The Story of a House, part 8

We resume our tale in 1987, right in the middle of the continuing program of remedial work… 

boringWith a bore hole outside her front door and the back green covered in exploratory pits, Ellen MacFarlane, Mum, must have had moments when she felt as if the whole edifice was about to collapse about her ears. After all, she only had to look across the street to see the gap where number 7 had once stood. But if she did, she never let it show. She took each successive wave of bad news with an almost miraculous stoicism, rolled up her sleeves and did what had to be done. Perhaps it’s just as well that Dad was out of the picture by then, I can’t imagine him coping with it all with quite the same equanimity. I can imagine him being very proud of the way his Nellie took on this battle, and in the end prevailed.

It turned out that the various surveys showed that while the external walls were built on a layer of boulder clay overlying the bedrock, the internal ones were founded upon a layer of “mottled brown sandy clay fill which contained gravel, cobbles, shale, ash, etc.” In other words, the rubble left over from various historical quarrying and possibly coal mining activities. The upshot being that the inner walls were suffering from settlement at a different rate from the outer ones. This of course is a gross oversimplification of a complicated situation, but you get the idea.

Reading over the surveyor’s report is almost like lifting the petticoats of number 8 and having a peek underneath. The borehole extended to over 25 metres and it’s like a trip into the far distant past as you follow its progress down past the various geological layers to the bedrock at the bottom – “sideritic micaceous carbonaceous laminae” ; “pyrite knots” ; “ripple laminae”; “deposits of glacial origin”. If I had a degree in geology, I could tell you the significance of all those terms!

But it’s fascinating to start thinking about what lies beneath, and to realise that once upon a time – in fact some 300 million years ago in the Carboniferous period – this whole area would have been part of a vast swampy river plain when various plant and animal deposits were laid down. Deposits which over the eons would turn to stone, including various grades of sandstone and seams of coal, all ready for humans to discover and use for their own purposes all those ages later.

I remember our family visiting the Fossil Grove in Glasgow’s Victoria Park when I was young. We were all fascinated to see this collection of 11 fossilised roots and stumps left over from an ancient forest which had lain underground for millennia until discovered by the Victorians in 1887 when they were laying out the park. Thankfully it was decided to preserve the stone forest and a building was constructed to protect the fossils from the elements. It quickly became a popular visitor attraction – in fact the most ancient in Glasgow –  so one realises that all of the previous tenants of number 8 could have gone along to see it, just as we did.

Let me take you on one more geological diversion before we come back to the surface. The sandstone found and quarried extensively in the Glasgow area is of the blond, or yellow variety. But we also have many buildings constructed of red sandstone, which it turns out comes mainly from the Ayrshire and Dumfries areas, and from a different, slightly later, geological period, the Permian (from 270 million years ago). During this time a vast and expansive desert stretched across Scotland, resulting in massive dunes and arid conditions. Today the evidence of this desert can be found in that red sandstone with its grainy striations and rich red colour, representing an iron-rich coating of the sand grains. This phenomenon can still be seen today in the sands of the Sahara.

Once the surveys had been done, steps were taken to remedy the structural problems and render number 8 stable again. New foundations were installed and the rear basement walls rebuilt – this was mainly in the washhouse area. The ‘lateral drift’ which had caused the gable wall to bulge was solved by strapping the outside wall to the inner timber floors. Various windows were given new lintels. At the front, the access bridge, stone coping and handrail were found to be in poor condition, partly due to settlement and partly to the support steelwork having rusted badly. New concrete copings were constructed and a new bridge made of reinforced concrete. Regretfully, the lovely Victorian railings also had to be replaced.

So, by the early 1990’s, the building had undergone a complete overhaul and, if not exactly as good as new, was at least structurally sound once again, and secure, we were assured, for at least another 100 years!

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All fixed! You can see the steel ties at the side and the new concrete coping and bridge to the front, complete with replacement railings. And that’s a newish drainpipe too, in place since the initial round of repairs.

As you can imagine, the entire 1980’s were characterised by one wave of disruption after another as the seemingly endless series of repairs were carried out. I am mindful of the fact that this was all in the wake of Mum becoming a widow and facing the challenge of remaking her life as a single person, a task which she tackled with her usual single mindedness. Not only was she still working in the Western Infirmary, but she’d signed up for the extra mural classes at Glasgow University which would take her away on her foreign trips to Russia and the Balkans, travels which I’ve written about before.

