Thursday, 28 February 2013

Autobiography: Chapter Four


The People of ‘Coll View’

Back row from left: Uncle Charlie (stroking Norman), Aunt Maggie, Hector Meek (my father, in front of window)
Middle row from left: Aunt Marion (married to Uncle Donald, sitting), Aunt Annabel, Isabella Meek (my mother)
Front row: myself, on Uncle Donald's knee, and holding Aunt Annabel's hand

Decisions made by individuals often have powerful, far-reaching consequences for their descendants as well as for their immediate kin.  Current circumstances generally  play an important part in decision-making, and the long-term consequences are naturally hidden from view when the decision is reached.  When Donald MacDonald, father of Hector MacDonald, decided to emigrate to Canada in 1847, his decision led to his own and his wife’s deaths, and to the orphaning of his children.  It also meant that Hector MacDonald, his son and my great-grandfather, bore the burden of maintaining the MacDonald line in Caolas, and of re-establishing it as best he could.  From 1847 onwards the MacDonald line was divided into two segments, the one in Orillia and the other in Tiree.   Similarly, when James Meek decided to emigrate in 1913, the Meeks became a sea-divided family, with one member remaining in Scotland, namely my father, Hector MacDonald Meek, who had been left with his grandparents in Tiree.  History repeated itself.  As a result of the Meeks’ migration and the circumstances of the ‘Coll View’ MacDonalds, who failed to produce a direct heir, it fell to my father to maintain the MacDonald croft, and to ensure its retention within the kin.  From a very early stage, therefore, my father was hostage to the fortunes of ‘Coll View’ and its occupants.


My father was the quietest and most unassuming of men, and he would have been the last on this earth to utter a single word in praise of himself.  It was very difficult for me to extract from him any hint of what he might have considered his ‘achievements’.  He had none to speak of. Yet it was evident to me that, quite apart from his crofting interests, he was a man of many talents, which came to him as naturally as the breath of life itself.  He excelled in several trades which he had never learnt formally – joiner, boat-builder, blacksmith and mechanic being some of these. All tasks were performed to the last degree of accuracy and ingenuity.  He recycled discarded gear-boxes into mechanical drills which could bore their way through the hardest metals, he repaired and rebuilt engines whose defects had defied others, he designed and built extensions to houses, he installed water closets and sewage systems which are still models of their kind.  He built his first boat at the age of fifteen.

This Tiree boat shows all the hallmarks of my father's handiwork: it was built using
broad planks, and it was both broad-beamed and deep-draughted, giving it fine sailing
qualities.  I am unable to identify the two men in the stern; one (right) looks like me, but
I have no recollection of being photographed, and I doubt if I am the person in the picture!
(I am grateful to Donald Brown, Vaul, for this photograph.) 
As my father developed his boat-building art, he constructed one vessel that caused a sensation because of its speed.  It regularly came first in the local regattas, even outstripping boats in the larger classes.  It was typical of him that he resisted any of my attempts to winkle his builder’s secrets from him.  It just ‘happened’ that, despite him, his boats were good at sailing, though he once admitted that he did sketch them out on paper before building them, to get an idea of how much timber he needed to order, and how he should fashion their lines to achieve the best performance in the water.  His designs, like the man himself, were plain, cost-effective and very, very efficient.  It remains one of my greatest sorrows that, because of the increasing demands of the croft, we were unable to build a boat together.  It was to be our special project, ‘when life became easier’.   He had already made – by his own hand, on his own anvil – every single one of the metal fittings for the new boat, including the rowlocks, the traveller for the mast, and the pintles for the rudder.   I have them still, galvanised and beautiful, waiting for the boat that has yet to be constructed – the boat of my dreams and his.  One of these days, when I am free of my own toils, I will build her in memory of him.

My father (left) with the Rev. Donald Lamont (from Ruaig, but best known as the parish minister
of Blair Atholl) in a boat on the shore of Gunna Sound.
My father was also a minister or ‘missionary’ in the Inner Hebrides.  In the later 1920s, following a deep spiritual experience as a young man in a local religious revival in 1924, he undertook correspondence courses, and prepared himself for Baptist ministry.  Because he lacked financial means of any kind, he was unable to enter Glasgow University, despite obtaining all the relevant entrance qualifications.  Holding strongly to his baptist convictions and refusing attractive offers of support from the Church of Scotland, which was anxious to secure another Gaelic-speaking minister for its clerical ranks, he undertook the first part of his Baptist Union examinations, and opted to enter the Baptist Home Missionary Society for Scotland as a ‘missionary’ in the Inner Hebrides.  He had no wish to go further than the islands, and did not undertake any further study, even though he had a fine academic record, and a particular love of Logic and Moral Philosophy (in which he distinguished himself, though he would not have said so).  Between 1930 and 1939, he was Baptist minister in Colonsay. During the Second World War he served the Baptist Church in Tiree, having been called back by a despairing diaconate to help the church through a particularly difficult period.  During the war he served as a chaplain to the Royal Air Force base in Tiree. I was always amused to see the little blue copies of the New Testament which he had kept from that period, with the RAF motto, Per ardua ad astra, on their covers.  The motto could well have been his own. Towards the end of the war in 1944, he again left Tiree, and became the Baptist minister at Port Ellen, Islay.

