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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Reconciliation

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Fort William, 1957

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.

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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.

002 (8)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.

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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.

Great Aunt Winnie

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”.

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