- HOUSES OF BRAEMAR - PART 1
- Talk to a Braemar Local History Group audience, by Alison Grant MacKintosh, 13 September 2015.
Ladies and gentlemen, good evening, and thank you for coming.
I have been passionately interested in Braemar’s history for as long as I can remember. My interest was stimulated by my parents and by Braemar’s legendary teacher, Miss Hepburn. I spent a lot of time in old ladies’ kitchens with the opening gambit ‘Tell me about when you were a little girl.’ I also attempted to play my own part in the excavation of Kindrochit Castle and was responsible for the frequent disappearance of the trowel from the garden shed at Jasmine.
I’m also interested in domestic architecture and can stare for ages at a house wondering who lived there in earlier times.
What I’d like to do is share with you research which is still a work in progress. I hope it will be a basis for discussion, that at the end of the talk we can share information and learn from each other.
What sort of place was Braemar, more than two hundred years ago? What sort of people lived here?
Well, look around you. Some of their descendants live here still. The commonest surnames were Grant, Lamont, McHardy, McDonald and McIntosh. In more or less that order.
We’ll start in 1769, when Thomas Pennant made his Tour of Scotland. The houses in Braemar were a bit of a shock to him. He wrote:
‘The houses of the common people are shocking to humanity, formed with loose stones, and covered with clods, or with heath, broom, or branches of fir. They look, at a distance, like so many black mole-hills.’ And the people living there weren’t much better. ‘The inhabitants live very poorly, on oatmeal, barley-cakes and potatoes. They drink whiskey, sweetened with honey. The men are thin, but strong; idle and lazy. The women are more industrious, spin their own husbands' cloaths, and get money by knitting stockings.’
But the women didn’t actually impress him that much.
‘ The common women are in general most remarkably plain, and soon acquire an old look, by being much exposed to the weather without hats. I never saw so much plainness among the lower rank of females.’
Well, thank you, Mr Pennant. That’s my ancestors you’re talking about.
At the end of the eighteenth century, the first statistical account of Scotland recorded that the population of Braemar, Crathie and Inverey was just over a thousand. About 60 per cent were Catholics. The people spoke Gaelic, but most of them understood at least some English.
There were 466 horses, 930 cattle, and a mind-boggling nine thousand sheep, so not surprisingly, most people worked on the land. There was a lint mill in the village, which created work for women in spinning linen. They had the unusual skill of working with a spindle in each hand, doing double the work for about three pounds a year. Yes, a year.
Thirty years later, George Cooke wrote in The Topography of Britain that there were 400 houses in Crathie, Braemar and Inverey, and he put the population at nearer two thousand. He doesn’t say anything about the houses, but we can imagine them from his description of the raw materials:
‘There is slate here, as well as plenty of limestone. The sides of the hills are covered with fine wood.’
Around the time this was written, tourism in Scotland had begun to take off. The Napoleonic Wars had meant that for the first fifteen years of the nineteenth century, the European grand tour was off the agenda for the leisured classes who had headed to Europe for culture and scenery. Sir Walter Scott did a wonderful public relations job for Scotland as a new destination.
The Scottish tourist bonanza took a bit longer to reach Braemar.
But by 1842, it’s clear from the second statistical account that the village wasn’t isolated. There were three markets a year at Castleton – probably in front of where the fire station is now – and they would have attracted visitors to buy and sell, to hire labour and to be hired.
And of course there had to be provision for their requirements. By 1842, the parish minister noted that there were three pubs, and he didn’t approve of them. He wrote ‘their effects on the morals of the people are, in many instances, very unfavourable.’
So we’ll start our tour at one of the establishments which purveyed this disgraceful alcohol, the Invercauld Arms Hotel.
I was interested to know what sort of people stayed in the hotel in the Victorian era. I checked the census for 1861 and 1871, when the owner was Henry Fisher. He describes himself as an innkeeper and farmer.
In 1861, the hotel had a cook, three domestic servants, a waiter and two postboys. No guests.
