I have characterised my father, John, as someone who found it almost impossible to escape his past. Of course nothing is ever that simple and that’s not the most important thing about him. First and foremost for me being that he was my Dad. Whatever effect the loss of his mother and the subsequent years had on him, one thing it did not deprive him of was a great capacity to love.
In Nellie, my Mum, John had found a soul mate who would give him the encouragement he sometimes needed to overcome the challenges of life. Nellie was in many ways an altogether tougher, more resilient character. I don’t think I realised as a child how much he depended on her. I just knew he loved me.
John must have been on shore leave when he took his family to Fort William in 1957. I don’t think he’d seen his father since his wedding four years earlier, although George had called in unexpectedly to our home in Govan one time when he was in Glasgow on business and John away at sea. He seemed rather shocked by the humble-ness of our abode, and Nellie felt shamed because she’d been caught unawares with no chance to tidy away the large number of drying nappies taking up every available space.
George seems somewhat more relaxed in this picture of him with his two grand-daughters. I’d have been three and Ann just a year old at the time. George could look very dour in photographs so I’m guessing this almost-smile is as good as it’s going to get! He does appear rather pensive though, I wonder now what was on his mind as he posed for the camera, probably with John on the other side of the lense.
Whatever did or didn’t happen between them on that trip, all I know is that we never again visited Fort William as a family while George was alive, and I look in vain for a picture of John with his father later than the 1937 one of young George’s christening that I shared with you in my last post.
What I do have, thanks to cousin Liz in South Africa (see ‘Tribe of Cousins’, 27 May), is a collection of letters from three of George’s sisters – Winnie, Ettie and Muriel – as they kept in touch with Winnie’s daughter Theresa, who’d gone to live in South Africa in 1948. Let’s turn the focus on Winnie, Liz’s grandmother and George’s third sister. We catch sight of her here in the garden at 50 High Street, together with her sister-in-law Beatrice and father Peter. The two shy little girls are her eldest daughters Lulie and Josephine, and Beatrice is holding baby John, so I reckon the date must be 1922. This is the same garden where we were having our pictures taken some 35 years later. I would have been too young to appreciate it then, but it gives me a shiver now to realise that I was literally treading in their footsteps.
Winifred Grace MacFarlane was born in 1886 and it’s said that her earliest memory was of being lifted up to watch a procession go by to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee of 1887. When she was still a child, about 9 or 10, she hit her shin against the fender in the kitchen and bruised the bone. This became infected and developed into TB of the bone, causing long periods of isolation and hospitalisation. For a period she was the only child in Fort William’s Belford Hospital. She was sent for treatment to the Western Infirmary in Glasgow, and the account of that episode, I have to warn you, is nothing short of gruesome.
The surgeon, Sir John Fraser, wanted to amputate, but her father begged on bended knee that he try to save the leg. In those days more children died from the effects of chloroform than from operations, so Sir John carried out the necessary bone scraping without anaesthetic, Winnie being strapped to the table and with a nurse irrigating the wound direct from the tap. The final step was to graft in some rabbit bone, a very rare procedure. Not surprisingly Winnie later reported that no childbirth ever caused her more pain than that horrific, if life-saving, operation.
Winnie must have been made of stern stuff because she eventually recovered and resumed her education, trained as a teacher and taught in Roy Bridge for 6 years before marrying her long time sweetheart, Alasdair Chisholm, in 1916. The two set up home in a village named Nethybridge, where their first two children were born, and then moved to live in Inverness Castle when Alasdair, a policeman, was promoted to sergeant. There was always a sergeant at the castle because of the overnight cells there; the sergeant’s wife had to keep the prisoners (not out of her own pocket). Winnie used to send tea, bread and butter to the cells. The Chisholms eventually moved to a police house where they brought up their family of six girls and one boy – Lulie, Josephine, Winifred (who died in childhood), Beatrice, Theresa, Chrissie and Peter. Winnie was widowed in 1957 and lived out her years in that self same house where she and Alasdair had been so happy.
There is obviously a lot more to my Great Aunt Winnie than just this whistlestop tour of her life, but I hope this little sketch is enough to give you a sense of what she was like. Perhaps we can go back and fill in more of the detail another time. For now I want to throw the spotlight on the letters she sent to her daughter Theresa, who she remained close to over the years despite the many miles that separated them. In particular I’ve been reading a couple of letters from 1962 when her brother George died. I can do no better than to quote extensively from this account as it affords us such a wonderful contemporaneous impression of the impact this event had on her and her immediate family.
