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"Grandma, what a puzzle you left us!"

Heather Griffin, 11 December 2000

I spent my primary school years in Melbourne, Australia, and once a year we, as a family, traveled to my father’s family home in Cessnock in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales. My grandfather had fought in France in WW1 and, on leave in Scotland, had met my grandmother. She later followed him to Australia and they were married. They never had enough money to enable them to visit "home" but Grandma brought all of her children and grandchildren up with a great love of Scotland, just as she also wrote glowing letters about Australia back to her family in Scotland. "Speak some Scottish Grandma", my brother and I used to beg her. Little did we realize at the time that we were actually asking her to speak Gaelic. She would only ever give us little tit-bits, which I have since forgotten. How I wish now, that while she was alive, I had been able to ask her all those questions which would have solved the riddles she left behind.

Last year, my husband Derek and I had the once in a lifetime opportunity to take three months to roam the world. We chose to fulfill a number of dreams, one of which was to see the island of Islay where Grandma’s mother’s family had lived. Grandma herself, as a young girl, had spent several years living with her grandmother in Port Ellen. As preparation for our trip, I asked my father if I could see what old photos and so on, he had that had belonged to Grandma. He produced a box of assorted documents and letters which Grandma had kept. Towards the end of her life, Grandma had thrown out most of her things, but she had kept odds and ends. And it was from this box of odds and ends that we found the pages of a fascinating letter that had come from Islay, probably in the 1920s. Grandma had disposed of the first two pages and the last page, which left us without a clue as to who had sent it (it must have been one of her cousins but I still don’t know who!). The letter concerned my grandmother’s great-grandparents and grandfather and their life on Islay in the 1850s onwards. With some searching, I found that the letter was about Gilbert McTaggart (grandfather) and his wife Mary McNab (granny). Another letter in the box was an uncompleted one which my grandmother had been writing. In it she talked of her friends need to take a wee dram every now and then and regretted the fact that she couldn’t, since, as a young girl, she had, at her brother’s insistence, taken The Pledge. Grandma never broke a promise, and to my knowledge, never touched alcohol and insisted that my grandfather didn’t either. Having lived on Islay, home of such fine whisky, and having come to live in the Hunter Valley, home of such fine wine, and not touching either, makes me wonder what untold family stories lie hidden there! However, to the Islay letter - this is what it says:

Page 3 far from other human beings as you might in Australia. In fact they were not very far from them at all, but the place looked very lonely. No one had lived in it since they lived there. I wonder if it was disturbed now if the fever microbe would still be living. That thought just struck me now. You’ll hear about the fever -

Well they [Gilbert McTaggart, his wife Mary McNab and children] lived there, and from all accounts as happy as the day was long, till they had 4 sons & 4 daughters. Then they felt the place getting too cramped for them, and decided to go to America (crossed out) Canada. They sold all their stock except one cow they kept to supply to the last. Grandfather was away making the final arrangements at Port Ellen, & had to go home by the big strand. This is where your hair begins to stand on end, unless you have it all off.

All late home goers, at this time were said to see a black horse & a black

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rider that chased them home in a hurry. I always said the name was John Barley Corn. But to my story. Do you remember the ruins of a house half way across the big strand. Its there yet. At this time it was a flourishing inn, and of course Grandfather, being I believe Hail fellow well met with everyone had to go there to meet & say good bye to his friends. One of them, so the story goes, said when shaking hands at parting Gran- had a glove as white as snow on his hand. It was not two hands instead of one that one saw.

Well, poor Granny was in that lonely house, with only the children waiting till he would come.

Some time in the "small oors" she distinctly heard a frantic knock on the window. She thought it was some thing uncanny & she did not stir. Do you know my blood runs cold while writing this.

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Granny was not the least superstitious or excitable, but a quiet sensible wee body, & no one could put her off it, that she did not hear it. She just would not argue with them. Some time later she heard the same kind of knock, & this time she knew it was her man. She heard his horse galloping too. She opened the door & he just rushed in & said Oh shut it quick, the black rider is after me.

