Surprising discovery on a hunt through history
YOU never know what a search into your family history might find.
Ten months ago James Hamilton, erstwhile weel-kent face of the Stornoway to Ullapool CalMac ferry and Tarbert’s Corner House bistro, embarked on a new venture – the West Coast Whisky shop on Harbour Street, as the last stop for whisky lovers before they board the ferry to Islay at Kennacraig.
It was while hunting for secret love children of a family ‘rogue’ who disappeared in Africa a century ago that James happened upon the court papers of an earlier Arran ancestor and ‘ businessman’.
Like James, Daniel Cook also embarked on a career in the whisky trade, but, unlike James, on the wrong side of the law, and he left a 200-year- old mystery leading right up to the door of the Isle of Arran’s new distillery.
James’ voyage of discovery began by trying to please his mother. Catherine Hamilton (nee Stewart) is 88, still on Arran and ‘as sharp as a tack’. Her great-grandfather John Stewart was ‘a bit of a rogue’, to put it mildly.
John, an ‘ errant’ blacksmith at Lamlash smiddy, left his wife Mary and five children, with another baby on the way, to start a new life in South Africa in 1902, sending back no word or money for many years, and possibly fathering relatives for James to track down. ‘I wanted to find out some answers for mum,’ he said, ‘as to where this old b*****d was.’
John’s granddaughter Georgia, less than charitably, continued the story in a document discovered by James: ‘John Stewart decided to emigrate to South Africa, hoping to become rich but leaving his wife and children destitute in Arran. We understand he promised that once he was established, he would send money so that they could all join him.
‘However, this never materialised, leaving another deserted family to struggle on as best they could. As he had been an unfaithful and errant husband in Arran, grandmother doubted that he would change his ways in South Africa.’ True to form, John is listed on the Aberdeen Line steamship from London to Port Natal on May 28, 1902, as a 31-year- old ‘single’ male.
Back on Arran, Georgia continued: ‘The thought of being deserted with small children in a country where [my grandmother] had neither friends or relatives made her think that it would be a much safer option to remain in Arran where she was surrounded by both. However, as no money was ever sent, she never had the opportunity to make a decision to go or stay.
‘My grandmother then had to earn money by working in the fields for the various farmers and when she worked on root crops, the two babies, including my mother, were left wrapped up in blankets in clean potato creels at the end of the drills.’
One son, Jimmy, 11 years old when his father disappeared to South Africa, worked on the baker’s delivery van to earn some money. ‘Each day the baker would give him a slice of iced gingerbread to take home and this he divided in two, giving the two babies half each,’ Georgia wrote. ‘Naturally my mother always thought Jimmy was the kindest person in this world.’
Eventually, after 10 years of nothing, John was guilt-tripped into sending some loot by his sons, who traced him to Vereeniging, a district of Johannesburg, where he was working as a foreman. ‘I was going to put an advert in the local newspaper,’ James said, ‘to ask if anyone had Scottish ancestry. If Georgia had ever got hold of him in South Africa, he would not have had any more kids. She would have sorted him out with a large hammer.’
Then, while rifling through the drawers of family documents, James found papers detailing the trial in Inveraray of another relative, Daniel Cook, an illicit distiller accused of the ‘heinous’ crime of ‘assaulting, beating and violently maltreating’ Brodick customs officer James McGre- gor, on the highway between Lagg and Benecargan, Arran, in March 1807.
McGregor caught Cook driving a horse and cart containing ‘two’ casks, McGregor suspected, of ‘smuggled or contraband aquavitae’. McGregor ‘required him to stop’, but, ‘ instead of doing so, Cook violently seized McGregor by the collar and threatened to knock him down with a bludgeon’.
When McGregor expressed his intention to seize the casks and carry them off, ‘Cook again violently laid hold of MacGregor, and after attempting to throw him upon the ground, struck his right leg so violently with one of his feet, as to break or fracture the leg about three inches below the knee. McGregor was forced to abandon his seizure, and Cook instantly drove off with his horse and cart.’
As a warning for eternity, the crown advocate argued Cook ‘ought to be punished to deter others from committing like crimes in all time coming’. Twelve witnesses were cited to give evidence against him, at a cost of £41 and four shillings, worth approximately £1,400 today.
Cook, however, gave the ‘it wiznae me’ defence, declaring he was at his brother’s house three- quarters of a mile away, with his cart laid up in a loft. Painting a wholesome picture, he added that he and Daniel Murphy, another farmer at Benecargan, had ‘ploughed together on the said day and wrought as long as they could see, with the day light, to turn a furrow’.
Eventually Cook was exonerated, because ‘the exciseman had no- one to corroborate his story’. James reported: ‘I think he was just unlucky. There were illicit stills right through Arran and Kintyre.’ But Cook left us a tantalising mystery: that there were not two casks of whisky, but three, secreted in haste after the incident.
‘My mum always tells me they buried three casks in the peat, but they only recovered two, so it was said there is a hidden cask, maturing,’ James recounted. ‘This took place on the south end of Arran, where they are building the new distillery. It’s right at the entrance.’
The distillery at Lagg is due to open in 2018.
They buried three casks in the peat but they only recovered two” James Hamilton
James Hamilton is convinced there is a missing cask of whisky ‘maturing’ underground on Arran.