Peter MacFarlane, Lord Provost

It is often said that Peter MacFarlane was a remarkable man, and had many achievements in his lifetime – we’ll hear more about them shortly. But for me one of his greatest achievements was surviving and overcoming the tragedy that befell the family in 1893 when his wife Louisa died, leaving him as sole parent to their seven surviving children, as I reported in last week’s post.

Anise Jane

Further misfortune would strike the family only a couple of years later when the youngest daughter, Anise Jane, died on the 5th of February 1985, three months short of her third birthday. The cause of death is given as cerebral effusions and convulsions. Poor Peter must have thought that history was repeating itself.

But this man was nothing if not resilient, because the following year we find a wedding recorded – Peter MacFarlane, Chemist, widower marrying Catherine Cameron, Housekeeper, spinster on the 15th of April 1896, which would, ironically, have been Peter and Louisa’s 19th wedding anniversary. One can only imagine the mixture of hope and sadness he would have been feeling on that day. Peter and Catherine were married at Bunroy, Roybridge, by Peter’s brother Angus, by then a Canon and Parish Priest in Partick, Glasgow.

peter

Peter was still a relatively young man of 46 when he married the 29 year old Catherine. I think it likely that she had initially been employed to run the household and care for the children after Louisa had passed away. And perhaps the two were drawn even closer together by the death of little Anise – I know this is speculation on my part, but it seems very likely to me. But their happiness would be short-lived for by January of 1898, Peter found himself yet again having to perform the sad duty of burying his wife. Some say Catherine died in childbirth, though her death certificate records the cause of death as tubercular pyelitis. This is sometimes a complication of pregnancy, so it’s possible…

I’ve heard that there may have been a third wife, but haven’t seen any evidence for that and the 1901 census records only Peter plus four of his children and a young servant girl, no mention of a wife. So, as far as I know, he lived out his days as a widower and perhaps focused his considerable energy in other directions, though I suspect he was the type of man who would always have been striving in one direction or another regardless of whether or not he had a wife by his side. In any case that decade of loss, the 1890s, also seems to be one of the most productive times in his full and busy life.

Take his commercial activities, for example. Not only did he build the fine new premises  at 50 High Street but along with his druggist business, Peter manufactured aerated water and in fact mentions this enterprise in a document written in 1896 or 7. The additional property he mentions became known to the family as ‘The Barn’. I think its position just round the corner from 50 High Street meant that both buildings overlooked the same bit of ground/garden at the back. “I purchased additional property behind the burgh hall and am now in course of rebuilding a part of it in order to meet the requirements of the aerated water branch of my business, which has very largely expanded of late.”

Peter also had a photographic enterprise.  On the back of his photographic images he printed P MACFARLANE / Photographer to the Queen / FORT WILLIAM.

photographer

At the same time, Peter was very active in civic life and had already been elected to a seat on the Council Board by 1880, ultimately succeeding to a Bailieship and finally attaining the office of Provost, I think in about 1887. He was the first Catholic elected to this position in Scotland since the Reformation in the 16th century. The day after he was elected Provost he found a bag of oranges on his doorstep – quite an understated tribute one would have thought, after all those centuries!

At this time, Fort William was enjoying a period of considerable expansion, largely due to the coming of the railway in 1894. We can get a sense of this mood of development in a document in which Peter laid out his arguments for extending the railway line south through Ballachulish and on to Glencoe. I’ve used snippets from his document as captions for the following photographs…

New-ImVERY-EARLY-PIC-OF-FW-STATION-Copy-copy
“Since the opening of the West Highland Railway in August 1894, the burgh of Fort-William has made rapid strides in advance /  I am satisfied that the formation of the railway to Fort-William has been of enormous benefit to the burgh; in fact before it was opened the burgh was in a somewhat stagnant condition. “
view
“…the houses built along each of these roads are not, owing to the lie of the ground, shut out from a view of the sea by those immediately in front, there is no reason why many new roads should not be formed and feuing go on to an almost unlimited extent.”
highland hotel
“Among the other new buildings on this sloping ground, a large hotel is on the eve of completion. It contains about sixty bedrooms and has been specially designed for the accommodation of tourists and summer visitors.”

For me as his great grand-daughter, I feel quite a personal connection with some of the further declarations in Peter’s submission, remembering as I do our family holidays by Loch Leven in the sixties (see ‘End of an Era’ from August 2017).  Of course, the main thrust of the document concerns the financial benefits to be gained from further investment in the area, but despite the references to ‘feuing’ (taxation), I find myself drawn to the parts where he mentions Onich and North Ballachulish…

“This Feuing has already commenced at Onich and North Ballachulish and as it is well suited for residential purposes, being perfectly protected from the north and east winds, with a southern exposure and having in many places a sea-shore well adapted for boating and bathing, there cannot fail to be a considerable extension of feuing in that quarter if the railway is extended to it. I think it not unlikely, however, that the feuing at this point will take the form of villas and other residences for summer visitors; and if I am right in this they will naturally come to Fort-William to make their purchases and transact their business.” He turned out to be quite right of course, and it didn’t end there:

“Fort-William being much nearer and otherwise, is pre-eminently a better point for tourists to visit Glencoe than Oban, and if the railway be extended from Fort-William to Ballachulish, I feel confident that a large proportion of the tourists would visit that famous glen from Fort-William. The distance from Fort-William to Bridge of Coe, which is at the entrance to the glen, is about 16 miles, while it is distant from Oban about 32 miles, or double the distance.”

