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…

captain and seven

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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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.

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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.

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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…

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“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. “
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“…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.”
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“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.

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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’