Sunday, 11 March 2018

Something old, something new. Weekend Glasgow concert reviews

Live gig review -

  • Lee 'Scratch' Perry. St Lukes, Glasgow 10th March 2018
  • Superorganism. CCA, Glasgow, 11th March 2018
Saturday night's gig was my choice, Sunday night was my brother's. Our musical tastes have some overlap, and some differences. Luckily in Glasgow there is always a variety of musical options and if we had wanted something different again we could have alternatively joined the thousands of people at The Hydro for the "Country To Country" shows. As it was I settled for veteran Jamaican dub reggae musician Lee 'Scratch' Perry on one night, and "BBC Sound of 2018" nominees Superorganism on the other. One night it's all ginger wine and marijuana, the next it's Diet Irn Bru.

Lee 'Scratch' Perry and the Upsetters, St Lukes, Glasgow

Lee 'Scratch' Perry
After the life he has led, first let me say hats off to Lee 'Scratch' Perry for still being here. The 81 year old Jamaican producer largely created the dub style in the 1970s, taking existing reggae tracks, remixing and looping them in the studio to make new tracks. Emphasising the drum and bass, the instrumentals, he was constantly innovating and a whole new musical genre was born. His behaviour can probably be best described as eccentric over the years, from burning down recording studios, communing with aliens and wearing his hat that represents connections to elemental gods. A lifelong belief in the powers of ganja may have a part to play in his personality (his letter to the Japanese Minister of Justice in 1980 in support of Paul McCartney, who had been arrested for allegedly carrying cannabis, maybe best sums up his views on the matter).  

His tight four-piece band introduce themselves as The Upsetters, the name of Lee Perry's old house band, and they kick things off until the man himself wanders on stage after a couple of tracks. Bedecked in an old braided military coat, wearing his trademark hat and dyed red beard he laughs and sings away, treading a fine line between improvisation and rambling gibberish - not always successfully. The setting of St Lukes as a former church seemed to appeal to him, the old church organ behind him on stage, and the words turn to god and Zion at times. 

Lee Scratch Perry and band at St Lukes, Glasgow
When a fan at the front hands him a large bag of a herbal substance early on, he happily sequesters it away with his suitcase on the stage and throughout the night blithely puffs away on his pipe between songs. There will be no smoking ban at a Lee 'Scratch' Perry event. Breaking off for a few sips of the ginger wine that he has brought on stage, he mumbles on for an hour and a half, loosening up as the night goes on and seeming to be enjoying himself as much as the collection of Glaswegians in the audience. As has to be noted that the audience have been providing some of the worst excuses for dancing that I may have ever seen. As he wanders off stage during a riff on Bob Marley's 'Exodus' we realise that is exactly what he has done. Long may he reign.

Lee Scratch Perry in a fug of smoke

Superorganism, Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow

Superorganism are an international collective of eight musicians, fronted by 17 year old Orono Noguchi. Their self-titled debut album has just been released last week. They roll into Glasgow on the back of a lot of hype, but don't appear over-awed by it all. A lot of effort has gone into creating a lo-fi, homemade, psychedelic, indie pop sound that gives the album a happy, upbeat vibe full of technological references and hints of dozens of musical influences. 

Superorganism at the CCA
On stage everything has been carefully put together too, from the co-ordinated raincoats and video backdrops to the dance moves of backing singers Ruby, Soul and B. It's all a stark contrast to Lee Scratch Perry's shambolic fun the previous night. Orono's insouciant demeanour lets them get away with the contrived wackiness. As proper pop bands should, they batter through a set of 3 minute tunes, smile, wave and look happy. Orono tries to curry favour with the local crowd by glugging down a bottle of Irn Bru throughout the show. Where she got it right in choosing a glass bottle, she made the mistake of going for the sugar-free version, greeted by boos from the audience, much to her bewilderment (in one of the few countries in the world where the local fizzy drink outsells Coca-Cola, nobody seems to have pointed out to her that this teeth-coating, caffeine and sugar concoction is best known as a hangover cure, rather than as a late night thirst quencher). She saves the day by somehow finding a bottle of the full-fat Irn Bru to help with the encore.

Back on the Irn Bru
It is hard to tell how much of the music and backing vocals is played live, with various pre-recorded voices and electronic beeps going off left, right and centre, but it doesn't really matter. They look like they are having fun, and we don't want to put a dampener on it. 

Everybody Wants To Be Famous and Something For Your M.I.N.D. are the most memorable songs, but there are plenty of others that show there is variety across the album. The overall sound here is of Bis doing Kandy Pop, filtered through The Monkees whilst somebody nearby plays an 80s video game. As I quite like all of these things, that isn't a criticism.

