Sur­pris­ing dis­cov­ery on a hunt through his­tory

The Oban Times - - News - SANDY NEIL sneil@oban­

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.

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