One can see these travels now as brief periods of respite from what became, in effect, her role as informal master of works for whatever was the latest phase of the building refurbishment. I think she must have learned from the earlier debacle when communal repairs were held up for lack of a signature or two from the owners of properties in the close next door and from then on she maintained close contact with the property managers on the progress of each successive claim for grant funding, and wouldn’t be above popping next door to leave a note, or knock on the door of anyone who was being slow to sign their mandates or pay their share.

And of course she always made sure she was on the spot to liaise with surveyors, council inspectors, building control officers, contractors, loss adjusters. Would it be going too far to say that it was Mum never keeping her eye off the ball that in the end saved the building from deteriorating so far that it couldn’t be saved? I don’t think so!

Once awakened, the sleeping tiger wasn’t going to lie quietly down and go to sleep again! In the aftermath of the remedial work, the back green had been left in a terrible mess, as described in this letter: “Due to extensive remedial works on our building and drilling for the Consolidation Scheme in our back courts, the drainage and surface have been badly damaged and the fencing by the lane for 8/10 Kersland Street has disappeared. This back court in particular is open nightly to intruders from the nearby bus stops and is being used as a toilet area. We do not have any bin shelters and consequently a great deal of rain-soaked litter lies about.”

A sorry state of affairs indeed! The above extract comes from a request for funding for environmental upgrading from the members of the Kervin Residents Association, formed in 1991. Secretary of the Association? One Ellen MacFarlane!

Nothing is ever straightforward and while the merits of the case were unquestionable, there was another factor complicating matters. Arnold Clark’s proposed redevelopment of the Botanic Gardens Garage, round the corner in Vinicombe Street. This would involve access to the rear down our lane to the side of the house. We would have to wait for the outcome of the planning application.

You’ll perhaps remember that we encountered the Botanic Gardens Garage in 1929 when it was celebrating its 25th anniversary. The Art Deco building had been taken over in 1968 by Arnold Clark Automobiles, becoming the company’s first accident repairs centre and causing, truth to tell, a lot of annoyance to its neighbours by the constant comings and goings of the mechanics as they shunted cars in and out of the various workshops and parked wherever they could along the street.

morris ten-four
Arnold obviously bought the car back again once he’d become successful. Here he is with it taking pride of place in his showroom.

Arnold Clark was an interesting chap. It seems he started out in 1954, when he used his demob money to buy a 1933 Morris Ten-Four which he restored and sold on for a profit. Thus began the company which eventually became Europe’s biggest privately owned car retailer with a turnover of billions. I suppose by the late 1980’s the company had outgrown the Vinicombe Street premises and had applied for permission to demolish, then redevelop the site, something that the Council initially looked upon with approval.

But there had been a sea change in attitudes in the intervening years since 1968. No longer were the inhabitants of Hillhead – and Glasgow as a whole – content to just sit back and allow business interests to determine the fate of what was increasingly recognised as a wonderful Victorian heritage that should be preserved for posterity. The development plans encountered stiff resistance and the Campaign to Save the Botanic Gardens Garage was born.

Other conservation groups sprang up around this time – the Glasgow West Conservation Trust and the Friends of Glasgow West are just a couple of examples. Buildings started to be given Listed Building status in order to protect them from inappropriate development. Glasgow West (i.e. Hillhead and adjacent districts) became a Conservation Area, defined as “areas of special architectural or historic interest, the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance”. Legislation was enacted or updated to force landlords to comply with building and safety regulations. The Landlord Registration Scheme was introduced.

Mum, in her 70’s, became Secretary of the Community Council and of course kept a finger in every pie. There wasn’t much going on in Hillhead that she didn’t know about! As a private individual, she spoke up for a street trader, Sherbanu Halai, who sold flowers just round the corner at the top of Byres Road, when it looked as if his Street Trader’s Licence was going to be withdrawn. Mum succeeded in persuading the Licencing Section of the Council to change their minds and renew it after all. Sherbanu never forgot what she’d done for him and would often send round a big bunch of flowers left over at the end of the day. Sometime if you stopped to buy Mum flowers on your way to visit her, he’d recognise you and wouldn’t take your money: “No, no, it is for Mrs MacFarlane, no pay for Mrs MacFarlane” and he’d push a whole armful of blooms at you to add to your own modest offering. He even invited her to his daughter’s wedding, an event which she joyfully attended.

