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Issue 81 - A Hundred Years in the Highlands

Scotland Magazine Issue 81
June 2015


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A Hundred Years in the Highlands

John Hannavy explores the world of Osgood Mackenzie

I first came across Osgood Hanbury Mackenzie’s wonderful book A Hundred Years in the Highlands in a secondhand bookshop more than thirty years ago. Knowing nothing about it, I was attracted by the author’s name more than anything else, and as an incurable collector of books about Scotland, that was a good enough reason for buying it. Mackenzie, I soon discovered, left much more to the world than a great name – specifically, a great book and a fabulous garden.

The book had been published in 1921, the year before Mackenzie’s death at the age of 79, and into it he had woven his own reminiscences of growing up in the north-west highlands of Scotland, and those of his uncle, John Mackenzie, who had been born in 1803 and whose journals Osgood had inherited. His mother’s account of part of her son’s childhood was also included, presenting an image of the life of a highland laird and his family over much more than the century of the title.

Despite his highland heritage, Osgood was actually born in the Breton town of Quimperlé, the family returning to Scotland when he was a year old. At his birth, his name was registered as Hector Mackenzie, but when he was baptised – in England rather than Scotland as the family was by then in Essex – his name was given as Osgood, after his maternal grandfather Osgood Hanbury. He later always styled himself as Osgood Hanbury Mackenzie. His father died the following year, 1843, and was buried, like generations of Mackenzies before him and since, in the family vault in the north transept of Beauly Priory. Although he obviously remembered nothing of the journey north with his father’s body, in the company of his mother and uncles, it involved a long paddle steamer voyage from London to Invergordon, followed by the trek south along the Cromarty Firth and then across land to Beauly. For the next few months the family lived at Conon House near Dingwall.

Invergordon seems to have been an important transport link between the Highlands and the rest of the country, with steamer services to London and Glasgow having been introduced in the 1830s – the Glasgow service via the Caledonian Canal. Steamer services were relatively new, and not particularly reliable. On one journey south – apparently on a cargo steamer – Osgood recalled that it stopped at just about every port along the Banffshire and Aberdeenshire coasts picking up shipments of “Dead meat for the London markets. Stacks of it were piled up on the deck, and consisted chiefly of dead pigs.” That must have been a fragrant voyage.

Despite spending most of his formative years in the remote highland landscape around Loch Ewe, Osgood’s childhood was about as far removed from that of the crofters and villagers who surrounded him as it could be. He enjoyed many of the privileges of wealth – private tuition, and a comfortable lifestyle punctuated by travel. And his childhood was also just as far removed from that of his uncle John. By the time Osgood arrived in the area, civilization had started to make its mark on the area in the form of reasonable roads, but his uncle’s manuscript – liberally quoted by Osgood – tells of much more challenging days. His uncle recorded “There being no need for wheels in a roadless country in my young days, we had only sledges in place of wheeled carts, all made by our grieve.” These horse-drawn sledge carts were used “For moving peats, and nearly every kind of crop… Fish up from the shore and lime and manure… The sledges could slide where wheeled carts could not venture, and carried corn and hay, etc., famously.”

Before the Loch Maree road was built in the late 1840s, anything which the 6,000 population around Gairloch and Torridon could not grow or make for themselves had to be brought in by sea – via an irregular service from the mail boat for Harris and Lewis – referred to as ‘the Lews’ by Mackenzie – putting in at Poolewe at the beginning of its return journey south, if and when there was mail or cargo to deliver.

When work started on the road – and with Osgood’s mother funding much of the cost – the honour of cutting the first sod went to the six year old, as neither of his two elder step-brothers was at home at the time. Armed with a toy spade he hacked away at the rough turf until a small piece had been freed, and when the cheers range out he recalled that he ‘felt like a hero’.

Young Osgood’s life seems to have been an interesting one, with a lot of travel – several journeys back to France, a visit to London in 1851 where he visited the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, and a voyage to the remote island of St. Kilda. At the great exhibition, the nine year old noted that he saw the Duke of Wellington and other celebrities but “Thought more of the Duke than any of the others, because my dear old uncle, the General (Fighting Jack), had fought and done such great deeds under him in Spain”.

General John Mackenzie, aged 49 at the time, had led the 2nd Anglo-Italian Brigade at the Battle of Castalla in the Peninsular War in 1813. He died in 1860 when Osgood was 18 years of age.

When not travelling, exploring the landscape around Pool House at the head of Loch Ewe – often in the company of his private tutor – was his daily pleasure, but when he was given his first gun, other interests rather went by the board. Shooting became a lifetime passion, and his accomplishments were listed in his diaries, and subsequently detailed in the pages of
A Hundred Years in the Highlands.

“I see by my game-book,” he wrote, “that one year – 1868 – I got 9912 brace of grouse off the crofters’ hill ground, 60 brace off Isle Ewe, and 30 brace off the small Inveran farm; and my total in that year was 1,314 grouse, 33 black game, 49 partridges, 110 golden plover, 35 wild ducks, 53 snipe, 91 blue rock-pigeons, 184 hares, without mentioning geese, ptarmigan and roe, etc., a total of 1,900 head.” Writing more than fifty years after that most noteworthy season, he seemed a little surprised that “Now so many of these good beasts and birds are either quite extinct or on the very verge of becoming so.”

Of his prowess with the gun, he also remarked “What a big pile it would make if all the black game I shot there between 1855 and 1900 were gathered into one heap. Now, alas, there are none, and why, who can tell?”

Oh, Osgood, my dear chap, I think we could offer a compelling suggestion as to why!

His other targets regularly included ‘Mother Carey’s Chickens’ – the name given to stormy petrels by seamen, who believed they embodied the souls of dead sailors.

Of course in the Highlands in the second half of the nineteenth century, hunting and fishing were absolutely essential to feed families in those remote areas where supplies of ‘imported’ food were uncertain and expensive. From Osgood’s game-book, we can assume the family ate very well.

Drinking was another essential part of highland life, and that usually involved a large measure of smuggling. Mackenzie had, by the time he was twenty, become a Justice of the Peace – a role which did not sit comfortably with his love of illicit whisky. “I had from the bench fined many a poor smuggler as the law directs,” he wrote, adding, “Then I began to see that the receiver—myself, for instance, as I drank only ‘mountain dew’ then—was worse than the smuggler. So ended all my connection with smuggling except in my capacity as magistrate, to the grief of at least one of my old friends and visitors, the Dean of Ross and Argyle, who scoffed at my resolution and looked sorrowfully back on the happy times when he was young and his father distilled every Saturday what was needed for the following week.”

“Laws against smuggling,” he noted needlessly, “are generally disliked.”

1862 was a momentous year for the young Osgood Mackenzie. Not only did he occupy a significant position in the local community – as magistrate and JP – but his mother bought him two estates north of Gairloch, at Kernsary and Inverewe. They would dominate the remainder of his life. Kernsary was inland, but Inverewe, north of Poolewe, had a beautiful coastline, and on what he described as ‘a high, rocky bluff, jutting out into the sea’ he decided to build a house and, around it, to develop a garden. When he started to develop the site, he recorded in
A Hundred Years in the Highlands that “with the exception of two tiny bushes of dwarf willow about three feet high, there was nothing in the shape of a tree or shrub anywhere in sight.”

What he did with that barren peninsula we will explore next time.