Just imagine that in a place like that. He was not drunk but of course he had some with his friends, & that & the fever coming on, & the talk of the black horse all combined strong man as he was, to make him nervous and imagining things. Well I don’t know what kind of fever it was, but he lay down that night & never rose again.

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He & the four sons took it.

It’s a funny thing but I never thought of it till now, but I never heard whether the girls took it or not.

Grandfather & two of the sons died, & she did everything herself, for no one went near them except one young man and the doctor.

Of course they were far from other folk anyway. It was about the time I got married that young man died but while he lived nothing could be too good for Donald McPherson, with grandmother as long as she lived, & afterwards with my mother.

One day after he was better of the fever Granny sent one of the remaining sons out to look for the cow. He climbed up an old stone wall, which fell down with him, & broke his leg. She wrapped a towel round his leg, & dragged him somehow into the house.

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The doctor was in attendance anyway, & he set the leg. He got on fairly well for a time. Granny asked the doctor one day if he thought he would live. Well, he said, I’ll not deceive you, he will live till the leg is quite healed but no longer, for he suffered so much pain that he cannot live, being weak after the fever anyway, & there was no chloroform in those days. Well there she was, with her husband and three sons dead.

She came back to her own side of the Island then, & started a shop up above the light house at Port Ellen, brought them all up as well as any of the farmer’s family & gave them all a good education, which everyone did not do in those days.

By the way, the name of her house was Cairnmore. Wouldn’t it have been a nice name for yours. After they were all married she came to live with my father and mother. We all of course went

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to Church every Sunday, but Granny was always away ˝ an hour at least in front of every one, & I always went to the window or the door to look after her, for with her black dress, black & white shawl, worn corner-wise, poke bonnet, with veil down to her knees, & gauntlet kid gloves, I thought there was not such a nice wee body in all Scotland. She was no bigger than Peggy. [my grandmother’s sister]

So that’s your Granny’s history & though I was grown up when she died I don’t remember ever hearing her speak about these things. It was from other folk I heard it. Once a year regular she went to visit the graves, & then lay for a week in a sister-in-law’s house before she could come home but no one resented that, but tried who she would stay with. What do you think of it. It’s no exaggeration.

So with this little amount of information we headed overseas. But let me divert for a moment.

I have since found a similar story of the black rider on the Big Strand told within Peggy Earl’s Tales of Islay: Fact and Folklore. Her story (p 37-38) is titled ‘Captain Gorry’s Ride’ and she tells of a long poem written in Gaelic by Islay bard Neil MacQuilkan, who lived in Balivicar (next to Kintra between Port Ellen and the Big Strand).

Let me again divert and explain that before the new road was built across the peat marsh, the road from Bowmore to Kildalton Parish was, for a good part of its length, along the sands of the Big Strand. Clifford Jupp describes it thus (p178) :

"The road south from Bowmore, which served the Oa, Lagavulin and the rest of Kildalton parish was little more than a track for much of its length. It followed the course of the modern road as far as Coorary, where a bridge carried it over the Laggan. It then turned sharply right, past Island House to cross the Duich River, on to and through the sandhills to the sea shore. It then followed the shore, mainly on the beach, but occasionally coming up onto the low sandhills, all the way to Kintra.

From Kintra one road went to Glen Astle, another to Kilnaughton bay and thence to Lagavulin and on to Ardtalla and McArthur’s Head, with a branch road from Kilnaughton along the south coast of the Oa. These roads.. were little better than rough hill paths."