Their album lasts little over 30 minutes, as does the concert. A couple more tunes wouldn't have hurt, but they don't seem like they are going to release anything upon the world until it has been finely honed and polished. I hope they have the stamina to keep that going.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Bert Dobbie

Bert Dobbie - engineer, mountaineer and Scottish Skiiing Pioneer, 1924 - 2018

Bert Dobbie

This is a fuller version of the obituary for Bert Dobbie, that appeared in the Glasgow Herald, 26 February 2018.

Robert Dobbie, known as Bert, was an engineer, mountaineer and skiing pioneer. He died last Saturday in St Margaret’s Hospice, after a short illness, aged 93. The last time I saw him he was watching the opening ceremony from South Korea, where the world’s best skiers were gathering for the Winter Olympics. In Scotland Bert was one of the people who built the early ski tows and ski huts for a fledgling sport, and for many years led the team that ensured the safety of skiers and evacuated the injured from Glencoe.

He was brought up in Maryhill, close to the Maryhill PublicBaths and Wash House, in a large family with nine brothers and sisters. He was born on 12th July 1924 to Robert, who worked as a leerie, and Margaret. As well as running the home she worked in a chip shop, out in the morning to peel potatoes, and again at night to sell fish and chips.

Bert Dobbie, skiing in Glencoe, 1945
He started his working life as a boy in Maryhill delivering newspapers to the soldiers in Maryhill Barracks, earning tips by discreetly smuggling in cigarettes amongst their more mundane supplies. After leaving North Kelvinside School, aged 14 he began working in a grocer’s shop in Cleveden. He played the bugle in the local Boys Brigade, and early climbing experience for Maryhill boys could be found on the high dykes or on the rough walls of a local stable, the dung midden at the bottom providing a soft, if unappealing landing if you fell.

Bert Dobbie as a young man
It was in the 1930s that working-class men and women from the cities of Scotland started to take to the hills for recreation and Bert was part of that unofficial movement. Their pioneering spirit established the rights to roam in the Scottish countryside that we take for granted now. The ethos of these people was encapsulated by those that sat around the Craigallian fire, on the Carbeth estate. Discussions around the fire would range from walking and climbing tips, to debates on Socialism and the Spanish Civil War. Bert would sit as a teenager with these older men and listen to their stories and songs whilst a “drum” of tea was kept going on the fire. He was recently delighted to attend the unveiling of a memorial to these people near Strathblane. It was around the fire that the Lomond and Creagh Dhu Mountaineering Clubs were formed.

Hillwalking in Scotland, always big groups of men and women out in the hills together
As a young man he started walking in the Campsies andKilpatrick Hills, where in 1938 he met his lifelong friend Tom McGuinness. Together they would cut their teeth as rock climbers on the walls of The Whangie. Other favourite walks were around Balmaha where, as a strong swimmer, Bert would often head out into Loch Lomond to retrieve a boat to take him and his companions out to the islands. Ever practical, he and his friends would later build their own kayaks to spend weekends out on Loch Lomond. He was a great lover of sleeping out in the open air and told me of numerous dry nooks and crannies to doss down in on many a Scottish mountainside.

At the top of The Cobbler, early 1940s
Later he became a member of the Lomond Mountaineering Club and on Saturday mornings, with members of the Creagh Dhu Club, they would often clamber onto the back of a Bryson’s milk lorry at Anniesland Cross, as it headed towards Campbeltown. Getting off near the Rest and Be Thankful, TheCobbler and the Arrochar Alps were soon within their reach. Sleeping out overnight, they would catch the lorry on the road back on Sunday night. The driver would get a shilling for his trouble and in the back of the lorry they could dip their tea cans into the tanks for some fresh milk.
During the war Bert worked as a boilermaker on the Clyde, at the Clan Line Steamers Repairing Workshops. Occasionally this would involve passage on the ships as they went up and down to Liverpool or further afield. At weekends he was always back in the hills. Whilst his friend Tom could discreetly cut and fashion metal at his work in Barr and Stroud’s, to make nails for their climbing boots or create his own version of a carabiner, Bert would fashion ice axes and crampons in his workplace as their climbing abilities grew.

Dressed in tweeds and clambering up a rockface
On the night of the Clydebank Blitz, Bert and Tom were staying in a caravan at Halfway and became aware of the extent of what was happening the next morning as they came across families fleeing their homes. They gave up their caravan to some of them and spent a week off work helping the Scouts organisation set up tents and fires for those made homeless and forced to live under canvas for the first time in their lives.

