A Wee Break

the end

I have to confess to a touch of post-holiday blues in the last week or two. If that’s what just four nights in Majorca does to you, maybe I’d be better staying at home!

Not that I didn’t enjoy the sun, sea and sand, of course I did (just as long as I stayed in the shade in the middle of the day). And then there were the relaxed family evenings of tapas and paella and talking philosophy (armchair variety) under the stars, with the little ones running around and the teenager making sarcastic remarks on the folly of adults. What’s not to love?

majorca map

But I suppose that’s the problem isn’t it? It’s amazing how quickly you can adapt to your new surroundings and imagine a completely different lifestyle from the one you have. One involving taking your morning tea and a notebook out on to the terrace for some creative scribbling while the mediterranean sun slowly rises above the mountains. Eventually your big sunhat isn’t enough to protect you from the heat, so you retreat and cool off in the pool before a bite of lunch and siesta time. Evenings comprising more of the same…

It’s a bit of a let-down to come back to a chilly, rain-sodden Glasgow. Why do I want to live here? Can anyone remind me?


However, that was a couple of weeks ago. Today, for once, I’m looking out on a lovely sunny day – albeit 15 degrees cooler than Alcudia – and I’ve just had a wee sit in the garden where there’s a nice secluded corner that protects you from the breeze while you catch a few precious rays of sunshine (post-holiday resolution – get out in the sun whenever I can).

So – however reluctantly – I suppose I’m more or less back in the swing of things again. I’ve caught up with all my emails, had daughter Sarah to stay for a few days (wall to wall box sets and late night existential conversations – “yes it’s okay to put the fire on in August mum”), realised that I WOULD rather live in a place where I’m not kept up all night by unbearably itchy insect bites.


And then there’s my blog – I have been feeling somewhat frustrated at just how disrupted my daily writing routine could become in such a short period of time, how difficult it has been to pick up the threads again. It’s not that I don’t have plenty to write about, it’s that I’ve lacked the motivation to just get on with it. This is scary because along with that comes the thought that maybe you will NEVER write another post, or anything else. So, believe me, this rambling effort represents a huge victory over inertia and it would be nice to think that you would raise a glass with me to celebrate the unblocking of the creative juices – cheers!

Let me tell you about the inspiration that finally got me going again. Sarah lent me a book; Tim Marshall’s “Prisoners of Geography – ten maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics”. I know, snappy title or what? Anyway, I’m reading the first chapter “Russia” and I hadn’t got too far when it struck me forcibly that my Mum, in her prime, would have loved this book. I’ve written before about her cultural visits to Russia and various Baltic republics. She was completely beguiled by all things Russian and would read everything she could get her hands on about its history and art; myths and magic. She loved telling you all about Czar Nicholas, Catherine the Great, the treasures of the Winter Palace, the siege of Leningrad … the list goes on and on. Here’s her first impression of looking down on the country:

cartoon-russian-old-wooden-village-vector-2098183 (3)

As we lost height to refuel at Riga in Latvia I could see out the window and the country is completely flat. Roads stretch for miles as straight as a die and there are many canals. Nothing is curved – everything has straight angles. There are forests. The country is quite remarkable. And vast. I could see small groups of houses and houses on their own and some cars on a road – but usually rivers and in the distance the sea. We flew for an hour and the landscape did not vary. Rivers, canals, roads, what looked like fields and even the forests were all squared up as straight as a ribbon – quite extraordinary and fascinating. Could hardly believe I was looking down on Russia!

POG cover final.indd

“Prisoners of Geography”, while completely factual, also feels to me like a fairytale with the storyteller spreading the map out in front of you and showing you just why and how the history and politics of this great land inevitably rolled out the way they did, constrained by the shape of its geography, from the romantic sounding Carpathian Mountains to the west, right across the vast plains of Siberia to the Pacific Ocean in the east. As I read, I could so easily imagine Mum by my side nodding eagerly and pointing out the places where she’d been and saying, “Yes, yes, that’s right, that’s the way it is”.

Geography is a marvellous branch of knowledge, don’t you think? It makes sense of everything because despite whatever advances we may make in technology and science and engineering, and however invincible we think that makes us, we are always either working with the shape of the planet, or striving to overcome its restrictions. And sometimes, sadly, we are at its mercy, vulnerable to droughts, earthquakes, tsunami’s and other natural disasters. Look at a map and it will tell you everything you need to know.

africaAnyway, next time we’ll return to the small corner of the world known as Lochaber, and the further exploits of my MacFarlane ancestors and how they contended with the constraints of their geography.

Not me, sadly, but a scene from BBC’s The Durrells, where the family really DO start a new life in Corfu…


The Family Shop – Onwards and Upwards

shop 1907 - Copy

And I mean that quite literally! At some point after Peter T took over from his father Archie, he was able to buy the property, and to continue with the improvements that we noted in my last post. As you can see from the postcard below, a whole new floor was added to the house and a porch between the windows of the shop, so that it assumed the final configuration we would recognise today.

Shop 4 001

I feel sure that it would have been Archie’s plan to continue to develop the business and the dwelling in this way, in fact perhaps it might originally have been his father Peter’s dream – he was a carpenter and contractor by trade after all – so Archie could have grown up with this vision implanted in his brain, all ready to put into action when the time was right. It’s just unfortunate that he passed away in 1908 before he could see the completion of the master plan.