My father travelled on his motorbike when visiting his Baptist flock in Colonsay!
My father’s periods in Colonsay and Islay were his golden years.  They were times of comparative freedom, when he had detached himself sufficiently from the shackles of the ‘Coll View’ croft to be able to pursue his calling as a minister of the Gospel.  The island of Colonsay, in particular, provided a haven where he was at one with the place and the people.  His affection for Colonsay far surpassed his enthusiasm for any other island, including Tiree.   He loved its people, and they loved him.  He even found moments to rest.  One treasured photograph from the Colonsay period shows him relaxing on a deck-chair outside his beautiful manse – in the sharpest possible contrast to his rigorous routine in Tiree.  I cannot recollect that he ever extolled the virtues of Tiree, as it was for him (though he would never say so) a labour-camp compared with the freedom of Colonsay.  In both Colonsay and Islay he was able to provide what would nowadays be called a ‘holistic’ ministry, though he would not have cared to use the term.   In Colonsay he built a boat or two in his spare time, and acted as a mechanic and repairer of just about anything, as required.  On one fine summer evening he was summoned urgently from the manse to attend to a potential maritime disaster, involving a boat which had limped into harbour, apparently suffering from engine failure.   Taking one look at the boat as she bumped up hard against the jetty, and seeing glass-like objects glinting suspiciously on her floor-boards, he summed up the problem and the ‘solution’ tersely –  ‘Too much spirit in the men and too little in the engine!’  His words were remembered long after he had left the island, as they appear to have had an abiding relevance.  In Islay he was no less ready to meet unexpected emergencies on his pastoral visits.  On at least one occasion he undertook the shoeing of a horse – a craft with which he was more than familiar in Tiree. He also ran a dolls’ hospital for local children, who flocked to him with ‘friends’ that had lost their heads or limbs in tragic accidents.  They were quickly given a prosthesis and restored to thumping health.  As a result, it was boom-time in the Sunday School.

My father, Hector MacDonald Meek, in 'pulpit dress', probably in the 1930s.

People, horses, boats, toys – all were part of my father’s ministerial concern.  He was prepared for anything as part of his pastoral charge.  He refused point-blank to wear a clerical collar, because, he said, that would be to create a barrier between himself and  the people whom he sought to help.  He disliked, and only just tolerated, the title ‘Reverend’, believing that he was no more ‘reverend’ than the next person.  God’s grace was about salvation, not social separation.  Nowadays this common-sense approach might be classified as ‘practical theology’ in the institutions that he – perhaps mercifully –  never had the privilege of attending, though it is doubtful if a ‘practical theology’ of the kind that he practised has ever been developed.   A specific course for island ministers has never been created, even by those churches which profess a strong commitment to the Highlands and Islands.  My father certainly knew, and saw, the consequences.  He recognised ‘impractical theology’ when he met it, as there was (and there may remain) much of it in the islands.  He found the social airs and graces of some ‘professional’ ministers, and the self-promotion of a few others, less than attractive.  He would become unusually animated if he suspected that position meant more to such persons than their calling – uaisle gun chur leatha (‘pomposity with no substance’) was one of his few damning phrases, reserved for the worst of that kind, whether lay or clerical.  Self-important ministers were frequently ‘outsiders’ who were completely at sea in island contexts. 

Although my father had strong baptist convictions, he had no great interest in denominations as such, and he was even wary of the society that formally ‘employed’ him.  He would never define the church in a narrow or exclusive way.  I remember how he spoke often of ministering to a Roman Catholic family in Islay, whose particular plight had moved him.  He officiated at the funeral of a member of that family.  I was taught from the earliest age to respect those who belonged to other branches of the Christian family.

'Texa House', Port Ellen, Islay - on the left of this picture - was built as one of two houses in a terrace.  My father's garden
 was immediately in front of the house, looking across the bay   He used to catch fish from the garden wall.
Port Ellen had further pleasant and satisfying dimensions.  My father and mother were married in 1946, and for three brief years they had the joy of being together in their own home, Texa House, in Port Ellen.  Texa House was so close to the sea that my father was able to catch fish for the tea over the garden wall!  My mother, Isabella Marion MacDonald, was born in Glasgow in 1922, and was brought up above the old Fire Station in Gairbraid Avenue, Maryhill.  Her parents, Alexander MacDonald and Anna Graham, were from the island of Skye, from Sleat and Uig respectively.  She was thus a ‘Glasgow Gael’, familiar with Gaelic, which, in her childhood, she knew well but did not speak.  Her coming to ‘Coll View’ changed that, as she had to become fluent to survive in the household and in the community, which was predominantly Gaelic-speaking.  Following her schooling, in which she excelled at mathematics, she went to work with quantity surveyors, as a comptometer operator (a computer programmer, in today’s terms).  When the companies which employed her became sub-contractors to the Air Ministry, which oversaw the maintenance and development of aerodromes, she was posted to Tiree, which had a large wartime airfield.   She began to attend the Baptist Church, where my father was then ministering.  She first heard him preaching in Gaelic.  Although I am deeply opposed to war of any kind, I have to admit that ‘Coll View’ owed much to the Second World War.  It brought my parents together, and I cannot imagine what my father’s life would have been like if he had not met Isabella Marion MacDonald.   She shared his thoughts, carried his burdens and cared for the ‘Coll View’ family with a devotion which, for an incomer to the household, was nothing short of remarkable.  My father was forty years of age when he married, and it must have seemed to him that there was little hope that he would ever marry.  My mother came to Tiree in 1941 and left in 1943, moving south to Lytham St Anne’s, Lancashire, and then back to Ayr, before her marriage.
My mother, Isabella Marion MacDonald, in a photograph taken in April 1943, when she was almost 21 years old.

Shortly after I was born in May 1949, my father made a decision which radically affected the course of his own life and my mother’s – and mine.   He decided that he would return to Tiree from Islay in order to provide assistance to his uncle Donald, who owned the Tiree croft, and who was now suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. On the basis of the prognosis, my father believed that he would be in Tiree for six months.  So he terminated his Islay ministry, and packed his wife, two-month-old son, and Aunt Annabel (who had only recently returned from Canada, and had been helping my mother in the months after my birth) – plus Cuachag the cat – into an aircraft (presumably a Dragon Rapide) which he had chartered from British European Airways.

My parents on their Wedding Day in 1946.

