A Walk in the Park

A story for Christmas…

A sharp blast of wind caught Alfie as he turned in the gate of the Botanic Gardens and shrugged his duffle bag more tightly onto his shoulder. At least it’s not raining, he thought as he headed straight up the main driveway towards the glasshouses. It had been nearly a month since Erin has issued her invitation and Alfie had still not given her an answer. He’d spent most of December agonising about it, endlessly going over the pros and cons in his mind. Peter and Robert had been no help and he’d just about stopped even listening to their mumblings and grumblings. “What do you want to go to New Zealand for anyway?” “What about us and OUR families?” “Don’t you care if you never see us again?”

Well of course he cared! Why did they think it was such a difficult decision? But the truth was that, despite these two sons of his being no further away from Glasgow than Aberdeen and London, he never did see anything of them. His sons were fine men with great careers and lovely wives and families, sons to be proud of. But their lives were full and busy and while they were always making promises, they never actually found the time to make the trip to their home town to visit their old Da.

Of course it had been different when Nancy was alive and still herself. Somehow she’d been the magnet that had drawn them all together for Christmas and had orchestrated the complicated arrangements with her daughters in law which meant that they’d bring the grandchildren to visit for a few days on the way to or from some more exotic holiday destination. But these days…

He stepped inside the Kibble Palace and loosened his scarf as the warm blast hit him. It had been quite a while since he’d visited this place, but as he strolled by the goldfish pond, the memories came flooding back. He smiled at the mother of a young child who giggled as she plopped pebbles into the water, just as his own children had done all those years ago when he used to give them a penny and tell them to make a wish as it hit the water. Just as he had done as a youngster.

It had been just the two of them, him and his mum. His dad had been injured in the second world war and had never really recovered from his injuries, though he’d managed to return to work as a train driver for a few years before the bullet fragment that was lodged in his brain had one day shifted slightly and killed him suddenly and silently.  Alfie had been five years old and he still remembered the day when his mother, white as a sheet, had collected him from school at home time. The fierce hug she gave him, and her tears, told him that something terrible had happened before she even managed to spit out the words.

They had moved from Partick to live with his Aunt Maureen in her big flat in Hillhead. “Of course you must come and stay with me, Peggy! Look at me, rattling around all by myself in this big house – you and Alfie are just what this place needs!” And Alfie discovered that the formidable woman he’d always been a little afraid of turned out to have a heart of pure gold. The temporary arrangement became a permanent one, with Peggy keeping house for them all, and Auntie Maureen dropping Alfie at St Peter’s Primary every day on her way to the High School where she was the Headmistress.

Alfie stopped when he reached the statue called ‘Stepping Stones’. It depicted a young girl carrying a younger child with his arms around her neck, their heads close together as she carefully stretched out her bare foot to feel for the next stone. This had been their favourite, his and his mum’s, and they had visited it often on the way home. They’d walk round the circuit, carefully examining each of the marble statues in turn, before deciding that yes, ‘Stepping Stones’ was the best. Satisfied, they’d return home where it would soon be time for Auntie Maureen to come home and they’d all have their tea together.

Alfie quietly wiped away a tear as he returned to the main driveway. He wasn’t really one for feeling sorry for himself, but visiting the statues had only highlighted the fact that here he was on Christmas Day taking a solitary walk in the park. He told himself not to be daft and continued on up the hill, allowing the memories to flood in. That’s what he was here for, wasn’t it? To lay those memories to rest?

So many memories associated with this place.  Of his mother, his wife, his daughter, all gone now. Of his sons, who had always chosen the statue of the naked man with the monkey on his knee. Of Auntie Maureen who, to his surprise and childish embarrassment, had professed a liking for the statue of the naked Eve. This was on one of the rare occasions when she had joined them for their Sunday walk. Not long before her death, he remembered. He’d always regretted that Auntie Maureen hadn’t lived to see him go to University and follow in her footsteps into the teaching profession, first as a lecturer and finally professor.

And of course Erin was still very much alive, albeit gone to the other side of the world.

Erin… So much younger than Peter and Robert, who had already grown up and left home by the time their little sister, the ‘afterthought baby’, had been born. She’d been a happy, mischievous child who had given her middle aged parents so much joy as she grew up, and caused them such anxiety when at 18 she’d announced that instead of going to University like her brothers she was going to take a gap year and see the world.

The gap year had turned into a decade, and a way of life where there was always something new to see, somewhere new to go, all funded by a few month’s work as a nanny or a bartender or a tutor. They learned to stop worrying about what their daughter was going to do with her life and instead stuck a map of the world on the kitchen wall where they could follow her progress with coloured pins and make a border of the postcards she faithfully sent from the four corners of the globe.

Until the day, on one of her rare visits home, she had lost her heart to the tall New Zealander she’d bumped into in, of all places, Sauchiehall Street! Her brothers had had plenty to disapprove of as the whirlwind romance turned into a registry office wedding. “You’ve only known him 5 minutes” “Why can’t you have a proper wedding in a church?” “This will kill your poor mother.” But the ‘poor mother’ had been Erin’s staunchest ally and had reminded her sons that they had previously spent their sister’s flying visits asking “When are you going to get married and settle down?” They could hardly have it both ways now, even if settling down was so alarmingly far away.