Peter didn’t succeed in getting the railway line extended from Fort William to Ballachulish – in fact it was the Oban line that won this argument, though Ballachulish station didn’t survive the Beeching cuts of the sixties, and the ground was eventually built upon. However, the Fort William line WAS extended to Mallaig which is now one of the most scenic sections of the West Highland Line, taking in as it does the spectacular Glenfinnan Viaduct.

During his term as Chief Magistrate he had the satisfaction of seeing the Burgh illuminated by electricity – in fact Fort William was the first town in Britain to be entirely lit by electric light – the erection of a slaughterhouse, the acquisition of an ambulance and fire engine, but the crowning glory of his provostship was an inexhaustible supply of pure water to the town (hence, one suspects, the aerated water project).

My great grandfather was by all accounts a very patriotic Scotsman, which I feel is no surprise considering that his father may have been descended from someone who fought with Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden (1746). He retained his knowledge of the Gaelic language and taught it to one Father Willie Gillies who used to preach in Gaelic. Remember that Gaelic had been suppressed in Scotland after Culloden, so that’s probably why the book written by Peter’s erstwhile teacher, James Munro, came to be regarded as a cultural treasure. I have no doubt that Peter would have picked up his nationalistic attitudes from an early age. One of his ambitions was to change the name ‘Fort William’ back to the original ‘Maryburgh’, and he would pray every day for the Boers to win the Anglo-Boer war (1899-1802)!

My challenge when writing about this ancestor of mine, has been to try and ascertain what he was like as a person – it can be quite hard to see beyond all the undoubted achievements; it can even feel fairly daunting! So far, I have found him rather remarkable, someone who was obviously very driven and motivated in everything he did, who withstood adversity and tragedy in his life and didn’t allow them to divert him from his purposes. He was capable of falling in love – more than once! – and like his father before him, built a fine successful business which sustained his family for many years into the future.

I suppose what I want to know on top of all that is whether he would have been the sort of person to gather his children and grandchildren into his arms when they were upset, whether he was approachable and friendly, whether, I suppose, I would have liked him!

I’ll explore all these questions in my next post, which will take us into the 20th century and chart what’s know about Peter’s later years and the period when his children would grow from childhood and start to make their own way in the world.

lloyds - Copy
Now run by Lloyd’s Pharmacy, this is the original building on the High Street which Peter built to house MacFarlane’s the Chemist’s, with the house for the family above (please ignore the red arrow). I understand that no-one lives in the house any more and that these days it comprises ‘ancillary storage’
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A Hieland Laddie in Victorian London

Previously on Mums Marbles (A Family Business, 28 July) ….

Account by Theresa Otto – 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 the Falkirk Tryst (market). 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. 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 MacFarlane, the youngest child of Peter Snr and Mary Drochaid MacDonald. He was born on the 20th of June 1849.

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We’re now going to follow the adventures of this youngest child.

Peter was educated at Kilmonivaig School, where the Schoolmaster was one James Munro, who lived with his sister Jean at Blarour Farm and was known as the Blarour Dominie (Teacher). James was a Gaelic scholar and a poet, and in his younger day had written “A Practical Grammar of the Scottish Gaelic”, published in 1843. This book is still, I am tickled to note, available in facsimile form on Amazon, where the description runs thus: This work has been selected by scholars as being culturally important, and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it, and his poetry is also still well regarded by scholars.

I’m willing to guess that Peter and his classmates would have had no idea that they were being taught by such an illustrious master, someone who had a part in maintaining the knowledge base of civilization as we know it! Once his schooldays were over, Peter, age 16, became apprenticed to a chemist in Fort William, a four year apprenticeship that commenced in November 1865:

“It is Contracted, Agreed, and Ended between Allan Ritchie Affleck Chemist and Druggist Fort William of the first part and Peter MacFarlane junior residing in Fort William with the advice and consent of his father Peter MacFarlane senior carpenter Unachan. Allan Ritchie Affleck binds and obliges himself to furnish the said Peter MacFarlane junior with sufficient bedding, food and washing during the whole space of his apprenticeship and to pay him the sum of ten pounds sterling annually in name of salary for the last two years of his apprenticeship over and above his lodging, bedding food and washing as aforesaid”.

So, off he went to Fort William where he worked for Affleck and did his studying by correspondence. I notice that he didn’t actually get paid anything until he was a full two years into the agreement! Once qualified, Affleck wrote Peter the following letter of recommendation: “I can confidently recommend him to fill a situation as assistant to anyone requiring his services (signed) A R Affleck Apoth Hall Fort Wm.” Whereupon the young man packed his bags and headed off to seek his fortune in London, or in fact to gain experience working for an established chemist there.  It is reputed that when it was time to leave Fort William, Peter left £10 in the till in case he might be responsible for any bad debts.