In 1871 there are three housemaids, a kitchen maid, a waiter, two stable boys, two farm servants, and a labourer. All those staff, and still no guests. Very odd.
And then it dawned. The census was taken in the first week in April. The season had not begun. So unless the hotel records have survived, we’ll never have the answer.
By the late 19th century the hotel was shamelessly advertising its situation as ‘the finest hotel situation in Scotland.’ In their advert in the Aberdeen Journal on 26 August 1889, they highlighted ‘Excellent salmon fishing. Coaches during the season to Blairgowrie, Dunkeld and Ballater.’
Joined-up transport. Those were the days.
But despite the three pubs, and their unfavourable effects, the people managed to survive the demon drink, and stayed sober enough to maintain houses that are now well into their second century. So head for, probably, the oldest houses in Castleton, and we’ll start at One Castleton Terrace.
I’d like you to imagine this house without the extension at the back, and imagine that the house is two storeys high – but the roof level still at the height it is today. And now imagine that in the 1851 census, the first record I’ve found of the house, there were eight people living in it. A bit cramped.
The head of that household was my great-great grandfather John Grant, blacksmith, who was 35 at the time.
John Grant had done quite well for himself. His father was the shepherd at Auchallater. John must have been apprenticed to a blacksmith in Braemar, and in the census he describes himself as a master blacksmith, with just one exception, where he promotes himself to ‘engineer’. According to family tradition, he worked in the railway industry in Dundee. He certainly was in Dundee in the 1840s – his two oldest children were born in Dundee, and his first wife Elspeth Gruer died there. John came back to Braemar, married Barbara McIntosh, a farmer’s daughter from Inverey, and set himself up in a blacksmithing business. The first smiddy was a wooden one, which burned down. Maybe not surprisingly.
The other people in the house were his four children, a blacksmith called James McHardy, and a servant called Margaret Lamont. They were both 20 and both from Braemar. The oldest child James was seven years old, and the youngest Charlie was still a baby, so poor Margaret Lamont must have been kept busy.
John and Barbara spent the rest of their lives at 1 Castleton Terrace, until John died in 1897, and Barbara two years later. After they died, the house passed to their daughter Isabella and her husband Robert Menzies, who seems to have been a bit of a disaster. They married at a late age. Although he was a blacksmith, his wife’s family didn’t seem keen to employ him, and he got a job washing dishes at the Invercauld Arms.
There is one house in Braemar that put the village on the literary map. When I first began researching Robert Louis Stevenson’s Cottage, it was difficult to know how to identify it in the census. Of course it wasn’t called Robert Louis Stevenson’s Cottage until some time after 1881, when he spent the summer there. So I couldn’t believe my luck when I found a house in about the right point of the census which was simply called The Cottage. Even better, in the 1891 census it was occupied by Alexander McGregor, manager of the Invercauld Arms, and his family, which fitted with other known facts.
Thanks to further information from Stevenson’s own letters, I’d found it.
The Stevenson family spent three summer months there in 1881. Stevenson, his parents, his wife Fanny, and Fanny’s son by an earlier marriage, Lloyd Osborne, who was twelve years old.
Two months before they arrived, the house appears unoccupied in the 1881 census, and again this fits perfectly. The occupant had died.
Stevenson tells us they had begun their holiday in Pitlochry, where the weather was terrible and they all had colds. Accordingly, says Stevenson, they undertook
A migration by Glenshee to the Castleton of Braemar
But things didn’t improve.
There he continues it blew a good deal, and rained in proportion. I must pass a good deal of my time between four walls in a house lugubriously known as the late Miss McGregor’s Cottage.
Apparently it rained for three months. Those of us who live in Braemar will not be able to believe that. In fact they didn’t believe it in 1881 either. Stevenson was quite irritated that local people described the weather as merely misty, or even quite fair.
