You find some lovely quotes when you type ‘thankfulness’ into Google, especially at this time of the year when our America cousins are starting to prepare for their Thanksgiving Day in November. I’m going to use just a few of those quotes to illustrate this post. The occasion? I’m having myself a mini celebration of nearly a year and a half of blogging and as I look forward to making my 50th post quite soon, I’m feeling grateful that I’ve come this far and want to pay tribute to all those who have encouraged and supported me along the way. I honestly had no idea when I started just how much of a collaborative effort it would turn out to be…
ANCESTORS. Starting with my dear mum and dad, John and Nellie, and back through grandparents, great grandparents and beyond, I am truly thankful for the lives they lived, their struggles, triumphs and tragedies. My quest to understand their lives and the influences that made them the people they were have enriched my understanding of myself and my own genetic heritage.
SISTERS. My five sisters have had to put up with MY take on our shared upbringing for the past 19 months and deserve to be thanked for their great patience and forbearance, which I do most sincerely. I also want to thank them for their interest and encouragement throughout this continuing journey of discovery and in particular the sister who has stayed with me every step of the way, unfailingly prepared to prop me up and offer new insights whenever my momentum started flagging. You know who you are!
COUSINS. I hope you all know how much I appreciate the odd word of encouragement and answers to impertinent questions, that come from my lovely first cousins, especially Michael and John and Pauline – and any others who also read the blog without putting your head above the parapet! Not to mention my couthy third cousin Catriona in Fort William, who is always keen to know where the bodies are buried, and Liz in South Africa (also a third cousin), who I never even knew existed until she wrote to me a few months ago after reading the blog. Both have shared freely their knowledge and memories of aspects of the family I was only dimly aware of. As has the lovely Steve Bentley who helped greatly in increasing my comprehension of the Bentley side of our family.
FAMILY HISTORIAN. A third cousin I WAS aware of, but had no contact with until a few months ago is Robert MacFarlane of South Africa. It is Robert I have to thank for screeds and screeds of information and pictures and documents related to our family history which it has been his mission to collect over the past 35 years or so, and which he has generously made available to me to use as I wished. Not to mention his great patience in answering my stupid questions and unreasonable demands for more pictures!
BLOGGERS and OTHER FOLLOWERS. The world of blogging was a mystery to me when I first started, but I quickly learned what a marvellous new community I had joined when I had my first ‘like’ from fellow blogger Caralyn, aka BeautyBeyondBones. Perhaps she just took pity on a newcomer, but she has been a faithful follower ever since, and I follow her, learning much about blogging in the process and also enjoying her unique perspective on the world. I don’t have a lot of followers, but let me tell you I very much appreciate the ones I have, getting the odd comment from them, joining in conversations, and learning, always learning. We hear a lot about how nasty the internet can be, but it is also full of kindness and intelligence and that’s something else to be thankful for. I’d like to mention Val (Colouring the Past), Luanne (The Family Kalamazoo), Elizabeth (My Descendant’s Ancestors), Pancho, Dr Perry, Kat, to name just a few of the blogs I now follow – and would recommend to everyone!
And of course, there are friends who express interest when I say I have a blog and are then kind enough to to follow up their curiosity by actually reading my ramblings. Perhaps you don’t realise how encouraged I am by your interest, so I’m telling you now – thank you! Not to mention those who just stumble upon it by accident – you have my thanks too!
Gratitude is of course a choice, a way of life. I’d like to think it was my default setting, but I’m just as likely as anyone to find myself moaning about the imperfections of daily life, the aches and pains, the frustrations, the times when things don’t go the way I want, the things I don’t have or can’t do. Which is why I’m taking a moment to ‘re-set’ myself and really and truly count my many blessings, not just regarding my blog, but for the beauty and abundance of life in general.
I’ve been telling the story of my great grandfather, Peter MacFarlane, and today we’ll explore his twilight years, though if you were to think that this involved him slowing down and perhaps writing his memoirs, well, think again – he was just as active in retirement as throughout his working life! I suppose I’ve been feeling a little in awe of this rather remarkable man, and have been keen to try and form an idea of what he was really like as a person.
First of all, he seems to have been constitutionally unable to be associated with anything without becoming involved in organising it! Actually, I can understand this as I tend to be a bit that way myself, though in recent years, I have increasingly learned to say no!
Anyway, at the same time (the early 1880’s) as Peter was becoming involved in local politics, we have this newspaper report detailing yet another enterprise he was associated with – the Lochaber highland games.