This was the first – and last – time that the Meeks travelled ‘in style’, and it happened largely because of quick-thinking on my father’s part.  He chanced to speak one day in July 1949 to the (then) manager of Glenegedale Airport, the much-respected Islay MacEachern, who told him that a chartered aircraft was coming to Islay with a party of shooters.  She would be on the tarmac for three hours before the return journey.  My father asked Islay MacEachern if BEA might take another charter within those three hours – and, sure enough, the company agreed.   The charter cost about £25, which does not sound much today, but was significant enough then. 

As the Rapide flew out of Glenegedale airport and touched down on the huge, wartime runway of Tiree, overshadowed by massive and gloomy hangars, my parents were quite unaware of what lay ahead.  The six months were to stretch inexorably into twenty years.  My father returned briefly to Islay on the chartered Rapide to pack up Texa House, and later that week he and the family’s furnishings travelled to Tiree by boat.  My mother remembers the immense relief of seeing his little Morris car coming  through the croft gate, leading off the main road and into what became, for my parents, something of a cul-de-sac, despite the beautiful, green machairs on which I played to my heart’s content.

Mary Flora was the only one of my great-grandparents' family
who died of an illness early in life.  She took rheumatic fever,
and died in 1903, aged thirty-four.  The picture below shows
Mary Flora (left) and Maggie (right) with their mother (my
great-grandmother) at the front door of 'Coll View'.

To understand the circumstances into which my parents were propelled in ‘Coll View’ in 1949, it is important to understand what, in general terms, had happened to the members of my great-grandfather’s family, and how their lives and careers developed with respect to the croft.  Of the family of ten whom Hector and Effie MacDonald produced, only three – Mary Flora (who died in 1903), Donald and Maggie – remained on the croft.  All of the others sought employment on the mainland, and of these the majority subsequently went to Canada – Sandy (Minnedosa), Ishbel (Minnedosa), Nancy (Vancouver), Charles (Vancouver), Annabel (Vancouver), and John/Iain (Minnedosa and Vanouver).  Of these, only three returned to Tiree from Canada.  Iain came back in 1914, and joined the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in 1916, meeting his death at Arras in 1917.

John (Iain) MacDonald and his sister Ishbel.
Annabel and Charles both came back in 1949 to spend their retirement in Tiree.  Their brother, Hector, was the only one of the seven who did not go to Canada.  He was employed as a gardener and driver in ‘big houses’ in the Glasgow area and in Helensburgh, where he worked for a time at Ardencaple Castle at Rhu.  He likewise returned to Tiree in his retirement, and died in 1954.   Although 'Uncle Hector' passed away when I was only five years old, my recollections of him are particularly vivid, as he had a particularly warm, humorous personality, and excelled as a practical joker, always ready to trick the unwary.

Annabella MacDonald (Aunt Annabel) as a young lady.
A pattern of out-migration from the croft for the sake of employment was firmly embedded in the minds of the young MacDonalds. Despite the relatively large size of the house and its croft, ‘Coll View’ was therefore able to sustain only 30% of its own family, or to put matters another way, only 30% of the family availed themselves of the sustenance which it offered.    Security of tenure, bestowed by the 1886 Crofters’ Act, did not in any way change the underlying problems of crofting, and the fate of ‘Coll View’ bears eloquent testimony to that.  Although it provided immediate safety for the crofting communities, and eliminated the threat of arbitrary eviction, the Act lacked economic clout.  It needed to be supplemented by a package of powerful measures to stabilise the Highland economy, and to stem the outward drift in the longer term.  This package was slow to materialise.  Not until the creation of the Highlands and Islands Development Board in 1965 was the Highland economy treated with proper respect and given the opportunity to renounce its ‘problem’ status.  The out-migration of young people from the islands to the mainland and the dominions continued as before.  We should, however, note that even in cases where a worthwhile measure of prosperity had been achieved, as with James Meek in Falkirk, it was apparently not sufficient to keep his family in Scotland in the longer term.  The building of the house in Major’s Place was no more effective in retaining the family in Scotland than was the building of ‘Coll View’.

Uncle Hector with his wife Mary Urquhart.
Another significant matter which affected the viability of the ‘Coll View’ family was its apparent failure to reproduce itself effectively in the early twentieth century.  Athough my great-grandfather had ten children, only three of these ten children produced offspring – namely Sandy (married to Mary Fairlie), Ishbel (married to Dan MacLean), and Nancy (married to James Meek).  Again, we are confronted with a statistic of 30% for overall family achievement, this time in connection with its reproductive success (or failure).  It is particularly noticeable that all the members of the family who produced offspring went to Canada, and stayed there.  This may suggest that there was a link of some kind between opportunity and reproduction; or perhaps a correlation between being ‘better off’ and marrying, with the prospect of offspring.  Donald, who owned ‘Coll View’ and who had married Marion MacLean, a girl from a neighbouring croft, had no family.  Nor had Hector, who had married Mary Urquhart when he was in Thorntonhall (near East Kilbride), and who adopted a son, Iain.   The other members of the family – Annabel, Charles, Iain, and Maggie – did not marry.  As three of these also went to Canada, we should perhaps be wary of drawing any easy conclusion about a link between emigration and reproduction.  In Maggie’s case, a marriage was in prospect, but it did not come to fruition.   In Iain’s case, he died in battle at a comparatively young age.  Annabel and Charles formed a brother-and-sister team who were constantly together, helping one another through their many challenges, at home and abroad.

