In 1773, Dr. Samuel Johnson and his friend James Boswell made a trip to Scotland, long before it was fashionable for the English to do so. The book which Boswell wrote, "A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland", has long been a favorite of mine. This past March, I was given the chance to make a trip to western Scotland with my wife Mary Ellen. We had won a week's stay at Glenbarr Abbey in Kintyre, a bed and breakfast which is run by Angus and Jeanne Macalister of Glenbarr in their home. As reported on page 61 of the June 2002 "Mac-Alasdair Clan" journal, we won the lottery drawing held at the annual banquet of the North Carolina Scottish Heritage Society in Laurinburg, NC. We had not been in Scotland in the past fifty years, so we were looking forward to its changes.
Our trip had two principal goals. The first was to visit as many Scottish McAllisters (all spellings) as we could, in order to fill out some gaps in the CMA computer data base file, MAC1, which lists the Scottish families descended from Alasdair Mor. The second goal was to visit Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland. We had been stationed in England with the US Air Force from June 1952 through June 1955, but had never visited the Wall during that time. In order to be as well prepared as possible, I learned to use my digital camera, and also a small voice recorder, both of which proved invaluable.
We left Dulles Airport in Virginia on September 9, flew to London/Heath Row Airport, where we boarded another airplane for Glasgow/Renfrew. I had rented a car in the US for pickup in Glasgow, plus a cell phone. We had decided to stay our first week with Angus and Jeanne Macalister in Glenbarr, spending the remaining time exploring other parts of western Scotland and Northumberland. I called Jeanne shortly after checking out the rental car, mentioning that we would be there in an hour or so. She said that it would take much longer, and so it did. The weather was wet and cool. On the drive down to Glenbarr, I was introduced once again to driving on the left in a stick shift car, not my favorite occupation. The drive took over four hours, since the main road to Kintyre is two lane, usually occupied by farm vehicles which had to be passed safely. We stopped on the way in Lochgilphead where we had tea, since Glenbarr Abbey serves only breakfast. We also found that my ATM card worked at a local bank cash point. Glenbarr Abbey has been owned by Angus Macalister's family for generations. It is actually a group of buildings that have been joined together over the years. Running through the adjacent meadows is the Barr River. As we drove up to the entrance, we noticed that an American flag was flying from the main house. Angus later told us that it was flown in our honor. The other guest at Glenbarr Abbey was Heather MacFarland from Yellowknife, in the Yukon Territory of Canada. She is writing an historical novel about one of her Macalister ancestors. Heather is a member of the Scottish Research Project.
After getting over jet lag, which took about eight hours, we decided to explore the Kintyre peninsula. We drove down to Campbeltown, the largest city in the area, which is a fine seaport complete with supermarket, where we stocked up on goodies and necessities that we had either forgotten or didn't want to carry from home. As we drove down to Southend, we noticed the signs for the annual festival at the Mull of Kintyre, a place made famous by the music of Paul McCartney. From the beach at Southend, one can see Northern Ireland across the North Channel of the Irish Sea. It is easy to see why there are as many McAllisters in County Antrim across the water as there are in Kintyre.
One of the principal sights is the place where St. Columba (521-592 A.D.) came ashore from his Abbey on Iona, near the Isle of Mull to the north. He converted Scotland to Christianity. Boswell wrote in 1773, "That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona". One of St. Columba's footprints is preserved in a little park at Southend to commemorate his arrival in 563.
Close by is the Rock of Dunaverty, scene of one of Scotland's darkest days, when in 1647 the MacDonald garrison of 300 men surrendered for lack of water to the Covenanting Army of the Campbell Earl of Argyll, and were brutally massacred, put to the sword or flung to the rocks below. These mementos of our warlike Scots ancestors can be seen all over Kintyre.
As we drove back to Glenbarr, we passed a monument to the men from the Campbeltown parish who were killed fighting for England in the two World Wars of the twentieth century: twenty six in the First; and five in the Second. We were very pleased with the sunny and balmy weather which came on our second day and lasted almost until September 24. Balinakill House near Clachhan, was the home of Coll Macalister, who sold it to Colin Campbell on his departure for North Carolina in 1739. It is now the Balinakill County House Hotel, owned and operated by Angus and Susan Macdiarmid. We spent a pleasant hour one morning in the lounge having coffee and enjoying the sunshine.