Skiing in Glencoe
Preparing the equipment
En route to Skye, 1945. Left to right this is Ian Martn, Grace Morris, Bill Forrest, Margaret Morris, Rod Urquart, Willie Gordon, Anne Williams, Cath Simpson, Bert Dobbie and Tom McGuinness
When heavy falls of new snow made climbing unsafe, members of the mountaineering clubs became the first people to ski regularly in Glencoe. The favoured spot was on Meall a’Bhuridh, above Ba Cottage on RannochMoor. Ba Cottage was a substantial empty building over two floors, owned by the Black Mount Estate and it became a regular “doss” for the mountaineering clubs. After the Second World War ex-army skis, boots and other equipment meant that more working-class people from the cities took part in the climbing and skiing, and their popularity as recreation grew.
Climbers from the Ba Cottage were known to poach the occasional deer, and in 1948 the gamekeepers decided that they had had enough. Occasional poaching was not unusual, particularly as the war years had led to an increase in deer numbers. However, Bert remembered that things came to a head after one of his companions did some poaching with a German machine gun that he had brought back as a souvenir from the war. In response the estate gamekeepers felt a line had been crossed and burnt down the Ba Cottage.

The famous Ba Cottage, before it was burned down, skis at the ready
Camping in Glencoe, though to avoid carrying excess weight most nights were spent bivouacking, rather than under canvas
Undaunted, temporary camps of climbers grew up three miles further up into Glencoe. Using salvaged material from the Ba Cottage, and some tarpaulins from a railway yard in Tyndrum, Bert supervised his colleagues in building a new doss for the Lomond Mountaineering Club members from an old sheep fank, at White Corries near to where the Glencoe Ski Centre car park now sits.
Building the "sheep fank doss" in Glencoe, left to right Archie McFarlane, A.N.Other?, Bill Forrest, Andrew Wynd, Hugh Forrest, Ian Martin, Andrew Pryde, Tom McGuinness. Photo taken by Bert Dobbie
Bert Dobbie re-visiting the site of former doss of the Lomond Mountaineering Club in Glencoe last year
As an accomplished skier he travelled all over Scotland. He was spending a few days on Cairngorm with friends one time when famous hills man Tom Weir came clambering up the snow with his skis on. Amazed at the lack of polish on his wooden skis that had allowed him to do this, Bert lent him his expertise. After drying the skis by the fire, they were waxed up for him. Afterwards as Tom Weir whizzed down the hillside at a rate of knots, his red woollen hat and his gloves flew into the air as he disappeared over the horizon. Bert recalled that his immediate thought was "My God, I’ve killed Tom Weir."
Loaded up with climbing gear on the old Bergans backpacks and heading out on the motorbike
Looking towards the Hornli Ridge on the Matterhorn, 1949
After the war Bert started motorbiking on an old Triumph, and as well as giving him the freedom to go further afield in Scotland, he undertook some expeditions into Europe. One of my favourite photographs of his, from July 1949, shows him eyeing up the Hornli Ridge and the north face of the Matterhorn. As well as the Matterhorn, with the Lomond Club he also tackled Mont Blanc, the Eiger, and Picos de Europa in Spain. On one of his trips to Europe on the bike, he was refused entry to a restaurant for not wearing a tie. He went back outside and returned having ripped up an old cloth to fashion into a makeshift tie. When he found himself being admitted, he tore it off in disgust and walked out. This attitude of walking away from stuffiness and rules was a lifelong characteristic.

Skiing in the Campsies in the 1940s, past the Carbeth huts
Blackrock Cottage in Glencoe, which shows the extension they built here in the 1950s to store their ski equipment
Skiing at Ben Alder 1949
Whenever possible it was skiing he was returning to more and more often. When heavy snowfall meant the buses could not run to Glencoe, the Campsies sufficed. One highlight he remembered was in 1951 when a group of Norwegians set up a ski jump on Braid Hills in Edinburgh, though ski jumping did not seem to catch on. The Scottish Ski Club and Philip Rankin planned a ski tow at Glencoe to make the slopes there more accessible, and for this the engineering skills of Bert and several other members of the Creag Dhu and Lomond Clubs were exploited. Forming volunteer work parties and man-handling the equipment up the mountainside, the ski tows they constructed took their first passengers up Meall a’Bhuridh in 1956. His advice was later sought in the Aviemore developments.
First ski tow being built in Glencoe, 1956

In the 1960s he learned to become an accomplished seaman, sailing on a boat owned by his friend Glen Perry. Among his companions his excellent seamanship was greatly respected, whether in races or on trips to the islands. Later he was regularly deployed as coxswain on his cousin Jack Williamson’s boat. He developed an intimate knowledge of every rock, skerry and hazard on the treacherous waterways of the West coast and around the Sound of Mull. Years later in their 80s and 90s he still enjoyed an annual sailing trip up this way with old friends. One frustration in later years was that whenever they approached St Kilda, the weather turned against them and stopped them ever being able to disembark there.