Alfie too had surprised himself by being quite sanguine about Erin and Niall. After all, he had learned long ago that Erin was someone who, like her mother, would always follow her own path in life no matter what anyone thought. In any case, who was he to judge? He and Nancy had only known each other a couple of months before they had got married in the student chaplaincy. They saw no point in waiting and knew that if they did it would be too late for Peggy, prematurely old and frail with heart problems. He had never forgotten his mother’s face, shining with happiness, as she sat between Nancy’s parents in the small friendly chapel. The three of them had held hands as they watched their offspring make vows that were heartfelt and – as it turned out – long lasting.

It was as if the wedding had given Peggy permission to slip away and she died peacefully in her sleep the following week. Just like her to leave without a fuss, thought Alfie. He was a little out of breath now as he reached the top of the hill and stood for a moment waiting for his heart to slow down. There was always a choice to be made at this point. On weekdays, he and his mother would turn left and start heading for home. On Sundays, they’d go right and he’d get a chance to explore the overgrown pathways that led down to the river, thrashing at the bushes with a stick and sometimes coming across frogs or a pretty pebble that he’d slip into his pocket to give to his mother when they met up again at the bottom of the hill.

He’d once asked if it wasn’t boring for her just walking quietly by herself down the path while he dashed off into the undergrowth. “Oh no, dear,” she’d said. “I love it here, it reminds me of your father. We used to come here when we were courting. See that big oak tree over there? That’s where he proposed to me” Suddenly he understood the dreamy look she sometimes had on her face as she strolled calmly down the hill and then sat on the bench at the bottom while she waited for her son to come running up, dirty and dishevelled, and eager to tell her about the frog he’d seen, or to put a round pink pebble into her hand.

He’d seen his mother in a different light after that, imagining her and the handsome young man from their wedding photograph strolling hand in hand under the trees and maybe even kissing, as he’d seen people do in the movies. How he’d blushed at the thought – he must have been maybe 9 or 10 when he had that revelation. And somehow he had understood that no-one would ever take his dad’s place in Peggy’s heart. That was why instead of burying her, he’d brought her ashes home and had placed them on the mantlepiece beside the urn that contained his dad’s.

Nancy had understood, but had occasionally asked when he was going to scatter his parents’ ashes. “When the time is right” he would reply. She’s never say any more, but when her time came he’d known what she would want and had taken the boat to Millport one sunny day two summers ago and committed her ashes to the waters of the Firth of Clyde, so that the ocean currents could sweep her away to the far off places she’d never had a chance to visit in life.

He took the path to the left and as he strode down the hill it occurred to him that it wasn’t until he had sons of his own that he had understood what a solitary child he had been, tending to shy away from the rough and tumble of the school yard rather than being in the thick of it as his boys inevitably were. They had been such scamps as children, so close in ages as to be almost like twins, and inseparable as they got into one scrape after another, climbing trees and falling out of them again, laughing their heads off. He was pretty sure he remembered rescuing one of them from that big monkey puzzle tree there at the corner. Probably Robert – he never could turn down a dare.

He listened to the men they had become tell him how impossible this proposal of Erin’s was and how he should just dismiss the idea out of hand. “I mean, do you expect us to come all the way to New Zealand just to visit you?” Well, why not, he thought. What happened to those carefree boys of mine who were always looking for adventure? But you couldn’t really say a thing like that out loud, could you?

Erin could though. “Just ignore them Dad, they never even come to Glasgow, never mind New  Zealand!” She was right, and more than that, she also addressed head-on the question which bothered him more than any other – what would happen to him as he got older and perhaps could no longer look after himself. His sons were vague, “Oh you don’t need to worry about that yet, Dad, you’re fit and healthy aren’t you? Why concern yourself with something that might never happen? We’ll do our duty by you, you know that.” He knew they realised that getting older was inevitable. He also knew that their avoidance of the issue was because of their unwillingness to admit that once their father could no longer fend for himself, their duty would consist of finding a nice care home in which he could live out his final days. The thought made him shudder.

On the other side of the world, Erin was the one who understood, who chatted with him practically every day on Skype and actually listened to his concerns. He’d learned how to open his heart to his daughter during the dark days when Nancy had reached the point where she no longer knew him and couldn’t be left safely alone in the house for fear she would leave the cooker on or would wander out into the street and forget how to get home again.  He’d refused to even countenance putting her in a home – she might have forgotten me, he told his sons, but I remember HER – and he took early retirement to look after her until, finally, his beloved Nancy had passed away in his arms after a massive stroke.

Unlike the boys, Erin was never satisfied with his assurance that he was fine, he was coping okay. She had gently insisted that he tell her how he really felt, that he share his sadness and despair with her. She had been with him every step of the way.