As families do when trying to make the best of a disastrous holiday, they spun two long-running jokes about the situation. One concerned the endless rain, and the other explored the opportunities for black comedy in the idea of living in a dead woman’s cottage. Stevenson combined the two in a letter inviting his friend Edmund Gosse to come and stay.
On the subject of poor Miss McGregor, he wrote
The reference to a deceased Highland lady, tending as it does to foster unavailing sorrow, may be omitted from our address, which would therefore run: The Cottage, Castleton, Braemar.
Advising his friend on what to pack for the weather conditions, he adds
If you had an uncle who was a sea captain, and went to the North Pole, you had better bring his outfit.
Edmund Gosse wrote to his wife with a graphic description of life in The Cottage, and was clearly a bit overwhelmed by the Stevenson family en masse.
This is a most entertaining household. All the persons in it are full of character and force; they use fearful language towards one another, and no quarrel ensues.
You can almost feel the walls bulging under the onslaught of all this energy, and fearful language.
But, as we all know, some good did come of the holiday.
Stevenson’s own letters tell us what happened.
Lloyd Osborne was an artistic child. His mother Fanny and his sister Belle had both studied art in France – which is how Fanny and Stevenson met. Lloyd passed the time, as Stevenson describes it, in turning the house into an art gallery of his own paintings. One day Stevenson couldn’t resist the temptation to join in. Here’s his account:
I made the map of an island. It was elaborately and, I thought, beautifully coloured. I ticketed my performance Treasure Island.
Immediately he began writing chapter headings. For the first two weeks he wrote a chapter a day. Then he got stuck, but on long walks with his father they thrashed out the details of the story.
The rest, as we know, is history. Treasure Island gave Stevenson his first real success. I do rather take issue with the Herald journalist who recently described the whole thing as ‘local tradition’. Nonsense. It’s all there in Stevenson’s letters.
Incidentally I felt a bit sorry for the late Miss McGregor, who became the unwitting subject of these Stevenson family jokes. Assuming she must have died about 1880, I did some research. The only Miss McGregor in Braemar cemetery who fits the dates is a Mary McGregor, but she was a daughter of the farmer at Auchallater, and doesn’t quite fit. I assume Miss McGregor was a relative of the Invercauld Hotel manager Alexander McGregor, but haven’t enough information to track her down.
But I do buy the idea that the Invercauld Arms was the model for the Admiral Benbow. It was probably the same Alexander McGregor who rented the cottage to the Stevensons. Before it was extended with Scottish baronial additions, the Invercauld was a simple country inn and fits the Admiral Benbow quite well.
And I also buy the idea that Long John Silver took his name from a Braemar miller. John Silver is in Braemar in three censuses, 1871 to 1891. He appears to live at three different addresses, but the fault lies with the disgraceful 1881 census. These three successive addresses, 2 Chapel Road, 10 West End, and Hope Cottage, Chapelhill, are almost certainly all the same house. I’m backing Hope Cottage as the home of John Silver.
We’ll head up to what was known in the 1881 census as Woodside Row, and the house that is still known as Havelock. And it’s my family again. Grant was the commonest name in the village, so they’re inescapable.
According to family tradition, when Havelock was new it was let to an army man who had served with Havelock in the Indian mutiny, and he gave it the name. By 1881 my great-grandfather James Grant was living there with his wife Catherine, who was from Inverey and the last native Gaelic speaker in our family. At that stage they had five children, and would eventually have eight. Again, a hard life for their young servant, Margaret McGregor from Tullich.
James Grant and his father John ran a busy blacksmith’s business, J & J Grant, and there were at least two other blacksmiths in the village at the time. Some of their ledgers still survive, and so does the ringing stone, which is now outside St Margaret’s Church. It was used to shape the wheel rings which formed a large part of their business. In the 1860s a ring shaped on that stone would have cost about half a crown – or in today’s money twelve and a half pence.
