Morvern lines with Iain Thornber 10.10.19

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The barn owl tales a modest living from the fields of Fiunary as it flits in and out from its roosting-place near the ruins of Lochaline House between Savary and Salachan above the Sound of Mull.

John Sinclair (1770-1863) of Lochaline and Tobermory. Photograph of a family portrait, Iain Thornber
John Sinclair (1770-1863) of Lochaline and Tobermory. Photograph of a family portrait, Iain Thornber

The house, of which only a few walls remain, was built by John Sinclair, son of Duncan Sinclair of Doire nan Saor, Glenkinglass, Loch Etive, where his ancestors were tacksmen for generations.

John left home at an early age and settled in Tobermory, where he soon established himself as a merchant. He built up a fleet of trading ships plying between Mull, Glasgow and Liverpool, and, eventually, owned the important Tobermory distillery. He was financially enterprising and had his own monetary system. His note issue was neatly lithographed and signed bearing the following: ‘Tobermory, Island of Mull, 9th January 1825. For want of change, I owe you five shillings, and for four of these tickets I will give you a £1 note. John Sinclair.’

Soon John became considerably wealthy and married Catherine, eldest daughter of Robert MacLachlan of Dunadd and later Rahoy, Morvern. He retired when he was 43 and bought several fine farms in Morvern which he amalgamated and called Lochaline Estate.

Lacking a suitable dwelling as befitted the laird of 8,550 acres – for which he had paid £20,000 – John Sinclair built Lochaline House on the lower slopes of Beinn Bhan where it slips gently down into the Sound. The foundations were laid in 1821. Until the building was habitable, the family continued to live in Tobermory, coming across the Sound to camp near the new property during the summer months.

Four years later, it was ready but fate dealt Sinclair a heavy blow when, in 1825, his wife died suddenly aged 39 leaving five children. Life in the house, and the neighbourhood, was warmly portrayed by a young diarist, Agnes King, Sinclair’s grand-daughter.

She writes: ‘It must have been a sad entrance to the new and beautiful home when he [John Sinclair] came into it with his five motherless children, my mother, the eldest, being only 10 years old. I have heard that everything was in utmost order, left by her in readiness for the family returning permanently to the house. Grandfather’s sister, Mrs Campbell, kept house for him and well she filled the difficult post, for it was no ordinary household she was called upon to manage. Hospitality was the rule and there was scarcely a day but what some strangers unexpectedly came.

‘The cooking of a Highland kitchen was a continual process. Different classes had to be served at different periods in the day, from early morn till night. Dairymaids, and all sorts of maids with shepherds, farm servants, and herd-lads, often strangers also, were fed in the large hall adjoining the kitchen. Ducks, hens, geese and turkeys were all supplied from the home farm. Sheep and lambs from the hills, with a bullock now and then, game from the moors and fish from the rivers and sea.

‘Much forethought was always required in the ordering of such a household. Twice a year stores were ordered from Glasgow, and the store room filled, and what a business that was. Medicines were ordered at the same time, kept locked up in the “Medicine Press” from which the whole community was supplied with Physic.

‘Consideration for others, kindness towards all, bearing and forbearing was the rule. I can remember my blind grandfather calling “Margaret” to my mother and asking her, “What rooms are you giving to the Laudale gentlemen?” The Laudale gentlemen, as they were called, were two brothers, Colin and Hugh MacLachlan, who had owned an estate called Laudale. In an evil moment, they had put up security for a relative, with the result that their property had to be sold to meet the demand, and little indeed was left for them to live upon. They used to arrive as if to make a call, but it was well understood that a visit of a week or two was intended, and when they left they never went empty-handed.

‘Downstairs, there were several visitors who used to come regularly from time to time for a night or two, a bed in one of the outhouses always being ready for them, but they did not call themselves beggars, and none of the household did either. One of them was Donald, from Tiree – he had a sort of St Vitus’s dance and walked with an unsteady gait. Once he went to Drimnin but found Lady Gordon out, and was not well received. On coming down the avenue, he met Lady Gordon with a friend and overheard her saying when passing him, “The man is drunk,” so he looked round after them and said, “Then it would not be on your ladyship’s charity that I would get fu’.”

‘The household washing of linen was a great undertaking. The clothes were taken in a cart to the washing ground which was about half a mile from the house. It was beside a burn, where the ground seemed scooped out, and a flat, grassy place left between the river and the higher bank. A huge caldron being fixed with the fire under in the shelter of the bank above. The washing took several days to accomplish.

‘Going to church with Belle is another remembrance. We went in a cart – straw was spread on the bottom of it. The gallery on one side of Kiel church was allotted to the Lochaline estate. Although my grandfather was the largest heritor in the parish he “came out” at the Disruption. He was the only proprietor in the district to do so. My grandfather built a small Free Church just outside the village of Lochaline.

‘I also remember Donald the Post. He rode on a shaggy and very small pony, both man and beast being of a very slow order. There is a story of a man being found sleeping at the roadside by someone, who after shaking the sleeper, asked, “Are you the post?” “No, sir, I am the Express.”

‘Donald was something of this sort. Someone called him the Teapot, for his face was long and narrow, with a very pronounced nose which did bear some little resemblance to the spout of a teapot. He was a most grave and melancholy aspect and looked as if he carried the weight and responsibility of the whole kingdom on his back.’

John Sinclair retained all his faculties, except sight, until his 92nd year when, according to his grand-daughter, he used to crack nuts with his teeth. By his will, Lochaline estate was sold at once.

After it was advertised, old Belle cried and prayed that she might not live to see strangers in the old house. Her prayer was answered and she, too, was buried at Kiel along with her master. Agnes King recorded in her diary, ‘I cannot forget one old man on the day we left, weeping as he wrung his hands saying, “Morvern is a widow today”.’

Iain Thornber