The slightly dark humour of war!   This card was sent to John/Iain MacDonald before be enlisted
in the 8th Battalion of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders.  Who sent it to him?  A girlfriend in Oban
called 'Morag', who has remained unidentified so far!  She wrote superb postcards, full of clever fun,
and was a native of Tiree, where she returned regularly.  She has commented on the left side of this card,
'She should give it up as a bad job!'   Poignant, indeed, given what happened to Iain at Arras.
Whatever the reasons, it is clear in retrospect that the chances of long-term survival for ‘Coll View’ were not good when my father and his family arrived back from Islay in 1949.  They were running at considerably less than the 30% implied by the rough statistics, as the remaining MacDonalds were now becoming elderly, and my father was not a direct heir, though he was the closest male relative.  In the natural course of events, the croft would have ceased functioning shortly after 1949, as Donald’s serious illness took its course.  The last hope was pinned on my father.  If my father had not remained in Tiree when his parents emigrated in 1913, there would have been no future for the croft within the wider MacDonald kin.  When he went to Colonsay in 1930, it must have been clear that the writing was on the wall, since his exercise of choice showed that he did not wish to remain permanently in crofting.  When my father returned to Tiree, prospects did brighten temporarily for ‘Coll View’.  Traditional loyalty and devotion to kin prevailed over ‘career interests’.  By 1969, however, Annabel, the last of the MacDonald siblings, had passed away. My father and I were then the only males left on the croft – and I was an only child.

Exactly as I remember them in the early 1950s!  In the middle is my great-uncle Donald;
his wife Marion, 'Aunt Marion', from Carnan, Caolas, is on his right, and on his left is his
sister Maggie, my great-aunt.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is evident that it was quite unrealistic to suppose that our stay in Tiree could have been as short as six months.  My uncle Donald had a long-term, degenerative illness, and over the next ten years his condition worsened progressively.  He was not able to do any outside work by the mid-1950s, and the daily routine for him and his wife Marion consisted of spending a morning in their own room upstairs, and then in the afternoon coming downstairs to the main living-room of the house, where they would sit together until late evening, with their rather ill-tempered black collie, Roilig, lying matted and glowering beside them.  Occasionally they would come downstairs a little earlier, driven out of their room by the smoky ‘blow-down’ which tended to occur in the fireplace in a day of south-east wind.  Marion was a prim and proper little lady, rather dry and nippy in her nature and conversation.  Sometimes she would indulge in a verbal flyting with the MacDonald women, or give vent to her irritation in sharp dismissals of individual people.  I used to enjoy the rhetorical rockets as they hurtled across the limited domestic airspace, precision-guided by well-honed Gaelic, rich in idiom.

My great-uncle Donald tries his hand at riding my father's motorbike, in a photograph taken outside 'Coll View' in the 1930s.
Donald was a large, well-built man, almost six feet tall, who was extremely strong in his hey-day, and had served in the local Home Guard during the Second World War.  He was outstandingly able in boats.  He was a very powerful oarsman, as he demonstrated on occasions when the wind would fail, and he and Calum MacDonald, Calum a’ Ghobhainn, had to row most of the way to Arinagour and back when they were delivering their lobsters to Sturgeon, the merchant.  As his illness took effect, I remember being frightened, even terrified, by the intensity of the spasms which used to grip his body, as his limbs shook violently.  The tremor was so severe that the backs of his legs left friction-marks which are still visible on the couch on which he sat.  Successive revarnishing has failed to remove them.   If he needed to return to his room, I helped him up and down the stairs, ensuring that he did not fall and that everything he needed was within reach.  Sometimes he did fall, and I found that extremely distressing, indeed terrifying.  Panic-stricken, I remember trying to lift him on several occasions, but eventually having to run outside to find my father, who very quickly and very gently put him on his feet.   When Donald was relatively calm and having a ‘good’ evening, we would play draughts together.  He was an expert at board games, and I was never able to beat him in anything involving dice. In these board-game encounters, he was the undisputed master and the inevitable winner, but there was much fun and happiness for me, even in my defeat.   My uncle Donald was the least physically playful of the household, as his illness restricted the extent to which he could interact with me. As a result I do not feel that I knew him as well as I knew the other members of the family.   His best gift to me was his training of my mind to think ahead, well before making the next move, and to work out the consequences of the move  – a practice which I have tried to follow ever since, with varying degrees of success.  Donald died in 1960.

This photograph captures four of the older members of the 'Coll View' family in the late
1950s: from the left, Aunt Maggie, Aunt Marion (married to Uncle Donald), Uncle Donald
and Aunt Annabel.  Norman, the much-loved collie, sets off the group to perfection!
In contrast to their brother Donald, Hector, Maggie, Annabel and Charles enjoyed wonderful health until their last years, and were young at heart until the end of their days.  There was no age-gap of any kind between myself and my ‘elderly’ relatives.  Of course, the term ‘age-gap’ had not been invented then.  Indeed, there was no meaningful concept of ‘age’ within the household, and my people would have been perplexed had they lived long enough to encounter the ‘ageism’ of the present day.  ‘Age’ was something which was defined by trades and professions, and by promotion and seniority within them.  It was probably also a state of mind. These benchmarks were of little relevance on a croft, where everyone was on the same level, and there was no retirement age as such.   There was a gradual slowing down of the body, it is true, but people kept going as long as they could.  Too much ‘sitting at the fireside’ was frowned on, unless there was good reason for it.  Sociologists nowadays would identify a ‘serious age imbalance’ in the profile of ‘Coll View’, particularly in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and it is hard to write these chapters without being profoundly aware of it – but only in retrospect.  In those years ‘Coll View’ increasingly resembled an eventide home, and some would doubtless have regarded it as an ‘unhealthy’ environment for a child.  Nevertheless, I had a wonderful boyhood, in which I grew up in the company of sparklingly bright and witty men and women who had been born in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and had seen half of the twentieth. They retained their youthful spirit, providing endless, effortless fun with their distinctive ways and ready repartee. They also filled my mind with rich, idiomatic Gaelic and a fascination with the nineteenth century which was later to shape my academic interests, and inspire the scholarly publications for which I was awarded the degree of Doctor of Letters (D.Litt.) by the University of Glasgow in November 2011.

Charles MacDonald ('Uncle Charlie') as a young man.