Glencoe remained his true home from home, and for years he was a familiar face on the ski slopes there. When Tom McGuinness became manager of the ski resort in the late 1960s Bert was recruited to lead the Ski Rescue team at weekends. Alan Thomson’s book on Glencoe describes Bert as “the forceful leader” of the formative Glencoe Ski Rescue team, working there to ensure the safety of skiers and climbers over several decades. Their training came from years of personal experience on the hills and many of the casualties they dealt with over the years had suffered major trauma. In the early days friendly doctors would supply them with vials of morphine to give to any badly injured skiers or climbers, to help get them off the hills. The safety pin used on one occasion through an unconscious skier’s tongue to stop it slipping back and choking him as he was transported down the slope, is probably a technique that physicians no longer use.

Bert Dobbie, second on the left in the Glencoe Ski Rescue team
He married Jessie Thomson in 1950, and they shared their love of the Scottish hills, going away on many expeditions together, or further afield in the caravan he constructed for them. When her health was failing he spent many evenings up and down the roads to Ayrshire on his bike after work to visit her in hospital, and he was widowed in the early 1990s.

In his 70s he met my grandmother, Edna Climie, who was also widowed. Their friendship grew and led to them living happily together for over 20 years. The pair of them were never at home, and a morning run in the car was as likely to end up in Norwich as it was Drymen.

In later life he still took any opportunity to get into the great outdoors. A group of old friends met twice a year to stay in the GlenBrittle Hut in Skye and head to Coire Lagan in the Cuillins, or to go on sailing trips. When these outings started they called themselves the “500 Club”, the combined total of the ages of the seven men getting together, but as it got closer to becoming the “600 Club” they were still getting out to the hills together. Bert continued to keep his orthopaedic surgeon's busy, as he returned to ski again in Glencoe in his 80s after getting knee replacement surgery. 

Bert Dobbie 1924 - 2018
Latterly he became an attentive carer for my gran, after she developed dementia. Despite his own recent illness, he managed to continue looking after her in their own home until only a few days before he succumbed to the consequences of his exposure to asbestos in his early working life.
Bert is of the generation of Scottish men and women who felt that we all had a right to use the land around us. Self-taught and highly skilled, these early adventurers did not shout about their exploits, but are the people who made the outdoors great for us all. For us no family gathering will be the same now without Bert's songs, laughter and fantastic stories. 

Here are a couple of photos from February 2018 of the ruins of Ba Cottage, Glencoe Ski Centre and from Meall a'Bhuiridh. I went for a walk, taking Bert's old Bergan backpack to some familiar haunts. Funnily enough, the only deer that I spotted were above Ba Cottage, who obviously hadn't heard some of these old stories.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Celtic Connections 2018. Marnie. Peter Broderick

Marnie. The Hug and Pint, Glasgow. Celtic Connections. 28th January, 2018. Live Review. 

Helen Marnie, once of Ladytron, has been performing solo for a couple of years now as Marnie, and played a hometown gig in Glasgow tonight under the Celtic Connections umbrella. Despite The Guardian guide describing her as folk-pop, this is a decidedly synth-pop affair.

Support act Kelora gave us a surprisingly original warm-up, the best medieval futurist, nu-celtic folk band I have ever listened to. Marnie came on to a sold out crowd dressed like a Gothic Victorian doll, all staring eyes and attitude. The music however is breezy, with catchy pop riffs throughout, with G.I.R.L.S. a stand out track. Basically just F.U.N.


Peter Broderick. The Hug and Pint, Glasgow. Celtic Connections. 2nd February, 2018. Live Review.

Looking like the love child of Nick Cave and Mackenzie Crook, Peter Broderick is an American musician and multi-instrumentalist from Oregon. Whether it is the fact the gig is advertised through Celtic Connections or not, he was happy to see a full house tonight in The Hug and Pint after telling us the same venue made a loss on his gig in the same venue a few months ago.

Playing keyboards, violin and guitar, with and without loop pedals he mixed up some of his own tunes, with covers of several artists, including a few songs by Arthur Russell. This has come about through a project he is involved in with Russell's former partner, to re-master and release some unreleased music by the musician, clearly a project he is relishing. Some of the most moving music of the night however were the instrumental pieces he played, either at keyboard or violin, and it would be nice to have heard more of this stuff tonight.

Good company throughout he was a cheery and energetic performer. Don't be put off by the austere pictures on his posters.

Peter Broderick

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Celtic Connections 2018. Live review

Julie Fowlis, Live Review. City Halls, Glasgow.
Max Richter, Live Review. Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. 

Celtic Connectios 2018. The 25th anniversary edition.

Julie Fowlis, City Halls, Glasgow. Celtic Connections. January 20th 2018

Of all the stand out shows at this year's Celtic Connections music festival in Glasgow, a big pile of them were all on the same night. Julie Fowlis's sold out solo show at Glasgow City Halls was the one I plumped for, and it was a good choice. On stage she was accompanied by fiddlers Duncan Chisolm and Patsy Reid, bass, two guitarists (including husband Eamon Doorley) and various harmonium and keyboards from Celtic Connections director Donald Shaw. Much of the set drew from the new album, Alternum, from opening piece Òran an Ròin (Seal's Song) to Cearcall mun Ghealaich in the encore, and was a mixture of old, old songs and new. 