And now she was asking the killer question “What’s to stop you Dad? We want you with us, Niall and me. I can’t bear the thought of you ending your days all alone in some home or other when you can come and live with us on the farm. When you can have a new life: have some fun for goodness sake! You know I’ll look after you when the time comes. How could I ever put you in a home after all you did for Mum? Don’t you think it’s no more than you deserve, it’s no more than I can do? I know Mum would agree…”

Alfie took a deep breath. He knew the answer, he’d known for a while. In the past few weeks he’d been visiting all his old haunts, saying goodbye. He knew that if he did this, he’d probably never see Glasgow again, even though the Glasgow he knew was really only somewhere that existed in his memory. But ‘never’ and ‘forever’ were words that could stop you in your tracks, and he had one more thing to do before he’d be ready.

He had to push aside some overgrown brambles to reach the spot, but sure enough, there it was, surrounded by some sturdy railings. The low level platform of Botanic Gardens Station, deserted for some 70 years and now completely overgrown and covered in graffitti. He hadn’t been the only one to be fascinated by this glimpse of the past. Over the years many people, old and young, had stood right here to gaze down at this tantalising and perhaps haunted relic of the Victorian era. He’d always been glad of the substantial railings, preventing his mischievous boys from surely climbing down and disappearing into the tunnel.

They’d always listened in wide eyed wonder, and Erin had too, when he told them about their own special connection with the railway that used to run under the Botanic Gardens. Because their own grandfather, his dad, had actually driven the train that had taken this route! They knew the story well but never tired of hearing how in the olden days Botanic Gardens Station had stood just there, near the main gates. They’d imagine the Victorian ladies and gentlemen standing on the platform waiting for trains that would chuff into the station in a great cloud of smoke and steam and noise. And no, your grandpa didn’t drive a steam train, it would have been diesel engines by then, this was after the second world war.

He smiled as he remembered his eager children always asking the same questions as he told the tale. They especially liked the part where he told them how the actual station had been closed just before the war, never to open as a station again. But that the trains had continued to run through the ghost station for another decade and more until the line had been closed for good in the 1960’s and the station demolished in 1970 after a fire. Yes, that’s before you were born! But not before YOU were born, Daddy, they would prompt.

And he would tell them what he could recall. How as a little boy he remembered his dad coming home in his railway uniform – yes, he had a cap – and talk about about the train that would run without stopping through the subterranean ghost station all the way under the Gardens until it came out at another station called Kirklee. And no, I don’t know if he ever saw any ghosts, but I suppose he might have. There are lots of ghost stories to do with old railway lines, did I ever tell you about the Gray Lady of Hillhead, she was supposed to be a happy ghost who smiled at people….

In truth Alfie couldn’t really remember whether it had been his father who had talked about the ghost station. Or perhaps it had been his mother who had taken to occasionally taking him for trips on the very line where her dear Jack used to travel. As a train-mad youngster, these trips had been a huge treat.

“Why do you shut your eyes when we go into the tunnel Mummy, are you scared?” “Oh no darling, I know it might seem daft, but it makes me feel closer to your Daddy, this was the same train as he used to drive.” It didn’t seem at all daft to Alfie, it seemed to make perfect sense, and he took to also closing his eyes in the tunnel to feel close to the father he could barely remember. Perhaps his ghost did come and join us in the tunnel he thought. Perhaps it was waiting there still. Why not?

He took his  duffle bag and opened it to retrieve a plastic food container. It had amazed and touched him when he’d emptied the urns to see how small a space the ashes of two human beings took up. He took a quick look around to check there was no-one near, then carefully opened the box and reached over the railing to shake out the contents. At that moment a sudden gust caught the ashes, sending them in a joyful upward spiral. To his eye it was as if the two lonely spirits were entwining in an everlasting dance before disappearing together into the ether.

“The time is right, Nancy,” he whispered.

It was with a lighter heart and a lighter step that Alfie walked out through the gates of the Botanic Gardens that day. He’d be just in time for Christmas Lunch with his neighbours the Dempseys, a kind young couple who had insisted he join them as soon as they discovered that his family had other plans which didn’t involve him. And then he’d go home and listen to the radio while he waited for Erin’s call round about 8.00. By then it would be early on Boxing Day morning in New Zealand and Erin would be having her first coffee of the day while she checked in with her Dad. She’d wake up fast, he thought, when she heard what he had to say.  “Yes Erin, I’d love to come and live with you in New Zealand.”

 

 

 

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The Story of a House, part 5

After the war, a family called Campbell made their home at 8 Kersland Street. All I know about them (from the electoral register) are their names – James, Catherine, Hugh, Mary, Jane. So, possibly a mother and father and at least three children old enough to vote? They stayed a good long time, from 1947 all through the 1950’s, until, in 1960, the house was bought by William and Fay Darling. And this, dear reader, is a very significant moment!