John and James did a lot of farm implement repair, and a lot of their work was quite literally nuts and bolts – and also locks, nails, wadges, pleats, hooks, links…
They supplied kettles, stew pans, and a new handle for the laird’s coffee pot. When a lady in Chapel Brae lost the key for her clock, they provided a replacement, and when Colonel Farquharson needed a new key for the castle, they supplied that too. You can’t help wondering though what had happened to the old one. They fixed the stove pipes in the Fife Arms, rather frequently, and also fixed the heating in the church. That may have become a family tradition – last year I found my cousin David Geddes doing pretty much the same thing.
Everyone who used horses or wheeled transport was a customer – hotels, shop-keepers, tradesmen, farmers. They had customers from Blairgowrie to Aboyne, and everywhere in between. A big customer was the farmer and butcher George Hutchinson. In 1865 he bought a sinister something-or-other for ‘the killing house’ – fortunately the crucial word is illegible.
Stand at the gate of Havelock, look ahead, and you will see houses. Many of us remember when it was rough grass moorland, with a burn running through it. There were birch and aspen trees, and there were always peewits in the grass.
Let’s continue along Kindrochit Drive, which many of us also remember as a rough track, and we come to a house which I have come to know and love very well: Sunnyside.
Generally I disapprove of changing old house names, but Sunnyside was named without imagination and with no thought for local culture, so I actually prefer its current name, Callater Lodge.
Its history is an interesting one in the Upstairs Downstairs world that was upper Deeside in the second half of the nineteenth century.
When Queen Victoria bought the Balmoral estate in 1848, she gave Deeside the royal seal of approval. It became a fashionable place to come for salmon fishing in spring, grouse-shooting in autumn, and just the chance of seeing the Queen. People built their holiday cottages in Braemar – and even today these houses are recognisable because they’re so much grander than the houses where our ancestors lived. They were built by wealthy people – and the man who built Sunnyside was wealthier than most.
There’s more than a touch of Jane Austen about the arrival of the two fabulously wealthy young Yorkshiremen, Gilbert and Oscar Wilkinson. They were the oldest sons of a metal trader who had died quite young and left the boys with more money than they knew what to do with. In the 1861 census, when Gilbert was 24 and Oscar 19, they described themselves as retired metal traders. It was a tactful way of saying that neither Gilbert nor Oscar had ever had to do a day’s paid work in his life.
But let’s not be hard on Gilbert. He created a beautiful house, no expense spared, and did his duty as a local benefactor. He made donations to the church, and he donated trophies for local football and curling. He also provided local employment. One striking fact about the kitchen range at Sunnyside was that it gave a lot of trouble right from the start, and before long J & J Grant had to replace it. And now one of their descendants is co-owner of the house which we now know as Callater Lodge. J & J Grant would not have believed it possible.
In those days the Aberdeen Journal faithfully recorded the activities of what they called ‘distinguished visitors’, and from these reports we know a lot about Gilbert Wilkinson. Every salmon landed, every brace of grouse shot – some long-suffering reporter had to record it all.
We know that Gilbert’s guests at Sunnyside often included his sister Louisa and her husband Colonel Barton, and that his closest friend appears to have been Algernon Blackwood, MP for Kensington. Gilbert’s brother Oscar sometimes stayed at Sunnyside, sometimes at the Invercauld Arms, but usually rented Monaltrie House. Imagine that as a holiday home for a lad of nineteen!
Gilbert probably brought all seven of his servants to Braemar. In every census except one, the house is empty – the salmon-fishing season would still have been a few weeks away on census night. But in 1891 there’s one occupant, a resident housekeeper. She was Jane McHardy, the Tomintoul McHardy family, and she was twenty-eight at the time.
Gilbert came to Sunnyside twice a year until at least 1901 – probably longer, but the Aberdeen Journal was less interested in ‘distinguished visitors’ by the start of the twentieth century. Gilbert died in 1906. His brother Oscar lived more than twenty years more, and one might reasonably have expected that Gilbert would leave the house to Oscar, but he didn’t. It appears to have reverted to the Estate.