On arriving in the Metropolis, he asked directions to “Holburn” and asked for “Holburrin”. “Oh” replied a Londoner, “you must mean “Owbun”! “No, I don’t mean Oban, I mean Holburrin!” The accounts of his early days in London are somewhat sketchy so I don’t know who he worked for there, or where he lived (Holborn maybe. It could be that his brother John lived there, or that was where Affleck had a contact.) The one story that we do have is that he arrived in London wearing a tweed suit from his father’s tailor, which somehow got completely ruined when he was tasked with tramping something wet and squashy to extract a dye, or perhaps it was just that the dye ran out of the suit in the rain. Anyway, he was told that the suit wasn’t suitable for London.

holbornMy heart goes out to the rather naive sounding 20-year-old arriving all the way from Lochaber seemingly unequipped for life in the big English city. But make his way he did because the next report we have of him is that he has met one Louisa Priest and married her at the Brompton Oratory on 15th of April 1877, a Sunday. He was 28, she 29. The Oratory was in the process of being re-built at the time and wouldn’t open until 1884, so the wedding must have taken place in the existing temporary church.

Other than the fact that she married my great grandfather and originally came from Honiton in Devon, I know next to nothing about Louisa Priest, my great grandmother. There is the odd snippet, the most tantalising being that she had a beautiful singing voice and once performed in front of Queen Victoria! As to what brought her to London and how she met Peter – well, that’s a story yet to be discovered. However, I DO have this picture of her…

Louisa Priest
This framed photograph is a family heirloom and was left to my father in his father’s will. It hung in our hallway in Kersland Street for many years and when my Mum passed away in 2015, my sisters decided it should go to me, the eldest daughter. It now hangs proudly in my living room, alongside pictures of Mum and my grandmother Beatrice.

I’m not sure at what point Louisa came into his life, but I do know that Peter eventually started off his own business with a shop and a room, somewhere near Brompton Oratory, which would have been Knightbridge – rather a good address, though at that point still well and truly in the suburbs. Story goes that on his first day he had no customers, on the second day he had one customer. In despair, on the third day he went down on his knees and prayed – he took in 2/6 that day. One of Peter’s best customers asked him where he went to Church. “Just round the corner!” Some time later, the same lady came in very cross “Mr MacFarlane! You deceived me! I didn’t know you were a Catholic!” “I beg your pardon, Madam, but my pills are purely Protestant!” He didn’t lose his customer.

Another story is that Peter was great friends was a Dr Abernethy, a fellow Scot.  Dr A asked Peter to fashion a portable medicine case with small quantities of necessary portions. Peter did so and thus was born the first BLACK BAG!  Dr A is commemorated to this day in the Abernethian Hall at Barts, London. Now, I am a little little doubtful about this story, much though I would like it to be true. Research tells me that it was a different Dr Abernethy who was associated with Barts – Dr John Abernethy (1764-1831), founder of the Abernethian Society and inventor (or at least his sister was) of the biscuit which bears his name to this day (he was looking for a plain nutritious food which would aid digestion).

‘Our’ Dr A was very taciturn and hard working. One day he took a day off and was relaxing somewhere upon the upper reaches of the Thames. He spotted a dairymaid with her kirtle (petticoat) tucked up, wading through the water and balancing a tub of butter on her head. He called out to her “How deep is the water and how much is your butter” and quick as a flash she replied. “Up to the knee and nine-pence.” Dr A eventually married that girl. He admired her economy of words!

As to the black bag… Well we can tie this up to the invention of the Gladstone bag (patented in 1854 and named after the Liberal politician, later Prime Minister). It was an instant success as a travel bag, and soon caught on as a doctor’s bag. I’m sure that Peter and Dr A would have been among the first to use it as such, but I hope I’m not being disloyal if I rather doubt that they actually invented it…

doctor's bag

I believe that Peter and Louisa knew each other while Peter was building his business, but if his premises were a shop and a room, there wouldn’t have been the space for them to set up home together and start a family. However opportunity came in the shape of the old master Affleck, who wanted to retire. Peter was able to buy out his business – perhaps this was always the plan – and he and Louisa moved to Fort William as man and wife probably in the same year as they got married. (I’ve seen an old document in which Peter states that he started his chemist business in 1877).

Peter and Louisa lost no time establishing themselves in Fort William and the next 15 years or so saw the birth of nine children in rapid succession. Sadly, the first and third of them, John and Donald, died in infancy. The 1891 census shows the family living at 17 High Street, Affleck’s original premises. I guess this would have brought back memories for Peter of his apprenticeship. It must surely have afforded him no small degree of satisfaction to now return as proprietor of the establishment. I wonder if he retrieved his £10 from the till!

I find it quite striking when you look back at Peter’s early days, that he seems always to have had strong role models before him, from his mother and father, then brother Archie, running the family business in Spean Bridge. Then the three brothers, John, Angus, George, and sister Jane Eliza, all successfully making their way in life; James Munro, the able first schoolmaster; Affleck, the chemist who was his guide as a young apprentice; Dr Abernethy, the taciturn, hard working friend. It’s no surprise really that Peter himself was no slouch when it came to enterprise and ambition whether for his business, his family or the community at large.