Uncle Charlie in Vancouver
in the 1940s
Charles, in particular, was immune to the attrition of age.  Because of his boyish vivacity, he was my constant playmate, and I loved to be in his company, helping him with his many projects.  He made up in one stroke for my lack of siblings, and always treated me as his equal and as a fellow-craftsman. By the age of twelve I had served several apprenticeships with him, in crafts as varied as boat-building and dry-stane dyking – crafts that I still love.  A man of immense energy and versatility, Charlie had travelled the world in different capacities – as a sailor and ship's carpenter during the First World War, which he had taken in his stride, with voyages (e.g. in 1916) between India and the UK, via Rangoon and Port Said, but also as a mason, fisherman, boat-builder, and joiner. From first-hand experience, he could speak authoritatively of life in South Africa and in different parts of Canada.  When in relaxed mode at weekends, with his little pal sitting beside him, he would describe his African and Canadian adventures, and enunciate wonderfully exotic place-names like the Transvaal, Kimberley, Kicking Horse Pass, Medicine Hat, and Calgary, with which he was wholly familiar.  He enthused over his enormous train journeys across Canada, and provided me with vivid descriptions of sunrise over the snow-covered Rocky Mountains.  When in Vancouver, he had built his own fishing-boat, the Annabel, from which he fished for salmon around the offshore islands.  He enjoyed entertaining his friends and relatives in her cabin, and I wished many times that I could have been there – or, better still, at his side as he steered her out to the fishing-grounds.  

My Uncle Charlie was thoroughly familiar with the mighty funnels of the
Empress of Britain, and with dockside scenes like these.
This postcard, sent by Uncle Charlie from Luke Camp, Alberni, in Vancouver Island to his
brother John in Vancouver on 7 August 1913, features a 'new' turbine steamship which had
arrived in Vancouver in 1912.   The Princess Patricia was the former Clyde steamer Queen Alexandra,
built in 1902 but severely damaged by fire in 1911.  After rebuilding by Wm Denny, she was purchased
by Candian Pacific for their Pacific coast service, and sailed for another 25 years.  The bunting suggests
that this represents her maiden voyage in her new environment.

I heard from him too of long voyages on glorious transatlantic liners (owned by Canadian Pacific), with grand and melodious names, such as Empress of Britain, Empress of Canada, Empress of England – and he, above all people, gave me an undying love of these magnificent steamships of a bygone era.  On these ships he embarked and disembarked at a mysterious place called Montreal, which he pronounced with great emphasis on the final syllable.  It seemed to be the gateway to life’s greatest adventures.  Charlie put me in touch with the geographical and cultural diversity of the globe, as well as with the rich Gaelic tradition of Tiree.   His island embraced the world.

Uncle Charlie (seated, front row, second from left) is shown with tribal chiefs (and big white chiefs?)
in Ndwedwe, Natal, South Africa. 

In this remarkable picture, Uncle Charlie (on the left, with flat cap and moustache!) is one of two men
sitting in front of the French door of a house in either Ndwedwe or Durban.    His friend (to his left) is holding
a saw, while the man on the extreme left has a hammer in his hand and wears a joiner's apron.  It would seem
that Charles MacDonald was a member of a reconstruction team which was employed in Natal and Transvaal
to rebuild these regions after the Anglo-Boer War / South African War of 1899-1902.

This postcard was sent by Uncle Charlie to his sister-in-law, Mary (Fairlie), wife of Sandy, then in
Scotstoun, Glasgow.   It is signed by Charlie, and shows clearly that he was in the Pietermaritzburg area
 by 28 November 1903.
A multi-cultural card from Uncle Charlie in Natal!   Dated 17 November 1904, it gives his address
as Natal Police Camp, Malvern.  The message is in Gaelic: 'Tha mise go maith a chairdean (sa[n]
obair) an dochas go feith sibh so sibh le cheile[;] sgribh leis gach nigheach[d.] Tearlach Dhonnalach'
('I am well, friends (in the work), [and] hope both of you will receive this; write with every story. 
Charles MacDonald').  The recipients were (again) Mary and Sandy MacDonald in Scotstoun.
As an even younger man Charlie had served his time as a shipwright in the Govan yard which later belonged to Harland and Wolff.  He had evidently enjoyed his time in Glasgow in the late nineteenth century, and then moved to Falkirk with the Meeks early in the twentieth century.  It was from him that I first heard of the voluminous Gaelic poetess from Skye, Mary MacPherson, popularly known as Màiri Mhòr nan Oran (‘Big Mary of the Songs’), whom he knew and remembered very well.  He frequented Cèilidh nan Gàidheal on Saturday nights, and found companions who shared his great love of traditional Gaelic tales and songs.   He himself was something of a poet, and would compose doggerel to amuse me as we clinched the rivets of his latest vessel.  He also made a substantial collection of Gaelic proverbs and proverbial sayings from Tiree which has been posted on this blog-book. Yet his greatest skill lay in genealogy.  He knew by heart the pedigree of every family in the east end of Tiree, and he was well versed in the history of most families throughout the island.   His prodigious knowledge went with him to different parts of the world, and he had not forgotten any of it when he returned to Tiree from Vancouver in 1949. As a result, he was consulted regularly about local genealogies, and he was one of the first in the island to be interviewed by Hamish Henderson of the School of Scottish Studies in 1958.  He passed on to my mother an immense amount of family history (to which this book is indebted). 

This was the telegram which was sent to Charles and his sister Annabel by my father,
then in Port Ellen, Islay, when they returned to the UK on the Empress of Canada in 1949.
My father wrote 'Welcome from Eachan and Ishbel.  Meeting you Glasgow. Hector Meek'.
Charles and Annabel disembarked at Liverpool.

I can see Charlie still, and hear his voice and laughter.  As a little boy, I had called him ‘Ha-ha’ because of his infectious laugh.  His back was as straight as a ram-rod, and he did not have a spare ounce of flesh on his lean, strong body.  His face, crowned with some straggling wisps of white hair and topped off (in summer) with a badly unbalanced felt hat, seemed to have a constant smile, which was never more evident than when he was at work in his shed, building a boat or designing one of his latest ‘patents’ or gadgets – inventions which often showed his ‘wacky’ side.  He loved to combine conflicting art styles in his joinery, by recycling old materials into new patterns – and just occasionally his approach could get on people’s nerves.  He too had a touch of the ‘arts and crafts’ school about him.  In retrospect, I can see why he was so close to James and Nancy Meek in their Falkirk days.  