If you have been following this story you may have noticed that up until this point all the residents of 8 Kersland Street have been tenants. It turns out (now that I’ve procured a copy of the historic title deeds from the Land Registry) that through all these long years the landlords, the owners of the property, were named Blackie and were in fact members of the famous Glasgow publishing firm, Blackie and Son. The firm ceased business in 1991, but you may be familiar with some of the iconic childrens’ books they published, including Cecily May Barker’s Flower Fairies books.

flower fairies

The Blackie we are interested in is John Blackie Jnr, whose father – John Snr – founded Blackie’s in 1809. He had originally been in business as a weaver, but was persuaded that money could be made by selling sizeable books in monthly or quarterly instalments, by subscription. Money could indeed be made and the enterprise developed and prospered for another 180-odd years.

Blackie_John jnr

John Junior entered the business with his father and from 1831 the firm became known as Blackie and Son . But John’s sphere of influence would grow wider when in 1857 he was elected to the Glasgow City Council and in 1863 became Lord Provost and served a term in that position. He proposed the City Improvement Scheme, a major plan to improve the quality of life in the poorer areas and was also involved in bringing water to the city from Loch Katrine.

The 1861 census shows John and his wife Agnes living at Lilybank House, Hillhead with their three young sons, John, William and Albert. His profession is given as “Publisher employing 20 men and boys”, a proud declaration one feels, and by this time he would have also been involved in city politics. But… Lilybank House…?

Lilybank House was built sometime around 1830 for the merchant Robert Allen. This would have been quite early in the evolution of the suburb of Hillhead, when James Gibson was selling off plots of land for development as villas and terraces. When John Blackie took on the tenancy in 1857, Lilybank House was a small Georgian villa with a large walled garden and greenhouses.  Once he actually purchased it in 1864, he commissioned architect Alexander “Greek” Thomson to add a new wing to the south end and relocate the entrance. During his term as Provost, Blackie had the satisfaction of entertaining both William Gladstone and young Prince Alfred, son of Queen Victoria, at his newly enhanced residence.

Lilybank_House_1
Lilybank House has undergone various additions and alterations over the years. In 1894 it was converted to a Hall of Residence for women attending Queen Margaret College, known as Queen Margaret Hall. It was taken over by Glasgow University in 1924 and after it ceased to be a hall of residence in 1966, it has been used to house various departments of the University. It has been the subject of further refurbishment and conservation work and is now part of the Thompson Heritage Trail.

Lilybank House is of particular interest to us because it is situated in Bute Gardens, which is more or less a continuation of the other end of Kersland Street from number 8. So James Blackie Jnr would have been ideally placed to witness the streets of Hillhead emerge and grow before his very eyes, indeed it’s not unlikely that he and James Gibson would have been well acquainted with each other. Which probably explains why in 1871 Blackie purchased a plot measuring 738 and four ninths square yards of ground on the West Side of Kersland Street and, I think, other plots which I can’t identify.

upstairs

Did John Blackie then take a daily stroll down Kersland Street to monitor the progress of the construction which was growing into the 4-storey tenement building which became numbers 8 and 10 Kersland Street (for he was the owner of both addresses). I’d like to think he did, it’s what I would have done, wouldn’t you?

But John did not survive long to live to appreciate his investment. His health had been undermined due to overstrain during the years of his Provostship and he finally succumbed to a sharp attack of pleurisy on February 12th, 1873, in his 68th year. John Senior outlived his son and he died the following year at the grand old age of 91.

John Jnr’s widow Agnes moved out of Lilybank House and took up residence nearby at 6 Wilson Street, now known as Oakfield Avenue, and only four streets away from Kersland Street. In her household were her coachman and two female servants, so her “private means”, including the rental from numbers 8 and 10 and possibly other properties, seems to have left her comfortably off. It tickles me to think that Agnes Blackie and her tenant Madame Stewart might have actually known each other. But I’m probably being fanciful – presumably a woman of property and a tenant would have moved in different social circles, especially as all the actual renting out and collecting moneys and property management would have been done by an agent. It’s not impossible though, is it?

Inkedhillhead 1860
This 1860 map neatly illustrates the proximity of the site of 8 Kersland Street (#1) to Lilybank House (#2), Hillhead House (#3) and 6 Wilson Street (#4).
hillhead 1894
By 1894 the whole area has been transformed, and Hillhead House is no longer there, having been demolished in 1878.

On the death of Agnes in 1887, the Kersland Street properties were passed on to William Gourlie Blackie, John and Agnes’s middle son. One gets a feeling that after the death of his father in 1873, life hadn’t been particularly easy for William. He had married Katherine Rankin in 1875 and their son William R was born in London the following year. Two daughters, Agnes Mary and Ruby Katherine, came along over the next couple of years, both born in Kirkcudbrightshire, and then it’s back to London where another son, John Herndon was born in 1880. William was only 21 when his first child was born – could it be that he left Glasgow under a cloud? Why didn’t he join the family firm? Of course it could be that he just wanted to strike out on his own…

The 1881 census shows William to be an “unemployed printer” living in Clapham with his wife and four small children. Very sadly, they lost the youngest, John, the following year when he was only 2 years old. We find the family still in London 10 years later and William is now working in the publishing industry. There are clues which put the family in Canada in 1901 – indeed Blackie’s had an office there, so perhaps William did after all come to hold down a position with the family firm. But whatever dreams took William and Katherine to Canada, they didn’t last, for the next we hear is the report of William’s death in 1905 at Ballantrae in Ayrshire, at the age of only 51.