Archie’s son Peter Thomas (I’m calling him Peter T to distinguish him from all the other Peters) would only have been 21 when he took over, along with his sister Mary Theresa, 10 years older. Mary Theresa never married and lived on at the shop for most of her days until her death in 1961. We can get a glimpse of what the shop was like in those early days of the 20th century in this extract from a piece entitled “Down Memory Lane” written by Peter’s grandson David for local Braes Magazine. (Further extracts are mostly from the same article)

In those days businesses such as ours sold all household supplies, clothing and agricultural commodities such as hay, corn, seeds and, believe it or not, shrouds. The latter were always sold after hours, in the dark, from the back of the shop. There was also a paraffin store with all fuels and barrels of salt herring and a garage for the travelling shop.

Peter T married Margaret Mary MacDonald (Daisy) in 1916. They had six of a family, the youngest of whom, Margaret, is a widow, still living in South Africa. She’s the tot in this photograph, taken round the side of the house in, I reckon, about 1933 or 34.

Pop and young family
From left to right: Archie, Peter T (known as Pop), Catherine (Cath), Mary Frances (Marac), Rosalie (Posie), little Margaret, Margaret Mary (Daisy) and Donald. Of the girls, Marac, Posie and Margaret married and had their own families. Sadly, Cath was killed, age 33, in a motor bike accident in 1953, and her mother Daisy died just a couple of years later. It would be the boys who would eventually carry on the business.

These are the cousins who were contemporaries of my Dad, of whom he had such fond memories. He wrote to his mother after Christmas 1931:  … in the afternoon we went to Speanbridge and we had a very happy time indeed, Archie and I were bursting the balloons, but it was only in fun.

Here’s another snippet from “Down Memory Lane”

Grandfather sent all the children to boarding school – the boys to St Aloysius in Glasgow and then Fort Augustus and the girls to Notre Dame in Dumbarton. Trade during the war years was difficult and as all the children had been educated privately, he was not well off.

The two boys served in the armed forces during World War II, Archie joining the RAF in 1940, and Donald the Scots Guards, though being younger this was later. When Donald came back after the war he joined his father Peter T and brother Archie in the family business. His job was the travelling shop which operated six days a week with a different route each day. The shop went as far as Letterfinlay, Kilmonivaig, Bohuntin, Fersit and Tulloch. As boys we all shared some of these trips during holidays getting to know the people and places. 

Archie (L) and Donald in the shop doorway, I think in the early 1960’s
And a picture of ‘Pop’ on what looks like the same day. Pop would have retired years before. He passed away in 1970, having been a widower for many years after Daisy died in 1955.

Donald retired from the shop in 1974 and then ran a successful bed and breakfast business in Spean Bridge for many years along with his wife Lies. He died only last year, leaving behind Lies, five children, 14 grandchildren and 3 great grandchildren. Donald will be fondly remembered for his good nature, wit and his service to the Lochaber community over many years. He was my hero as a youngster.

As you can see from the above pictures, it was Archie’s name which eventually appeared above the shop door. Here’s more from his son David about how it all started:

My father, Archie, joined the RAF in 1940 and was immediately sent to flight training school in the prairies at Medicine Hat in Canada; when he got his wings, he was going to return to UK for posting to a night fighter squadron but instead, was retained there as an instructor. He met my mother, Elsa, and married in Prince Edward Island in January 1945 and was demobbed in 1945. Before demob, my father remained at one of the RAF bases in the south and my mother travelled by train to Spean to meet her in-laws. Imagine the impression that post-war Britain made on a young Canadian girl who had experienced none of the shortages and dangers of the war; my grandfather lived in the Shop House with my grandmother and Mary Theresa, an unmarried aunt with whom my mother had to share a bedroom before her husband returned. She couldn’t believe that chamber pots were still in use!

The chamber pots didn’t seem to have put Elsa off and she and Archie went on to have  three sons and a daughter – here they are in a photo from the mid 1950’s. These children, now in their sixties and seventies, are my own contemporaries, though I didn’t know anything about them until recently. The little chap looking dapper in his bow tie is Cousin Robert, who I am indebted to for most of the Spean Bridge material that has appeared in recent posts. As well as the primitive plumbing, Robert can remember a time before the electricity supply was connected and the house was lit by Tilley (paraffin) lamps.


archie, elsa and children
Elsa, Linda (Canada), Donald (Inverness), Robert (South Africa), David (Spean Bridge), Archie.

It was David, the oldest son who would eventually take over from Archie, but not before spending 10 action packed years in the Royal Navy, a period he describes as one of the most enjoyable in his life. After his discharge in Feb 1971, he writes that he left Portsmouth with all my possessions in two suitcases. It wasn’t long before he and Archie had built the “new shop”, opened in 1975 – perhaps not so new now! These days, David is retired and lives with his wife Liz in the house that Archie built for his retirement, while David’s son Iain presides over the family business and lives in the original house, the sixth generation to do so.

David and Archie and the new shop, 1970’s.

As I bring this account to a close, I wonder whether, if I were ever up in Spean Bridge, would I have the temerity to knock on the door and introduce myself to Iain, my third cousin once removed? I rather think I would! Who could resist? I’d love to go in and try and work out where it was that my father played the piano and burst Christmas balloons with his cousin Archie – perhaps it might have been in the same room where his own grandfather was born nearly a century before. And perhaps I might catch a glimpse of the ghost of the original Peter, nodding in satisfaction to see how the business he started in the middle of the 19th century has grown and prospered right through the 20th and well into the 21st.

aerial old shop



Aaargh! My laptop’s playing up today and I just accidentally posted what was still a work in progress – it shouldn’t be that easy!!!

Please would you delete it if you just received a New Post notification? I’ll be posting the finished article later today once it’s all tidied up.  For now I need to go and take some time out to recover from the trauma…