By the following year, Sunnyside was the home of the splendidly-named Reverend Alfred Augustus Cooper.
Alfred Augustus had been appointed minister of the United Free Church – now the parish church – but the Estate, not the Church, owned the house. So it wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say it became the manse. We do appear to have a lot of former manses in Braemar, and this is something I’d like to return to when we get to the discussion stage.
Alfred Augustus, however, is I think a particularly interesting minister. He was born in 1866 in Aberdeen, where his mother worked as a telegraph inspector – I think this is an interesting early example of a woman who had her own career, although her husband was also working as a general merchant.
Alfred studied theology at Aberdeen University, and then he disappears from UK census records.
So where was he? The clue comes when he re-appears in 1911 as a minister in Inverness, married with four children, and the clue is in the two younger children, Florence and Pearson. They were both born in Bengal.
Let’s cross the road from Sunnyside and continue a short distance to another expensive holiday house: Coille Bheithe.
Early in the twentieth century, the Aberdeen Journal reported:
Mrs Rawnsley, of Raithby Hall. Lincolnshire, has now arrived at Coille Bheithe, Braemar, to remain to the end of November. A marriage has been arranged…
And I’m afraid that’s it. The rest is illegible. I’d love to know more about the marriage, but I’d also love to know the date.
However, we do have one indication of when Mrs Rawnsley lived. On 11 May 1912, her local paper in Lincolnshire, The Examiner, reported:
After being missed for 26 days, a Persian cat belonging to Mrs Rawnsley, Raithby Hall, was found in a rabbit trap.
So we may not have a date for Mrs Rawnsley, but we do have a date for her cat.
In the 1925 Valuation Roll, Coille Bheithe was owned by a widow called Christina Adamson. A few years later it was the holiday home of Andrew Graham Murray, first Viscount Dunedin. Dates are sparse, records are not available, and the only evidence we have is a fragment of a letter which Murray wrote from Coille Bheithe in 1929.
It’s tantalising, because he must be one of Braemar’s most distinguished holiday visitors. He was a judge, author of learned legal tomes, and MP for Bute in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries. There’s a portrait of him in the Scottish Parliament building.
His wife was Mary Clementina Edmonstone of Duntreath. Now you may not have heard of Mary, but you’ll have heard of her younger sister Alice. Alice was the same Mrs Keppel who, for more than ten years, was the discreet and loyal mistress of Edward the Seventh, popularly known as ‘Edward the Caresser’.
Across the road to Cranford, and another small mystery. Why was it named after a novel by Mrs Gaskell? It was all redolent of prim old spinsters, and there turned out to be a bit of truth in that. But it wasn’t named after a novel by Mrs Gaskell.
Cranford was originally called Clifton House. Early in the twentieth century it was renamed by the occupants, Miss Emma Elizabeth and Miss Hannah Isabella….Cran. In the 1911 census they are still living in Aberdeen, so it’s difficult to put an accurate date on their occupancy of Cranford. Miss Emma
was a music teacher, and Miss Hannah had no occupation. We can imagine her keeping house for her clever older sister. I’m indebted to Zan for a personal recollection of the Cran sisters. Miss Emma used to give music and movement classes in Cranford. The picture is greatly enhanced by the recollection that Miss Emma had a wooden leg – the old-fashioned kind without a knee joint, and of course we shouldn’t laugh, but still the way she had to walk sounds comical.
In their old age Miss Emma and Miss Hannah moved back to Aberdeen. They’re buried under a rather beautiful gravestone in St Nicholas Churchyard.
We’ll head down the road to Balnellan. This is roughly where my Grant ancestors lived at the start of the eighteenth century. They crop up a lot in the earliest surviving Catholic records, from 1703, and their home is described as ‘near the old castle of Braemar’ – in other words, Kindrochit. I like to imagine the founds of their houses somewhere under Balnellan Gardens.