But I digress. 8 Kersland Street hadn’t been the only address where extensive rehabilitation was needed. The whole area had been built upon old quarry workings and coal mines, and was generally subject to ground settlement and subsidence. Not every building survived. It’s just fortunate that the growing awareness of the merits of preserving one’s heritage, together with new sources of funding, came along just in time to turn Hillhead from a rather down at heel locale to one with a much brighter future and sense of its own worth.

We’ll explore that idea further, together with what it meant for our house, in the next instalment.

flower stall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Story of a House, part 4

Let’s continue from where we left off…

The MacCulloch sisters lived at 8 Kersland Street until about 1926 or 27 and then we see the arrival of Mr and Mrs Smith, Ivan and Elizabeth, who only stayed for about three or four years. I think there was also a son, Alexander. I’m afraid I know next to nothing about the Smiths – there aren’t census returns available beyond 1911, so, paradoxically, it can be easier to find out about people from the 1800’s than the 20th century. So we’ll just have to go with these bare facts from the electorial register.

I’m pretty sure that neither the MacCullochs nor the Smiths would have owned a car, but if they had, they could have parked it around the corner in the Botanic Gardens Garage in Vinicombe Street (opposite the Salon Cinema). The Garage celebrated its 25th anniversay in 1929.

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When the Botanic Gardens Parking Garage was built in 1912, parking in the streets was not permitted in the UK, and besides, the paintwork of motor cars of the time was highly sensitive to weather and sun and had to be protected. This garage was one of the first such structures to be built in the UK and to this day remains of great architectural interest as well as being a reminder of the exceptional wealth of Glasgow at a time when cars were generally considered an extravagant luxury.

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The architect, David Valentine Wylie, had spent his prolific career building tenements and factories, and was experienced in the design of warehouses and stables. The Garage was his last project and it feels to me as if he poured his heart and soul into his final structure.  It was a new concept, this ‘warehousing’ of cars. Even the word garage, taken from the French garer, to shelter, hadn’t come into use until 1902. Garages have become a mundane feature of our daily lives, but it’s rather nice to look back on a time when everything was fresh and new and an architect could indulge in a flight of fancy and build one in an ornate Beaux Arts style with a glazed cream and soft green faience facade punctuated by large glazed arches.

The Garage highlights the complete revolution in road transportation that had taken place in the 60 or so years since the tenements of Kersland Street first saw the light of day in the early 1870’s.  When Madame Stewart had lived here, horse transport reigned supreme and at the end of the 19th century Glasgow was ringed with a large number of stables to provide horses for literally hundreds of passenger and goods vehicles. Perhaps a rather smellier world than we are used to now…?

horse tram 1890's
Horse tram no. 324, Kelvinside to Dennistoun, 1890’s.

Between 1898 and 1901, the Macgregors would have seen the electrification of the tramways, with central poles and tramlines being laid all along Great Western Road. The old trams used to run down the middle of the road, which meant that alighting passengers had to run the gauntlet of any traffic running on the inside lane. There are many newspaper reports of the time detailing accidents and near-misses due to this rather hazardous arrangement.

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Phase 1 Standard Tramcar
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Tramlines & poles at Kelvinbridge, 1904

I always imagined Mrs Isabella Millar, our resident during the Great War, as being someone who would have travelled in a hansom cab or a tram to her daughter’s house in Great Western Road. But actually, I’m now thinking that daughter Ada and her husband Fred the writer, living comfortably in their big house, might have been just the sort of people who would have been early adopters of the motor car, and that Isabella could have enjoyed a rather more modern mode of conveyance.

Of course the year that the Botanic Gardens Garage celebrated its 25th anniversary, 1929, was also the year of the Wall Street Crash.

280579a New York Wall Street
Hunger marches were held in the UK throughout the 1920’s and 30’s as the economy slumped and more and more men and women were left without the ability to feed their families.

