Thursday, July 11, 2013

In Search of a Forgotten Grave - Alexander Maclean of Coll

In Search of a Forgotten Grave
Alexander Maclean of Coll 1827-1875
A Personal Quest

Alexander, eldest son of Hugh of Coll, succeeded his father as representative of the descendants of John Garbh. He was tall and athletic, modest, and full of kindness.  He emigrated to South Africa in 1849.  He died at Umgeni, near Durban, on Sunday afternoon, July 11th, 1875. He was in the forty-seventh year of his age. He was succeeded in the chieftanship of the Macleans of Coll by his brother, John -Hector-Norman.
-Rev A. Maclean Sinclair, The Clan Gillean, 1899, p.383.

View from Coll

Family oral tradition had it that we, the Garvies, were descendants of the Macleans of Scotland. Scottish theologian, Alfred Ernest Garvie, in his auto-biography, Memories and Meanings of My Life, wrote...

After the defeat at Killiecrankie, the [Maclean] clansmen were scattered. Some of the Macleans settled in Perthshire, and assumed the name Garvie, which is found in a parish register in 1690; and is said to be derived from a Gaelic word garbh, meaning strong or rough. The Garvies in Perthshire claimed descent from Lachlan Maclean of Coll, and the Garvies in Ross-shire had a McLeod for ancestor. Three Garvies (John, James, and Patrick) settled at Balgarvie, which had already long borne that name.... (p.15). 

In a letter from J C Garvie Macleod to the editor of the Oban Times, (date unknown) it is said that the Garvies of Perthshire "are descended from John Garbh, seventh Maclean of Coll, through one of his sons, probably John of Totaronald." According to him, John Garbh was wounded at the Battle of Inverkeithing, Fifeshire (1651) and did not return to Coll. His three sons (or grandsons) rented Upper Balgarvie, Lower Balgarvie and the Mill of Balgarvie in the Perthshire, Parish of Scone from the Earl of Mansfield. Their descendants were tenants of Muirton, Haggis Hall and other farms near Perth.

My genealogical interest goes back to the early 1960s when, as a schoolboy, I first read about Alfred Ernest Garvie. Increasingly I became aware of my Scottish roots. In the course of time it also came to my attention that a Maclean chief lay buried in Africa somewhere. Highland families were in dire financial straits during the 1800s because of famine and so-called "clearances"  and had left the Hebrides and Highlands in large numbers to settle in the Colonies.

My quest began in real earnest when in 2004 cousins, Ken and Eleanor Garvie, afforded us an unforgettable trip to Mull and Iona,  the Maclean Islands.  I was not even aware of Coll which was to become the focus of my research. As I stood on the battlements of Duart Castle looking across the sea I pondered the pluck and plight of the Macleans. They were fighters to the end and stood true in battle and circumstance.  I returned home even more enthused. There were family roots to be researched and there was a grave to be found.

The Search Begins

Intrigued, I felt the need to acquaint myself with the histories of the Macleans of Scotland. I was fortunate to obtain copies of  JP Maclean's A History of the Clan MacLean and Rev. A Maclean Sinclair's The Clan Gillean. It was from John Patterson Maclean's history that I was first to learn about Chief Alexander Maclean (1849-1875)...

Alexander, sixteenth and last of Coll - Sliochd Iain Ghairbh - inherited in a remarkable degree the characteristics of his family, great benignity and kindliness of disposition, which made his forefathers among the most popular landlords of their day. In 1849, he emigrated to Natal, Africa, where he died, July 11, 1875, aged forty-seven. He was never married. In him the family of Coll, in the direct line, became extinct.

There was my first clue. I now had a name, a place, and a date.  Alexander Maclean died in Natal, South Africa in 1875. By this time, in 1991, I had myself been transferred to Durban in KwaZulu-Natal.

Maclean Sinclair was more specific as to where...

Alexander, eldest son of Hugh of Coll, succeeded his father as representative of the descendants of John Garbh. He was tall and athletic, modest, and full of kindness.  He emigrated to South Africa in 1849.  He died at Umgeni, near Durban, on Sunday afternoon, July 11th, 1875.

I was astonished. We lived just above the Umgeni Estuary in Durban! The question now arose, where was Chief Alexander Maclean laid to rest? His grave could not be in the nearby Stamford Hill Cemetery which was post-1875. Queries addressed to the Local History History Museum and the Killie Campbell Library  proved fruitless. I eventually, after considerable correspondence with historians, archivists, and churches, both local and abroad, found Alexander Maclean's Estate Papers in 2007. The search was only beginning!