We’ll pause briefly at the butcher’s. Most of the shops in Braemar are beautiful Victorian survivals, but the butcher’s is probably the one that has changed least. Many of us will still remember it when the sign above the door read Hutchinson and Sim.
This business was a family dynasty. Thomas Hutchinson and Charlie Sim ran a family business employing, or possibly exploiting, other members of the family.
Thomas Hutchinson generally describes himself as either a farm worker or a general servant. He’s forty-five before he starts calling himself a butcher. His employer was his older brother George, and in 1881 they’re living together at Balnellan with George’s wife Ann, and three servants, farm and domestic. George describes himself grandiloquently as a farmer of 246 acres, and employer of five men and one girl. The enumerator struggled to cram all that on to the form.
George had a strong influence on his younger brother. George’s example turned Thomas into a teetotaler and a pillar of the Kirk Session. He had seen his brother’s enjoyment of a drink too many. When he was appointed a Deacon, he insisted the Kirk should use unfermented wine. As soon as he could afford it, he moved to Morningside Cottage and married Cecilia, the sister of his business partner Charlie Sim.
There’s a tradition all over Europe that the village butcher was a wealthy man, and Thomas Hutchinson was no exception. When he died at the age of 79, he left estate valued at over £4,000. Just to put it in perspective, that included Morningside Cottage, which was valued at £100.
Charlie Sim also came late to calling himself a butcher. He was younger than Thomas Hutchinson, and lived most of his life at 2 Castleton Terrace, describing himself as a carpenter. By 1901 he’s calling himself a farmer.
I’ve heard a story that Charlie was the father of the actor Alastair Sim, but the facts don’t fit. Alastair Sim’s father was Alexander Sim, and he was a tailor in Edinburgh with a business in Princes Street. However, Charlie did have a son Alexander who would be about the right age, so that’s possible. It’s also striking that Thomas Hutchinson and Cecilia Sim were married at St Cuthbert’s Church in Edinburgh, only minutes’ walk from the house where Alastair Sim was born, so maybe that house was already in Cecilia’s family.
On the way through the village, let’s stop at Juniper. Two of the interesting things I’ve learned from the history group are that it’s the only remaining roof in the village made of graded Glen Callater slates, and that it’s believed to have been built of stone from Kindrochit Castle. The roof is beautifully done and worth a look. As for the stones, I’d say that’s extremely likely. Our ancestors had no great respect for the past, and wherever you have a derelict building, you have a free source of cut stone. I wonder how many other houses are built of stone robbed from Kindrochit. I used to feel I knew literally every stone of Jasmine Cottage, including a very dark brown one which might have been part of a chimney or fireplace, and I like the idea that some of them could have come from Kindrochit.
Where I’d rather reserve judgement, however, is on the question of whether Juniper is the oldest house in Auchendryne. There was a substantial building and improvement programme in the mid-1860s and most of the cottages in the village date from that time, although most were probably rebuilds or renovations of an existing house on the site. I’ve seen a photograph of Jasmine Cottage from that time which shows it as a tumbledown thatched but and ben. It was probably rebuilt in the 1860s. Although it didn’t get a bathroom and kitchen until the 1950s. I know because I was there.
So, how old is Juniper? The Royal Commission dates it as mid-nineteenth century. I’m sure it’s older than that – something else I’d like your thoughts on later.
There are a couple of rather odd-looking houses on Chapel Brae. I’ve never quite understood Ellangowan, with its meticulously-cut granite that would look more at home in the west end of Aberdeen. It looks like another expensive holiday house, but it isn’t.
I’m indebted to Stella for most of the following information, and for her meticulous research.
Ellangowan was probably built about 1909 on the site of an older house. The 1881 map shows a Miss Carlton living in a house called Regent Cottage, on a different part of the same double feu. The 1881 census, unhelpful as ever, has Annie Carlton, aged 20 at the time, living with her brother George and their grandmother at Number 17 Auchendryne. Almost certainly this was Regent Cottage. George and Annie were both illegitimate children of Elizabeth MacKenzie. George later took the surname of his reputed father, Urquhart. Presumably Annie’s father was called Carlton so she did the same. Relationships could get pretty complex in nineteenth-century Braemar.
