RLM Epistle 1:
Yesterday, the 11th September 1971, in glorious autumn sunshine, your Grandmother and I strolled up the wooded slopes which rise to the West from Munslow Church in Shropshire. From the top, looking East, we saw the whole stretch of the Brown and Titterstone Clees, with the ancient iron-age hill fort of Nordybank below them, and turning to the afternoon sun, the outlines of the Stretton Hills, the Long Mynd and the Styperstones, haunted by the restless spirit of Mary Webb.
Around us in all directions were fields of differing shapes and colours; gold, yellow, brown, green and red, separated here and there by a recently planted wood. Near us was a huge yellow combine harvester at work, attended by a retinue of blue-painted lorries. And the voices of Shropshire countrymen reached us from below, with surely the finest accents in all England. What a rich, beautiful, peaceful, clean countryside we were in! And we two, each a Scot to the backbone, realised how greatly in these last fifty years, England had taken us over!
We descended, and sitting on the grass just above the old Norman church tower, we lunched; A thermos flask of Nellie's soup (a Shropshire Lass herself, still with us after 31 years, she still keeps her accent and resists ours) sandwiches, pork pie and coffee, while two young lads on a farm tractor passed up the rutted track, greeting us, as they went over to refuel at a nearby tank.
We got into our luxury car again; The Rover is still regarded as such by men of my age; and satisfied an urge to encircle our little hill by whatever winding little roads we might find. By Millichope, Blackwood, Roman Bank, Rushbury and its old church. Not a soul in sight!
All at once we came upon a line of modern cars lining one side of the road, all quite empty. There was a funeral service in the church nearby and everyone in the district had to be there.
Then, down a "No Through Road" to Eaton, below the steep bank of Wenlock Edge. Yes, Robert, the church is early 13th. Century, and all that! Down Ape Dale, up and over into Hope Dale and round into the Bridgenorth Road, passing Diddlebury Church, one wall of which, Alison, is pure Anglo-Saxon and much of the remainder early Norman!
Then an easy 25 mile run home, by Abdon Burf, to our little house, with its picture windows, gas-fired central heating, electric light, clean water supply, television, telephone, garden and surrounding trees. And that was only five hours out of your Grandmother's exciting seventy years and mine. What a contrast with the lives of my grandparents, and with their grandparents of whom I will write.
How will our lives compare with yours when you in turn are grandparents, and some of you living perhaps neither in Scotland, England or America?
From This World's Staging Post which Granny and I occupy in 1971 in Wolverhampton, and which you all know well, I have now to tell you what I have learned about your forebears several stages still further back along the road into a misty past. But this story will be only a tiny part of the whole. There will be much left for your to discover, if you can!
To avoid confusion, some things must be made clear now!
Firstly, I am going to write here only about your own and therefore my own direct ancestors, and will not be dealing with collaterals, that is uncles, aunts, cousins, except as they may influence our story.
Secondly, I will label each generation distinctly and arbitrarily. This will enable you to know your own place and mine on the family chart which comes to you with this letter.
Therefore, all nine of you belong to Generation F, and your parents to E. Granny and I to Generation D. My father, George Mackay and my mother, Mary Lindsay to Generation C. And so on, back to B and then to A, and to "The Apex" (only recently discovered), then to only a name or two, and thereafter into tradition and myth!
Thirdly I must tell how our story began, and how it slowly built up.
Basically, what my father, George, handed on to me 40 or 50 years ago where the following:
a) the probable names, but not the one-time whereabouts of his deceased uncles and aunts;
b) the names of his paternal grandparents, Andrew Mackay (A) and Margaret MacPherson (A) who had been wrecked on the Orkney Islands, and then returned to the mainland;
c) a list of the names and addresses in 1915 of 32 cousins who had shared in an intestacy in that year. I had foolishly thrown away my copy years ago, never suspecting I might be a genealogist sometime, but my cousin, Franc Macdonald (D) came to the rescue and lent me his copy;
d) my father also said that his mother was related in some way to the famous blind preacher and hymn-writer, Rev. Dr. George Matheson;
e) finally, my father bequeathed to me the Family Bible. This was a source of confusions for years to me (like Bishop Usher's time-table!) until I 'got down to it' to discover that nearly all the entries were made by my father's uncle, and therefore concerned collaterals. But there was a great redeeming feature about it. At the top of one page, in ink, were the words "John Murray's Bible. £1". Below was a single line of ten successive dates. Below five of these dates were five abbreviated names, and below the remaining five dates, only five empty spaces! These were the names of some of John Murray's children, and it was obvious he had forgotten the order of their births, and possibly of their names!!!
From these distant clues emerges the story of our Family. They have provided in due course the wide charts which you have seen on your visits to Wolverhampton. End-to-end, they stretch from the lounge nearly to the bottom of our garden, and they show how widely are our kindred spread over the world, and how diverse are their occupations and their fates. I will tell some stories about them in a different letter from this. But it is getting late now. Tomorrow is the day I play golf, so I think I will go to bed. My opponents are vigorous young men of 58 to 71, and I must be fit to meet them!
(Tomorrow! We were 1 down at the 18th hole, conceeding 5 strokes, so I am in good form for continuing tonight!)
From the chart you will see that the clan names in my father's line of descent are Mackay, MacPherson, Murray, Sutherland, Matheson and MacDonald.
Each has its own special tartan. Take your choice! I often wear a Mackay or Murray tie, while during War 1, I wore a Sutherland kilt for 3 1/2 years!
Before 1800 most of our folk spoke Gaelic as the dominant language, but after that date they would be bi-lingual from their school days onwards.
They were nearly all crofters. They did not export anything, but made a 'subsistence living', growing enough crops and rearing enough cattle or sheep to pay the rent and provide for their families. Their families tended to be larger than the croft could support and their children left for the cities and colonies, an emigration greatly exacerbated by the Highland Clearance around the end of the 18th and early 19th Centuries.
Some 200 years ago, our ancestors were living as crofters in four adjacent valleys. Why not call their heartland "The Land of the Four Valleys" or, if your fancy prefers, "The Land of the Four Rivers"? The former is preferable, for the 'rivers' are really only brooks, burns or rivulets!
The land is in South-East Sutherlandshire, and fascinates me. David Murray, trained to walk on the Yorkshire moors, could encircle it on one long summer's day. Draw a line, straight from Lairg to Bonar Bridge. This will show a ridge or continuous watershed. From it, rise three little brooks, all running East, and on the banks of these are the ruins of the crofts of our folk. In the North, the River Fleet, next the River Carnaig, and in the South, the River Uidh, which becomes the Evelix as it empties into the Dornoch Firth just opposite MacPherson territory. Parallel with the line you have drawn is the River Shin, running South from Loch Shin, past Culrain, a Mackay centre, to lose itself, like the Evelix, in the Dornoch Firth. (Andrew! Do you remember the salmon leap at the Falls of Shin?)
The remote history of this little area has not yet been written. There are still many close groupings of stone hut circles on the hills around, many representing perhaps 20 to 80 or more families. Some were quite near our family crofts. They tend to be sited in defensive positions, so that invading Norsemen would at any rate be breathless by the time they got up the hills to attack. There is a battle site a mile above Bonar Bridge where the natives fought the Danes in 1031.
On the Matheson field at Brea are the remains of a Pictish Tower or Broch, a heap of loose stones. I don't know the age of those hut circles or brochs, but they must go back at least a thousand years. Are we the descendents of the owner/occupiers? What was the influence of these treeless hills and trackless moors upon out family? We have not produced one good historian yet, Claire! Maybe, Some day!