With no percussion, the singing provided much of the rhythm, the back and forth that often creates a connection to the world of the singer in Gaelic songs. Bright and breezy throughout Julie Fowlis led from the front, introducing us to the story of one song with a cautionary "because it is happening in a Gaelic song, we know it won't end well."

Going out of her comfort zone, one song was given to us in English (or "the other language"), a version of "Go Your Way", whilst another was taken into Gaelic ("Blackbird" by The Beatles.) When I have seen Julie Fowlis before, it is when she gets out the whistle that the audience are getting ready to tap their feet, and it was the same again here, and I had completely forgotten that she is an excellent bagpipe player too, until the pipes appear as a finale. There were several young children in the audience, I thought drawn there in the hope of hearing the soundtrack songs from the Disney movie "Brave". I was wrong, the wee super-fan sitting behind me sang along in perfect Gaelic to every song in the set. A warm and smile filled evening's entertainment.

Max Richter Ensemble : Three Worlds. Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. Celtic Connections. January 23rd 2018.

With his increasing involvement in soundtracks, modern classical composer Max Richter seems busier than ever. The concert he performed at Celtic Connections harked back to a ballet score he produced for Royal Ballet's Woolf Works, a triptych of works choreographed by Wayne MacGregor in 2015. The recently released recording based on this music was brought to the Glasgow Concert Hall by Max Richter and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra tonight, though much of the orchestra were hidden behind the banks of keyboards, pianos and celesta that Richter played at front of stage. 

Virginia Woolf's books, Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves were the inspiration for the three pieces of music performed here. I am not a great fan of her books, but the recording of her voice that introduced the first piece was electrifying. The music that followed was melodic, with the violins and piano ebbing and flowing, but ultimately going nowhere, so pretty much like the book. Orlando was introduced as an other-worldly tale and the music representing it was more dynamic, with pizzicato strings and synthesizers leading to an impressive cello solo. The music felt quite cinematic, like a Philip Glass piece from 40 years ago, but was no poorer for that. The unimpressive flashing LED light show was a pointless distraction. Gillian Anderson's recorded voice reading Virginia Woolf's poignant suicide note led us into the final piece, where solo soprano voice of Grace Davidson made the whole thing more like a requiem.

The music was not quite muscular enough to fill the venue, but pleasant and graceful none the less. An encore of On The Nature of Daylight was enough to please the screaming super-fans at the front in a congenial, rather than barn-storming, evening of music.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Me and The MacPhees, a Lochaber History.

I was recently up at the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe with my family. It reminded me of all the old stories that my granny told me about her relative that used to be the innkeeper there. She always said that it was him that put up the original "No Campbells" sign in the entrance of the hotel, harking back to the Campbells' infamous role in the massacre of Glencoe. As usual with my granny's stories, once you start digging into them, they all turn out to be true. So here is a wee look at two of my relatives that she used to talk about; Donald MacPhee that ran the Clachaig Inn, and Ewen MacPhee, the "last outlaw".

Listen To Your Granny

When I was a teenager, growing up in Glasgow, I started camping and hillwalking with friends in Campsie Hills. Once we had the bug we walked the West Highland Way a couple of times and I got to know the stretch of Scotland between Glasgow and Fort William very well. We often hitch-hiked up the A82 at the weekend, pitching our tents in Glen Douglas at Inverbeg, or up to Glen Etive and Glencoe, regularly camping near the Kingshouse Hotel or the Clachaig Inn. 

My granny as a young woman, Catherine "Renee" Donnelly
This led my granny to start telling me stories about our family from up that way. Brought up in the Gorbals, she was born in 1915 and talked about her many relatives in great detail. She told stories from a century ago as if they had happened the week before. Her stories were so detailed, that as a teenager I spent some time with her trying to make notes on all these colourful relatives. Looking at my old notes now I have scribbled mini-biographies of about 200 people, across five generations and four continents. 

When I spent a summer working in Toronto in the 1990s, she arranged for her "cousins" there to put me up for 2 months, which they happily did. When I plotted out all these relatives on a family tree I found that my Canadian cousins were actually my fifth cousins through my Kilmonivaig great-great-great grandfather Alexander MacPhee. 

Cille Choirill

Once I was able to drive we went on a couple of runs up to Spean Bridge with my granny, to places she remembered visiting family when she was younger. One of the most evocative places she led us to was Cille Choirill church, the site of a Catholic church since the 15th century, with beautiful views down Glen Spean. Here we found the gravestone of Alexander MacPhee I mentioned above. The details on this about his family, and later researches that I made confirmed that my granny's recollections were usually absolutely spot on. 