Annie died in Regent Cottage in 1907, and four years later George is living in Ellangowan, so the house must have been built within those few years.
The other house on Chapel Brae that has always intrigued me is Birchwood. Why does it have these big urban bay windows? It’s easy to assume that this was another expensive holiday house, but again, it wasn’t. I think the answer is that whoever built it was looking for the latest in high Victorian style. This fits with the date – we can date it pretty accurately to between 1876 and 1881.
In the 1881 census, the owner and occupier is a carpenter, John Robertson, who is living there with his wife Mary and their four young children, Mary Ann, Jessie, Lizzie and James.
Twenty years later, in 1901, the three youngest are living together in the house. Jessie is a dressmaker, Lizzie a domestic servant, and James a carpenter.
A sad feature of this family is that there seems to have been a history of diabetes. That’s what killed most of them. They’re all buried in the cemetery at the extreme left of the oldest part, almost in line with the front of the Farquharson mausoleum.
On the other side of the road is a very beautiful house which was called Viewmount. This sounds like an incomer name, completely un-Scottish – but surprisingly, it isn’t. It is called Viewmount in the earliest record I’ve found, the 1891 census, when it is the home of a gamekeeper, Charles McHardy, his wife Jane, and their three young children. And it is the youngest child, a boy three years old, who makes this record so interesting.
Why does he have the rather odd name of Walter Lovi McHardy? Lovi – L O V I. It must have made his life hell in the school playground.
I can see that there are people in the audience who know the answer.
Walter Lovi was a particularly popular parish priest in Braemar from 1837 to 1840. He masterminded the planning, financing and building of the present St Andrew’s Church. Forty years later, he was still remembered with such respect that a Catholic family named their son after him. And just to round off the story, Walter Lovi McHardy also became a priest. He’s buried in the cemetery, and the stonemason, as stonemasons often do, has mis-spelled his name – Lovie.
This leads on to a mystery. Something else I’d like someone to answer at question stage:
Who owns Bellevue?
It’s heart-breaking to see this lovely house in such an appalling state. I put it on the Buildings at Risk Register years ago, but nothing seems to have happened.
It was the priest’s house when the Catholic Church was in the old school building on Chapel Brae, until the present Chapel House was built in 1864.
Father Walter Lovi, who gave his name to the boy at Viewmount, gives a picture of what Bellevue was like when he moved there in 1837. The house had been renovated for his arrival, because there were high hopes of Father Lovi. He was probably of Italian descent, but was born in Edinburgh. The reason he was appointed to Braemar was that he had just masterminded the financing and building of a church in Wick. His brief was to provide a new church for Braemar, to replace the old one on Chapel Brae.
His letters repeatedly complain of the snow. A week after his arrival he wrote to a friend that he couldn’t go out without freezing, and couldn’t stay in without being kippered by the new stove. Getting about in snow and ice was a problem. He cheerfully wrote that the best way of getting down Chapel Brae was to lie down and roll. He added ‘Luckily my figure is well adapted to this rotary method of travelling.’
A photograph in the chapel’s collection confirms this – he was certainly a portly figure and could have been quite a sight rolling down the hill to the village.
Let’s head back down the brae and go along Broombank, to one of the few houses still owned by the family who built it.
And I’d like to ask Doreen to tell us about Downfield.
Downfield is a perfect example of occupation by one family over several generations. When it first appears in the census in 1871, the householder is Charles Wright, a 30-year-old carpenter. He was born in Downfield, Dundee, and walked from Dundee to Braemar to start his new life. In 1871 he is living with his wife Jane and their three young children: Isabella, Margaret and John.
