Sunday, February 6, 2011

A Fortunate Find: An Ancestor in a Bookstore.

Of Surprise: 'O wonderful, wonderful and most wonderful!' William Shakespeare

Whilst on holiday in Queensland recently, I visited the town of Eumundi, inland from Noosa, which is famous amongst tourist and locals alike, for its Markets. I chose to visit on a day when the market place was closed as Eumundi is a pretty little town when quiet and boasts a wonderful art gallery, some scrumptious places to eat and best of all a huge Berkleow Bookstore, situated in an a heritage building. This is a store which carries new and secondhand books of all kinds and I had plans for an afternoon of browsing.

Fortunately my husband shares my passion for books and whilst he browsed the architecture, art and gardening sections of the store, I headed straight for the history and local history area. It wasn't long before my pile of 'must haves' began to grow. I discovered a book about the history of the Kenmore Presbyterian Church which I had attended in Brisbane as a teenager and in which I was married; a book about the English Lakes District written by William Wordsworth, for a friend (whose ancestor was Wordsworth's housekeeper and who had a child whose paternity is as yet unknown.. so you can imagine there interesting speculation in the family), and a copy of Cicero's speech in his famous first trial, for my Roman history obsessed son (who may have to brush up on his Latin since that is the language in which the book is written... may I remind you that it is the thought that counts!).
In the Scottish, Irish and Welsh section of the store, a small blue cover attracted my attention and I took down from the shelf a book entitled 'Skye The Island and its Legends'. Closer inspection revealed that the book was written by a lady named Otta F. Swire, who was described, on the inside of the front cover of the dust jacket, as coming ' from an old Skye family and a resident of Skye.' The book is a second edition, published in 1961. There is a foreword which includes the following words by the author who wrote, ' I am among those who love Skye and so I want to write for my children some of the old Skye stories which I heard from my mother and many of which she, in turn, heard from a great aunt who was born over 160 years ago on 18 April, 1799. That they may be of interest to all, I have threaded these stories, as well as many which are better known, on the roads of Skye, as on a necklace.'

And if those words, which sang lyrically to me, were not enough to entice me into a purchase, the fact that my husband's great great grandfather, Mathew MacDonald had set sail from the Isle of Skye, bound for NSW, Australia, in 1837, made it a certainty that the little book of stories about Skye travelled home with me to Sydney. I admit that I was also beguiled by the handwritten inscription inside the book which said, ' To Jenny, A'm askin yi to dance ken?, Mervyn.'

I did not read this book while I was away, because I had joined the local Sunshine Coast libraries and had ambitiously borrowed far too many books about local history to possibly read in the time available to me. Even after I returned home I did not have the time to look at the book but rather placed it behind the glass doors of my bookshelves saving it for a spare moment when I could peruse it.

I cannot describe the surprise I received, when I finally did take the small hardcover copy of 'Skye, The Island and its Legends' from the shelf. I chose a moment in which I would not be disturbed and seated myself comfortably with a cup of tea to look at it. As I scanned the index I was not surprised to see the name MacDonald there, since the clans of this well known Scottish family trace back to Lord John of the Isles and the McKenneth Kings before him. One would expect a mention about the MacDonalds, McLeods and several other highland families in such a book. What almost made me drop my teacup, was the name Charles of Ord.

Charles MacDonald, of Ord, was my husband David's paternal great great great grandfather and the father of Mathew MacDonald, and a MacDonald about whom we had little information. In this little book, purchased completely unaware that it contained any connection to family, I discovered five pages dedicated to stories about Charles MacDonald of Ord and his grandfather Alexander MacDonald of Drimindarach. Mathew's father Charles MacDonald, is mentioned at length in another book entitled 'A Summer in Skye' written by Alexander Smith, a Scottish writer and poet who travelled throughout the Isle, staying frequently at Ord House with Mathew's father, to whom the Smith referred as M'Laird and M'Ian. Alexander Smith married, Flora MacDonald daughter of Charles of Ord at Ord house in 1857. Flora was the half sister of Mathew and was so named, for her famous relative, Flora MacDonald who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie.