27th October 1962, p.m.
Donald has just phoned from Ft. Wm. to say that Uncle George died at 10.00 p.m. Mary with the baby arrived this morning with Donald and he recognised them and spoke a little. Donald and John both visited him several times when he was in St Raphael’s (in Edinburgh) and Chris also visited him. Before he left the nursing home he asked the surgeon if he’d ever be well again and asked for a frank account of what the operation was. The surgeon said he was sorry that he was unable to do all he’d hoped to do “and after this your work will be advisory only”. George thanked him and added “So now it is a question of time.” From then on he was most resigned and hoped he wouldn’t last too long for the sake of his dear ones. Lulie brought Aunt Ettie up a week today (this is now the Feast of Christ the King) and I went to Ft William by bus after hearing early Mass in St Mary’s. We all returned here that evening after calling in to see Clemmy at Corpach. Lulie and Aunt Ettie had called at Spean Bridge on the way up and found the sons so nice…
Uncle George was very pleased to see us and spoke a lot about the past and about having put his affairs in order – “I’ve done my best for the 9 of them.” We went up again on Friday as he was very much weaker and he was again so pleased to see us. “You see what’s happening Winnie – you’ll know from the pattern of Alister’s illness” he said. I knew too well but it was a great consolation to know he was so resigned to death. He received H. Communion up to the end. John was up on Friday too – he had a long talk with his Father who spoke of Aunt Beatrice and referred to the 26th and 28th being the anniversaries of Uncle Jack and John’s Mother. Now we have 26th, 27th and 28th October as sad dates – may they rest in peace.
Aunt Ettie (Sister Mary Evangeline) is sleeping in the Convent but with us all day. We phoned Beatrice last night – Mary had contacted her before leaving and was afraid she’d be too late to see her Father alive. Thank God she arrived in time. Jessie has been wonderful – the whole family except Peter … is with her and they are really very good. When asked if he’d like Peter to be sent for Uncle George said no “I’ll be sure of his prayers where he is.” Peter was told of the state of affairs before he returned to College. He is an exceptionally nice lad. (Peter was away at seminary, training to be a priest)
Between everything I can’t get down to writing at present. Mass was offered in both our churches this a.m. for George’s soul and very many in Lochaber and elsewhere would hear of the death today. Lulie is writing to Jo just now. Peter and Ishbel were with us for a few nights last week. Had hired a car and we left them to close the house on Friday as we got off to go to Ft. Wm. Lots of love to all, Mama x
The next letter is dated 12 November. Winnie had been laid low with a virus after all the comings and goings surrounding George’s death, but she was sufficiently recovered after a few days rest to write:
… He knew what was wrong with him and prayed that he wouldn’t linger long “to be a trouble to others”. He spoke to me about our mother remarking that “she died in this room” and he said a lot about his first wife Beatrice, remarking “things might be different now with the knowledge of TB”. What a lovely woman she was and what a companion. He appreciated Jessie but the first love remained. Naturally she thinks of her own indulged family – all nice and some of them very good-looking – but there is no place now for the first family.
We were very taken with John whom I hadn’t seen since he married. He had a long interview with his Father who threw his arms round him in a burst of affection. “What I needed,” said John. “I understood and appreciated him more than I knew all my life.” Donald, always full of affection was very cut up at the end but he made good and his father was proud of him. Mary reached Ft. Wm. in time to have a few words also. She looked wretched and so thin.
Lulie took Aunt Ettie and me up to the Requiem. Aunt Ettie stayed with us overnight. We breakfasted before 5 a.m. in order to fast before 8 a.m. Mass. A very large number came to the Mass – Keppochs, Spean Bridge boys, dozens of elderly people from the Braes, Corpach, etc. It was most edifying to see so many approaching the altar. Sandy and Peter were altar servers and John, Donald, Sandy and Peter carried the coffin to the hearse when we returned at midday for the funeral. Young George walked behind the coffin. It looked as if the whole town came to church – the illness was so short that there was quite a wave of sorrow in the district …
So there we are. It’s clear from Winnie’s account that George, on his deathbed, was finally able to reveal those deeply felt emotions that he had kept buried all those years, and be reconciled with the children who had hungered for his love all the while. It seems that as death approached, those years melted away until his heart was laid bare in his final word, “Beatrice”.