I’M OFTEN asked why there are so few characters compared with 20 or 30 years ago.
How would you define a character? According to my dictionary, you would recognise one for his or her eccentricity and personality. That may have been so generally, but in the Highlands and Islands it means a great deal more.
A character is someone who has a genuine pride in their community, is unafraid to stand up and speak out, ask questions and goes quietly about doing acts of public service without looking for recognition or financial reward.
Add wit, a few good stories, humour, a natural intelligence and a cheerful outlook on life, and you have it.
Where the characters have gone is not so easily answered.
Local and national government must accept some of the blame in their unrelenting drive to dumb down the public; television, social networking and the diminution of local knowledge are other contributory factors.
Many wonderful characters have lived on the island of Mull. One of the most popular was Mrs Maude Mary Cheape (1853-1919) affectionately known as ‘the Squire’ after she inherited the Bentley Estate in Worcestershire from her father – the previous squire.
Her name became well known as a pony breeder, much-loved landowner and friend to many. The name is still in evidence on Mull and continues to be held in high esteem.
The Cheapes arrived sometime in the 1860s and leased Ardura on the shores of Loch Spelve before going on to buy Carsaig, Inniemore and Tiroran from the Macleans of Pennycross. They gained a reputation, not by the authority of wealth, but by the way they engaged with the local community.
All of their employees and families were known to the Cheapes personally and were made to feel that he or she was a special friend – something almost unheard of among migratory Victorian landowners. The Mull folk truly worshipped the Squire, which was hardly surprising considering the following: when the Cheapes bought Carsaig, one of the many possessions they inherited was a 165-ton steamer called the SS Inniemore capable of carrying general cargo and 30 passengers.
The Squire really kept her going for the benefit of the islanders and for the convenience of those living in places where MacBrayne’s ships often didn’t call.
In order to offset the running costs, the Inniemore was placed in the hands of an agent and sailed from Glasgow every Wednesday at 1pm for Colonsay, Oban, Lochbuie, Carsaig, Iona, Bunessan, Lochscridain, Ulva and Torloisk, returning on Mondays.
Finally, after a costly law suit arising from an incident at Bunessan Pier, when several hundred sheep were drowned, the Inniemore was sold in 1896 to a French shipping company and was lost at sea in 1903.
With the idea of assisting the local crofters and others who could not afford to keep a pony, the Squire brought 27 donkeys and three foals by train to Oban in 1900 where crowds gathered to see them embark for Mull. When they landed at Salen, the sensation was even greater as many of the islanders had never seen such beasts before.
Clipped and groomed with ornamental harnesses and tinkling bells, those that were kept by the family were a novel sight pulling two-wheeled trotting- carts from Inniemore to Tiroran, a distance of 14 miles.
They picked up a living in the winter where a pony would starve, eating the tops of the coarsest herbage and not feeding as close as horses and sheep.
A very fine five-year- old donkey, described as quiet and fast in harness and to ride, was presented as one of the prizes by the Squire and her daughter at the Salen regatta that year.
Two adults and a foal were gifted to the Isle of Iona, where the hotel proprietor and the postmaster made good use of them to convey visitors between the abbey and the jetty during the summer.
To the magnificent fold of Highland cattle and her famous Highland pony stud started in 1891 with ponies from Athol, Barra and the Uists, the Squire added a herd of lightweight Dexter Kerry cattle.
Kerry cattle are native to Ireland. They were developed as a milking breed suited to small subsistence farms of southern and western Ireland.
Because of their size they cause less damage to soils in high rainfall areas than larger breeds. What a pity more farmers on the west coast wouldn’t stock them instead of the baby elephants which pass for cattle these days. It is they who are to blame for souring the soil and destroying many historical hill paths and walks wherever they are fed during the winter.
The Squire’s daughter, Maudie Ellis, wrote a fascinating illustrated book about her mother and life on Mull, called The Squire of Bentley - Memory’s Milestones in the Life of a Great Sportswoman, which was published in 1926.
It is now very rare but worth trying to find a copy. Further information about the Squire and the Cheape family can be found in the excellent Pennyghael in the Past Historical Archive not far from Tiroran House.
Squire Bentley and the SS Inniemore approaching Carsaig from a painting dated 1893.