Morvern Lines with Iain Thornber 27.02.20

Ullin, right, in the White Glen where Steenie lodged with Donald and Maggie Mackay when he came to Morvern. Altachonaich, the home of Sandy MacFadyen is on the opposite side of the burn. Photograph: taken in Steenie’s time and supplied by Iain Thornber
Ullin, right, in the White Glen where Steenie lodged with Donald and Maggie Mackay when he came to Morvern. Altachonaich, the home of Sandy MacFadyen is on the opposite side of the burn. Photograph: taken in Steenie’s time and supplied by Iain Thornber

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Iain Thornber continues his article into ‘tramps’.

When Steenie found his way in to Morvern he had the pick of a number of lodgings: Donald and Maggie Mackay’s hayshed at Ullin in the White Glen, a cave between Claggan and Craigendarroch, and part of Gerard Craig Sellar’s, state of the art, central-heated dog kennels, below Torr Molach on Ardtornish estate. Here he would be under the eagle eye of head keeper, John Munro whose daughter, Mrs Betty Wotherspoon, featured in these columns last year.

Steenie, too, composed songs and poems which he had printed and then sold for a few pence at the doors, or gave to his hosts which is no doubt why his name is still remembered by an older generation. It could hardly be said he was in the same league as Burns – the attraction lay in the way he managed to bring local folk and their activities into them. A good example is The Roadman’s Wedding (sung to the tune of The Day We Went to Rothesay O) in which he described the wedding of Jock Robertson, the Argyll County Council roadman who lived at Clounlaid, near Ullin, in lines full of humour: ‘Drum a doo a doo a day, drum a doo a daddy O, drum a doo a doo a day O; ‘Poor old granny grabbed a sack, and waved it like a Union Jack, and everybody waved their caps for Jockie at his wedding O; through his glass he saw them come, the keeper [Sandy MacFadyen, Eignaig, who moved across the hill to Alltachonaich next door to Ullin] up the stair did run, and down he came, with a sporting gun, that day of Jockie’s wedding O. Up to his should in a tick, and bang it went, and it gave a kick and made poor old Mack [a collie dog] look sick. that day at Jockie’s wedding O.’ Steenie’s other poems were: The Loch Ness Monster; The Hiker’s Song; Go with Me Callach, Go; Song of the Cuckoo, Island of Lismore, The Grey Henny’s Well on the Ord [His Grace the Duke of Portland, the local landowner, erected a stone to mark the spot of the Grey Henny’s Well] which Steenie must have visited; MacDonald’s Morag and a Tribute to Ardgour [on the death of Col Alexander John Hew Maclean, the popular 16th laird and chief of the Macleans of Ardgour who died suddenly in 1930 at the early age of 50) which is full of pathos: ‘Around the bay of Ardgour, for many years have I wandered, now sad is the hour when the chieftain is gone. In cottage or homestead when you mention his name an honest tear is shed for the gallant Maclean…. we bid you in peace adieu and sweet be your rest to our thoughts you were true, you were one of the best’.

In writing about Ardgour, I mustn’t forget the story of a family of travellers who used to park their old van in a quarry on Ardgour estate between Sallachan and Inversanda. Hearing that Miss Catriona Maclean of Ardgour, who had inherited the estate from her father Col Alexander, disliked unauthorised parking, they bought half a dozen Maclean tartan towels and hung them on their washing-line. Their quick-thinking met with the laird’s approval, so much so, she allowed them to come and go at will. One year they were there for so long a child was born in the back of the van over the rear axle so he was given the name Axle!

Jimmy the Tramp hailed from east Perthshire or Fife and had been a piper in the Black Watch Regiment in the Second World War. He was captured by the Japanese and had a terrible time in a POW camp. When he was demobbed he found that his wife and gone off with someone else and he didn’t see his daughter again and then went on the tramp. Every spring Jimmy would visit Arisaig and Rannoch where he knew kind people and dug their vegetable gardens for them. He travelled by train of course. The West Highland Line drivers would stop the train and guards would put the ladder down from the old-style guards van for Jimmy and his bicycle, and he would be dropped off before they reached a station. Latterly he based himself in a tiny caravan at Ardgour. From there he would set off for Glenfinnan, Lochailort and Corpach along the Road to the Isles.

One dark wintery night Mrs Cameron-Head of Inverailort almost ran into Jimmy between Corpach and Kinlocheil in her car. So the next morning she went to the Fort William Police Station and gave them some money to paint his mudguards with fluorescent paint for his own safety, knowing that he wouldn’t. One hard winter Dr Michael Foxley, the local GP at the time, managed to get Jimmy a room in Invernevis House Care Home on the outskirts of Fort William, which no doubt saved his life. Sometimes Jimmy would go AWOL but the staff knew that if he wasn’t in the back bar of the Nevis Bank Hotel, they would find him in the Corpach Hotel. Jimmy had his army pipe chanter which he was very attached to. It must have lain unused for a spell because when he eventually picked it up he found that the mice had gnawed chunks out of it and it was useless. A member of staff at Invernevis House, realising how much he was missing it, gave him her daughter’s one no longer used, which cheered him up.

I remember meeting Jimmy in the late 1970s at Inverailort Castle where Mrs Cameron-Head always made sure he had a hearty meal whenever he called and that when he pedalled off there was enough food in his haversack for the rest of the week. It was raining at the time and hearing that he had lost his cap she went up to the attics and returned with a bowler hat which had belonged to her father in law, James Head, who had been deputy chairman of the Union Castle shipping line. It was made in St James’s Street, London, by James Lock & Co – the world’s oldest hat shop who also held two Royal warrants. Jimmy was proud of that hat!

I have been fortunate to have met many remarkable and unusual characters in the Highlands but none more so than Donald and Agnes MacAllister, Tobermory. Donald, who was always called ‘Doikes’ or ‘Dykes’, was the oldest of a family known on Mull as ‘the Dans’.

There were four brothers and two sisters some of whom now and again took up a semi-itinerant life occasioning one of Tobermory’s leading ladies to say in their defence, “They are very respectable tinkers, they live mostly in a house, you see”. At one point Doikes and Agnes, who had a good fund of stories and songs, lived in an old Coop mobile shop, in a quarry on the Glengorm road. It was an Albion, and presumably had become unviable to repair and was known as Cooperative Cottage. After that they had a very nice showman’s caravan at the top of Tobermory, but it was hit by a car which had gone off the road, and although it was not mortally wounded, was never quite the same again.

Continued next week.