Cille Choirill is worth visiting if you are passing along this way. In the graveyard are buried the Gaelic poets from the 16th and 17th century, mhnall Mac Fhionnlaidh nan Dàn and Iain Lom.

Cille Choirill church and Alexander MacPhee's gravestone, above Roy Bridge
My granny died over 20 years ago now, but I have carried on trying to find out more about these people, as their stories are also the history of the Scotland they inhabited. Farming people who were forced off the land, or left it to seek their fortune elsewhere as new industries grew up. They gravitated to the cities, or emigrated to find work and start new lives.

Thomas Annan's photograph of children playing at No. 46 Saltmarket, in the 1870s
In the 1880s my granny's father was born in Saltmarket in Glasgow and her mother in Partick around the same time. Like many people in the growing city of Glasgow at that time, her grandparents were migrants to the city; from rural Ireland on one side and rural Scotland on the other. Her father's family had left Roscommon and Leitrim in Ireland to come to Glasgow, but the parents of her mother, Bella MacPhee, had arrived in Partick from the Highlands. 

Bella's father, John MacPhee, was born near Spean Bridge, just north of Fort William, in 1857. Her mother, Kate Henderson, was the daughter of a ploughman in Alness, Ross Shire. She came to Glasgow as a teenager, working initially as a domestic servant in Partick. 

Kate Henderson with her husband, John MacPhee, and their children, Ina and Bella, my great-granny
(Her sister Ina worked as a hatmaker in the early 1900s, in case it wasn't obvious)
John MacPhee was working as a hotel servant in Banff in 1888 before he joined Kate in Glasgow and married. He was the third oldest of at least 10 siblings, and several of his brothers and sisters worked in hotels and as housekeepers. His sister Betsy was a housekeeper in Ardlui, Maisie in the Kingshouse Hotel and the Black Corries Lodge. His brother Donald MacPhee, 14 years his junior, spent the last 15 years of his life running the Clachaig Inn.

MacPhee, McPhee, McFee, MacFie, Mac a'Phi

My granny seemed to go by three different names. She had her married name. Most of her old friends still referred to her by her maiden name, Donnelly. On top of that, she thought of herself by her mother's family name - MacPhee. She would proudly tell me that we were MacPhees, "tinker folk". McPhee is still a common name in the travelling community. The word "tinker" though often used pejoratively, actually just derives from "tinsmith" as many travellers made a living going from place to place repairing metal pans and utensils. 

The MacPhee name is originally connected with the island of Colonsay, and McFies are recorded to have fought with Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn. The MacPhees (gaelic Mac a'Phi) were traditionally the keepers of the records for the Lord of the Isles, Scottish nobility associated with the MacDonalds until King James IV ended their rule in 1493. After the fall of the Lordship of the Isles the MacPhees dispersed, with many becoming rootless and known as itinerant tinsmiths. 

Other MacPhee clansmen settled in the Cameron lands of Lochaber, where my family hail from. There the MacPhees were followers of "Cameron of Lochiel".  In the 1700s there are several MacPhees renting land around Glendessary and Lochiel. In 1718 a John MacPhee is renting land here. He had two sons, John and Ewen, who "sustained considerable losses at the hands of Cumberland's forces after Culloden"1.

In 1745 one of the pipers welcoming Bonnie Prince Charlie at Glenfinnan was a Lochaber MacFie and later that year more were fighting on the right flank at Culloden with Cameron. After Culloden, retribution for those on the Jacobite side meant many lost land and there are records of two MacPhees who resorted to cattle stealing in order to survive, forming marauding bands with others after 1755. 

In 1750 another MacPhee in this area was an innkeeper, Ewen MacPhee, recorded as the Changekeeper (or Innkeeper) for an inn in Erracht, nearer to Spean Bridge. 

In 1788 there were ten MacPhee families living in Glendessary, but most of them were evicted in 1804 at the time of the Lochaber clearances. A tomb in Old Kilmallie churchyard in Corpach has a stone to Alexander MacPhee, "late tenant at Coul in Glendessary, died 1836 aged 66". 

Many of these MacPhees are related but the records make it hard to pin down exactly how (also they do keep recycling the same three forenames). However that is not important, I mention them to flag up recurring points. They were repeatedly fighting for the Jacobite cause, often on the losing side to Campbells or English soldiers. Already we have found an innkeeper and a cattle rustler, which leads me seamlessly to another two who followed those career paths.

Glencoe, The Clachaig Inn and Donald MacPhee

On driving through Glencoe the beauty and the atmosphere of the place are immediately apparent. The changeable weather lets your imagination run back to February 1692 when many men of the Clan MacDonald of Glencoe were killed. Forty women and children later died of exposure when they fled as their houses were burned down. The "massacre of Glencoe" may not have been the bloodiest slaughter ever in Scottish history, but the callousness and treachery involved mark it out. 