Perhaps the most notable thing Peter did in this period – apart from fathering nine children! – was to send his family to live with his sister Jane at Arisaig for a whole year while he supervised the building of new premises at number 50 High Street – a shop with a dwelling house above. Jane Eliza’s family, the Mackintoshes, a bit older than the MacFarlanes, were supposed to have enjoyed making their cousins talk, due to them having a sort of English accent. If the family were still at 17 High Street in 1891, I think this relocation must have taken place in 1892, and that perhaps Peter and Louisa’s youngest child, Anise Jane, might have been born that year at Arisaig.

But events were to take a very dark turn, and it couldn’t have been long after the family had come back and taken possession of their new home than Louisa was struck down with cerebral meningitis and died after a short illness on the 4th of April 1893, with her husband at her side. She was 45. It must have taken all of Peter’s reserves of character and resilience to get through the succeeding months and years dealing with his own loss and with seven bereaved little children relying on him. We’ll follow the years of his widower-hood in the next post.

Peter and children, 1893
With an empty chair at the back denoting the absence of Louisa, here are Peter with (back) Ethel Sarah, Mary Louisa, Winifred Grace; (centre) Peter John and Anise Jane; (front) Muriel Davenport and George Archibald.

 

 

 

 

 

A Stepmother

st mary's

Janet Frances (Jessie) Macpherson married George Archibald MacFarlane on the 25th September 1935 in St Mary’s Church Fort William – the first wedding to take place in the recently opened new church. By this time George (46) had been a widower for nearly three years and Jessie, at 33, may very well have been aware that marrying George would save her from being left behind on the shelf as, one by one, she watched her own brothers and sisters make their way down the aisle.

George’s three children, John (my Dad), Mary and Donald, were not exactly overjoyed at the new development in the family saga. You only have to look at this wedding photograph to see the misery on the faces of Mary and Donald, and for all I know John might have refused to even be in the picture.

George & Jessie

There are a couple of stories I’ve heard which illustrate the somewhat inept way that George introduced the subject to the three of them. One is that when he announced to the children that this was Miss Macpherson and she would be their new mother, John dashed from the room yelling “I will never call her Mother”. Another version is that Donald’s reaction was to innocently ask “But where will Miss Macpherson sleep?” It was not an auspicious start. And although Mary and Donald, being younger, followed the instruction to call Jessie ‘Ma’, John never did.

There is no hiding the fact that Jessie never really became a mother figure in these children’s eyes. To be fair, it wouldn’t have been easy for anyone trying to step into the shoes of a mother who was so universally loved and admired. But still…

However, Jessie did, I think, become a good wife to George, in fact it could be that she saved him when he was at his lowest ebb. The death of Beatrice had been extremely traumatic; she was far from home and had passed away in a haze of morphia – George had received a letter from the hospital telling him not to visit as she was not conscious. And then the next he knew he received a rather curt phone call asking why ‘arrangements’ had not been made. The death notification had been sent to Loch Slaoidh  (“Sloy”), Fort William and had sat at the pier waiting for the boat of that name to arrive instead of being delivered to the house at 50 High Street, which was never again known as Loch Slaoidh.

George was inconsolable and by all accounts did not cope well either with his own grief or that of his children. There were times when they appeared rather unkempt and neglected and there was a succession of somewhat unsatisfactory home helps and maids whose culinary skills seemed not to extend beyond copious amounts of watery mince. George’s sisters did their best to help, but they were occupied with their own young families or busy jobs and could only do so much. I heard that George made several proposals of marriage to various Fort William ladies before Jessie accepted him.

On paper George and Jessie were a good match, coming as they did from two prominent and public spirited Fort William families. George had taken over MacFarlanes the Chemist after the death of his father in 1925 and A & J Macpherson’s was a highly successful coaching business which had pioneered bus services and tours in and around Fort William as well as running the Parade Garage and bringing in Lochaber’s first petrol pump in 1922. Jessie was the third of Alexander and Margaret Macpherson’s nine children. This is a picture of the family in 1914, the two youngest yet to be born. (Jessie aged perhaps 12 or 13, is seated front right).

macpherson family

The family eventually went to live in a fine villa known as Avondale which had previously been owned by a cousin of the explorer David Livingstone, but when the above picture was taken, they were still living in a house built above the stables which were part of the original business and remembered in later life by Jessie’s young sister Lily (seated here on her mother’s knee) ‘It was a very small house, tiny in fact and in retrospect I cannot imagine how my mother managed, but I have no memory of any discord there, it was a happy home.

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The move to Avondale finally happened once Alexander came home from war service in 1918 – it’s the big house on the hill you can see to the right of this photograph, and actually overlooks their former home where you can see the bus garage. Not too far away is the High Street, where the MacFarlanes lived. Jessie and George’s first wife Beatrice would certainly have known each other; Fort William wasn’t that big a place and anyway they moved in the same social circle. I believe Jessie and Beatrice attended sewing classes together, or it could be that Beatrice, who was very artistic, actually took the classes – the record is not clear. Ironically, sewing and embroidery became one of her therapies when she was away from her family for extended periods in the TB Sanitorium.