The night before we left Glenbarr, we had dinner there with Angus and Jeanne Macalister and Capt. Ian and Ina MacDonald. Ian and Ina are a charming couple who have lived in Clachan for decades. He is the foremost researcher in Scotland of the McAllister families. He has provided members of the CMA with hospitality and support for over twenty five years. We spent a morning with him going over various facets of the Scottish family genealogies as recorded in the CMA MAC1 data base of Scottish McAllister families. Ian is very familiar with the Gaelic language. In fact he kept us entertained at dinner with the Gaelic tale (freely translated into English) of a young Scottish lad who was transported to London and safely returned.
The Kintyre peninsula's eastern side is much less developed than the western. One day we drove from Campbeltown to Skipness on a one lane paved road, fortunately provided with many passing "lay-bys". The scenery is much more spectacular than on the west, since the large island of Arran is always in view across the waters of Kilbrannan Sound. We had lunch at the hotel in Carradale, where we ran into one of Scotland's main attractions - golf. Fortunately we were seated and served before a crowd of golfers, mainly Australians, arrived to partake of the restaurant's food and drink, and relate their stories of achievements on various parts of the course. After lunch, we drove to Torrisdale Castle, another seat of the McAllisters which was built in 1815, when they were very rich. Many of them had gone out to the East, especially India, Malaya and the islands, where they made fortunes in trade. Torrisdale Castle is now owned by Donald Hall Macalister and his family. His wife graciously showed us around the house. It is magnificent inside and out. Another nearby attraction on the Kintyre east coast is Saddell Abbey which was founded by Somerled, and suppressed by James VI of Scotland. There were numerous McAllister headstones in the graveyard, plus others from medieval times.
The main town in North Kintyre is Tarbert, where Tarbert Castle is located. We climbed over its ruins, enjoying the magnificent view of the harbor, which was filled with pleasure craft, mostly sailboats. We had tea in one of its restaurants one day, and an excellent dinner on another. On a tour of the nearby area, we drove to Ardpatrick on the western side of Kintyre. The road was one lane, with enough passing lay-bys to make 30 miles an hour a safe speed. Ardpatrick was another house which had been lived in by McAllisters.
Toward the end of our first week's stay, we joined Angus Macalister on a tour of Glenbarr Abbey. He and Jeanne have turned the Abbey into a comfortable home as well as a museum of the artifacts collected by his ancestors. The room where we stayed was comfortable, the breakfasts were delicious, and their company in the evening was delightful. On our last Sunday in Kintyre, we attended the service at the Killean Kilchenzie parish church at A' Chleit. The Rev. J.H. Paton gave a memorable sermon about the papers that surround us. His theme was based on the finding of a business card in the ruins of the World Trade Center in New York. The church was founded about 1790. In 1818, Col. Norman Macalister bequeathed 1,000 pounds to the poor of the church. Below the marble plaque commemorating this gift is a memorial to Lt. Charles Augustus Macalister, Cameron Highlanders, younger of Glenbarr and Cour, who died December 31, 1911, in Peking, China. He was Angus' uncle.
After a thoroughly enjoyable week, we drove up to Oban, stopping on the way to visit John MacAlister of Seil and his wife Barbara of Tarbert in Clachan Seil. (Clachan is Gaelic for a small highland village around a church or chapel). The road on to the Isle of Seil is via the one lane stone bridge, which was described on page 139 of the September 2002 "Mac-Alasdair Clan" journal. Once on Seil, a traveler sees the "Trousers Inn," on the right side of the road. When the English prohibited Scots from wearing the kilt after the 1745 uprising, the only place where it could be worn with impunity was on the Isle of Seil. Men going to the mainland changed out of the kilt to trousers (trews), and vice versa when they returned. Traveling was a thirsty business then as now, and the Inn was a convenient place to change one's clothes.
John and Barbara MacAlister lived in a pretty home in the village of Clachan. He and I had been in correspondence for years, since he had been awarded his armorial bearings in 1994. My research had indicated that he was one of the last in the Tarbert MacAlister line, so I wanted to discuss that branch of the family with him. Barbara fixed us a delicious lunch, and John and I discussed genealogy. During our conversation, I learned that he had been a member of the Royal Navy's elite Special Boat Service during World War II. He operated a fishing boat from the Scilly Isles in southwest England to the coast of France, transporting agents into and out of occupied France, a very dangerous job. We were devastated to learn after our return to Arlington that he had passed away on October 14, 2002. He was another in a long line of MacAlisters who accomplished great things in peace and war for their country.
