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We Go North 1919-1924

From Panmuir the family moved to Morayshire to Relugas Estate about seven miles from the town of Forres. The cottage where we lived was almost on the banks of the Findhorn River which, together with its tributary the Divie River, ran through the estate; both streams were frequented by salmon. The Findhorn was much the better salmon stream, and many fine fish were taken on the rod there.

My father kept a water gauge in the river, and from reading water depths and fish scales he made quite a study of the fish. From the water height it was possible to determine the best fly to use. The fish scales were just like the cross section of a tree, from which could be determined the fish's age, feeding conditions, and sometimes disease or damage by predators or other injury.

The salmon fresh-run from the sea are silvery bright and put up a terrific fight, so much so that fishermen used seventeen-foot steel-centred rods on which they would play a salmon till it was tired, meantime working it towards the bank where a gillie (this was my job) would land the fish by impaling it with a gaff, a long pole about six foot with a large clean hook at one end. It was necessary to make a hard clean strike to impale the fish immediately or it might struggle and get away. This happened to my mother when she got the idea she would gillie for my father. Mother talked my father into taking her one evening, leaving me home to look after the rest of the children. Dad hooked a salmon and played it into the bank and mother gingerly tried to gaff it; it not only struggled and got away but broke the rod too.

It was my father's duty to fish the river to determine when salmon were running well, then he would wire our boss who would come up to fish. When Captain Hamilton arrived next day and asked Dad if he had caught any more fish, the sad story came out, and Captain Hamilton said, "What did you do, throw her in the river?"! However he gave Dad a sum of money and sent him off to Inverness to buy a new rod.

I attended school in the neighbouring village of Logie, but spent all my spare time fishing. It was a boy's paradise as far as the fishing went. The river Divie was wonderful trout fishing, with an occasional sea trout, also eels in deep holes, and of course there were young salmon called parr. These latter were small silvery fish with small finger markings down the center line of their bodies on each side, five to six inches long. This was the size they were when the migrated to the sea, returning later as mature fish to their native waters where they spawned their eggs to complete the cycle. The Scottish salmon used to return to the sea after spawning, unless they were trapped in shallow water where they would die like the Pacific Ocean salmon.

On both the Findhorn and the Divie Rivers were waterfalls over which the fish had to jump to get to the headwaters. It was quite a sight to see the leaping fish trying to surmount these obstacles: they would leap repeatedly till they made it. The falls on the Divie were in two sections. The top section fell onto a saucer-like depression about four or five feet wide but quite shallow; then it dropped over the main fall to the river below. The salmon would jump the lower fall and land in the depression to rest a little before making the final leap, and I have seen a number of them lying there side by side with their dorsal fins above the water.

At the bottom of the falls was a wonderful place to catch trout; I discovered how to get down clinging to tree roots underneath the falls. While fishing there one day I spotted two poachers up above me stealing salmon. One of them had a large triangular landing net mounted on a very long pole. He pushed this into the water and forced it against the rock just below the depression, and the other knocked the salmon into it with another long pole. I reported the poaching activity. They hadn't seen me, I being screened by the falling water. A few days later my father and another gamekeeper caught the poachers in the act and they were prosecuted. In Scotland in those days all riparian rights were the property of each estate.

At Relugas the Findhorn winds through a rocky gorge. On the other side from Relugas Estate was the Darnaway Forest, quite a rough country, and about 1920 the body of a Canadian soldier was found there; supposedly he had hanged himself. At my home cottage was a gate leading down a gorge to a narrow place called Randolf's Leap. We had to open the gate to let visitors visit the Leap: allegedly Randolf—one of Robert the Bruce's officers—was pursued by English troops and escaped by jumping his horse across the gorge.

From Relugas I moved with my family to Eathie on the Black Isle in easter Ross-Shire. This was the eastern beat of Rosehaugh Estate and there my father was assigned as the local gamekeeper. The Black Isle is really a peninsula on easter Ross jutting out from the mainland between the Moray and Cromarty Firths, both of which were used at that time as bases for the North Sea Fleet. We could overlook both firths and see the ships at anchor when they were in port: the large battleships and cruisers would be anchored off Invergordon in the Cromarty Firth, and the submarines and destroyers would anchor in the Moray Firth off Fortrose. The submarines would be tied with their front end to their mother supply ship, four to six subs to each ship like suckling piglets. I often experienced the thrill of a visit on board these ships when the fleet would host my troop of Seascouts, the coast version of Boy Scouts. The officers and crews were extremely good to us, letting us explore all over the ships and even taking the muzzle caps off the big guns that we could see down the barrels, some almost big enough for us to crawl through. We would be entertained and fed and plied with ship's chocolate, great blocks about two inches thick embedded with sugar that really took some gnawing!

