The Squire

The Oban Times - - News - Iain Thorn­ber iain.thorn­ber@bt­in­ter­

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.

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