The Estate Papers of Alexander Maclean

I was naturally curious and anxious to locate Alexander's grave.  It was suggested that I should direct my queries to the Anglican Church since, being a British Colony, the spiritual care of British settlers were overseen by the Church of England. He could be buried in the St Paul's Church burial ground, some suggested. I visited St Pauls hoping to find, if not a grave, then surely, a memorial of sorts. There was none. The original St Pauls had been destroyed by a fire.

The Bishop's Office in Pietermaritzburg yielded very little information. I then discovered that the Church of England burial ground had in fact been incorporated into the West Street Cemetery but was actually some distance from St Pauls itself. Initially I did not know this. I visited the West Street Cemetery several times. Unfortunately no record of such a grave could be found in the West Street Registers. This was deeply disappointing.  Records had previously been destroyed in a fire, I was told. Many hours scouting round the cemetery yielded no evidence of the Laird's final resting place. Some said part of the cemetery had made way for a freeway and possibly the grave did not exist anymore.

Fortunately, just as I was beginning to despair, I then located the Estate Papers for Alexander Maclean. These were lodged in the National Archives Depot in Pietermaritzburg! Not in Durban as I had expected. The Executor of his estate was none other than his brother-in-law, Ashe Windham of Greytown near Pietermaritzburg. Alexander's sister, Juliet, had also settled and married in Natal. I had not known that. Much to my delight, among the papers was a receipt for a grave plot that was eventually to lead me to that of Chief Alexander.

Durban Sept 30th 1875

Received if A S Windham Esq "Exor to the late Alexander McLean Esq" (by payment for Mr Thos. Drew Undertaker) the sum of Six Pounds six shillings for the purchase of a plot of ground in the St Pauls Church Cemetery - measuring 12 feet frontage in a straight line and next to Mrs Benningfields at the south end by eight feet wide - to be held in perpetuity for internments - subject to the Subs (?) and Regulations made from time to time - for the management of the said Cemetery.

As Witness my hand this day and year above written.

For the Minister & Churchwarden
of St Pauls Cemetery
G W Saker
Actin Sexton

There it was, St Pauls Cemetery! If I could locate the Benningfield plot it would then be relatively easy to find Alexander's grave.

Also among the Estate Papers was an invoice dated the 28th September 1875 from the Undertaker suggesting that the deceased had temporarily been interred in the vault of a Mr Lloyd.

To Cost of Ground 12ft x 8 £6 6 0
 " Buidling Brick Vault 8ft x4
 " Opening & Closing Mr Lloyds Vault
 " Removing body of the late Mr McLean to new Vault & etc  £25  - -

West Street Cemetery, Durban

With this information I returned to the West Street Cemetery Offices and with their kind assistance I soon located both the Benningfield and Lloyd plots. Much to my relief, these were recorded in their registers.

The Benningfield Family Plot

The Lloyd Family Plot

To the south of the Benningfield family plot was a lone, neglected grave with neither headstone nor inscription. It lay between the Benningfield and Lloyd graves. Could this be the grave? It was in a state of bad repair. Had it been vandalized or just severely weathered over the years?  I was hoping to find something more becoming of a Scottish Chief. My heart sank. Whose grave was this? Could the Cemetery Superintendent identify this grave? So many questions welled up within me. Had we found the missing grave?

The Unmarked Grave of Alexander Maclean
The Iron Railing of the Benningfield Plot casting its shadow
to the "south end" across the modest Celtic Grave

I hastened back to the Superintendent and enquired who was buried in Section 8, plot 24? Quickly the Superintendent found  old scrappy maps for the Church of England Section, Block 8 of the West Street Cemetery and there it was, no.24,  "Alex Macbean"!

For me, finding and then confirming the grave, was one of those rare "Eureka!" moments in my life.

From the Estate Records, I also knew that a monument was ordered for the tomb. Ashe Windham states...

...I have with the consent of the heirs of the said Alexander Maclean entered into a Contract with [...] Smith of Pietermaritzburg for the preparing and erecting a tomb stone to be placed over the grave of the said Alexander Maclean at a cost of Twenty eight pounds Sterling ...

The tombstone no longer exists. No picture of it has come to light. One can now only but imagine the design and inscription of the monument. Would it have really been ornate as I might have envisaged? Or did it simply record his name, his birth and death, and perhaps The Maclean crest and the words, “Sliochd Iain Ghairbh”?

I returned to the grave and stood there a long while, deeply affected, reflecting on the arduous discovery of this humble grave and the valiant and mysterious man who had been laid there to rest. As a minister I had many times recited the words, "from dust to dust". Never did those words seem more poignant than that day.

James Robertson (1799-1876) Sheriff Substitute, a Coll family friend was early impressed by the young Alexander Maclean who he fondly called "Alick". When he first met him he recorded in his Journal...