“Enjoying as it now does repute outwith Lochaber this popular Highland fixture came into being quite modestly. In the early eighties Mr William T. Brown along with Mr Peter MacFarlane conceived the idea. The original arena had its location on ground upon which is now occupied by part of the public school building. This was roped off and a good number of spectators put in an appearance. When the sports were ready to commence, but none would pay the sixpence asked for admission. Mr MacFarlane, after himself giving an exhibition throw with the hammer, commanded that the ropes be cut. The order was promptly carried out, whereupon sightseers and competitors flocked into the enclosure free. ………… Following the inauguration of the sports, an influential committee was nominated, and the Lochaber Gathering, as such, has never looked back” (Newspaper report from 1923)
I think that nowadays, the Lochaber Gathering is a Festival of Piping, and the original sports event is now known as The Lochaber Games. Perhaps they both stemmed from the same origin, because it seems that although he didn’t play the pipes himself, Peter would judge the pibroch competitions (a form of bagpipe playing). Quite a slight man, he was also a neat Highland dancer and wore the kilt. I’m told that his kilt was eventually passed on and worn by his son George – you’d think, wouldn’t you, that there would be at least one photo of one or other of them wearing it, but if there is, I haven’t yet come across it.
It is recorded that Peter had a keen sense of humour and that his great friend was one Dr Miller, a county councillor – the two attended meetings together, which reminds me of his friendship with Dr Abernethy in London. I think this might be the same Dr AC Miller who is noted as the attending physician on the death certificates of Peter’s two wives and little daughter and I’d like to think that this might be one of the things which may have bonded them together in the first place, apart from the chemist/doctor connection.
In 1911, I presume after his term as Provost was over, Peter, at age 62, became one of the first scout masters in Fort William. Here he is at a scout camp in 1912. I have no idea who the young lady is – I suppose it could be one of his daughters.
Peter was a Justice of the Peace for the County of Inverness, sat as one of the Licensing Justices for the Lochaber District, appointed a parents representative on the local School Management Committee and president of the Merchants Association. He worked to promote the interests of An Comunn Abrach (Gaelic Association) and was one of a group of eight men and one woman who met at the Palace Hotel on 23 May 1922 to found the West Highland Museum, which is still going strong to this day and is still located just round the corner from the original family business at 50 High Street. For leisure (leisure!!!) Peter enjoyed bowling and curling.
He was a devout catholic – we have already heard two stories of him getting down on his knees to beg for divine intervention when things were looking dire. Once in London when his business wasn’t getting off the ground, and once when his daughter Winnie was facing amputation of her leg. And then there was the praying for the Boers to win the Boer war. I think that shows us all we need to know…
What sort of a father was he? It can’t have been easy to bring up seven children without a mother, though I’m sure he’d always have had help in the house. I certainly don’t think he was as strict as Captain Von Trapp in the Sound of Music…
Trouble is, we don’t seem to have any group family photos after the very sad one taken on the day of his wife Louisa’s funeral in 1893. I expect he was too busy just getting on with life, and perhaps expecting his children to do the same. But I do think he was a fond father, and as much as he could kept his children close – Lulie and Ettie were brought back from school in Elgin when their mother died and I believe all thought of boarding school was abandoned after that.
The children all went on to gain qualifications in various fields – in order, Mary Louisa (Lulie) trained as a nurse in London, Ethel Sara (Ettie) joined the Sisters of Mercy in Dundee, where her Uncle Angus, as Bishop in Dundee, had set up the convent with the Sisters. Next in line, Peter John (Father Jack) took holy orders in 1908, having received his initial training from Bishop Angus in Glasgow. I’ve already told you something about Winnifred Grace (Winnie), who’d had such a traumatic time with her tubercular leg (see “Reconciliation”, June 22), but she was a strong person who eventually overcame this setback to train as a teacher. As did the next daughter, Muriel Davenport (Moolie), leaving it to the youngest son George to train as a chemist in order to take on the mantle of the family business.
I have here a letter written by Peter to his daughter Ettie – Sister Mary Evangeline – for what would have been her 39th birthday in 1922 (you can click on the pages to see them better).