Pictured below are the Avondale Macphersons more or less as Beatrice would have known them in the 1920’s. Jessie is the one to the right in the back row of the girls’ photograph. Beside her is sister Sally who you may recognise as her bridesmaid in the wedding photo.

An interesting aside – Jessie’s oldest brother, Donald, seen here seated beside his father, also married a MacFarlane, the daughter of one of George’s Spean Bridge cousins, Georgina. My cousin Catriona tells me that her mother Maureen met Donald one year when she was on holiday in Spean Bridge (up from home in London). According to Catriona, they were married six months later and lived happily ever after.  I have very fond memories of Auntie Maureen and Uncle Donald who were unfailingly kind to us.

George and Jessie settled down to married life and by Christmas, George was writing to his brother in law, Donald Bentley, thanking him for the serviette rings (presumably a wedding present) and reporting that ‘things are more comfortable for us all at home now and I am relieved of a great deal of anxiety’. Here’s the letter – George’s handwriting is quite hard to decipher, so you can either get your magnifying glass out, or read the extract below.

… I would like if you could see the children before they are much older. John is about as tall as I am. Mary goes to school in Inverness and your namesake is an energetic wee fellow who keeps us all on the go. If you can arrange it with your wife we would be delighted to have you as my wife has put a spare bedroom in order. I hope you will make plans to come up as any time would suit us and I am sure you would enjoy a holiday in the Highlands …

I don’t know if Donald and Polly ever did make it to Fort William to visit George and Jessie, as Granny Bentley and her other son Laurence did – Catriona remembers those visits clearly. The thing I do notice is George’s palpable relief that his household had regained some kind of normality. Whether George’s children thought the same is another matter. I get the impression they were expected to accept the new situation and not refer to the past.

With Jessie by his side, George seems to have felt able to start taking an active part in society again. In 1936 moves were being made to revitalise the annual Ben Nevis Race; the original trophy had disappeared, so George presented a replica called the G. MacFarlane trophy. Both George and Jessie were devout Catholics and made generous donations to the church, including a statue of St Margaret to the Church of that name in Roy Bridge, and the Stations of the Cross at St Mary’s. George found a bag of sovereigns in the box room at home and quietly put them in the plate each Sunday without telling anyone. (Although someone must have known about it for us to hear the story now…!)

It wasn’t long before the marriage was blessed with children, no doubt giving everyone a fresh focus, the way young children do. Poor Jessie had rather difficult pregnancies and spent at least some of them bedridden in a nursing home, which must have brought back unhappy memories for George. George Jnr was born in 1937, his brother Sandy a year later. Here we have a picture of George’s christening. If John was as tall as his father in 1935, by 1937 it was clear he was going to tower over him! I can’t help noticing how like his mother John appears in this photograph, no doubt another reminder of the past for his father.

george's christening (2)

Below is a picture from 1941 of George’s four sons, and one of Mary with Sandy.

By 1942 John was in South Africa, having joined the RAF (see “Travels with my Parents – John, Part 1”). It occurs to me now that by the time he returned home after the war, John would have found the family augmented by the arrival of four more young siblings for George and Sandy – Margaret, Peter, Louisa and Catherine. I suppose Mary and Donald would have helped out at home with their younger half brothers and sisters, although Donald seems to have joined the Army just as soon as he was old enough and was the first of the three to marry in 1950, or maybe ’51, leaving Mary as the sole remaining representative of the ‘first family’.

george jessie and children

The war years were also busy for George who, as well as presiding over his growing family, was also active in civic life, culminating in him becoming Lord Provost of Fort William in 1950, thus following in his father’s footsteps. In a neat turn of events, George would present the 1951 G. MacFarlane Ben Nevis Cup as Provost, the race having resumed after a five year gap due to the war. The recipient on this occasion was one Brian Kearney, later to become the husband of the aforementioned cousin Catriona! This was just the first of Brian’s three victories in the Ben race and marked the first time the race had been run in under two hours. He clipped another 4 minutes off his time in 1954 and that record (one hour, 47 minutes and 4 seconds) stood for over 60 years.

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The year George became Provost, 1950, was a Holy Year of the Catholic Church, and George and Jessie wished to make the pilgrimage to Rome. So, looking for a nanny to care for the children, Jessie put an advertisement in the Irish Independent – I think a previous nursemaid had proved unsuitable.  And the rest, as they say, is history, when a certain Nellie Hynes (my Mum) answered the ad!

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Nellie got on well with everyone and enjoyed her new life in Fort William – a place she’d originally had to look up on the map! Her six charges retained great affection for her in the years to come, some of them exchanging Christmas cards, letters and even the odd visit to Glasgow. Although contacts naturally fade away over time, I don’t think they ever forgot the Irish nanny who, for a short time, was part of their childhood, taking them to school and teaching them words in French.

But Nellie’s future lay with the ‘first family’. As we know, John came home from the war and captured her heart. By the time they married in 1953, all three of George’s eldest three children had left home to pursue their fortunes away from Fort William and the traumas of childhood which they – or at least my Dad – never quite shook off.