Saw young Coll for the first time and his brother John. The former is a handsome well grown youth of 16 or 17, near 6 feet high, quiet and modest. He is dark, round faced and black eyed. 

That was  the beginning of an abiding friendship that was cut short when the family left Coll in the mid-1840s, impoverished and destitute. The grim story is dramatically documented by Coll historian, Nicholas Maclean Bristol, in his monumental work, From Clan to Regiment. Alexander had emigrated and found himself north of Durban where he bartered beads for ngunis with the Zulu tribes. His father had always intended him to become a merchant but the older Coll would never have envisaged it in the Kingdom of the Zulus.

On his death, an anonymous correspondent wrote...

A paragraph in the Natal Colonist gives intelligence of the death of Alex. Maclean, Esq, of Coll, on 11th July [1875],at the early age of 47.... the subject of this short memoir emigrated to Port Natal in 1849. On two or three occasions he revisited England, and thirteen months ago spent a short time in his native district of the Highlands. Though so long absent and so young when he left, he yet retained the most lively recollections of his old acquaintances and associates, who can never forget the pleasure it seemed to afford him to meet them again, nor the eager grasp of his hand and the sparkle of his eye, lighted up by sincere affection, when they chanced to meet. To those who knew Mr Maclean from boyhood as some of us did, when the slim gentle youth headed our many deer-hunting parties on his father's estates, accompanied by his younger brother — now also no more — and our boating expeditions in quest of wild fowl, &c — to such, certainly, his outward appearance was much changed - a tropical climate had ripened that youth into manhood of the most prepossessing appearance. That splendid figure, manly form, straight as a pine, a man among a thousand struck us with admiration, and still more so when we found the same gentle, mild, unassuming, affectionate disposition that distinguished his youth.

The obituary in the Natal Colonist read...

The deceased gentleman was one of our oldest colonists, and the predecessor of Mr T Reynolds in the proprietorship of Oaklands, Umhlali. He was the eldest member of a very old Highland family, a considerable traveller, having visited South America and British Columbia. He was also one of the earliest visitors to the Diamond Fields, but he invariably returned to Natal after these more or less protracted absences. One of the gentlest yet bravest of men, Mr Maclean was thoroughly esteemed by all who knew him. He was not only a considerable traveller, but was an enthusiastic hunter and sportsman, and his commanding and powerful frame gave no token of so early an end. He was not married, and his only near relative in Natal is Mrs AF Windham, who was near him when he died; The funeral took place on Monday morning in the burial ground of the Church of England, and was attended by many of the friends of the deceased, whose loss will be most sincerely deplored by them. Archdeacon Lloyd read the offices of the church.
-Nicholas Maclean Bristol, From Clan to Regiment, p. 565

Parish Registers, 1850-2004 South Africa, Natal, Durban,
St Paul Burials 1849-1925 Image 87 of 333 No.870

A deep satisfaction came over me. Whether Alexander Maclean was a distant cousin - Sliochd Iain Ghairbh - mattered little to me in that moment. I simply felt an indescribable affinity and connection to this remarkable, enigmatic man. We had a common connection with the land of our forbears. My own broken life was represented now by this lonely, weathered grave. A wave of awe came over me. I left the cemetery both curious and perplexed, wondering, questioning why Providence should have led me to this unpretentious, unmarked grave, mysteriously drawn to it by an inexplicable compulsion?

Scotland our Mither --- this from your sons abroad,
Leavin' tracks on virgin veld that never kent a road,
Trekkin' on wi' weary feet, an' faces turned fae hame,
But lovin' aye the auld wife across the seas the same.
Scotland our Mither --- since first we left your side,
From Quilimane to Cape Town we've wandered far an' wide;
Yet aye from mining camp an ' town, from koppie an' karoo,
Your sons sicht kindly, auld wife, send hame their love to you.

-Charles Murray

Alexander Maclean:
Juliet Maclean:
Lost Clan Documents:

Many contributors assisted me in this search and acknowledge especially Nicholas Maclean-Bristol, John McLean, Ken and Eleanor Garvie, the Staff of local Museums, Archive Depots, Libraries, and Cemeteries. Their generous help was much appreciated.
Journal of James Robertson, Sherriff Substitute at Tobermory 1844
James Irvine Robertson, Introduction to the Journal of James Robertson 1799-1876
JP Maclean, A History of the Clan MacLean.
Rev. A Maclean Sinclair, The Clan Gillean.
Nicholas Maclean-Bristol, From Clan to Regiment.
Nicholas Maclean-Bristol, Warriors and Priests, The History of the Clan Maclean 1300-1570.
McLeans of Coll Home Page,
Celtic Magazine

©Colin G Garvie HomePage:

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