Katherine and her daughters then seem to have lived on their ‘private means’ in various places in the south of England until Katherine passed away in 1911 at Hastings in Sussex. She was then 57.

Agnes and Ruby would have been in their early thirties when they inherited numbers 8 and 10 Kersland Street. The sisters never married and as far as I can tell had set up house together and were living in Tunbridge Wells when their mother died. I don’t know that they always lived together – at one point they seem to have had separate houses in St Leonards on Sea and at another time are recorded as residing in Stirling, where I think they may have had relatives. I’m picking up these tiny tidbits from the title deeds and, to be honest it’s a miracle you can pick up anything from them as they are written in that arcane legal language so beloved of solicitors and their ilk. Here’s a wee snippet to show you what I mean (this is one of the clearer bits!)

deeds snippet

Anyway, the years rolled by and the rentals rolled in, until Agnes Mary passed away in 1929, age 50. Ruby Katherine carried on as sole proprietor and at some point in the mid nineteen thirties came to live at 24 Hamilton Park Avenue in Glasgow, a rather nice looking terraced house not a stone’s throw away from Kersland Street. (Hamilton Park Avenue is indicated by the blue arrow on the map below, and Kersland Street by the yellow one). The tenement properties were being managed by agents, but I can’t believe that Ruby wouldn’t have been familiar with them. She could hardly have avoided them whenever she passed by on her way to the Botanic Gardens, or the shops of Byres Road.

So what brought Ruby to Glasgow? As far as I know she’d never lived there, hadn’t known her grandparents, who had died before she was even born, hadn’t known the imposing house where her father had been brought up. I think that once again geography can come to our aid here. When you place 24 Hamilton Park Avenue (then known as James Street) on our 1860 map (#5) and realise how it fits in to the general scheme of things, I think it’s not unreasonable to conclude that this property must surely have been another acquired by the far sighted John Blackie Junior, and that in taking up residence there, Ruby was doing no more than coming home.

inked ham park ave

I’d like to think that Ruby felt a sense of belonging when she came home to Hillhead and got to know the area her family came from and the various locations which were part of her own history.

Economic conditions became more difficult after the second world war and the title deeds show us that Ruby, through her agents, began selling off the various flats at 10 Kersland Street in 1949, and that this continued throughout the 1950’s, culminating in the sale of number 8 in 1960. This no doubt enabling her to maintain herself as she became older and frailer (she’d have reached her 80th birthday in 1958). Ruby eventually moved into a nearby old folks home (Henderson House) and then possibly one in Edinburgh, where I think she lived out her days and died some time in the mid sixties.

My mum used to say that before us only one family had ever lived in our house, which, as we’ve seen, isn’t right. But she WAS correct in thinking that only one family had ever owned it in the previous 90 years. I wish I could tell her she was right, but she probably knew that anyway; she knew things, did my mum…

 

 

 

The Story of a House, part 3

I think I should be calling this a Saga rather than a Story as we’ve reached part 3 and are still only at 1906! Trouble is, there are just so many interesting facts to be discovered, so many assumptions to shatter, unknown lives to celebrate. Let’s see how far the story takes us today, you’re not in any hurry are you…?

1906-1917. With the Macgregors gone, a new tenant took up residence at number 8. Mrs Isabella Millar was a lady in her sixties, a widow whose husband David had died, age 70, in March of 1900. The pair had been married for 36 years and had lived at St George’s Cross where David Millar worked as a hatter. Isabella now came to live in Kersland Street with her maid Mary Brown, a 20 year old girl from Leadhills.

hats

Mrs Millar had private means, her husband having left behind an estate of about £360, which would be worth around £11,555 in today’s money. So she didn’t need, and wouldn’t have qualified for, the new Old Age Pension which came into being in January 1909 – “Pensions Day” – and paid a weekly pension of 5s (7s 6d for couples) to eligible people aged 70 or more. The Old Age Pensions Act, passed in 1908, was just one of the reforms brought in by the Liberal Government led by Herbert Asquith, then David Lloyd-George. Probably as much because they were afraid of the promises being made by the newly formed Labour Party as an overwhelming desire to improve the lot of the poor working classes. I’m sure they did mean well too, but politics is all about winning votes, right?

I found out something quite remarkable as I was searching for Mrs Millar in the records. We all know that women weren’t given the vote until 1918, don’t we? But did you know that women could actually vote in non-parliamentary elections as early as the 1830’s? No, neither did I! But there are some dusty old ledgers sitting on a shelf in the Mitchell Library listing ‘Female Voters’ and dating back to at least 1831. So when it came to Town Councils, Parish Councils, School Boards, women were there voting with the men. And I don’t think it was only women with property either, as you’re just as likely to see ‘tenant’ and ‘charwoman’ as ‘proprietor’ and ‘private means’

Edwardian-Platter-Hat-1

And Isabella B Millar is right up there, listed with the best of them, so it would be great to think of her jamming her platter hat firmly on her head and marching round to the Burgh Hall to exercise her vote in the latest municipal elections. Oh alright, walking round in a dignified way if you prefer…

I don’t know how many children Isabella and David had, but there was one daughter, Agnes, known as Ada, who lived quite near her mother in a house called Ashcraig, just a little further up Great Western Road at Kirklee. Ada had married a chap called Frederick Lansdown Morrison, MA, LLB. Fred had had a distinguished academic career (he’d gone up to Glasgow University at the age of 16) and the 1901 census lists him as being a writer.