In the latter half of the 19th century, fuelled by the industrial revolution, Glasgow had been a place of exceptional economic buoyancy and urban growth. Indeed we’ve already seen how the well-appointed district of Hillhead itself was a product of this growth. Hillhead was never as exclusive as the adjoining areas of Kelvinside or Dowanhill, though it attracted a sizeable population of middle class professionals such as ministers, academics, merchants and managers. And of course there was also the rather more artistic and bohemian section of the community, no doubt partly due to the presence of Glasgow University in the neighbourhood. 

When the great slump came, Hillhead was less affected than other areas, such as the Gorbals, which started from a lower rung on the ladder anyway and were more dependent on shipbuilding and heavy engineering. But times were hard in the inter-war years and I have no doubt that 8 Kersland Street, being at the more artisan end of Hillhead, saw its share of hardship as the years rolled on and the Smiths were replaced by the Bremners in around 1930. Again, I have only the bare facts from the Electoral Register – Elizabeth and James Bremner, and two daughters, Mary and Mima.

But then we come to 1937. And at last, we can put a face to our new residents, for Mr John Brown and his wife Euphemia come within the living memory of their grandson, Hugh Ritchie, who vaguely recalls visiting his grandmother as a very young child. I came across Hugh on the Ancestry website and he has not only given me permission to use material from his family tree, but has also kindly shared further family memories with me. John and Euphemia’s sojourn in Kersland Street was quite a short one, but thanks to Hugh, we can tell their story.

john brown and euhemia

John Brown and Euphemia Logan were married in January 1908 in Edinburgh, where their first child, Ishbel, was born later that year. John and Euphemia were both teachers, but in those days, women would have been expected to give up their profession on marriage, so no doubt Euphemia turned her energies towards bringing up their fast-growing family. By 1910 the family were living at Windsor Cottage, Shotts, where their son Hugh was born, closely followed by a daughter, Anne, who tragically died in 1914 when she was only 2 years old.

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John taught in Shotts until the First World War saw him signing up, in his late thirties, with the Royal Garrison Artillery, where he served in Mesopotamia, India and elsewhere for about three years. For much of this time he was a quartermaster, probably a quartermaster sergeant or similar. With John away at war, Euphemia and the children went to stay with her brother Donald in the Western Isles. When Donald got married, Euphemia took a cottage in Glen Borrodale, where she taught at the school there for a few years until John came home from the war.

school

I imagine that Euphemia must have been quite an intrepid, enterprising type of person to have taken a post in what is a rather isolated little village on the west coast of Scotland. And one notices that the normal rules about married women working don’t seem to apply in times of war! This is the old schoolhouse which was eventually put up for sale after it had fallen out of use as a school.

Family life resumed and two more daughters arrived in quick succession, Helen (known as Lala) in 1920 and Joan in 1921. When John got the headship of Braidwood School, the family moved there in 1920, followed by a move to Airdrie seven years later when he became head of the newly built (and much bigger) Clarkston Primary School. His final appointment, in 1933, was to the headship of Dalziel Public School in Motherwell, a large secondary school. At this time the family still lived in Airdrie and John would commute to Motherwell every day by bus.

JB obit (1)

Sadly, the First World War had left John Brown greatly diminished in health and in 1936 he fell ill and was off school for an extended period. To reduce his commuting burden, the family moved to Cambuslang. Unfortunately, after only a few days back at work, John took a stroke and had to retire in October 1937. The Browns had lived in Cambuslang for a year. In view of John’s ill health and the position of their house on a steep hill, the family moved to Glasgow, to a ground floor flat, 8 Kersland Street, where John died at home only a few months later on the 15th of July 1938. He was 61 years old. 

hugh brown, sonEuphemia and her daughters stayed on at Kersland Street, and saw the start of World War Two the following year. Son Hugh seems to have spent some time as an evacuee schoolmaster in Northamptonshire, before joining up like his father before him and serving in Italy, where by 1943 he had reached the rank of Lieutenant.  