On the Moray Firth below where we lived were steep cliffs about one hundred and fifty feet down to the ocean, and this was the nesting place of thousands of sea birds, mainly the large herring gulls. These birds deposited three eggs on any flat ledge and there they hatched their young. Nature took care of nesting on such bare and dangerous cliffs, by reason of the shape of the eggs which, about the size of turkey eggs, were large at one end tapering to a very sharp point, and thus just rolled round in their current position.

In the spring nesting season we used to collect the eggs, only taking single or two eggs, never three, as they had generally started to incubate. A pocket handkerchief was knotted at all four corners and carried in our teeth as both hands and everything else were required to cling to the rocks and ledges lest we fall to the rocks on the beach far below. There were a few places where it was possible to climb down to the beach and at low tide explore the many caves. Some of these caves were huge and in some, smoke blacked places where there had been fires. It was a wonderful place for an early-teenage boy to conjure up smugglers and pirates.

I attended a small school at Pedeston which was presided over by an old-fashioned dominie, Mr. Stevens, and a lady teacher whose maiden name I do not recall but who later married a Danny Campbell and then immigrated to Canada in 1928 and became one of our neighbours, and very good friends in later life.

[1] John's brother Matthew Milligan Elliott ("Uncle Matt") was born here on May 12, 1923.

From Eathie I moved to Pink House Suddee[1]  where we attended school in Avoch fishing village. Right across from our house was a herd of Shetland ponies semi-wild. Their foals were cute little fellows about the size of a collie dog. Of course it was my unrealised ambition to catch a foal; their mothers invariably drove me up a tree. The ponies were raised for pit ponies and were periodically sent off to the coal mines. While at Pink House I started to learn to play the bagpipes under the tuition of Bob Duncan, a retired Pipe Major who was farm manager at the farm of Suddee, from where we got our milk. Each night I'd have to fetch the milk and stay sometimes till midnight playing the practice chanter.

This fishing village (Avoch, pronounced auch) is rather unique. It is situated on the Moray Firth in easter Ross-Shire, the home of Clan Mackenzie. The fisher people however are not Mackenzies; they are allegedly descendants of sailors from the Spanish Armada. When Sir Francis Drake defeated the Spanish fleet in the English Channel, the fleet scattered and many ships fled up the east coast of the British Isles and around the north of Scotland. Many of the ships foundered and sank in many places off the east coast of Scotland.

The population of Avoch is made up of only a few family names like Skinner, Patience, McLennan and Jacks, and this has resulted in intermarriage. With so many people with the same name they necessarily all had to have nicknames to differentiate. Their language was unique, for although they did speak a form of Scottish-English, their accent, expression and different use of words made it difficult for others to understand them. We children were quite conversant with them, having many friends among the fisher people, and attending school with their children.

There were different fish seasons depending on line fishing or net for herring. In herring season they followed the herring 'round Scotland, and even the young women went to follow the fleet to appropriate harbours where the women gutted the fish and packed them down in salt in barrels. They generally finished in Yarmouth in England, having been away from home port for months. It was all sail in those days and it was a beautiful sight to see a hundred or so yawls beating down the firth under sail when going to sea. There is something fascinating in seeing ships under sail. I have seen huge three-masted, square-rigged vessels come to Avoch from Baltic ports in Finland area and take on a load of barrels of herring: a magnificent sight as they sailed down the firth under full sail.

When the fishing fleet was coming in the whole population turned out to the harbour area, waiting in suspense to see the catch or if all the boats returned, for occasionally there was tragedy when one failed to return after stormy weather. The women repaired the nets and hung them on the hedges to dry. When line fishing the women baited long lines with up to a hundred hooks and coiled them in flat containers in such a way that the line would stream out evenly and not tangle when shot overboard from the fishing boats.

The fishing village of Avoch has a somewhat connection with Canada, for it is here in Avoch churchyard where Alexander MacKenzie is buried. I have seen his grave. It was he who discovered and explored the river, in 1789, which is now known as the MacKenzie River. 1989 will be the bi-centennial of his achievement, and there is presently in Scotland preparation to recognise this bi-centennial.

When I attended school in Avoch, the school was immediately adjacent to the churchyard. We boys had a morbid interest in the churchyard, especially when the sexton was opening graves. Over there they used the graves for repeated interment, particularly the family graves, and in opening a grave the sexton would often move bones to be placed together at the foot of the grave. Naturally we boys were all eyes, snooping, and he (the sexton) chased us for our lives.

It was the custom to give the school children a large plate of thick vegetable soup for lunch. The estate supplied game and meat, the farmers supplied vegetables. We boys delighted in putting the girls off their lunch, telling them we knew where they got the soup bones.