It feels to me that the only way that George could thrive was to essentially brush the past under the carpet and keep it there, and who am I to blame him for that? I’m glad he was able to somehow find a way of surviving the loss of his first love. And I can also understand if Jessie would always put her own family first. But the legacy of the past casts a long shadow. As the eldest daughter of the eldest son, I suppose I inherited something of my father’s sense of injustice and that feeling of perpetually trying to regain something that was lost. But, I am not frozen in the past in the same way as my dear Dad was. I have had the opportunity in my life, as he perhaps never had in his, to reflect and heal and really understand the importance of letting go of the things you don’t have the power to change.

Daddy and me
Me and my Daddy, 1954. Remembered on this Father’s Day of 2018.

 

 

 

 

Uncomfortable Truths

I confess I haven’t really dwelt upon some of the unhappier episodes I’ve come across in my delving into the family archives over the past year and more. It’s not that I’m trying to hide anything, and I have certainly addressed sad subjects such as my grandmother Beatrice’s tragic early death, as well as topics like my ambivalence about my schooldays and my parents’ sense of shame about what they perceived as their position in society. My Mum’s insistence upon never mentioning that my Dad was a bus driver was not a comfortable thing for a teenager to take on board. However, I’ve found myself keen to see the deeper truths and to comprehend the reasons why things may have been the way they were.  Two things I have learned in my life are that 1) people don’t generally mean to cause you pain and that 2) we are ALL in need of forgiveness. So, as far as possible, I choose celebration over exposition, kindness over blame.

two birds perception

In my quest to get to the truth – or maybe just a truth – I am perfectly aware that my perception of even shared experiences is exactly that; MY perception. Whilst I might sometimes speculate, I never presume to know what anyone else might have felt. I’m also aware that even touching upon events in the past might trigger painful thoughts and memories in others that I’m not even aware of. I suppose it’s inevitable I won’t always get it right – it can only ever be my best guess as a fellow human being.

Except that I don’t always need to guess. I know perfectly well why I’ve sometimes avoided looking through my own shoeboxes of photographs from certain periods in my life, never mind anyone else’s. I’m sure that most people can look back on chapters in their lives when every single memory seems to be tinged with sorrow and pain and regret.

Old family photographs can take you like that too. Sometimes the people stare out at you with a haunted look in their eyes, captured in a moment of grief or unhappiness which touches your heart and makes you ache to reach out to them even long after they are dead and gone and can’t be hurt any more. This is one such picture (fortunately annotated at the back in case you’re wondering at how remarkably well informed I am, although some of the information also comes from my trawling through Ancestry.com records).

Peter and children, 1893

This is my Great Grandfather, Peter MacFarlane, with his seven children. The year is 1893 and the empty chair at the back is to signify the absence of Peter’s wife, Louisa, who died suddenly of cerebral meningitis in April of that year, aged 45. This might even have been the day of the funeral. It doesn’t take much insight to perceive the pain etched in all their faces, or to understand that this could have been a seminal moment determining the further course of their lives and personalities. In particular I look at the little curly haired chap in the front row, my Grandfather George, aged 6, for whom history tragically repeated itself in 1932 with the loss of his own wife, Beatrice, when his own littlest boy Donald, our Uncle Donald, was also 6.

These children would eventually become known to our family as my Dad’s Aunt Ettie (Ethel Sarah), Aunt Lulie (Mary Louisa) and Aunt Winnie (Winifred Grace), sitting at the back and Uncle Jack (Peter John) and Aunt Moolie (Muriel Davenport) to the front. The little child sitting on Lulie’s knee is Anice Jane, and she never grew up to be anyone’s aunt for she died only a couple of years later when she was just 3 years old. Uncle Jack, or Father Jack as he became a priest, died at the relatively young age of 47 in 1931, but the Aunties all lived into their 60’s and beyond.

My father was very attached to these Aunts of his, who would obviously have known him as he was growing up, and I think watched out for him and his brother and sister in the years after their mother died. Dad spoke of them with great fondness and we called in on them once or twice during the years when we would visit Fort William on our family holidays.

But although he would talk endlessly about his family, Dad didn’t, as far as I can remember, show us his family photographs or ever really explain who all the people were that populated his anecdotes. My sister Mary observed that in those days parents never really did explain things to their children the way modern parents do. questions-1922477_1920-300x300We were just expected to be good and do as we were told. Asking questions was considered to be “cheeky”. We were good, but perhaps rather ill informed, as Mary says: As a child I remember being constantly surprised and bewildered because things were always sprung on me. 

I probably tuned out of the reminiscences, the way children do, but I’m pretty sure I’d have remembered the pictures. It’s pointless to regret it now, but I do wish I had paid better attention when I was young, and asked more questions – in fact the questions I am currently asking all these decades later! Perhaps then Dad might have felt able to share the images with us, if he hadn’t just buried them so deep that he actually forgot the existence of the dusty old cardboard suitcase full of sepia memories.

Neither was my Mum, with her great inner drive to always be forging ahead in life, someone who you would turn to to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of family history. If she became more expansive in her latter days, it wasn’t about Dad’s past which was all tied up with the loss of his mother and subsequent poor relationship with his father George.