Many clans had sworn allegiance to the deposed Stuart king, so orders came from King William of Orange in London for the clans to sign an oath of allegiance to him, or face punishment. The MacDonald clan chief faced delays and had to trek in a bitter winter to Inverary, run by their Campbell adversaries, to deliver his oath. In Edinburgh the late-delivered oath was declined and a Campbell dominated regiment of the Argyll regiment was billeted with the MacDonalds in Glencoe. Received as friends seeking shelter, they were taken in under the code of Highland hospitality and stayed there for 12 days before their orders came to kill everyone in the village. Thirty-eight men were killed next morning, including the chief, others died on the hillsides in a harsh blizzard. 

Glencoe on Bartholomew's map of 1904, the old drover's road passing the front door of the Clachaig Inn
In the 1700s Glencoe was still viewed as a dangerous place, so the military road to Fort William that was laid out in 1752 ascended the high pass at Altnafeadh. Here the Devil's Staircase zig-zags up the incline before descending towards the river crossing at Kinlochleven and onwards to Fort William. The road that eventually replaced it, through Glencoe to the ferry crossing at Ballachulish, was the drovers' road laid out in 1786, on which the Clachaig Inn still sits. The Clachaig Inn website dates its history back over 300 years. However it must have been this road, parallel to the current A82 at this spot, that brought new travellers to its doors.

The Clachaig Inn today, the old building still apparent despite the many extensions built onto the back
My great-great grandfather John Macphee was the son of Alexander MacPhee and Kirsty MacMaster. Alexander and Kirsty were married in 1857 at Bunroy Chapel in Roy Bridge. They were crofters at Brackletter near Spean Bridge. My granny told me that Alexander MacPhee's father lived in Fort William, and that five of his sisters had to emigrate to Australia because of the Lochaber clearances. For them it was Lochaber no more

Bunroy Chapel, built in 1826 it was demolished not long after this photograph was taken in 1920
My great-great-great grandfather Alexander MacPhee died in 1904 and Donald MacPhee took over the croft at Brackletter. He was also working as a "surfaceman" for the North British Railways, a track worker. In 1920, aged 48, he married a neighbouring crofter, Lucy McColl, who was then aged 34. The wedding took place in the Gorbals in Glasgow, where my granny was a 5 year old girl. Her father, Peter Donnelly, was a witness at the wedding showing how connected all the family still were despite dispersing around the country. 

Clachaig Inn, when I was up in December 2017
In 1920 on returning up north, Lucy and Donald MacPhee (who sometimes spelled his name McPhee) took over the running of the Clachaig Inn, 30 miles south from their crofts. The valuation rolls show that they were still running it until 1935, the year that the National Trust for Scotland bought the whole estate of Glencoe, which included the Clachaig Inn.

Valuation roll from 1925 shows that innkeeper Donald Macphee was renting the Clachaig Inn for £50 per year at that time
Not long after they had taken over the inn, Donald's big sister Annie visited them. She herself worked as a housekeeper. The stamps on the postcard she sent to my great-granny in Glasgow date it to 1920 or 1921. She writes
"Dear Bella, we are having a nice time here and the weather is very good. They are very busy here with people coming for lunch and tea. We are doing a lot of walking. Hope you are well. From Annie"
Postcard from the Clachaig Inn (calling it Glencoe Hotel) 

Annie MacPhee, who wrote the postcard to her niece Bella MacPhee, on visiting her younger brother at the Clachaig Inn, with her husband Peter Healey, a gardener and their son Hughie
It was a time of change for the Clachaig Inn. More traffic on the road and the increased numbers of cars meant that between 1930 and 1934 a new road was cut through Glencoe, the route of the current A82. This crossed the River Coe further down the glen and left the Clachaig Inn off to the side. However it already had a reputation as a hub for those enjoying the great outdoors, particularly popular with mountain climbers, or those just walking, like my auntie Annie. 

In 1930 Donald and Lucy MacPhee had their only son, Archie, whilst they were at the Clachaig Inn and on his birth certificate, the Clachaig Inn is recorded as the place where he was born. In 1936, aged only 64, Donald MacPhee died, back at the croft in Brackletter, from heart problems. 

What of the "No Hawkers or Campbells" sign in the foyer of the Clachaig Inn?

My granny always said that she knew for certain that Donald put that up. Although a version of the sign still welcomes guests to The Clachaig Inn, it is of course more in jest now. However my granny was quite sure that it was put there by Donald in earnest, that he meant it. We will never know, but I have always found my granny's tales to be reliable.As a local man, from a Catholic family with Jacobite leanings, the circumstantial evidence supports her assertion on this one, I would argue.