Back in Hillhead, Euphemia and the girls would also experience WW2 at first hand. In March 1941, the shipbuilding town of Clydebank, a mere five or six miles up the river, was the target of one the most intense Luftwaffe bombing raids of the war. 1,200 people were killed in the Clydebank blitz and the town itself suffered extensive damage with many buildings destroyed. Joan later recalled how, as the bombers flew overhead,  the family would shelter in the basement of their flat along with other residents from the upstairs flats in the next door close. Hillhead escaped relatively unscathed, but the terrifying threat was there.

The Brown family moved out of 8 Kersland Street in 1943 and lived at Park Road, not too far away. One by one the daughters got married and left. Once they had all departed, Euphemia took to staying with them each in turn until in 1951 she eventually got a place of her own, also in the West End of Glasgow. This is probably where the young Hugh Ritchie remembers visiting her. After her health started deteriorating in around 1957, she once again stayed with her daughters while they looked after her. She died on 31st December 1961, in Newport-on-Tay, Ishbel’s home. Here are the sisters, Ishbel, Lala and Joan. 

John and Euphemia are long gone now, as are their children. But the family story carries on in the shape of Hugh and his brother (Ishbel’s sons), and their cousins (Joan’s two sons). Not to mention their children and their children’s children, the 13 surviving descendants of John Brown and Euphemia Logan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

peter

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.

photographer

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’

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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A Stepmother

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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).

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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.

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

 

 

 

 

Uncomfortable Truths

I confess I haven’t really dwelt upon some of the unhappier episodes I’ve come across in my delving into the family archives over the past year and more. It’s not that I’m trying to hide anything, and I have certainly addressed sad subjects such as my grandmother Beatrice’s tragic early death, as well as topics like my ambivalence about my schooldays and my parents’ sense of shame about what they perceived as their position in society. My Mum’s insistence upon never mentioning that my Dad was a bus driver was not a comfortable thing for a teenager to take on board. However, I’ve found myself keen to see the deeper truths and to comprehend the reasons why things may have been the way they were.  Two things I have learned in my life are that 1) people don’t generally mean to cause you pain and that 2) we are ALL in need of forgiveness. So, as far as possible, I choose celebration over exposition, kindness over blame.

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In my quest to get to the truth – or maybe just a truth – I am perfectly aware that my perception of even shared experiences is exactly that; MY perception. Whilst I might sometimes speculate, I never presume to know what anyone else might have felt. I’m also aware that even touching upon events in the past might trigger painful thoughts and memories in others that I’m not even aware of. I suppose it’s inevitable I won’t always get it right – it can only ever be my best guess as a fellow human being.

Except that I don’t always need to guess. I know perfectly well why I’ve sometimes avoided looking through my own shoeboxes of photographs from certain periods in my life, never mind anyone else’s. I’m sure that most people can look back on chapters in their lives when every single memory seems to be tinged with sorrow and pain and regret.

Old family photographs can take you like that too. Sometimes the people stare out at you with a haunted look in their eyes, captured in a moment of grief or unhappiness which touches your heart and makes you ache to reach out to them even long after they are dead and gone and can’t be hurt any more. This is one such picture (fortunately annotated at the back in case you’re wondering at how remarkably well informed I am, although some of the information also comes from my trawling through Ancestry.com records).

Peter and children, 1893

This is my Great Grandfather, Peter MacFarlane, with his seven children. The year is 1893 and the empty chair at the back is to signify the absence of Peter’s wife, Louisa, who died suddenly of cerebral meningitis in April of that year, aged 45. This might even have been the day of the funeral. It doesn’t take much insight to perceive the pain etched in all their faces, or to understand that this could have been a seminal moment determining the further course of their lives and personalities. In particular I look at the little curly haired chap in the front row, my Grandfather George, aged 6, for whom history tragically repeated itself in 1932 with the loss of his own wife, Beatrice, when his own littlest boy Donald, our Uncle Donald, was also 6.

These children would eventually become known to our family as my Dad’s Aunt Ettie (Ethel Sarah), Aunt Lulie (Mary Louisa) and Aunt Winnie (Winifred Grace), sitting at the back and Uncle Jack (Peter John) and Aunt Moolie (Muriel Davenport) to the front. The little child sitting on Lulie’s knee is Anice Jane, and she never grew up to be anyone’s aunt for she died only a couple of years later when she was just 3 years old. Uncle Jack, or Father Jack as he became a priest, died at the relatively young age of 47 in 1931, but the Aunties all lived into their 60’s and beyond.