The tone seems warm and intimate, don’t you think? With fond memories from nearly 40 years before of Ettie’s birth and the excitement of her big sister at her arrival. I wonder what he means by being “still to the fore”. I suspect that someone like him would find it difficult not to be in charge, even in his seventies, as he was then. Not always easy to live with perhaps, but well intentioned nonetheless. I love the references to the wider family and their comings and goings, with his nephew Peter driving George with a contingent of cousins to Inverness; not to mention bringing Ettie up to date with news of her siblings and the goings on in Fort William. It’s such a marvellous snapshot of their life and times.
And of course, he mentions Beatrice, my grandmother, and John, my father, and the very trip to Market Harborough I’ve written about before. From his letter I can now determine a date for this trip – “next Wednesday” would have been the 23rd of August, which would make John, the “bonny boy”, just coming up for one year old. I wonder if they spent his first birthday (30 August) with Beatrice’s Bentley relatives.
I rather like this story about Peter. When he used to visit his grandchildren he never took sweets or anything, he wanted them to like him for himself, not what he brought, and indeed it’s said he used to make his children and grandchildren laugh.
Peter died at Achintee, Glen Nevis on the 7th of June 1925, age 75. In fact, he dropped dead there, perhaps of a heart attack? I can’t help feeling that’s the way he would have wanted to go, in the shadow of Ben Nevis, without any long drawn-out illness and surrounded by the countryside he loved and which so shaped him and his family. Our family.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Let me introduce you to my great great grandparents, Peter MacFarlane and his wife Mary, nee MacDonald. Peter’s father was one John MacFarlane of Kingussie, reputed to have been in his 80’s when his son was born in 1808. His mother Grace was the granddaughter of the Chief of the Keppochs who died leading his clan at the battle of Culloden in 1746. There’s a family tradition, which I really hope is true, that John MacFarlane, my great great great grandfather, may have been one of two MacFarlane brothers who fought at Culloden in 1746, on the Prince’s side. As John was probably born in 1724, he would have been in his early twenties at the time of the Jacobite rising of 1745 and at that age was unable to resist the adventure and appeal of Prince Charles Edward Stuart.
Anecdote: – “Two MacFarlane brothers fought at Culloden. (One was short and stocky and very clever and known as the ‘scholar’. The other was tall and very strong but not very bright.) They escaped the massacre by fleeing – the tall one carrying the smaller and the latter doing all the directing.” (from manuscript by Robert MacFarlane, with kind permission.)
Whether he was the ‘scholar’ or the dim brother, it’s not outwith the bounds of possibility that John MacFarlane might have actually met Bonnie Prince Charlie. We just don’t know, but neither do we know that he didn’t! Robert is working on finding the proof, believe me!
Peter’s father had died when he was just a boy so he was brought up by his uncle, his mother’s brother, in Killiechonate and eventually became a carpenter and contractor. It was there that he met and eventually married Mary MacDonald in 1836. It would appear that he took over the Shop at Spean Bridge in the 1840’s; by the time of the 1851 census he was described as joiner, postmaster and merchant.
Peter and Mary had five sons and one daughter, plus another little girl who died as a toddler as a result of a bonfire accident. It was the second son, Archie, who took over the shop from his father. It seems that John, the oldest, gave up his claim as his brother Archie was lame after being kicked by a horse in his youth. John went off to London and became a successful businessman, making his money in stocks and shares; he married but had no children. The third son, George, trained as a carpenter and emigrated to America, whilst the fourth, Angus, took Holy Orders and eventually became Bishop of Dunkeld. George settled in Cleveland Ohio, where he married and had two children. I don’t have a picture of George (1841-1914), but here are John (1836-1913) and Bishop Angus (1843-1912).
Next in line comes Jane Eliza, who was born in 1847, a couple of years after the sister, also named Jane, who had died in the tragic accident. Jane Eliza married Angus MacIntosh who was a gamekeeper, then land manager of the Loch Shiel Estate. They lived at Arisaig and had eight children. Here are pictures of a young Jane Eliza, and one a few years later.
Angus died in 1909 age 79. Jane Eliza survived him for a further 31 years and died in 1940 at Cranachan, where she’d gone to live with her daughter Georgina. She was 93.
Peter and Mary’s seventh child was born in on the 20th June 1849. Here’s an account of his birth (told by Theresa Otto, she who went to South Africa):
My grandfather was born in the house at Spean Bridge. The present sitting room was then 2 rooms and he was born in the middle room. His father had been away for a period attending a sale. He returned with one or two friends in the evening and his wife served them with a meal. There was a squeak from the corner. “What’s that?” asked Peter Snr. “That’s your latest son” replied his wife!!! And that’s how my great grandfather heard of the birth.