Ten years later there are nine children, and a wonderful example of how everyone in Braemar is related to everyone else, if you just go back far enough. The oldest child Margaret will become Doreen’s great-grandmother. John will be the great-grandfather of Anne and Frances Kenny, and connected by marriage with the Grant family. Anne and Frances’s mother Kate was Alison’s father’s cousin. Jane or Jean, the third daughter, will be the grandmother of June Bernard.
On 10 December 1888, Downfield made newspaper headlines. Here’s the Dundee Courier’s report:
A rather serious accident occurred on Friday to a boy 10 years of age, named Alexander Wright, and son of Mr Charles Wright, carpenter, Downfield Cottage, Braemar. He had found access to his father’s workshop, and there had fallen in with a small parcel of gunpowder, which his father had been using for blasting some troublesome spurs of rock in his garden. Having put a considerable charge of it into bottle, the boy was attempting with a lighted vesuvius to fire the train when the explosion took place, with the result that the little fellow’s right hand was dreadfully shattered, and the thumb, along with the fleshy part of the hand, was almost completely torn away. Dr Noble was early in attendance on the sufferer, and after administering a dose of chloroform, carefully dressed the mangled hand.
It’s good to know that young Sandy’s injuries were no barrier to his career. By 1901, he is working for his father as a joiner.
By 1891, Downfield has been extended to the back to create the Cottage. It’s let to an Irish labourer called Florence O’Sullivan – an improbable-sounding name nowadays, but at the time Florence was more commonly a man’s name.
By 1901, there are 16 people between the two houses. It sounds crowded – but they had two lodgers as well.
The house must have been kept in good condition, because among these 16 people are two joiners, two blacksmiths, and a mason.
Ten years later the house has been extended again into three houses, and 18 members of the Wright family live there. No longer room for any lodgers!
In 1938, Downfield was let to Dame Anna Neagle, who was starring as Queen Victoria in the film Sixty Glorious Years. It would be interesting to hear from local people who have memories of the filming, or relatives who appeared in the film. Joe Grant played a cameo role as a little boy crying when he failed to win a dancing competition at the Gathering.
Still so many houses I’d have liked to talk about.
Myrtle, for example, shows a striking picture of how people with disabilities just had to get on with it. In the 1901 census, three adult sons living in the house were all deaf and dumb, but two were earning their living, Alexander as a saddler and James John as a postman. Zan told me that when the boys were small, their mother had an ingenious way of keeping them safe. She dressed them in long gowns, fixing a corner of each gown with a nail to the floor so they couldn’t stray. The nail holes are still there under the carpet.
One of the boys, Peter, came to a sad end, drowned in the Clunie at the age of 27. Before that useful bridge opposite the Invercauld Arms, was he maybe crossing by the pipe? Did he fall off? And because he was dumb, could he not cry for help?
I’d like to end where I began – quite literally, on the second of April 1948, at Jasmine Cottage. My favourite census entry for Jasmine is 1891, when the retired tailor John McHardy and his housekeeper were entertaining a visiting Irish pedlar. That could have been quite an evening.
You’ll know that there’s a hundred year rule on sensitive information, but I’m going to break the rule with a story of the archaeology buried under the vegetable garden at Jasmine. One night in the early 1950s my father looked out of the window and saw a stag munching the cabbages. He fired a shot to scare it away, and went to bed.
Next morning Uncle Alistair MacGregor rang the doorbell early and said ‘You’d better get rid of that stag you shot.’
Which they did, in the form of bloodstained paper parcels left anonymously on many doorsteps in Braemar.
Some years later, aged about six, I was out in the garden, archaeologising, and found treasure. I raced in to the kitchen and proudly showed my mother what I’d found – a jawbone, with three teeth in it. She was appalled. ‘Bury it,’ she said ‘and never mention it again.’
So there is history in your house. Even if it’s a modern house, there has always been something on the site. There is archaeology below your feet.
And now let’s share our histories, and talk about YOUR house. Thank you for listening.
© Alison Grant MacKintosh