For a young woman who had never been out of Scotland, the cocktails, dancing and bright lights of London were dazzling. Add in an invitation to meet the Queen and it was understandable that, as Betty Lowe put it herself, she was in a “blissful daze” at the prospect.
She was more used to shifting barrowloads of farmyard manure and milking Friesians than drinking a White Lady and meeting the monarch. But, thanks to her dedication to duty, the Perthshire farmer’s daughter found herself one of four Scottish land girls requested to join an audience with the then Queen Elizabeth at the capital’s Goldsmiths’ Hall.
It was March 1940 and, amid great excitement, she had already been mobbed by reporters as they left Edinburgh by train and wined and dined by government officials in London. When Her Majesty arrived, resplendent in royal blue velvet, silver fox fur and diamonds, emotions got the better of the 21-year-old. “When she stood in the doorway while the orchestra played the National Anthem I felt like crying for some stupid reason, and I just felt that I would do anything for her.”
After tea with the Queen she recalled the momentous day in a letter to her mother, later included in her memoirs, Down On The Farm During World War II, which chronicled her life working the land in rural Angus and Perthshire.
Born and raised in the country – her father, horsebreeder William Wyllie owned Pittendynie Farm in Moneydie – she planned to go into farming but only after her original dream of being a vet had been vetoed by her father. However his sudden death in 1936 resulted in the farm being sold, thwarting her ambitions once more.
After leaving Seymour Lodge, a girls’ school in Dundee, she worked in the offices of Baxter Brothers jute mill in Dundee. Then, with war on the horizon, she volunteered for the Women’s Land Army, signing up in February 1939 so she could have a choice of services, rather than be conscripted.
She remained in office work until the end of August when she was called for duty on a farm at Dalcrue in Perthshire where they had a herd of 100 Friesians. Rising at 3.:30am, she was among a team of 10 who milked the cows twice a day.
The top-secret invitation to London came at the beginning of March the following year and was a thrilling adventure for a sheltered, country girl. On departure day she was up at 3:30am as usual, fed the cattle, cleaned the byre and even had time to milk two cows before setting off. Recalling being surrounded by crowds of reporters and photographers at Edinburgh, she wrote: “It was most exciting. We felt like film stars.”
That night the four Scots girls were entertained to cocktails, dinner and dancing before attending the event at Goldsmiths’ Hall where the nervous young Miss Wyllie, as she was then, was introduced to Her Majesty, who put her at her ease. That evening they were again escorted out on the town, enjoying a trip to the Hippodrome where, from the Royal box, they saw the revue Black Velvet before being whisked to the Cafe de Paris nightclub.
Back home her trip made newspaper coverage but it was back to daily work on the farm for her. From Dalcrue she was transferred to a dairy farm in Auchrannie, Perthshire, equipped with a milking machine, affording the luxury of a 5:30am start. There her duties included delivering milk by van – and occasionally digging herself out of snow – and farm rations were occasionally supplemented by poaching salmon from the river that ran through the property.
In 1942 she was transferred again, this time to a much larger farming enterprise at Craigeassie in Angus, six miles from Forfar, where she and three other land girls shared a cottage. Here she worked with Clydesdale horses and did general farm work. Occasionally the workforce was augmented by German and Italian prisoners of war with whom she got on well enough.
“There was no ill feeling, for we knew that they had been fighting for their countries just as our lads were doing for Britain.”
For her part, the young land girl proved that she could do the job just as well as any man, especially when it came to ploughing. Tutored by the foreman, she was encouraged to enter the Tannadice and Oathlaw ploughing match and, as the only woman in a field of 12, she triumphed, taking two first prizes and a second place. A few weeks later she was named runner-up for the best all-round performance in a ploughing contest of 43 tractors.
During her six years in the Land Army she had also been an assistant midwife helping to deliver calves and lambs. The experiences were an “unforgettable” part of her life and in 1946 she was honoured with the British Empire Medal for her work with the Army.
After demob she studied agriculture at Aberdeen University for a year before working as a farm secretary in Shropshire where she met her husband Major, a farmer. They worked on various farms in Shropshire, Staffordshire and Hertfordshire before taking on the tenancy of Strathgade dairy farm near Hemel Hempstead where, in the 1960s, they opened a very successful farm shop.
Despite the busy farm life she also taught Scottish country dancing. Then in 1977 they gave up farming and moved to Carnoustie but she was suddenly widowed the following year. A resourceful and sociable woman, she continued to lead a full life, volunteering with the National Trust, the Red Cross and teaching adult literacy. She was also a longstanding member of her local Panbride Church.
But her Land Army work remained a key part of her life and a few years ago she shared her experiences with a local primary school. In 2008 she received official recognition with a commemorative badge and letter from the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown, acknowledging the country’s gratitude for the land girls’ contribution.
Then in 2012, at the unveiling of a commemorative display in Moray, she met the Duke of Rothesay with whom she recalled the day in 1940 she had taken tea with his grandmother.
She is survived by her children Alison and Steven and son-in-law Robin.