My next move with my family was to Rosehaugh Estate headquarters, to the kennels, close to the big house. The estate was owned by Mr. J.D. Fletcher, the wealthy owner of large tea plantations in Ceylon.

It appears that Mr. Fletcher was enamoured of the lady author Baroness Orczy, who wrote many thrillers including The Scarlet Pimpernel. At his proposal of marriage she scoffed, "My father's stables are larger than your house," whereupon he build Rosehaugh House of red sandstone, a lot of glass and red tiles on the roofs. The house could be seen for miles. There was a private railway station for the big house on the narrow-gauge railway which ran through the estate from Muir of Ord to Fortrose, the end of the line. Close to the house was a large sports pavilion, tennis courts and in winter the curling rink. There were several large greenhouses, merely as a hobby, and fourteen men were employed looking after them and the grounds. Close by the cottage where I lived were the stables and harness rooms, and alongside was the coach house with many different types of carriage. In those days his private coach was drawn by four horses with driver and attendant footman. My home was known as The Kennels, the location of the head gamekeeper. This was where the sporting dogs were kept and where we raised three thousand pheasants for release every year. In its heyday Rosehaugh Estate had fourteen gamekeepers and stretched from Eathie in the east to near Munlochy in the west.

I attended Munlochy school. Walking from Rosehaugh sometimes of an afternoon we would be overtaken by a clerk from the estate office, driving a little dogcart drawn by a Shetland pony. He would offer us a ride, for he wanted to walk as his feet were cold. He was a double amputee, lost both lower legs in the war.

This was about the time when Tut-an-Kamon's tomb was discovered in Egypt. I used to wait at Munlochy Station for newspapers from the south with the developing news of the excavations.

Unfortunately this beautiful Rosehaugh House is now demolished and the grounds derelict, the estate now being owned by a syndicate. They still raise pheasants and rent out shooting rights.

I next moved back to live in Fortrose when my father went deer stalking for Lady Evelyn Cabold at Coig-Na-Fern in Strathcarron. Fortrose was the academy for higher education in easter Ross, and it also has the remains, just walls and belfry standing, of an old cathedral, built about 1100, one of the earliest religious seats in the north of Scotland. At the time I write of it was surrounded with an iron rail fence and a driveway and there were a number of very old tombstones still standing, some of them tilted awry. Needless to say there were several ghost stories concerning the cathedral, which got me involved in a schoolboy prank.

I was friendly with Ian McLeod the rector's son and we thought out a ghost ploy to be carried out when the rector went to a convention in Edinburgh. As soon as Mr. McLeod had gone we waited for the local policeman to take off on his rounds which he made on a bicycle, and generally he was away overnight. On the appointed night I was struck with a bit of a cold, which almost got me out of a punishment for our prank.

Ian got one of his mother's linen bedsheets and we cut a hole in the middle for my head. I donned the sheet and took up my position amongst the old tombstones. It was gloaming of course, twilight, and the Girl Guides were having a meeting in the Guide-Scout Hall at the end of the quadrangle. As two girls, Betty Thom and Mary Henderson (the latter the policeman's daughter) came along I rose up from behind a tombstone and groaned—they departed! and how! We had agreed not to over-do the exposure, so we hid the sheet in a small cave just above the beach and I went home but had to climb up a pipe and ivy to get into my bedroom. Next night, the ghost story having got around, the whole town was out at twilight. I donned my sheet again and managed to open a window into the school, got into the gym and onto the trapeze and floated around a few times, then climbed up into the belfry and everybody had a chance to get a glimpse of the ghost.

Ian and I thought it a great lark!

Next day the policeman was back nosing around. The rector Mr. McLeod got back from Edinburgh and he immediately went to the source. Ian got a licking from his father and so confessed. A note was sent to my mother (as my father was away at the time); she was to attend at the rector's study that night and take me with her.

Mr. McLeod told mother he thought I knew something about the ghost but mother told him, like a typical mother, that her boy wouldn't do anything like that, and further that I had, because of my cold, been locked in my bedroom to keep the other children from disturbing me. The perfect alibi. What she didn't know was that I went out the window and climbed down with the aid of water pipe and ivy on the wall.

Mr. McLeod turned to me. "John, on your honour do you know anything about the ghost?" In a very small voice I had to admit it. "Come and see me in my study tomorrow morning." Well Mr. McLeod worked on me all day; when he got tired he would go visit some of the classrooms, then come back and start thrashing again, and he kept it up till three o'clock in the afternoon, by which time I had learned not to play ghost again.