Ashcraig was the Morrison family home and Ada and Fred lived there with their three sons Ronald, James and Leslie, so I guess Isabella would have been able to visit her daughter, grandsons and son-in-law quite often. And they must surely have come to number 8 to visit granny. I wonder if they’d be shown in to the parlour upstairs, or gone down to the cosy kitchen in the basement where Mary Brown might have been baking cakes in the cast iron range.

cooking range

When war broke out in 1914, Fred Morrison was among the first to sign up, even though he was already 50 years old. He served with the Highland Light Infantry, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Fred served in Gallipoli, Egypt and Palestine and was much decorated, though he felt he had done nothing to deserve it other than to survive, and paid warm tribute to the bravery of his officers and men who had died in battle. Colonel Morrison’s battalion had suffered very heavy losses at Gallipoli – only 5 out of 29 officers survived the campaign and 321 out of 1033 other ranks.

Two of Ada’s sons, Ronald and Leslie, also joined the Highland Light Infantry and I have an idea that James, the middle son, went to Canada and joined up there.

With all her men away at war, I think that Ada brought her mother to live at Ashcraig, where no doubt the two women could console and support each other, and Ada could look after Isabella, whose health was failing. I’m sure that worry about her grandsons and son-in-law did her heart condition no good at all and on the 7th July 1917 Isabella passed away at age 78 with Ada by her side. The cause of death was myocarditis and dilatation of the heart. Poor Ada’s woes weren’t over, for on the 22nd December that year, Fred died at 54 in Alexandria Egypt, the strains and hardships of war finally taking their toll. He was buried at the Alexandria War Memorial Cemetery.

This one family’s story mirrors what was happening to families up and down the land, indeed throughout the world. Among the many memorials which were raised to commemorate this lost generation, locally a peal of 8 bells were gifted to Kelvinside Parish Church by Mr Nicol Paton Brown, whose only son, Captain Kenneth Ashby Brown lost his life in battle, shortly after the bells were installed.Watch-gravesThe peal forms a memorial to the men of Glasgow Academy, Kelvinside Academy and the church congregation who died in the Great War. The bells were rung for the first time on Christmas Day, 1917. I don’t suppose Ada would have felt much like celebrating Christmas as she listened to them ring out and remembered all she had lost that year, and might yet lose, with her boys so far away. But I believe she was spared further sorrow for by all accounts all three young men survived the war and came home.

In December, 1918, the bells were formally dedicated in a special service at which both West End schools were represented. To this day they can still be heard ringing out at 11 am each year on the 11th of November.

  • curtain blowing1918-1926. With the passing of Mrs Millar, number 8 saw the arrival of new tenants, the MacCulloch sisters, Jessie, Nellie and Rebecca, and their occupation is recorded as ‘Governess’ – all three of them. Now I don’t quite know what to make of this – I would have thought that a governess was someone in Victorian times who lived in the household, not quite a servant, but not part of the family either. But that doesn’t seem to be the case here as the sisters were all living in Kersland Street, so perhaps they were kind of ‘day governesses’, going off each day to teach their charges and coming back home at night, or… could their pupils have come to them? But if that’s the case, why not call yourself a tutor, or a teacher? I’m afraid I can offer no answer to these questions.

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What I do know is that the MacCulloch sisters came from a large family of seven girls and one boy.  We can follow the family’s progress through the years by catching up with the census every decade. It makes interesting reading…

  • In 1861, David and Mary MacCulloch already had two daughters, Jane (7) and Jessie (5 months), and a son, Andrew (6). They lived at 22 St Vincent Street (near George Square in the centre of Glasgow) and David worked as an Emigration and Insurance Agent, probably at one of the nearby firms in the city.
  • By 1871, the family had grown considerably and Jane, Andrew and Jessie were joined by another five sisters: Mary (8), Ellen (7), Rebecca (5), Isabella (2) and Robertina (4 months). The family had moved south of the river to what looks like a large workman’s cottage on Shields Road – St Andrews Cottage. Also in the household were a servant and a nurse – I should think so too! David was now working as an Iron Merchant.

Over the next ten years, all the older children would leave home, I’m not quite sure where to, except that I think that Jane got married to one William Keighley, and went to live in Yorkshire.

  • In 1881, the household comprised David and Mary, with Jessie (20), Rebecca (15), Robertina (10) and a servant girl. The family fortunes seem to have flourished because there has been another move which now sees them at a ‘good’ address in the West End, 27 Hayburn Crescent, Hyndland. David’s occupation is described as ‘Commission Agent, Metal Trade’ – so still an Iron Merchant then!