Oban was the next stop on our journey, where we spent one night in a B&B. We had a room with a grand view of Oban harbor, which we enjoyed very much, since the weather remained warm and sunny. Oban is principally a tourist town, even in mid-September. When you visit Oban, be sure to have dinner at the "wee Usk" seafood restaurant. It was excellent! Since we were still busy exploring MacAlister associated locations, we drove to the Strathaird area in the southeast part of the Isle of Skye. On the way to Skye, we stopped at Taynuilt to visit Alastair Campbell, the historian of the Clan Campbell, and formerly an assistant to the Lord Lyon King of Arms in Edinburgh. As such, he had reviewed many applications for armorial bearings, including that of John MacAlister of Seil. Like Capt. Ian MacDonald, he has attended the North Carolina Scottish Heritage Society symposiums in Laurinburg as a guest speaker.
One of our CMA members, Max Milton MacAlister of Melbourne, Australia, had asked me to visit Strathaird House in Skye. We did, and found it to be an imposing place with a grand view. We had planned to stay there one night, since it was advertised as a B&B. Unfortunately, the owner had just sold it, and was busy packing up for his family's imminent return to Australia. He did give us a tour of the house, and recommend that we drive to the village of Elgol to visit Colonel "Lackie" Robertson, who knew a great deal about the MacAlisters of Strathaird. We found Col. Robertson to be friendly, and an excellent source of knowledge about Alexander MacAlister of Strathaird and his family. He took us on a tour of the local area, pointing out the site of the MacAlister original croft, which was replaced by the imposing Strathaird House after Alexander's brothers sent back thousands of pounds from their efforts in India and Malaya in the early 19th century. Lackie retired from the British Army in the 1970s. His last assignment was deputy commander of the Parachute Regiment. He always had a twinkle in his eye as he told us of our ancestors. In fact, his great grandfather had struck an Alexander MacAlister, the laird of the area, after being told on a day's notice that his farm tenancy had been terminated. Since striking the landowner was illegal, to put it mildly, Lackie's ancestor left Scotland the next day for Australia. One of Lackie's memorable statements was that Gaelic is a good language for love making and cursing.
We then drove to Armadale Castle in southern Skye to visit the Clan Donald Welcoming Center. It is located in a very beautiful area, dominated by the ruins of the castle. I discussed genealogy with Ann McKinnon, the library curator, but found very little McAllister material there. We then boarded the ferry from Armadale across the Sound of Sleat to Mallaig, and from there to Fort William for the night. The next day, we visited Frank and Rosemary Bigwood in North Berwick, an eastern suburb of Edinburgh. On the way, we drove through Glencoe, the site of another long ago massacre of the MacDonalds by the Campbells. There is an excellent new museum in Glencoe which displays the geological history of this spectacular area as well as the history of the clan system.
Frank and Rosemary Bigwood have engaged in and published a great deal of genealogical research in Scotland, much of which has been helpful to the Scottish Research Project (SRP), an endeavor by some members of the CMA to collect documents pertinent to Scottish McAllister families. Frank noted that there were many records which had not been fully exploited, such as the recently discovered boxes of a lawyer in Inveraray dealing with people in Argyll. Frank emphasized that for maximum benefit to the SRP, we should employ researchers who not only know where to find the records, but can also read Latin and Gaelic, and possess a good knowledge of Scottish law. Some of the terms used in wills, deeds and other legal documents are peculiar to 17th and 18th century Scotland. In fact, I asked Capt. Ian MacDonald, Alastair Campbell and Frank Bigwood for the definition of the Scottish term "fiar" and got three slightly different answers.
From North Berwick, we drove to Carbridge, west of Newcastle, a town near Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland. We spent the next three days exploring various sections of the 87 mile long wall, built by the Roman Army in the second century, A.D., to contain the warlike raids by the ancestors of the Scots, into the more fertile areas occupied by the Romans and their allies. The wall was built by three legions. It is a masterpiece of military engineering which is still impressive today. In the final days, the weather turned cooler, and we had showers from time to time. While we were in the area, we also visited Durham Cathedral, south of Newcastle. It is one of the glories of medieval English church architecture.
All in all, it was a grand trip. We learned a lot, met many nice people, and got a much better understanding of what the Scots are really like. You should go!.