My father was very attached to these Aunts of his, who would obviously have known him as he was growing up, and I think watched out for him and his brother and sister in the years after their mother died. Dad spoke of them with great fondness and we called in on them once or twice during the years when we would visit Fort William on our family holidays.

But although he would talk endlessly about his family, Dad didn’t, as far as I can remember, show us his family photographs or ever really explain who all the people were that populated his anecdotes. My sister Mary observed that in those days parents never really did explain things to their children the way modern parents do. questions-1922477_1920-300x300We were just expected to be good and do as we were told. Asking questions was considered to be “cheeky”. We were good, but perhaps rather ill informed, as Mary says: As a child I remember being constantly surprised and bewildered because things were always sprung on me. 

I probably tuned out of the reminiscences, the way children do, but I’m pretty sure I’d have remembered the pictures. It’s pointless to regret it now, but I do wish I had paid better attention when I was young, and asked more questions – in fact the questions I am currently asking all these decades later! Perhaps then Dad might have felt able to share the images with us, if he hadn’t just buried them so deep that he actually forgot the existence of the dusty old cardboard suitcase full of sepia memories.

Neither was my Mum, with her great inner drive to always be forging ahead in life, someone who you would turn to to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of family history. If she became more expansive in her latter days, it wasn’t about Dad’s past which was all tied up with the loss of his mother and subsequent poor relationship with his father George.

Let me describe how it seemed to me as a child of about 12 visiting Fort William (this would be several years after George passed away in 1962). 50 High Street, the address of both the family business MacFarlane and Son, Chemist and the family house above, had almost mythical proportions in my mind – this was the place where John had been brought up; where Nellie had been nanny to something called the “second family” (I didn’t really understand what that meant); where my mother and father had met and fallen in love. (I must have paid some attention!) I had vague memories of visiting there as a much younger child and had an impression of an attic room with wooden floors. Though I have to confess that I may very well have confused it in my mind with the Alm Uncle’s house in my beloved Heidi books, who knows?

What I remember of the visit in question was of us knocking on the street door beside the shop, waiting a long time for someone to answer and eventually trooping up a dark narrow flight of stairs at the top of which we were shown into the ‘parlour’ where a somewhat stout older woman with an unsmiling face presided over afternoon tea, with various other younger people popping in and out for the purpose, it seemed, of inspecting us.  If my Dad ever had a notion of showing us around his childhood home it was quickly dispelled in that frosty atmosphere. I don’t remember whether anyone talked to me, I was too busy feeling uncomfortable and just living for the moment when we could get out of there and breath again. I later understood that the stout woman was Jessie and that she wasn’t Dad’s mother. Of course I eventually worked out that she was George’s second wife and the mother of the mysterious “second family” though it seemed to be something we shouldn’t ask questions about, so I didn’t, though I did manage to become less ignorant as the years went by, mostly by keeping my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut!

It is only now, all those decades later, that I have started to try to properly untangle these and the various other characters who tumble about my brain all interacting with each other like extras in some crazy film. Aunt Clemmie, Morag Arisaig, Archie Speanbridge, Uncle Laurence, Granny Bentley, Ishbel, Sarah, George’s Elizabeth, Sandy’s Pat, Auntie Maureen, Uncle Donald… you get the picture! Of course the keys to bringing some sort of order to the chaos have been there all along had I but known it. Whether it be in memories residing in my own brain or those of my sisters and cousins; old cases of fading photographs; letters kept in black bags for 20 years; a family tree born of 32 years of meticulous research. These are just some of the sources I’ve already mentioned in the pages of this blog.