Half way along the Big Strand, at Knockangle Point, there was an Inn which obviously was of great comfort to weary riders, and, from all accounts, did a roaring trade. I have noted some of the locations mentioned on the map:

Publisher File - Kildalton and Oa (original taken from Steve’s website - thanks Steve)

This is what Peggy Earl wrote concerning Captain Gorry’s ride:

Captain Gorry.. was involved in rash exploits and fast races. One of his rides was from Callumkill, where he was a tenant, to some place near Port Askaig…

..he left Callumkill late in the evening riding his faithful charger ‘Captain’. The moon shone on the grey, dim and desolate moor. He had to cross three miles of moorland and ten miles of strand. The night was calm when he set out but when he proceeded the wind moved softly like a breath on his cheek.

When he reached the strand [the Big Strand] the horse became nervous and restless as if aware of something unusual. The horse affected Gorry with his nervousness and he became really afraid. He looked furtively behind and almost collapsed when he saw a big black horse and rider whom he knew to be the Devil. Gorry spurred on his horse but he could not throw the Devil and his black steed off his track. Faster and faster Gorry pursued his course till at last, thankfully, he and his gallant grey horse arrived safely at the stable door.

Captain Gorry was safe but the weary horse stumbled, fell, rolled over, and died..

Of course, as Derek and I set out on our trip we knew none of this; we simply had the letter and a few names, but I felt it was important to give you this information so that you can see why we camped at Kintra Farm and why we took some of the photos we did.

As it turned out we were able to spend four wonderful days on Islay - Thursday, the 10th of June, to Sunday, the 13th of June 1999.

We had driven up through England, where it had rained most of the time we were there, and as we proceeded into Scotland the clouds cleared and we experienced glorious weather. It wasn’t until we were leaving Islay that the mist descended again.

We caught the ferry from Kennacraig to Port Askaig, passing McArthur’s Head and part of the north-east coast. Pictures (jpeg files):

I-01-waiting to board, Kennacraig

I-02-Passing McArthur’s Head

I-03-Part of north-east coast

I-04-Port Askaig

From Port Askaig we drove to Port Ellen and then on to Kintra Farm where we camped for four days.

I-05-Kintra Farm

I-06-The Big Strand from Kintra Farm

I-07-The Oa from Kintra Farm

I-08-Sunset across Laggan Bay from Kintra

I-09- Coast of the Oa near Kintra

I-10-The Big Strand from the Oa near Kintra

I-11-Rocks of the Oa, near Kintra

On Friday 11 June, I spent the day in the Museum of Islay Life doing a little research. It was glorious day so Derek took the opportunity to roam. We had lunch together at Portnahaven and enjoyed some interesting discussion on Islay-Australia connections with the folk in the café across from the Museum.

I-12-Museum of Islay Life

I-13-Port Charlotte and the tip of the Oa, left

I-14-Lighthouse Port Carlotte


I-16-Portnahaven 2

I-17-Island of Orsay from Portnahaven

On Saturday I spent some time with Eleanor McNab at the Islay Family History Society, Bowmore. Again very helpful. From then on we basically explored parts of Kildalton.

I-18-Lighthouse near Port Ellen

I-19-Lurabus, ridge, from lighthouse

I-20-Port Ellen from near Kilnaughton Cemetery

I-21-Kildalton Chapel

I-22-Kildalton Cross

I-23-Figure inside Kildalton Chapel

I-24-Port Ellen-Church of Scotland

I-25- Ramsay Hall, Port Ellen

I-26- Leaving Port Ellen 1

I-27-Leaving Port Ellen 2

I-28- Goodbye Islay

We left Islay with regret and with lots of the puzzle unsolved, but with a lot more clues, and with the following books - all thoroughly recommended:

Peggy Earl, Tales of Islay, Celtic House Bowmore.

Clifford N. Jupp, The History of Islay: From Earliest Times to 1848, The Museum of Islay Life, 1994.

Freda Ramsay, John Ramsay of Kildalton, Peter Martin Associates Limited, 1969.

Margaret Storrie, Islay: Biograpgy of an Island, The Oa Press, 2nd Ed, 1997.

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