Young Isabella, who would have been 12, would appear to be missing, but we mustn’t jump to conclusions – David and Mary might have suffered the loss of their child, but she might equally just have been absent on census night, perhaps staying over with a friend or one of her older siblings. At 51 and 46, you would have thought that David and Mary could have been looking forward to seeing their remaining children settled, and for their own lives to become a little less hectic.

  • However!!! 1891 sees the family now living at 3 Elgin Terrace (now Havelock Street) in Partick, which is definitely a move downmarket. David, at 61, is described as an Oil Merchant’s Clerk, and the household now consists of Jessie, Mary, Ellen, Rebecca and Robertina plus Jane Keighley with her two daughters, Lena (7) and Gladys (2), both born in England, plus another grand daughter, Margaret MacCulloch, age 4, born in Giffnock, Glasgow.

There must surely have been a series of catastrophes to have brought the family to this state of affairs, but the census really only leaves us with more questions than answers. Did William Keighley die, leaving Jane alone with two small children? Why did Mary and Ellen come back home? Was one of them Margaret’s mother? Who was the father? How did it come about that all five of those unmarried daughters are described as ‘Governess’, with skills, variously, in English, French, Music and Latin.

I am very intrigued by this singular family, and I feel sad that I haven’t found out any more about them other than these bare facts. If I was a more skilled researcher, with more time, perhaps I would know where to look to see how they fared in the years between this census of 1891 and 1918 when Jessie, Nellie and Becca landed in Kersland Street in the wake of the Great War. By this time, these women were in their 50’s, marriage had passed them by, and employment opportunities for women in those days were sparse.

But I imagine that they stuck together, as their family had always done, and did what they needed in order to survive, getting what teaching work they could to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. There were probably periods when they took in lodgers, as some years the electoral register throws up some additional names – Christina Yuill, Mary Alexander, John Dewar, Stanley Wylie, all perhaps finding a home for a year or two before moving on. I imagine hardworking, enterprising people, and I admire their resilience.

And I’d also like to imagine Jessie, Nellie, Becca and their lodgers occasionally finding time to visit a new phenomenon in the neighbourhood, the Salon Cinema which was quite literally round the corner in Vinicombe Street. The Salon was one of the first suburban cinemas in Glasgow (1913), and was also notable for housing a full orchestra, and for serving tea and biscuits to its patrons during the afternoon! Sounds ideal for the sisters, doesn’t it?

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The stunning building that was the Salon Cinema (now a restaurant)

 

 

The Story of a House, part 2

Handy hint – if you haven’t already,  it would probably be better to read the first part of this story before proceeding to part 2!

Madame Stewart lived at 8 Kersland Street for a few years from 1877, and then the tenancy was taken up by a Mrs Addie who lived there until 1891, when a certain James Macgregor moved in. I’ve not been able to discover anything at all about Mrs Addie, other than that her rental was £30 per annum. However, it’s a different story when it comes to James Henderson Macgregor as – finally! – we have some actual facts to go on, thanks to census returns of 1891 and 2001.

When James moved into Kersland Street with his wife Isabella in 1891, they were newlyweds, having been married on the 17th June only the year before, at the Alexandra Hotel in Bath Street, Glasgow. Like my own parents, neither were native Glaswegians: 29 year old Isabella Oliver came from quite a large family in Tullibody, Clackmannanshire. Her father was a master baker and the 1881 census records that she, at age 20, was a pupil teacher. James (27) came from Stirling and his father had been a timber merchant. Stirling and Tullibody belong to the same part of the world, so it seems likely that James and Isabella became sweethearts when they were still living at home with their families.

James seems to have been the first of the pair to move to Glasgow – his address on the marriage certificate is given as Hill Street, Garnethill (yes, more hills!), and he had a job as a commercial traveller. I get the feeling that James hadn’t been there for very long when he arranged the wedding in a hotel quite near to his lodgings in the city centre. It was the sort of place where business meetings were also carried out, so perhaps familiar to him through his work. As you can see it was quite a grand place (no longer there), so seemed to fit the bill quite nicely.

Isabella’s address was Stirling Road, Tullibody, so I imagine she travelled to Glasgow to marry James, and presumably lived with him at Hill Street until they took up their new residence in the West End. It’s possible that Isabella was pregnant when they moved in, for their first child, Lilian, was born in 1892, probably at home. A brother, James, followed in 1895 and a sister, Isabella, in 1898. The 1901 census also notes a servant, Susan Campbell, 30.

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8 Kersland Street was (and is) a traditional tenement building, not distinguished by any great architectural features or notable inhabitants, and certainly not as well appointed as some of the grander terraces and villas in the neighbourhood. But neither was it a cramped little single end or two bedroom flat with a shared outside toilet such as the one where we lived in Govan when I was a child, and which were very prevalent throughout the poorer parts of Glasgow. Even the most ordinary tenements in this corner of Hillhead provided more than adequate accommodation for their residents, with sizeable rooms, bay windows and high ceilings. Not to mention proper plumbing and gas, then electric, lighting.