Another realisation is that, while it’s true about the material being there all along, just waiting to be discovered, it’s probably also true that it’s only the fact that both John and Nellie are no longer with us that has given me the freedom to dig deeper and explore the facts that lay behind what I always knew was a great tragedy in my father’s life, and the feelings of loss he always felt regarding Fort William and his childhood. Sometimes what you’re looking for is confirmation of a childhood impression – it’s so easy for children to get the wrong end of the stick. I have hesitated before now to tell the tale of our visit to ‘Fifty’. It is an uncomfortable tale to tell and one doesn’t want to cause hurt to people who’s idea of what was going on may be entirely different from yours. But I believe it is a true impression – anyone I have ever talked to about it confirms that. I even have some words written by Aunt Winnie, George’s sister, in a letter to her daughter Theresa following his death in 1962:

…there is no place now for the first family…

And so it proved. I do think there are things that happen in our lives that you can never really get over. Such as the death of a parent, or a child, or a grandchild, or a marriage, or our idea of ourselves as someone who will unfailingly keep our promises and be able to always protect our loved ones from harm. Or the notion that we can take anything life throws at us and then come back for more….

I’m lucky, I have always eventually been able to come back for more, albeit sadder and wiser, as the saying goes. I can look back at my old photographs and know that the person staring out at me with that haunted look in her eyes isn’t really me any more. That somehow I did learn to live with what seemed to be unbearable pain or a truth so uncomfortable as to make you want to take to your bed and stay there forever.

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It must be a rare person who sails through life without ever feeling that they want to give up. The rest of us just muddle through the best we can, our ancestors being no exception. Some admirable souls share their struggles for all to see in the hope that others can take strength from knowing they are not alone. I think most of us choose to fight our life battles in private.

But whether we shout it from the rooftops, or share our struggles in a more intimate way, we are all more or less battle scarred. I believe that our job is not to avoid the challenges of life, but to embrace them, learn from them, give our children the gift of resilience, teach them kindness to others and never to be afraid to ask for help. If you want my own homespun philosophy, it’s this – whenever I reach the end of my tether I tie a knot in it and hang on, remembering the words of the great Scarlett O’Hara, heroine of the best film ever, Gone With The Wind:

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Tribe of Cousins

I’ve read that cousins are often your first friends outside the immediate family. That was certainly true for my own children in the 1980’s and the friendships have lasted to this day, despite their parents insisting on lining them up for a photo every time the two families got together! Nowadays we’d have to include various assorted partners and 10 offspring as well, if I’ve got my sums right.

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Of course part of the reason why cousin gatherings are so much fun is that it’s usually some sort of family celebration that brings us together. Even just a visit becomes a special event because it’s a chance to whoop it up with additional members of the tribe.

 

My own experience as a child was somewhat unlike my children’s – I suppose for us it was a different, less mobile era, so we didn’t really have much to do with our cousins as we were growing up in the fifties and sixties. These pictures are from the one trip we made to Ireland as a family in 1969 (see my post from last August, The End of an Era). And then it wasn’t until years later, after my Dad died, that I would occasionally encounter these cousins if I happened to be in Glasgow when, all grown up, they came over to visit my Mum.

 

Contact with cousins on my Dad’s side of the family was equally rare. The following photo is the only one I have of us mingling with those cousins on a visit to my Uncle Donald’s house in, I believe, 1962 (going by the absence of the youngest members of our respective families). And I rather think the occasion was probably to do with the funeral of my grandfather George, that being the year he died. Auntie Mary would have been calling in at Glasgow on her way up to Fort William from her home in London. Or possibly she and her brothers, John and Donald, were making a visit to him on his deathbed. This may have been something of a reconciliation with his three oldest children, but I’ll write about that another time.

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At the back is my Auntie Mary with her baby daughter Mary and our cousin Muriel. In front of them is myself and cousin Donald. Then at the front, left to right, my sister Mary Veronica, cousin Frank, cousin Mary Theresa, sisters Grace and Ann, and little cousin Michael.

The only thing I can remember about visiting Uncle Donald’s house – and it may or may not have been this occasion – is of not being 100% sure that he was only joking when he produced a large pair of scissors and threatened to perform surgery on my cousin Frankie’s bleeding finger. Of course the scissors were just to cut a plaster, but just for a split second, I actually entertained the thought that he really would cut the finger off!

Over the years, weddings, christenings, and especially funerals have provided random opportunities to come across these rather elusive relatives. And the encounters would always leave me wishing that they were in my life to a greater extent rather than just someone you knew had a place in your family tree. Because, no matter how little contact you have, your cousins are never strangers. As cousin Catriona once said “we know where the bodies are buried”. There’s an instant understanding, a sharing of common history, a fellow feeling that needs no further explanation.