Ewen MacPhee - The Outlaw

Another MacPhee that my granny told me was a relative was a certain Mr Ewen MacPhee. She had told me that this man lived on an island, was a proud Scot and used to shoot at Redcoats if they approached. Although this sounds like a fanciful tale from Jacobite times, this character did exist. However, not in the 18th century, but in the era of steam trains, paddle steamers and Queen Victoria on the throne. His life story seems so outlandish it is surprise that nobody has thought to make a film of it.

Ewen MacPhee The Outlaw
from RR McLan's book of 1848 "Highlanders at Home, on Heather, River and Loch"2.
When Donald MacPhee's father Alexander was a child in the Spean Bridge area, Ewen MacPhee was living 20 miles further north on an island in Loch Quoich. He was born about 1785 in the Glengarry area, Lochaber. Around 1807 at the start of the Peninsular War against Napoleon's forces, he was conscripted by his laird to the British forces and proved to be an effective soldier, rising through the ranks. As he was unable to read or write, his promotions could only go so far and he is reported to have taken umbrage at this. There is also some reports of money going missing whilst he was fighting in Spain. Whatever the reason, he eventually deserted.

Back in Scotland he was arrested in the Glengarry area, where he was hiding with his sister. Contemporary newspaper reports talk of him being handcuffed and led aboard a steamer at Corpach, by a band of soldiers, but slipping free of his bonds and fleeing, with their musket shots going past his head. He lived wild for 2 years near Loch Arkaig, before deciding that the chase was up and settling on an island in Loch Quoich. Never paying any rent or asking any permission he lived out his days here, and despite his roguish ways seems to have been indulged by the local laird. He took a young wife, Mary, who was reportedly 14 years old when he took her to his island. There they built a bothy and raised a family. The island afterwards took his name, as this 1872 map or Loch Quoich shows, although the island is now submerged below the waters of the loch, after the levels were raised for a hydro-electric scheme in the 1950s. 

Loch Quoich, with Eilean Mhic Phi (MacPhee's Island) visible on it
Ordnance Survey map 1872
He was well known for steeling livestock, but also feared and consulted by poor local residents. He was a tall and imposing figure, and apparently always wore Highland dress, carrying a dirk and a gun with him and threatened anyone planning to arrest him that he would never be taken alive. He was regarded as a seer, who was able to weave charms and heal sick cows. Also when English millionaire Edward Ellice took over the estate, he viewed him as a piece of local colour and MacPhee would come to the estate and pose for paintings to be done by young ladies.

In August 1846, the Inverness Courier has a story of "the well-known singular outlaw Ewen MacPhee" attending a "Highland Competition and Sports Gathering" in Fort William, where a crowd of 3000 to 4000 people had gathered. It reports that he "left his solitary fastness at Glenquoich to be present at the animating scene, and appeared to be highly delighted with it". He entered the competition for those wearing Highland dress and won the third prize of £1 10s that day.

Such indulgent tolerance of his outlaw behaviour did not last. As complaints from neighbours about the extent of his sheep stealing increased two sheriff's officers rowed out to the island to investigate. MacPhee was not at home, but his wife chased off the approaching officers by firing on them, and they fled. Returning a week later in greater force they found large quantities of tallow and skins on the island and arrested MacPhee, who was in his sixties at this time. He was taken away to prison, but no record of the charges against him remains as he died in about 1850 whilst in captivity from cholera, before coming to trial.

The 1841 census records him living on Loch Quoich Island, aged 55, his occupation noted as "Army Ind". His wife Mary is aged 29 at that time and they have six children aged between 13 and 3 years of age living with them on the island, as well as Maryanne McIntyre a 20 year old "female servant" and Duncan McIntyre, a 15 year old "agricultural labourer". Not long after Ewen MacPhee's death, in the 1851 census Mary MacPhee is living in Fort William, with her occupation recorded as "wife of soldier (deserter)". There are three further children living with Mary, including her youngest, a daughter Ann. Unlike the rest who were born on Loch Quoich, Ann was born in Fort Augustus, which suggests this is where Ewen MacPhee spent his last days. 1851 was also the year his family got their name recorded in the local history books again. Popular local doctor, William Kennedy of Leanachan attended to Mary and her children that year when they were affected by typhus. Reports tell of how he attended to them and "cleaned their poverty stricken hovel". Through helping them the doctor contracted typhus and later died from it, with 1400 people attending his funeral and a statue being erected in his honour.

A turbulent time in Scottish history, remembered by my granny and her stories of ancestors who lived through it.

Sources -
1. Bygone Lochaber - Somerled MacMillan 1971
2. Highlanders at Home, on Heather, River and Loch, or Gaelic Gatherings by Robert R. McLan 1848
3. Mountain Outlaw: Encounters with Ewan MacPhee by Ian R Mitchell 2003
   Maps source - National Library of Scotland
   National Records of Scotland