So this – finally! – brings us to my own family’s connection to the Spean Bridge MacFarlanes . The baby who had popped into the world with so little inconvenience to his busy mother, and even less to his father, was my great grandfather, Peter (Jnr). I’ve mentioned him a few times in previous posts, but mostly in his later years when he was already well established in Fort William. However although we are certainly going to trace his story in future posts, for now let’s just note his arrival into this crowded household and turn the focus back on the family business and the brother who eventually took over the shop from their father – Archie, the second son.
Archie married Catherine Redmond, who I think came from Dublin, in 1875. It is interesting to me that they were wed in Kinning Park in Glasgow, which makes me think that Catherine was perhaps living there at the time. I wonder how they met – perhaps she was working for a supplier and it was love at first sight – wouldn’t you just like to think so? They certainly make a rather handsome couple.
Archie and Catherine had five daughters and two sons, although the youngest one, John Archibald, born 1889, died of scarlet fever when he was only two or three. Here’s a nice picture of all the family together, taken about 1905, probably capturing a fleeting moment before the grown up daughters would start leaving home. Four of the five got married and started families of their own, as did son Peter Thomas, the youngest surviving child. Mary Theresa never married and ran the shop along with Peter T, who took over the reins once his father died in 1908.
Drawing together the threads of this narrative has been a slightly disorientating experience for me. It has caused an almost seismic shift in my focus as I’ve gone from regarding Fort William as being THE home of the MacFarlanes to really understanding how the roots of this branch of the family actually lie here in Spean Bridge. And in fact that understanding can make one feel like a bit of an outsider, not really part of the real family, which is probably a slightly ridiculous reaction and one which should be resisted!
I do wonder though if this isn’t part of that legacy of loss I inherited from my father, who if you remember, was always hankering after the past. As I’ve been setting down, step by step, the story of the shop and piecing together the parts played by the various Archies and Peters and Janes and Johns, I’ve started to get much more of a feel for the whole fabric of relationships, and a sense of the family saga which would have been passed down from generation to generation. A saga that seems strangely familiar even though I feel I come to it almost as a visitor from far away.
But not quite a stranger. As I became immersed in the elements of the tale, I was aware of tendrils of memory swirling around, pieces of the jigsaw that suddenly make sense when you see them in conjunction with everything else. I now understand, for example, that the Aunt Clemy that my Dad used to talk about must have been Jane Eliza’s daughter, born in Arisaig, married and living in Corpach. That the ‘Morag Arisaig’ we visited one year was the daughter of Jane’s oldest son John, and that her two brothers, John and Angus, perished in WW2. Robert tells me that Morag only died recently, but I’m NOT going to engage in any regrets that I didn’t have contact with her over the years! (Sigh)
I’ve no doubt that other cousins will take one look at these old photos and will know immediately, or can work out, where they fit in. Robert will see his grandfather Peter T as a young man. Cousin Catriona will see her grandmother Georgina. Others will recognise family names that they share. I expect it will be the same with your family.
We’ll explore the further history of the shop in the next post. Meantime, I’ll leave you with this final family group, Jane Eliza with five of her children. Note that the Georgina in this picture is a different person from the one above. I kind of wonder if this might have been taken during WW1, on account of what looks to me like a VAD uniform. Perhaps Mary had joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment, a unit of civilian volunteers who helped nurse injured soldiers.
I’ve made quite a few passing references to Spean Bridge in this blog, largely because it was home to cousins of my father John, and George, his father before him – at various times in their lives both John and George were close to their Spean Bridge cousins. Indeed it is to Spean Bridge that we must turn in order to delve further into my family’s roots, so let’s set the scene.
Both Fort William and Spean Bridge are located in the area known as Lochaber, originally an ancient province of Scotland, and seeped in its myths and legends. There’s a possibly mythical association with St Columba who is supposed to have blessed a poor man’s five cows, which caused them to multiply into a herd 100 strong. Another legend tells of a glaistig, an evil goat-woman, who once lived in the area, not to mention Shakespeare’s Banquo, described by the Bard as Thane (Chief) of Lochaber…
The rugged mountains, lochs and valleys of Lochaber formed the backdrop to many of the most dramatic episodes in Scottish history. Perhaps one of the most famous being the Jacobite rising of 1745 when the small hamlet of Glenfinnan saw Bonny Prince Charlie, the ‘Young Pretender’ raise his standard by the shores of Loch Shiel and claim the Scottish and English thrones in the name of his father James Stuart.
