THE FERGUSONS - THE POSTMASTER'S FAMILY PORTRAIT

click on the photos to see enlarged view

ARRIVAL ON ST. KILDA

It is said that Finlay, the first Ferguson on St. Kilda, came from the island of Berneray, Harris, and was the mate of the boat bringing settlers there (after the terrible small-pox outbreak in 1727-28, D.A.Q.), who fell in love with one of the settler girls and decided to stay on in St. Kilda with her. It sounds a romantic folk-tale but since a relationship is still claimed by some of the Harris Fergusons, who originated from Berneray, there seems no reason in this case to doubt the romance! This Finlay would be the father of John and so the progenitor of all the Fergusons on the island. (Lawson, 1981).

When Dr. John MacDonald visited St Kilda in 1922 he recorded in his Journal for Monday May 23rd, referring back to the Sunday, "After the sermon I baptised a child, the only one in the place needing that ordinance at present, two having died since the Missionary left the island. The child's father, John Ferguson by name, is the only person in the place who can read, at least to any purpose. Found him therefore much better acquainted with the principles of Christianity than his neighbours." (MacDonald, 1825).

In his List of the Inhabitants taken on 23rd September 1822 MacDonald records only one family of Fergusons, John Ferguson aged 50 with his wife Mary and children Donald aged 18, Neil 15, Finlay 8, Hector 5, Christian, Betsy 1 and Malcolm 1. Donald, who was married on the island of Pabbay, Harris, and when that island was cleared for sheep in 1846, was removed to the island of Scalpay, Harris, where he has numerous descendants; Neil, the Ground Officer and great-grandfather of Neil the postmaster at the time of evacuation; Hector and Malcolm went to Australia in 1852; and Finlay, who on the death of his wife and only child, followed his brothers to Australia at the age of 70." (Lawson, 1981).

On the ill-fated voyage to Australia, Hector and his wife survived, as did Malcolm, but his daughter Mary died of measles in December 1852 and his wife Catharine of Scarletina in February 53. Another Ferguson was also on the journey, Kirsty who had married Finlay MacQueen. They arrived safely with their sons Malcolm (the subject of the MacQueen chapter in this book) and John; their daughter Rachel, aged 19 died of measles on the way.

FAMILY BACKGROUND

Donald and son Alexander

Referring back to Finlay, the first Ferguson to arrive on St Kilda, he married a MacDonald and his son John, born in 1772, married Mary MacQueen who was born around 1770. It was through their second son Neil (1807-93) who in 1832 married Catharine MacCrinnon (= MacCrimmon) (1813-99) that the Ferguson line was continued on St Kilda. Their first son Donald (1833-1918) in 1861 married Rachel Gillies, the daughter of John Gillies and Flora, nee Gillies. They had a large family who were a great influence in the later years on St Kilda - Ann, who became known as the Queen of St Kilda and married John Gillies; Alexander became the prosperous cloth merchant in Glasgow; Neil the Postmaster and Donald who became a Minister in the Free Church.

Neil and Catharine also had a daughter Mary born in 1840 who married Ewen MacKinnon in 1861 but he died in the following year in a fall from the rocks. In 1867 she married Norman Gillies. From this second marriage two children died in infancy before Ann was born in 1872 - she married Calum MacDonald. Two more children died, then Mary was born in 1878 and later went to Glasgow, and Ewen, born in 1891 married Ann MacLeod in 1915, but he died in the following year in a fall from the cliffs at the beginning of the Fulmar Harvest (together with John MacDonald), they had a daughter, Mary Ann, born in 1915. Neil and Catharine had another daughter Margaret born in 1843 who remained unmarried and a son John in 1850 who married Rachel Gillies in 1870.

