A Stepmother

st mary's

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

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

George & Jessie

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

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

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

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

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

macpherson family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

george jessie and children

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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