All of this has been very much brought home to me since my Mum passed away a couple of years ago and I started rambling on about my family in this blog as well as renewing old acquaintances, or uncovering new ones. I’ve already mentioned Steve Bentley in this context, and I’ve also had contact with John Hynes (the sole boy in the haystack picture above), who now lives in England and was absent when I caught up with my Irish cousins (all the others on the haystack!) and some of their children and grandchildren when I visited County Mayo last spring.

More recently there has been communication with two MacFarlane relatives who both live in South Africa, but have maintained contact with their Highland roots over the decades and who illustrate perfectly what I’ve come to think of as the cousin effect.

Liz van der May

Cousin Liz (or second cousin Elizabeth van der Mey if you want her Sunday title) is South African born and bred and and she first contacted me though the blog, writing:

Where do I fit in? My mother Theresa wrote the wee note to your Grandmother Beatrice that appears in May or June last year.

(From “Clutter or Treasure”, April 2017).

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I am ‘Aunt Winnie’ Chisholm (MacFarlane)’ s granddaughter (ran into trouble with punctuation there!) I feel like I’ve known you all my life which may seem weird to you but my mother pined so for ‘home’ after coming to South Africa in 1948 and constantly regaled us with family lore…

While you were writing your blog, here on the other side of the globe I was scanning my mother’s letters. She died in 1996, the kist full of letters was only discovered some years later when my father moved out of the house. For almost 20 years I kept them in black rubbish bags but about a year ago the time was right and I started to sort and scan them. Not finished yet but a few more months should do it. What a journey it has been!

… I’d love to share what I can remember of my mother’s reminiscences with you – just a memory here a memory there that helps to flesh out those long ago days. I am a 1952 vintage and a Granny of 6, married to a Dutchman and have spent most of my life in SA but my Scottish roots are dear to me. My mother and Mary Hanley were dearest friends.

I’m sure you can imagine how excited I felt at receiving this warm, generous message totally out of the blue. It hasn’t taken long for the two of us to become Facebook friends, and I am very much looking forward to delving into Liz’s material and, as she says, using it to flesh out those long ago days.

shoulder - Copy

Next, I’d like to introduce you to Robert MacFarlane, or rather to his shattered shoulder blade, the result of a skydiving accident. I have skydived for the last 21 years and this was a bad landing. I know how and why, will not bore you with the details. This doughty gentleman is of a similar vintage to Liz and myself so I have to admit that this news was the last thing I was expecting! Recovery is now well under way thank goodness, but even when he was temporarily reduced to typing with one finger, Robert has already sent me a wealth of pictures and information from his extensive archive. I have been a very active family historian for the last 42 years as well as Lochaber historian, a passion rather than a passing interest.

It is ever so slightly daunting as a mere beginner, to meet someone with this kind of research pedigree! Over the past 42 years, Robert has traced the MacFarlane family history, and can show our family tree going back through the MacDonald line all the way to Robert the Bruce (1274-1329) the second King of Scotland.

Estatua-Robert-the-Bruce-Stirling-PAELLACHIPS

Fortunately for me, Robert seems just as interested in the minutiae of domestic relationships – or as we call it, gossip – as in the broad sweep of history. I look forward to sharing some of these tasty titbits in this blog.

A final cousinly thought. I know that my dad, John, had been close to his Spean Bridge cousins. I heard that he would take the bus from Fort William to Spean Bridge, let himself in to the house and the first anyone knew he was there would be when they heard music coming from the piano in the front room. And now I discover that there’s still a link with those far-off days. Robert has told me that his Aunt Margaret – now 88 and also living in South Africa – well remembers when she was a little girl hearing John playing the piano in their house. This would be in the 1930’s, in the years after his mother Beatrice had died (1932) and his father George had married his second wife Jessie (1935). I rather think that my dad found solace in going to play the piano in Spean Bridge, I certainly hope so.

Banavie 1931
The caption is “Banavie 1931”. On the right is my Auntie Mary with my dad John to her left. The little chap at the front is my Uncle Donald. And I THINK that at least one or two of the other children are cousins from… Spean Bridge? Inverness? Perhaps YOU know!