Uncle Charlie sews a woolsack on a trailer at the back of 'Coll View' in the 1950s.

Charlie died with extraordinary suddenness in 1961, in the full bloom of youth at the age of eighty-six. I was stunned when I returned from school one Friday afternoon, and found my father toiling with his spade, levelling the track down to Charlie’s cottage, in preparation for vehicle activity and a forthcoming funeral.  I knew that Charlie was unwell with a bad cold, but I was completely unaware of how ill he was.  Charlie was still alive when I reached home on that grim Friday, but the doctor had warned my parents that the end was very close.  He had been engaged in rebuilding his shed and digging out the surrounding ground with a view to a further extension only a few days before his death.  He was also building a wheelchair for his sister Maggie, who had lost a leg through gangrene, and was now being nursed in ‘Coll View’, and in that project too I was his assistant.  His last words to me were to look out for the wheels which were coming in the post, and to keep them safe until he was well again.  Within an hour, he was gone.  Half an hour before he passed away, retaining all his mental faculties, he assured my worried father that his only experience of a sore head was in a thunder-storm in the Transvaal. He remembered the occasion down to the last detail.  It was ironic that when he took the bad cold which developed rapidly into pneumonia, his body offered no resistance whatsoever, and he went out like a light.  In my boyhood innocence I was confident that Charlie, my unsurpassed hero and my beloved playmate, would reach at least his first centenary effortlessly. I little thought that he, of all people, would succumb to a mere cold.

Charlie died in the cotter’s cottage called Taigh a’ Mhachaire (‘Machair House’), where he had lived with his sister Annabel.  Its garden straddled the boundary between the ‘Coll View’ croft and the adjacent croft owned by Hugh Hector MacArthur.  When Charlie and Annabel finally returned to Tiree from Canada in 1949, they lodged in ‘Coll View’ for five or six years.  Then they moved to the cottage, in which their retired brother Hector had lived until his death in 1954.  The cottage and its shed gave Charlie all the scope he needed for his various activities.

This photograph of Taigh a' Mhachaire was taken from the upper floor of
'Coll View', and shows the cottage and its shed before it was replaced by
the Eglintons' house.   Uncle Charlie was in the process of rebuilding the
shed (to the right) when he passed away suddenly.  The view across the Sound of Gunna
 to Coll shows why 'Coll View' was thus named!
Annabel, like her brother, was a remarkable person, whose experience of housekeeping, beginning in Bantaskin, Falkirk, had eventually extended to the Pacific coast of Canada, via Minnedosa.  Apparently accompanying her sister Nancy, when she and her husband James Meek emigrated, she arrived in Vancouver in November 1913.  She returned to Tiree probably around 1920, and worked in Kilmalieu, Argyll, for some years.  Then in 1925 she set out for Canada for the second time, with a brief stop-over at Minnedosa.  In Vancouver she was employed by a Mrs Brooks from 1925 to 1941, and later by a Mrs Taylor from 1942 to 1949.  Annabel served as a children’s nurse and housekeeper.  She had a very strong managerial instinct, which sometimes extended to managing her employers, and was not always well received.  My mother remembers her ability to boss people and to shave iron with her tongue.  From a different perspective, I always regarded her as a particularly bonny woman, with strong facial features and a  glad smile.  Her hospitality to young people, and her special parties for me and for my cousins, remain in my mind as her definining characteristic.

Annabel MacDonald's last passport was issued in 1949.  She was a Canadian citizen,
which meant that she was also a British subject.

The cottage close to the shore, overlooking Gunna Sound, was a hive of happy activity in the five years from 1955 to 1960.  As a boy I regularly spent weekends there with Charlie and Annabel, as an antidote to, and an escape from, the rigours of ‘Coll View’.  Rules were relaxed, and I enjoyed a freedom which I did not have in my own home, under the watchful eye of rather more straight-laced older folk.  Charlie and Annabel were, to my boyish mind, more laid-back than their surviving siblings, perhaps because they had seen the world, and knew a thing or two about real hustle and bustle.  They were now in retirement, at least to some extent, though they had not downed their tools.   Charlie’s joinering in the outside shed was complemented by Annabel’s baking in the cottage.   Her speciality was scones, and I can still sense the distinctive smell of Saturday mornings, with freshly-made scones warm on the girdle, heated by the phlegmatic Raeburn stove.  I used to take a supply of fresh scones up to ‘Coll View’, but not without first sampling their excellence directly from the girdle, while they were still piping hot – a practice which, according to the medical profession, was not at all good for one’s health.  That mattered little compared with the delight of melting butter, as it seeped into the soft, attractive texture of a hot, home-made scone.   

My great-aunts, Annabel (seated) and Maggie (standing), in front of 'Coll View' in 1957.
The house was then cement-washed.

The MacDonald siblings in 'Coll View' were very different from one another, in both traits of character and natural abilities.  Maggie, somewhat in contrast to Annabel, was very much more 'rustic', made for the croft and its constant round of seasonal toil rather than the privileged role of custodian of the kindergarten.   Unlike the peripatetic, globe-trotting Annabel, she had no desire to leave Tiree, and appears to have done so only occasionally, on visits to Falkirk to see Nancy and her in-laws, and also to Colonsay, where in the 1930s she acted periodically as my father's housekeeper, and became a close friend of Sarah Campbell, whose postcards with Colonsay pictures kept her up to date with happenings there, long after my father had left.   In Tiree, Aunt Maggie was the undisputed 'queen' of the croft, looking after the hens, the pigs, the piglets, the regular weekly washing, and the food for all animals, including humans.  Her operating uniform consisted of a patterned overall on top of a thick skirt and jersey, and she wore large brown boots, with zip fasteners.  Commonly she sported a white headsquare, completing a colourful ensemble   She seemed to hold court in the 'pump house', the small building with a felt roof beside the southern gable of 'Coll View', where the washing was done every Monday, and food (mainly potatoes) was cooked for the pigs in a big steel tub sitting astride a large black-leaded range.  

