continues “He also stocked pots and pans which he kept on the right hand side of the shop and there was a cupboard underneath which had socks. Chocolate was stored behind glass and I remember “Fry’s Five Boys Chocolate”, the only place I ever saw it. There were bottles of “ginger” with wired tops as you now see on bottles of Grolsch. The post office was a small part of the shop on the left hand side which he also used as an office. There was a big red post box outside the shop we used as a climbing frame.

Gran macMy grandmother, Margaret Aitken (whose family pet name was Tottie), insisted that that we went bathing in the sea despite the weather. She thought that we should go into the sea every day for the good of our health (not that we did so).

They had three children: the first, David was born with a twisted gut which was not discovered until he was 18 months old by which time it was too late to save him. The second was Bobbie, my father, who became a well-known GP, and Billy, who died on his first voyage as a seaman on HMS Ibis in the Mediterranean in 1941. My grandparents never really got over his death.

Tottie was an Aitken. Her father was a vet in Edinburgh and they used to come to Elie for holidays occasionally. When her father died, her mother decamped all the children – 14 in all – to Elie to live. One of her sisters, Molly, was employed as the telephonist in Earlsferry, working for my grandfather.

There were six boys in the Aitken family. Three of them were called-up during the war and as was the custom they were not in the same regiment. They did however by chance in France one time. Tragically within a fortnight of their meeting two of the brothers were killed and Uncle Jim lost an arm. He became quite famous in Elie because he was a member of the golf club and he played golf with one arm. He was a jovially character despite the one arm and very courageous golfer.

Bob Cumming sold the shop in the early sixties to a man named Smith who ran it for a short time with his wife. I recall something about he having been injured in an accident and he used the compensation to buy the shop. He did not last very long in the shop I don’t think before the Yacaminis from Largo took over. Papa retired when he was 88 and died in 1965, aged 92. He was very careful with his money and firstly bought up property in Elie but then sold out and went into equities because house prices did not increase in value in those days and equities did much better.

I have been told that initially the building on south side of the High Street was one storey and my grandfather added the two storey shop. [In fact there is reference to that in 1903 John Currie and Thomas Currie had a project in High Street Earlsferry for Cumming (s) and I think it must have been the shop. eferry_high_st_looking_westBut on the other hand this post card bears the date 1901 and it clearly shows the shop on the left hand side. I will need to do more research in relation to this because the tenement referred to as having been built by the Curries may well be elsewhere in the High Street. – Ed]

He also was responsible for building Fairways and Craignorth on Links Road. It may well have been the same builders and architects that did this development also. [I can confirm that it is highly likely that the Curries were involved in building these two semi-detached houses – they bear the distinctive bay windows so much favour by Thomas and John Currie even although the facing of the houses is not natural stone. – Ed]

It was not until my grandfather died that I found out a bit more about him, not least of which was that he was championship skater. He initially was born and brought up in The Steadings which is the detached house set back from the road on the left just as you turn into Wadeslea. His family, as I recall it, were land owners and did not have any trade [although if they lived in the Steadings it is reasonable to assume they had some sort of farming enterprise in the land behind the current Elie Surgery or thereabouts which would have been part of the Estate owned by the Anstruthers and Baird. – Ed]

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