September 8, 2012
The croft cottage at Canisbay is just like the picture Graham first saw on the internet all those months ago.
Surrounded by paddocks populated by Jacobs sheep and dairy cows, we look out from the kitchen to the Orkney Isles. The little Canisbay kirk gleams white through the frame of the lounge room window.
We are six miles from John O’Groats to the east – which we discover isn’t really the northernmost place in Scotland – and about 10 miles from Dunnets Head to the west – which is the most northerly point.
The cottage has two bedrooms, a cosy lounge and dining room, and a kitchen and bathroom with all the trimmings. Hot water, a bath and shower, a washing machine, microwave and stove.
We make the most of a sunny afternoon to take a walk down to the bay, past the friendly cows (hello Hilary) and through the paddocks to the cliffs and beaches below. There are seals here and even more round near Scotland’s Haven the next day. We sit in the heather and watch them play, lolling on the rocks and “bottling” in the water, for about an hour.
It is wild country but not especially isolated , not compared to outback Australia. It reminds us of the Eyre peninsula, windswept beauty dotted with small settlements.
The weather turns cold and wet and so windy it’s hard to ride the bike. We spend a gloriously indulgent day watching telly and reading.
But we make our visit to the Castle of Mey, once Baragul Castle and home to the Earls of Caithness, and eventually meet the castle’s historian, to discuss my family connection.
Charles Macintosh, my great great-grandfather through my maternal line, was piper and valet to the Earl of Caithness. He married Hellen Hendry, a domestic from Lochend, and they had my great grandmother Elizabeth Jane before emigrating to Australia in the 1890s for a new life running a little general store at rural Bringelly, now part of the morass of western Sydney suburbia.
Their wedding certificate says they were married at Baragul Castle and they must have lived there too as we have a “calling card” that gives it as their address. Why leave here? Why Australia?
We discover that being the piper and personal valet was a pretty big deal. Charles was still a servant, but would have been considered posh. And it seems he and the young Earl (the 16th and tragically the last) of Caithness were as close as their master and servant relationship allowed.
The 15th Earl was an adventurous and enterprising type, a patron of the new science/art of photography among other things. His first wife died and later in life he married a French countess.
The Earl’s daughter also died … rumour has it she flung herself from the castle ramparts after her father forbade her love affair with a lowly stable boy.
And his son had severe epilepsy. When he inherited the Earldom he needed someone like my great great-grandfather by his side constantly, in case of a seizure.
They sailed the Mediterranean together on the young Earl’s yacht, did the party circuit while at their London home and holidayed in their Scottish castle for weeks and months each year. Sadly, when the Earl was only 29 and not long after Charles (two years his junior) was married, he had a severe epileptic fit and died in my great great-grandfather’s arms.
The Earl had made special provision in his will for his “devoted servant Macintosh” to be well cared for and the money (several thousand pounds, a small fortune at the time) would have allowed Charles and his new wife and baby to establish themselves in Australia.
Reading a local history book at Canisbay it seems at least one other family, with connections to the castle, had made the move to Australia so I guess it seemed liked thing to do for someone seeking a fresh start and opportunity.
Historian Barbara, although usually more concerned with matters pertaining to the Queen Mother (who bought Baragul and renamed it the Castle of Mey in the 1950s) was fascinated with my connection and the copied photos I left with her. We promised to keep in touch and Graham and I have an appetite now to do some more family research … where was Charles from, for instance, and how did he come to be a piper and valet?
We would love to return here, go for a walk along Dunnets beach – a real sandy beach – and take a trip to the Orkneys. I love this country and do feel at home here.