This splendid example of a formal Edwardian photographic portrait was taken by Thomas Greig,
who owned the Coronation Gallery (then at 76 High Street), Falkirk.  It shows my Aunt Maggie (sitting)
and my grandmother, Nancy Meek.    Maggie's visit to her relatives in Falkirk offered a 'photo op'!

For these reasons, the pump house exuded a variety of rich smells, depending on the day of the week.    On Mondays, it was full of the cleansing fragrances of washing-powder and soap-suds, and I can still see Aunt Maggie's muscular forearms as, with mighty sweeps, she rubbed and squeezed the dirt out of items of clothing, using the green-glassed washing-board with its rough ceramic waves to remove the most enduring stains.   Clothes and sheets would be subjected to the first part of this process in one sink, before being put through the wringer and into another sink, where they awaited a final rinse, and then exposure to the merciless Tiree breezes on the washing lines to the east of the pump house.  By the time I returned from school, the washing would be over, and the pump house would have both its doors (north- and south-facing) wide open in an attempt to dry the floor.

This is a particularly fine likeness of Aunt Maggie, and is very obviously
another example of 'studio work'!  The close-up (below) shows her facial features well.

For most of the week, however, the routines of feeding the animals prevailed.  The old range, constantly in need of fuel, also required to be fed, and seemed to blaze particularly effectively if it was given a regular supply of dried cow-pats, known as sgainteagan in Gaelic.   I was schooled early in the gentle art of preparing, drying and collecting the sgainteagan.  Equipped with a small, sharp stick, I would set off across the machair with Aunt Maggie, and proceed to test the texture of each available cow-pat.  Those that were already dry on one side would be given a quick 'flip' with the stick, and turned over to expose their 'wet' sides.   A couple of days later, depending on the weather, they would be tested again, and if 'cooked and dry' throughout, they would be put in a small sack, and conveyed to the pump house, where they would be stacked beside the ever-hungry range.  Aunt Maggie and her kind were experts in using all available natural resources - the 'renewables' that Nature provided - to 'keep the home fires burning'.  One wonders what today's risk-averse generation would have to say to the gathering of dried cow-pats by children under school age.  The brouhaha would no doubt keep The Oban Times in good copy for several weeks.  I was certainly none the worse of my expeditions, and I have little doubt that my early encounters with what my mother called 'germs' stood me in very good stead in later life.  

Uncle Hector sits in some grandeur as the driver of this carriage and pair!

Cow dung was, of course, an ever-present reality on the 'Coll View' croft, as on most others.   It was used to fertilise fields, as well as to provide fuel.   The 'carting' of dung by wheelbarrow from the byre was a morning ritual, performed faithfully during my early years by my Uncle Hector, the former gardener and chauffeur in Helensburgh.   As a driver at Ardencaple Castle, he regularly conveyed high-class visitors, including Princess Mary of Teck (later to become Queen Mary and wife of King George V).  He would often comment, as he wheeled his large, squeaky barrow past the pump house on its way to the dung-heap, 'To think that I used to drive Princess Mary of Teck, and now I am driving dung!'  The irony was splendid, and it was not lost on those of us privileged to hear such a witty comment.  Hector was, in fact, one of the wittiest men I ever knew, full of practical jokes and clever repartee.   One of his favourite ploys was to 'wind up' Aunt Maggie, as he pushed his heavily-laden barrow of dung past the pump house, where she would regularly hold court.   He loaded the barrow in such a way that the strain on the wheel would create a high-pitched, very irritating series of squeaks.   Aunt Maggie could not bear such noise, and she fell for the prank every time, often stomping out of the pump house and giving Hector a piece of her mind for his inability to cure the squeak!   On one occasion, when she was particularly annoyed, she grabbed a bucketful of water, shot out of the door, and threw the contents over Hector and the barrow, heaped to the skies with dung!  'Seo', ars' ise, 'cuiridh seo stad air a' bhiogail!'  ('Take this,' she said, 'this will stop the squeaking!')

Uncle Hector as chauffeur, with a high-class motor-car in Helensburgh!

The sibling rivalry between Aunt Maggie and Uncle Hector still fills my reflections with happy, even hilarious, moments.   I remember afternoon walks on Sundays, taking Hector his lunch in several tin cans, and going down the machair, only to find, on entering the cottage, that Hector was fast asleep on his chair, and nothing on this earth would waken him.  Sometimes he would have the radio switched on, blasting and blaring in a corner, but still be in a state of happy slumber.   The consequences were predictable.   On Monday he would be up at 'Coll View', complaining about cold soup, or Maggie's neglect.  After all, he hadn't seen her since Friday!  The sparks would fly.   Another favourite trick of Hector's was to light his pipe in Maggie's presence.  He would take a full-page spread from The Oban Times, roll it up tightly like a fire-lighter, and stick it into the fire.   His pipe was ever reluctant to ignite, even with a great deal of tapping and poking, which meant that, with such delay, the fire-lighter unravelled as it burned, thus creating a flame with a base a couple of feet long.   Maggie would erupt in anger, threatening to hose Hector down, and pointing out that there was a real danger of conflagration.   Those wonderful people acted out their roles like living cartoons, infinitely better and more wonderful than any of today's so-called 'entertainment' programmes on TV. 

Hector MacDonald, Eachann Og, my 'uncle Hector', shown in his garden in Taigh a' Mhachaire,
Caolas, Tiree, in the early 1950s. Hector kept a most beautiful garden, filled with flowers and
vegetables and strawberries in abundance. (This site is now occupied by Archie Eglinton's holiday-home.)