It is interesting to note that the first engagement between Government troops and clansmen loyal to Prince Charlie took place at Spean Bridge when a small number of MacDonalds routed a company of government troops on their way from Fort Augustus to Fort William. Dubbed the Highbridge Skirmish, it marked the commencement of hostilities between the two sides. However, despite initial success, the rebellion was doomed to failure and ended ignominiously on the field of Culloden some eight months later.
I’m not going to go any further into the troubled history of conflict between Scotland and England here – just google ‘Jacobite rebellion’ or ‘Highland Clearances’ if you want to know more. You only have to look at the map and see names like Fort William, Fort Augustus and, further north, Fort George to realise that these forts, called after English kings and princes, were built there for the purpose of the subjugation of the troublesome natives. As were many of the spectacular feats of engineering – roads, canals, railway lines, intended initially for military purposes (e.g General Wade’s military roads), but also as an attempt to address the problems of depopulation and open up the Highlands to development.
Of the thousands of visitors who are drawn to the Highlands every year, many come in search of their roots. They are the children of the diaspora, since the Scots, like the Irish, are a people who have dispersed to the four corners of the world, sometimes to escape poverty and famine, but often in a spirit of adventure and enterprise to seek their fortune in distant lands. The Spean Bridge MacFarlanes are no exception – like many Scottish families, they have fetched up in far flung places throughout the globe, including England, South Africa, Canada, the United States, Argentina, Norway, Australia. However, for the moment I am more interested in those members of the clan who stayed at home. So we’re going to zoom in on the village once again in order to discover more about their story. This is a screen shot from Google.
Anyone heading for the Commando Memorial just a mile or so outside the village will no doubt pass this Spar shop on the way. Perhaps they will even stop to stock up on provisions. It is this very shop, and the adjoining buildings, which have been associated with the MacFarlane family for some 170 years, providing six generations with a home and a living. Though the current encumbents don’t run the shop any more, but lease it out to Spar, they still live in the house. The self same house that my Dad visited in the 1930’s when he would let himself in and play the piano in the parlour. (See blog entry ‘Tribe of Cousins’, 27 May).
In my next post I’ll share with you some fascinating old photographs which track the shop’s development over the years, as well as the changing face of the various proprietors. They were sent me by my cousin Robert (settled in South Africa) and constitute for him memories of his childhood home, which he is drawn back to Scotland to visit every so often. I am looking forward to meeting him one of these years!
To whet your appetite, here’s a view from around 1875, the earliest picture we have. As you can see, the building has undergone almost a complete transformation since then, but look carefully – could that be the very same porch as the one in the modern screenshot? They didn’t sit still these ancestors of mine – as the Highlands developed, so did they…
I’ve read that cousins are often your first friends outside the immediate family. That was certainly true for my own children in the 1980’s and the friendships have lasted to this day, despite their parents insisting on lining them up for a photo every time the two families got together! Nowadays we’d have to include various assorted partners and 10 offspring as well, if I’ve got my sums right.
Of course part of the reason why cousin gatherings are so much fun is that it’s usually some sort of family celebration that brings us together. Even just a visit becomes a special event because it’s a chance to whoop it up with additional members of the tribe.
Happy children silhouettes on summer meadow running and jumping
My own experience as a child was somewhat unlike my children’s – I suppose for us it was a different, less mobile era, so we didn’t really have much to do with our cousins as we were growing up in the fifties and sixties. These pictures are from the one trip we made to Ireland as a family in 1969 (see my post from last August, The End of an Era). And then it wasn’t until years later, after my Dad died, that I would occasionally encounter these cousins if I happened to be in Glasgow when, all grown up, they came over to visit my Mum.
Contact with cousins on my Dad’s side of the family was equally rare. The following photo is the only one I have of us mingling with those cousins on a visit to my Uncle Donald’s house in, I believe, 1962 (going by the absence of the youngest members of our respective families). And I rather think the occasion was probably to do with the funeral of my grandfather George, that being the year he died. Auntie Mary would have been calling in at Glasgow on her way up to Fort William from her home in London. Or possibly she and her brothers, John and Donald, were making a visit to him on his deathbed. This may have been something of a reconciliation with his three oldest children, but I’ll write about that another time.