So all in all, I think that number 8 would have suited the Macgregor family very well. James would only have had to step out to Great Western Road to join the bustling commuters taking trams or trains into town, where his firm, J Hartley & Co, Glassmakers, had an office at 130 Bath Street. Or further afield if he was visiting clients. And he could also have taken the Subway, which opened in 1891, the third oldest metro in the world.

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With Papa safely off to work in the morning, it would be time for the children to go to school. I’ve searched through the admission records of the two nearest primary schools, Dowanhill and Church Street Primaries, but I’m afraid I drew a blank and I don’t think Lilian, James or little Bella would have attended the Catholic St Peter’s Primary, as their parents had married according to Church of Scotland rites. And then I remembered – Isabella had been a teacher, could she possibly have taught the children herself at home? However, I feel this is not the likeliest solution – the 1872 Education (Scotland) Act had made primary education universal and mandatory, and it seems that the School Boards were pretty assiduous at chasing up non-attendees.  Whatever the truth of it, I imagine that they would have been in a class looking something like this, girls in pinafores, boys in collars.

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I’m always quite impressed when I learn that a family had a servant or two – what a luxury! But then, I’m looking at it from the point of view of someone who takes for granted all our modern electrical ‘servants’ – washing machine, vacuum cleaner, refrigerator, central heating…. In 1900, they had none of those advantages, so of course everything would have to be done by hand in a laborious and time consuming way. When you think of all the daily tasks that had to be done in this fashion, one servant doesn’t seem enough, and seems more like a necessary expense than a great extravagance, especially when there are young children to be looked after.

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Take the laundry, for example. There was a communal wash house in the basement, shared by all the households in the building.  Each house would have its own laundry day, when you would light a fire under the big copper boiler, wait for the water to heat and then boil your clothes and linens in it, popping in your Recketts Blue Bag which would make the whites look whiter by disguising any yellowness. Then boil up more water for rinsing and hang it all out to dry in the back green. And then of course there would be all the ironing (and starching) and putting away to do afterwards. If you were little better off you could send your washing to the laundry, so perhaps the Macgregors could do that at least some of the time.

But it would also be nice to think that life wasn’t ALL about the daily slog. I’ve mentioned before that the Botanic Gardens was no more than a hop, skip and a jump away, and I feel sure that the children would have been able to play in the street after school with their friends, or in the back garden if they could dodge the washing flapping on the line. They might have found a little time in the evenings to gather round the piano and sing, or maybe they liked to play card games or enjoyed reading or sewing, though the latter was maybe more of a necessity than a leisure activity. Perhaps James and Isabella would take their family to church on a Sunday morning and then a stroll in the park in the afternoon.

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The nineteenth century became the 20th, and the new Edwardian age began with the passing of the old Queen on the 22nd January 1901. That same year Glasgow played host to a great International Exhibition which ran from May until November at Kelvingrove Park, just beyond the University. The event was hugely popular, and clocked up over 11 million visits by the time it closed its doors to the public on the 9th of November. You can get an idea of the scale of it from this picture showing the halls, pavilions, cafes and other attractions spread out on the 73 acre site on both sides of the River Kelvin with the University looking down from Gilmorehill to the right.

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The large white structure with the golden domes was the main industrial pavilion, a temporary edifice which won awards for its Scottish architect, James Miller. However, it was the building to the right, the new Palace of Arts, designed by London architects Simpson and Allen, which was the centrepiece of the exhibition and which would become a lasting, and much loved, legacy for the city, renamed the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. The construction of Kelvingrove was partly funded by a previous, equally successful, Exhibition which took place in 1888.

I do hope that the Macgregors took full advantage of the historic exhibition during the six months when it was happening more or less on their doorstep. Perhaps they even went along to to watch Princess Louise, the King’s daughter, perform the opening ceremony, or were there on the day the King of Siam paid a visit, or the French Empress Eugenie. They could have bought a programme and discussed over dinner which attractions they would explore on their next visit.

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The years rolled by and in 1906 we lose sight of James and Isabella and their little family for it is at that point, after 15 years, that they leave Kersland Street, the home where they started their married life and where their children were born. I can find no clue to tell me where they went after that. I note with a heavy heart that only 8 short years later the world would be in turmoil and that young James at 19 would be of an age to find himself in the awful trenches of the Great War, while his sisters, at 22 and 16 might have known what it was to lose a sweetheart. There is always an element of sadness when you’re delving into the past and know that the lives you become involved with – and come to care about – ended before you were even born. And of course it’s especially poignant when hindsight tells you that those lives are inexorably heading towards a dark cloud which may shatter their hopes and dreams forever.

I can only hope that the Macgregor family of Kersland Street came through the First World War relatively unscathed and that perhaps some stray descendant of theirs might come across this blog and be moved to share with us some of the answers to the question, “what then?”

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Thankfulness

 

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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…

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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!

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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.

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Peter MacFarlane, later years

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)

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.