Let me describe how it seemed to me as a child of about 12 visiting Fort William (this would be several years after George passed away in 1962). 50 High Street, the address of both the family business MacFarlane and Son, Chemist and the family house above, had almost mythical proportions in my mind – this was the place where John had been brought up; where Nellie had been nanny to something called the “second family” (I didn’t really understand what that meant); where my mother and father had met and fallen in love. (I must have paid some attention!) I had vague memories of visiting there as a much younger child and had an impression of an attic room with wooden floors. Though I have to confess that I may very well have confused it in my mind with the Alm Uncle’s house in my beloved Heidi books, who knows?

What I remember of the visit in question was of us knocking on the street door beside the shop, waiting a long time for someone to answer and eventually trooping up a dark narrow flight of stairs at the top of which we were shown into the ‘parlour’ where a somewhat stout older woman with an unsmiling face presided over afternoon tea, with various other younger people popping in and out for the purpose, it seemed, of inspecting us.  If my Dad ever had a notion of showing us around his childhood home it was quickly dispelled in that frosty atmosphere. I don’t remember whether anyone talked to me, I was too busy feeling uncomfortable and just living for the moment when we could get out of there and breath again. I later understood that the stout woman was Jessie and that she wasn’t Dad’s mother. Of course I eventually worked out that she was George’s second wife and the mother of the mysterious “second family” though it seemed to be something we shouldn’t ask questions about, so I didn’t, though I did manage to become less ignorant as the years went by, mostly by keeping my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut!

It is only now, all those decades later, that I have started to try to properly untangle these and the various other characters who tumble about my brain all interacting with each other like extras in some crazy film. Aunt Clemmie, Morag Arisaig, Archie Speanbridge, Uncle Laurence, Granny Bentley, Ishbel, Sarah, George’s Elizabeth, Sandy’s Pat, Auntie Maureen, Uncle Donald… you get the picture! Of course the keys to bringing some sort of order to the chaos have been there all along had I but known it. Whether it be in memories residing in my own brain or those of my sisters and cousins; old cases of fading photographs; letters kept in black bags for 20 years; a family tree born of 32 years of meticulous research. These are just some of the sources I’ve already mentioned in the pages of this blog.

Another realisation is that, while it’s true about the material being there all along, just waiting to be discovered, it’s probably also true that it’s only the fact that both John and Nellie are no longer with us that has given me the freedom to dig deeper and explore the facts that lay behind what I always knew was a great tragedy in my father’s life, and the feelings of loss he always felt regarding Fort William and his childhood. Sometimes what you’re looking for is confirmation of a childhood impression – it’s so easy for children to get the wrong end of the stick. I have hesitated before now to tell the tale of our visit to ‘Fifty’. It is an uncomfortable tale to tell and one doesn’t want to cause hurt to people who’s idea of what was going on may be entirely different from yours. But I believe it is a true impression – anyone I have ever talked to about it confirms that. I even have some words written by Aunt Winnie, George’s sister, in a letter to her daughter Theresa following his death in 1962:

…there is no place now for the first family…

And so it proved. I do think there are things that happen in our lives that you can never really get over. Such as the death of a parent, or a child, or a grandchild, or a marriage, or our idea of ourselves as someone who will unfailingly keep our promises and be able to always protect our loved ones from harm. Or the notion that we can take anything life throws at us and then come back for more….

I’m lucky, I have always eventually been able to come back for more, albeit sadder and wiser, as the saying goes. I can look back at my old photographs and know that the person staring out at me with that haunted look in her eyes isn’t really me any more. That somehow I did learn to live with what seemed to be unbearable pain or a truth so uncomfortable as to make you want to take to your bed and stay there forever.

flood

It must be a rare person who sails through life without ever feeling that they want to give up. The rest of us just muddle through the best we can, our ancestors being no exception. Some admirable souls share their struggles for all to see in the hope that others can take strength from knowing they are not alone. I think most of us choose to fight our life battles in private.

But whether we shout it from the rooftops, or share our struggles in a more intimate way, we are all more or less battle scarred. I believe that our job is not to avoid the challenges of life, but to embrace them, learn from them, give our children the gift of resilience, teach them kindness to others and never to be afraid to ask for help. If you want my own homespun philosophy, it’s this – whenever I reach the end of my tether I tie a knot in it and hang on, remembering the words of the great Scarlett O’Hara, heroine of the best film ever, Gone With The Wind:

scarlet-ohara

 

 

 

Beatrice and George: a love story, a young family and a great loss.

elephant

My grandparents, George MacFarlane and Beatrice Bentley, met in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) sometime in 1914 or 15 and married in Market Harborough in 1920. I know that statement probably raises more questions that it answers, but I’m afraid I don’t really know very much more than the bare bones. George, newly qualified, had been sent out to work as a chemist in Kandy, don’t ask me why, but there is a theory that it had something to do with taking medicines out there to help fight an outbreak of plague which had taken place in the country round about this time (which I CAN verify thanks to Wikipedia!). In true Who-Do-You-Think-You-Are fashion, I have found him listed as a passenger on board the P&O steamer SS Malwa which set sail from London on the 7th of April 1911, calling in at Colombo, Ceylon. However that’s where the WDYTYA similarity ends because I can’t find him on any returning voyage, nor is there a team of helpful experts ready to tell me where to look for evidence of how George would have spent his time in that far off outpost of empire. So we’ll just have to imagine – think elephants, temples, tea plantations…