Aunt Maggie was always on her feet, carrying half-hundredweight bags, feeding pigs, lifting hens' eggs from the nests in the henhouse - and she had a badly-bruised pair of forearms to prove it, caused by the hens' 'fight-back' when they sensed that they were losing their eggs.  Maggie, ever the activist and practical worker, relied on her big feet to perform her many tasks, but, sadly, her feet were her final weak spot.   We came home from church one Sunday in the early 1960s, only to find Maggie looking at a very dark patch of flesh that had appeared on her big toe (left foot, if I remember correctly).  My mother immediately realised that her foot was becoming gangrenous, and the doctor was called.   Maggie was taken to Glasgow by air ambulance, and the worst was diagnosed.  Her leg would have to be amputated to a position above the knee.   And so it was that, many weeks later, Aunt Maggie returned to 'Coll View' as an invalid, minus a leg.  She required a wheelchair, and my Uncle Charlie was in the process of building one when he passed away in 1961.   We acquired a metal wheelchair thereafter, but it was too large to go through the narrow doorways in 'Coll View'.   My father, always willing to accept technical challenges, decided to take the wheelchair apart.  With painstaking skill, he cut all of its metal parts, reduced their size by several inches, and rebuilt the chair, which was then perfect for the task of conveying Maggie from her bedroom to the fireside.  I was often the driver, and, on each occasion, I marvelled (as I still do) at my father's technical brilliance and his unfailing concern for his elderly relatives.  Maggie died in the spring of 1963.   I remember her passing very well, because that spring was one of the few occasions when Tiree had a very heavy fall of snow.   In other ways too, it was a cold spring, as the 'Coll View'  MacDonalds had been reduced to one surviving member of the original family of ten.

My parents and myself with my Aunt Annabel in 1958, when we were meeting
Canadian friends in Ruaig.

Annabel - the Atlantic commuter extraordinary, the storyteller, the party-maker, the nanny and happy hostess, who returned with her brother Charlie to Caolas, Tiree, in 1949 - was destined to be the last survivor of Eachann Ban's children.   She continued to live in Taigh a' Mhachaire after Charlie's death, but tragically she fell when working outside, and broke her hip.  I remember that it was a Monday evening, and that it was interrupted suddenly by the arrival of Hugh MacFadyen to tell us that he had found Annabel on the floor of the shed.   Within an hour, the doctor had called an air ambulance from Glasgow, and Annabel and my mother were winging their way to a city hospital.   Suddenly, I had to 'turn to', and look after the running of the house, though that was not too difficult.  Some weeks later, Annabel was back, but her mobility was severely restricted, though she improved gradually, and, after some rough patches, lived happily with us in 'Coll View' until July 1969.

My parents and myself with Aunt Annabel in 'Coll View' in 1964.


Annabel's final fight came with dramatic suddenness, and I was closely associated with what happened.  I often took Annabel to the toilet, giving her support on my arm, and then leaving her on her own.  On this occasion, I had only just closed the bathroom door when there was a shout for help, and I went in immediately, only to find Annbel lying on the floor.   I was filled with remorse, and self-recrimination.  Had I been too 'rough' with her, when I turned her at the wash-hand basin?   Was I the cause of this fall?   These questions still haunt me, even though the doctors pointed out that, in all likelihood, her second hip had fractured before she fell.   Once again, we had the emergency services at the house, and Annabel and my mother were on their way to hospital in Glasgow within little more than an hour.  A few weeks later, Annabel returned, but this time she was enclosed in a beautiful mahogony coffin, which was transported to Tiree on a private flight by a Loganair Islander aircraft.  

Strangely, I have a particularly vivid recollection of the period of mourning prior to Aunt Annabel's funeral, because it coincided with the American moon-landing.   As I helped my mother to prepare cups of tea and scones for those who came to pay their respects, I found myself being dragged surreptitiously away to a corner of the scullery, to listen on my 'transistor', placed hard against my ear, to the crackling transmissions by which we heard Neil Armstrong announcing his 'One small step for man, one giant step for mankind' from the lunar surface. 

As the world celebrated the American achievement of 'landing a man on the moon' courtesy of the famous Eagle, I was trying to come to terms with the sadness of that final parting with Annabel, the last of my dearly-loved, incomparable playmates, teachers, and friends, the 'Coll View' MacDonalds. They may have been generations older than myself, but they were also my peers and contemporaries in ways that my parents never were. They shared my life, and taught me much that nobody else could have taught me.   I remember crying my eyes out, as the parish minister, the Rev. William J. MacLeod, conducted Aunt Annabel's funeral service, with immense feeling and deep respect.   As the final paraphrase was sung to the tune 'Martyrdom', I looked up to the head of the coffin, where my father, now very much grey-haired and bowed, was standing.  I could read his thoughts.   The six months....the twenty years....were now at any end, and he himself was likely to be the next person requiring care in 'Coll View'.

The following Sunday, early in July, when my father had taken the morning service at the Baptist chapel in Balemartin, we called at Kirkapol Cemetery to check the turf on the family grave.   We had only just managed to find a place in it for Annabel's remains, as it had accommodated several of her siblings.  I can still feel the unusually cold wind of that day, sweeping in from Gott Bay, and I can see the freshly-dug sand swirling like dust round the dry turf on the grave.   I can still feel the emptiness, the sense of loss.

My father and I returned on that Sunday afternoon to a cold house in a cold summer week.   My father took off his black tie, loosened his starched collar, unlaced his boots and leaned back in his chair.   He looked at me and said, 'It's twenty years to the day since I left Port Ellen.  I'm glad I did it for them.'

I walked away, unable to bear the emotional strain.   'Coll View' was never the same again.   It was indeed the end of an era.

The MacLean (left) and MacDonald (centre, with foot-slab) gravestones at Kirkapol, Tiree.

The MacDonald gravestone is shown below.