I visited the old school nineteen years later while overseas with the Canadian Army. Mr. McLeod had been called back from retirement. He gave me a great welcome, dug out the register of 1922 to see my name, then took me round to every classroom ending up in the one taught by a Miss Noble, who had taught me. There Mr. McLeod left me. As I stood at the teacher's desk reminiscing, Miss Noble addressed the class and said, "We had a lesson on Canada yesterday. This young man will tell you all about it." There I was confronted by about forty little faces!

In 1978 while visiting Scotland I found that Miss Noble was still alive so I looked her up and had a nice visit with my old teacher. She was well over ninety, and had taught all her life at Fortrose Academy.

[2] While the H.M.S. Bulldog (1909) was indeed deployed to support the Dardanelles campaign in 1915, we have so far been unable to find a Commander Smith referenced in connection to the ship. Online sources (see, for example, The Dreadnought Project) report the captain at that time to have been Lieutenant-Commander William B. Mackenzie (1880-1930), who retired to Plymouth.

I was a member of the local troop of Seascouts and we spent most of our time on the sea, sailing boats and learning navigation. Our scoutmaster was Commander Smith, retired of course. He had been commander of H.M.S. Bulldog,[2]  the very destroyer that took my father's regiment up to the landing at the Dardanelles early in World War I.

The scout troop had an old sailing boat, not much good, but we used it and were continually trying to raise funds to get a new one. That spring we got the idea of picking daffodils to sell. As a patrol leader and more or less familiar with Mr. Fletcher of Rosehaugh, I was delegated to see him and ask his permission to pick daffodils on the estate. I got all dressed up in my uniform and after arranging an interview I was ushered into Mr. Fletcher's study. He readily granted the permission I sought, but in the course of my conversation he found out what we were hoping to do with the funds we proposed to raise. A short time later he presented the troop with a beautiful boat, one of his own.

Fortrose of course was just across a narrow neck in the Moray Firth from Fort George, at that time the depot for the Seaforth Highlanders regiment. There existed a small request ferry, as the soldiers came across to play football and pursue other interests. Fortrose could be quite active at times, especially when the Fleet was in.

I was getting older so at the beginning of August my father took me across the firth, about twenty miles up into the mountains to Drynachan Lodge in the grouse moors, part of Lord Cawdor's estate. There I would work with the other gillies and beaters. We took our own food and had a communal building to live in.

The grouse moors were laid out in beats with two rows of butts (blinds) at right angles to each other so that the sportsmen could use either row depending on wind direction. The head gamekeeper of Lord Cawdor's estate was Archie Sutherland, whose brother was Moderator of the Church of Scotland at that time. One day when the guns rode out to the moors they somehow got themselves into the wrong line of blinds. In the resulting drive the birds flew past the end of the blinds and only a few were shot instead of the normal hundreds. A normal day's bag of four to five drives was generally four to six hundred birds shot. Archie was so mad he cursed and bawled them out for a bunch of stupid so and so's; they were all aristocracy. When he finished his tirades someone was heard to say, "What a man to breed ministers from."

In each butt there was a sportsman with two double-barreled shotguns and a gillie loader, thus the sportsman got three tries at each covey of birds as they were driven over: first as the birds came, then when overhead, and behind when they had passed over. The loader was quite busy, and as each gun was discharged he would pass a loaded gun to the sportsman and reload the discharged gun ready for the next change.

The grouse season commenced on the twelfth of August each year and was referred to as the Glorious Twelfth.

We beaters, twenty-five or thirty boys and men equipped with each a large white flag, would be left in positions surrounding an expansive fan-shaped area. On the arranged signal we would start converging on the designated line of butts, waving our flags, making noise and so disturbing the grouse and driving them ahead of us. They flew in very fast and fairly short distances and as we neared the butts there would be hundreds flying over in covies of ten to fourteen. There were some wonderful shots. One white-haired old gentleman, Lord Stone—an equerry to King George the Fifth—could take six birds out of each covey: two in front, two overhead and two behind. Also at the shoot that season was Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British forces in France in World War I, and a number of wealthy American sportsmen.

These sportsmen all had horses to ride out to the moors each morning and they were quite considerate of us boys, often giving us their horses to ride home on. We were always tuckered out at night, having covered many miles over the moors in our day's work. I remember being particularly elated on one occasion when Sir Douglas Haig gave me his horse to ride.

In their heyday the grouse moors were managed to carry a maximum population. A day's bag used to run five hundred to a thousand birds, with a goodly number of blue hares. In the spring we used to get seasonal work burning the heather which was done in strips to provide young heather growth on which the grouse fed. The fire would be started in the older heather, and with a man on each edge with a broom to beat out the flames the fire was allowed to run in a long strip; it could be quite exciting sometimes if we got a sudden change of wind.