Morvern Lines with Iain Thornber 21.03.19

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Monkeys are not usually associated with Scotland, let alone the Highlands and Islands, so on the rare occasions when they did put in an appearance they were the source of some good stories.

As a rule they tended to come with itinerant organ-grinders who were musical novelty street performers. The typical organ-grinder was a man with a tiny barrel organ weighing only a few pounds. The grinder would crank out a limited number of tunes moving from place to place after collecting a few coins in order to avoid being arrested for loitering or chased by people who do not appreciate hearing his single tune repeatedly.

The grinder would often have as a companion a monkey, tethered to a string, to do tricks and attract attention as well as the important task of collecting money from passers-by.

After a while organ-grinders became a nuisance, in much the same way as amateur pipers making noises like pigs caught by their hind legs in gates are in today’s high streets and other tourist traps.

Most musicians hated the tone-deaf organ-grinders and their excruciating tunes and complained to the authorities, although the famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin, would say, ‘We musicians must stick together,’ while handing an organ-grinder some change.

Fort William, when it was still used by the military prior to 1864, had its fair share of street entertainers hoping for rich-pickings from soldiers bored with little to do and far from home.

One of these was an organ-grinder who arrived from Inverness with a pet monkey on his shoulder to entertain passers-by with its antics. One day, when he was in a local hostelry and not without refreshment, someone decided to play a prank on him by getting hold of the monkey and dressing it up in a Cameron tartan kilt with some of the usual accoutrements.

It was let loose in the high street and along it went grinning, cart-wheeling and gesticulating from one end of the street to the other where it swung around on the rone pipe of a public building watched by a large audience to see what it would do next.

Someone met Major Cameron, the officer commanding the fort, and suggested he’d better go along and identify to which clan this madman belonged. When Major Cameron arrived on the scene and saw the monkey in his regimental tartan, he was livid and sent someone back to the fort armoury for a rifle to shoot it.

Fortunately, the organ-grinder had sobered up and, on being warned about the major’s intention, rushed along the street, grabbed the monkey and made for the Corran ferry.

A man on the Isle of Mull, who had lived abroad for some years, brought home a large monkey which one of his ghillies taught to perform a few tricks. When its owner died, the ghillie inherited it and thought he might make a pound or two taking it round the countryside showing off what it could do.

The duo arrived one Saturday at Trotternish in Skye where a monkey had never been seen before except in a book, so its comical and human-like movements attracted a great deal of amusement, especially in the local inn.

Dressed in a black tail coat, red cravat and green velvet trousers and capering around to the music of a melodeon, it was the star attraction of the night and, after the bar emptied it was incarcerated in the adjacent harness-room.

When its owner had retired, some youths decided that they would dress it in its fancy clothes and take it behind a knoll and play some tunes on the melodeon to see if it would perform a few more antics. The monkey paid no attention and managed to give them the slip and made for Glen Hinnisdal.

It got into an old croft house through a hole in the thatch and scared the life out of the elderly residents by dancing around on the rafters before moving on.

Soon word went out that the Devil was among them, although someone said that was unlikely as four church elders lived in Glen Hinnisdal and, as all the inhabitants were holy people, the Devil would never dream of entering the glen.

From the description, a local character called the ‘Boy-o’ thought it might be an Irish man whom he had worked with on the Mallaig railway line called Pat Murphy who was tramping around Skye. When he got his pay, Pat used to dress himself up in his best Irish style with a black coat and green breeches and carrying a short stick which he twirled round his fingers as he sang, ‘In Tipperary I was born.’

On seeing the monkey, however, the Boy-o remarked: ‘It’s not Pat Murphy, but it is devilish like him after he had been on the spree and had not washed or shaved for a week.’

Peter MacLeod, the well known former Oban banker and intrepid Argyll yachtsman, recalls his father Robert – Benderloch’s schoolmaster and lieutenant of the local Home Guard platoon – being on duty on the night of December 24, 1940, when a merchant ship, the SS Breda, was sunk in Ardmucknish Bay off Connel airstrip by three German Heinkel 111 bombers.

The Breda, which is a well known wreck among the diving fraternity, was a Dutch vessel of 6,941 tons waiting in the Lynn of Lorn for an armed Royal Naval ship to escort her round the Cape of Good Hope to Mombasa, Bombay and Karachi. She had a valuable cargo, including two Hawker biplanes, 30 De Havilland Moths, military vehicles, cement and 10 racehorses – the property of the Aga Khan being shipped to Mombasa to preserve his valuable bloodstock during the war.

Also aboard was a monkey belonging to the ship’s master, Captain Johannis Fooy, who always kept one as a mascot. On his return from voyages, he would give them to his mother, who disliked them and promptly passed them onto the Amsterdam Zoo.

A few weeks after the Breda went down, the gardener from a nearby house started telling villagers that he had seen a monkey crossing the road in front of him as he cycled home in the dark after work. No one believed him, not least because he enjoyed the odd dram and there was no reason to link it with the Breda.

But it wasn’t long before anyone hearing a far-fetched tale would say: ‘Aye,
and there’s a monkey up a tree at Letterwalton.’

Later the gardener was vindicated when the remains of a monkey were discovered in the Letterwalton woods wearing a collar engraved with the
word Breda on it. Its grave beside a large unmarked stone is still pointed out.

One of the Aga Khan’s racehorses managed to get out of its loose-box and swim ashore but in the darkness it was mistaken for a German pilot who had baled out after his plane was strafed. On being hit by a bullet, the horse let out a loud shriek and it was only when day broke and its body was found
on the beach that Lt MacLeod discovered what it was.

Iain Thornber

iain.thornber@btinternet.com