The only thing I can remember about visiting Uncle Donald’s house – and it may or may not have been this occasion – is of not being 100% sure that he was only joking when he produced a large pair of scissors and threatened to perform surgery on my cousin Frankie’s bleeding finger. Of course the scissors were just to cut a plaster, but just for a split second, I actually entertained the thought that he really would cut the finger off!
Over the years, weddings, christenings, and especially funerals have provided random opportunities to come across these rather elusive relatives. And the encounters would always leave me wishing that they were in my life to a greater extent rather than just someone you knew had a place in your family tree. Because, no matter how little contact you have, your cousins are never strangers. As cousin Catriona once said “we know where the bodies are buried”. There’s an instant understanding, a sharing of common history, a fellow feeling that needs no further explanation.
All of this has been very much brought home to me since my Mum passed away a couple of years ago and I started rambling on about my family in this blog as well as renewing old acquaintances, or uncovering new ones. I’ve already mentioned Steve Bentley in this context, and I’ve also had contact with John Hynes (the sole boy in the haystack picture above), who now lives in England and was absent when I caught up with my Irish cousins (all the others on the haystack!) and some of their children and grandchildren when I visited County Mayo last spring.
More recently there has been communication with two MacFarlane relatives who both live in South Africa, but have maintained contact with their Highland roots over the decades and who illustrate perfectly what I’ve come to think of as the cousin effect.
Cousin Liz (or second cousin Elizabeth van der Mey if you want her Sunday title) is South African born and bred and and she first contacted me though the blog, writing:
Where do I fit in? My mother Theresa wrote the wee note to your Grandmother Beatrice that appears in May or June last year.
(From “Clutter or Treasure”, April 2017).
I am ‘Aunt Winnie’ Chisholm (MacFarlane)’ s granddaughter (ran into trouble with punctuation there!) I feel like I’ve known you all my life which may seem weird to you but my mother pined so for ‘home’ after coming to South Africa in 1948 and constantly regaled us with family lore…
While you were writing your blog, here on the other side of the globe I was scanning my mother’s letters. She died in 1996, the kist full of letters was only discovered some years later when my father moved out of the house. For almost 20 years I kept them in black rubbish bags but about a year ago the time was right and I started to sort and scan them. Not finished yet but a few more months should do it. What a journey it has been!
… I’d love to share what I can remember of my mother’s reminiscences with you – just a memory here a memory there that helps to flesh out those long ago days. I am a 1952 vintage and a Granny of 6, married to a Dutchman and have spent most of my life in SA but my Scottish roots are dear to me. My mother and Mary Hanley were dearest friends.
I’m sure you can imagine how excited I felt at receiving this warm, generous message totally out of the blue. It hasn’t taken long for the two of us to become Facebook friends, and I am very much looking forward to delving into Liz’s material and, as she says, using it to flesh out those long ago days.
Next, I’d like to introduce you to Robert MacFarlane, or rather to his shattered shoulder blade, the result of a skydiving accident. I have skydived for the last 21 years and this was a bad landing. I know how and why, will not bore you with the details. This doughty gentleman is of a similar vintage to Liz and myself so I have to admit that this news was the last thing I was expecting! Recovery is now well under way thank goodness, but even when he was temporarily reduced to typing with one finger, Robert has already sent me a wealth of pictures and information from his extensive archive. I have been a very active family historian for the last 42 years as well as Lochaber historian, a passion rather than a passing interest.
It is ever so slightly daunting as a mere beginner, to meet someone with this kind of research pedigree! Over the past 42 years, Robert has traced the MacFarlane family history, and can show our family tree going back through the MacDonald line all the way to Robert the Bruce (1274-1329) the second King of Scotland.
Fortunately for me, Robert seems just as interested in the minutiae of domestic relationships – or as we call it, gossip – as in the broad sweep of history. I look forward to sharing some of these tasty titbits in this blog.
A final cousinly thought. I know that my dad, John, had been close to his Spean Bridge cousins. I heard that he would take the bus from Fort William to Spean Bridge, let himself in to the house and the first anyone knew he was there would be when they heard music coming from the piano in the front room. And now I discover that there’s still a link with those far-off days. Robert has told me that his Aunt Margaret – now 88 and also living in South Africa – well remembers when she was a little girl hearing John playing the piano in their house. This would be in the 1930’s, in the years after his mother Beatrice had died (1932) and his father George had married his second wife Jessie (1935). I rather think that my dad found solace in going to play the piano in Spean Bridge, I certainly hope so.