As for Beatrice, she was 17 when she set off from Liverpool on the 10th of December 1914 on board the SS Leicestershire. She is listed as a governess, accompanying Mr and Mrs WG Wishart and Miss Jessie Wishart. Miss Jessie was probably only a year or two younger than Beatrice herself. The return journey was made by the three intrepid ladies in December of the following year on board the SS Gloucestershire, William Wishart no doubt remaining behind to pursue his business interests.

So, we can only speculate about the 25 year old George and the 18 year old Beatrice falling in love during that year when she was out in the far east. Did they maybe meet at an afternoon tea party, dance together under the moon, share their hopes and dreams, make plans to be reunited back in Blighty and then write letters to each other during the months and years they were apart. I have no idea. All I know is that the next we hear of them is their wedding on the 8th of September 1920, so SOMETHING must have happened!

The young couple settled in Fort William, where George took over the family chemist business from his widowed father, Peter, and they lived with him in the commodious flat above the shop at 50 High Street. It wasn’t long before the family began to grow, and at last I have some pictures to show you – here’s a wee slideshow. I particularly like the ones where the children are grubby… and that one with the whole family out with the pram, doesn’t John remind you of “Just William”?

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I am named after my paternal and maternal grandmothers, Beatrice and Margaret. I know little about my mother’s mother, Maggie Hynes, though I’m working on it… But it was always going to be on the cards that my dad would call his eldest child after his beloved mother, for she died when he was only 11 and that loss affected him deeply for the rest of his life, I think he never really stopped longing for her.

twentythree 001 (3)

As a child, you don’t always appreciate what it means when you are told that someone in a previous generation died before you were even born – it seems like the natural order of things. Now of course, I can understand what a tragedy it was that this grandmother of mine died of TB in 1932 at only 35 years of age. It’s quite a shock to realise that had she lived she’d only have been 57 when I was born in 1954. It is also painful to know that a diagnosis of TB in the 1920’s and 30’s was more likely than not a death sentence, as antibiotics did not become widely available until the 1950’s.

Beatrice left behind the three cherished children, John aged 11, Mary aged 8, Donald aged 6 and her distraught husband George, who was probably singularly ill equipped to deal with this bereavement given that he had lost his own mother when he in turn was only 6. His wife died far from home at the Tor-na-Dee Sanitorium, Aberdeen and due to a mix up, the telegram notifying George was delayed by three days. It’s said that he wept inconsolably when he heard the news. I rather think he found himself unable to be of much comfort to his children and I’ve heard that they became rather neglected and that George took rather more refuge in the bottle than was healthy.

Beatrice spent at least two extended periods in sanitoriums being treated with rest and fresh air, the prescribed therapy at the time. The family wouldn’t have been able to visit as the disease was so terribly infectious. So, starting in May 1931 George made sure that John, Mary and Donald wrote letters to their mother every Sunday, many of which are still in existence, though as far as I know none of the replies from Mama. Here are the first couple of letters sent by Mary to her mother. Reading that second one especially, you get a strong sense that Mary felt as if she had just gone out of the room for a short while.

Mary letter 01

All three children wrote regularly, the letters of the older two being full of all the things they were busy with – how they were doing at school, what games they were playing, what cousins they were visiting, how tall they were, the excitement of the talkies coming to Fort William…. and so on. Donald, being only 5 or 6 would dictate his letters and either George or Mary would write them out for him (John didn’t seem to have the patience!) and he would fill up the rest of the page with kisses, letters or numbers …. like this. (Mary has added the explanation, but Donald has signed his own name at the bottom.

donald letter 2

I suppose over the months the children gradually grew more used to not having their mother at home. She was still absent by Christmas, and I have to say it’s heartbreaking to read their letters wishing her a happy Christmas and telling her about the presents they received. I’m sure she wept many tears over those words. There’s a gap in the letters once we get into 1932, but I’m not sure if Beatrice was allowed home for a while, or if it’s just that those ones are missing. I’d like to think it was the former. At some point she was transferred from the Sanitorium at Kingussie to Aberdeen. The letters have got rather darker by the autumn and George seems to have gone for a visit in September as Mary writes to him asking how Mama is doing. (He couldn’t visit much, as he had the business to run and the household to supervise, also he didn’t have a car.)

All the children talk more about how they were praying for her. John’s final letter to his mother was written just five days before she died, and I find it very touching that he was finding a little comfort from sleeping in her bed…

john letter 1

 

Beatrice Headstone

Beatrice is buried at Cille Choirill Graveyard, Roybridge, where many MacFarlanes have been put to rest. Many decades later, her daughter Mary’s ashes were scattered at her mother’s grave by my cousin Michael, who, like me, would have been one of Beatrice’s 16 grandchildren.