Otta F Swire mentions the novel 'A Summer in Skye' in her own book. Whilst we, as a family, have quite a reasonable amount of historical information regarding the MacDonalds of Sleat, the fascinating oral narratives which this author and native of the Isle of Skye has added to our knowledge about the MacDonalds, is quite original and very exciting. We had already known that Alexander MacDonald, an earlier progenitor of the clan, and grandfather of Charles of Ord, had been involved in the uprising of 1745, in support of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and subsequently his lands had been forfeited by the Crown. The tale of Alexander using a sledge hammer to break in the great doors of Carlisle Castle is well documented, however, that Alexander had 'taken to the hills' as an outlaw of the crown where he married, that his son had been born in the hills and that his baptism had been performed there by a priest who risked his life to do so was something that we had not read in history books and information which we greatly appreciated.

The most fascinating stories related to my husband's MacDonald ancestor, Charles MacDonald of Ord. Otta F Swire claims that he was called 'Old Ord'. We knew that Charles had fought for the Crown in the West Indies, Ireland and at the battle of Waterloo, ironically two generations after his grandfather had lost his lands after he stood against the Crown. What was particularly interesting to us, however, was this author's claim that my husband's g g g grandfather, Charles real 'title to fame in Skye .. is chiefly the Ord Palm.'

Pictured above right, is Ord House where Charles of Ord lived and where Mathew MacDonald met his sweetheart Mary McPherson before they emigrated to Australia as part of the Dunmore Lang immigration scheme. Today the house is a B & B and one day we hope to stay in this ancestral home for a holiday on the Isle of Skye.

This is the anecdote that Otta F Swire tells about my husband's ancestor. It is a simple story, but one which has completely fascinated us and one which was never passed down to us because Mathew had fallen out of favour with his father Charles of Ord, over his marriage ( Mary McPherson was the nanny to Mathew's half siblings and most likely was considered an unsuitable wife). After after arriving in Australia in 1837, sadly, Mathew had no further contact with his father, so it was very exciting to discover this wonderful story.

'A man named Murdo, who had worked for him [Charles of Ord] for many years, emigrated to New Zealand with his family in 1863. On arrival there he collected a number of seeds of a palm which he particularly admired, called, I am told, the Cabbage tree ( it is not the Cabbage Palm of South America) and sent them to 'Old Ord'. Some of these seeds were planted in the old walled garden at Ord and some were sent to the Botanical Gardens at Kew. Those sent to Kew died from frost but two of those planted at Ord had luck in three mild winters while young and they flourished and are still to be seen, being, as far as is known, the only specimens ever grown in the open in Britain.They are now [1961] at eighty years old, well grown trees about fifteen to twenty feet high. Every seventh year they flower and become a mass of deep creamy blossom, so heavily scented that not only the whole garden but the house some little distance away appears temporarily transported to the tropics'....

We found the following piece of information imparted by author Otta F Swire, about Charles of Ord, most interesting.

'Old Ord is said to have possessed the first fixed bath (with hot and cold running water) in Skye; the old bath made of lead and with right-angle corners like a box, which remained in use until 1950 was well worth a visit. But apart from Ord House, that corner of Skye seems to have been very backward in Old Ord's day. 'Black' kitchens were still usual, and his eldest son, {Charles' eldest son] who had a great dislike of women with thick ankles, used, if he met any while riding in the district, to order them off the road.'

We believe that although Mathew was the eldest son of Charles, that the son referred to may not have been Mathew, but rather, Alexander, the first son of Charles' marriage to Anne McLeod of Gesto in 1828. Mathew was born in about 1812 and his mother's name is unknown to us. Through letters to Mathew in his very old age from his half brother, Keith Norman MacDonald, a son of Charles of Ord and Anne McLeod, we discovered that Mathew's mother was buried near Charles but no mention was made unfortunately of her name.

Right is pictured Mathew MacDonald [seated] and Mary MacDonald (McPherson) [seated] and their children at his farm 'Temple Hill' near Crookwell. The farm is still in the MacDonald family today.


  1. What a great find! Sounds like your holiday was a bonanza for family history. (PS the last word could be ken or hen, the Glaswegian familiar name for a woman -just a thought)...I loved that inscription.

  2. we are looking up some family history and came upon your story. my mother in law (Thelma larkin)is related to charles macdonald (mathew and mary are ggg grandparents) and interestingly they now live in noosa, not far from where you found your info! Thelma is now 80 and has some stories that her mother passed onto her.
    Happy for you to make contact.

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  4. OK so this is a bit random, just came across your blog, I was brought up in Ord, no relative of the MacDonalds but as in many Highland communities our family were named after the village they came from and although not our surname we are known as the 'Ords'. The palm trees mentioned in the Otta Swires book are still alive in the neighbouring walled garden. Ord House has once again changed hands and is no longer a B&B, but Ord has no shortgae of accommodation if you should ever visit.