A REMARKABLE FAMILY

Reverting back to Donald (1833-1918), he had been the Ground Officer before handing this over to his son, Neil. He became the senior elder of the Kirk and a respected and powerful preacher. Often he would go over to Harris to preach, getting a passage on a trawler or visiting steamer. They greatly appreciated his ministry and on one visit hid his boots when he about to return because they didn't want him to go. His influence reached further afield when he went to preach in the Highland Church in Glasgow. He and his wife Rachel produced a remarkable family which was able to make its mark in many spheres, not least on St Kilda. (1865-1951)

ANN QUEEN OF ST KILDA

Anne became known as the Queen of St Kilda and there was great excitement when the preparation for her marriage to John Gillies was announced and planned. Schoolmaster Ross was on St Kilda in the summer of 1889 and wrote about the event "Ian Ban is engaged to Ann Ferguson - the Queen of St Kilda. The only marriageable man is to marry the Queen of St Kilda and who can blame him. They would have been married before we left but unfortunately minister did not get a sufficiently comprehensive license to meet the requirements of such a place as St Kilda and so we had to forego the honour of "getting the Queen's wedding". They are going to Glasgow next summer for that very purpose. It must be a sight worth seeing as neither party had ever left St Kilda before and the younger man is rather a bashful and excitable fellow, although he has had the experience of passing through the marriage ceremony once already." (Ross, 1889).

In fact the marriage took place on St Kilda on 24th June 1890, the ceremony being conducted by the visiting Minister, the Rev Angus Stewart of Whiting Bay, Arran. In the month before the marriage an artist, R Jobling was on St Kilda and amongst many splendid sketches he drew a quick sketch of the bride and the groom, the latter he described as Red Gillies on account of the colour of his beard.

Ann and John Gillies also produced a remarkable family of five sons - Donald, John, Neil, Donald John and Donald Hugh (Ewen).

ALEXANDER (1872-1960) GLASGOW TWEED MERCHANT

St Kilda to Glasgow

Alexander was the first son of Donald and Rachel and he was born in Struth House, Harris. Rachel had not been well prior to this event and had sought proper medical attention there. They soon returned to St Kilda after the birth of their baby. Alex left the island in 1892 to make a living in Glasgow where he became a prosperous tweed merchant. Alex (known in the family as A G) married Catherine Sinclair. Her father came from Bendaloch. He was a cabinet maker and joiner and he had a business of his own in the south side of Glasgow. They were married around 1900. Their son Donald was born in 1901 or 02 - he became a doctor and moved to Walsall. He was married but had no children. Susan was born in 1903 and was followed by Alistair, who remained unmarried, and then by Neil who married and had one daughter. Donald and Alistair died in their fifties. Neil was about 71 when he died.

Alexander disposed of the tweeds which the St Kildans made during the long winter nights and also of the woollen garments which the women were constantly knitting. As late as 1928 the St Kildans produced for export well over one thousand yards of tweed, virtually their only article of commerce (MaGregor, 1969).

NEIL (1876-1944) POSTMASTER AND GROUND-OFFICER

Neil with his wife Ann MacQueen

Neil, born on 16th June 1876, was the second son of Donald and Rachel; he was to become the Postmaster and Ground-officer.

Postmaster

A sub-post office was established in the Factor's house on the island in 1890 and was administered by the Free Church Minister, the Rev Angus Fiddes, at a salary of £5 a year with some bonuses. He acted in this position until he left in 1905 when Neil Ferguson took on the appointment which he held until the evacuation

Neil's task as sub-postmaster entailed stamping and bagging up any letters and parcels and getting them away by a visiting trawler or reliable vessel - no easy task in the winter and often months went by without any mail coming in or leaving the island.

When the missionary was ill or away from home, Neil superintended the village school and preached the sermon on the Sabbath. Furthermore, as ground-officer in the interests of MacLeod of Dunvegan, he saw to the grazings and all matters relating to tenant and proprietor. And then he found a market in Glasgow for the islander's tweeds, made time to attend to his own flock of sheep, and was the "Speaker" in the ancient St Kilda Parliament (MacGregor, 1969).

The Evacuation

To cover the Evacuation the Times sent Alasdair Alpin MacGregor as their correspondent. He stayed with Neil Ferguson on the island.

Neil told him much about life on his native isle and how altered climatic conditions had harassed the St Kildans to an increasing extent during their final years. The winters had not changed much; the autumns, on the other hand, had been growing steadily worse. Because of wind and rain and the lack of the sun, corn had not ripened for some years.

After The Evacuation

All Neil's family came over to Kincardine on Forth and they were all working for the Forestry. Neil had three children. Young Neil married Mary Ann MacQueen (this was the last marriage on St Kilda). Donald John was working on the lighthouses, he was posted to Arran. He collapsed there and died in his sixties. John, Neil's third son, was married in Glasgow, and died aged 64 years. John had two sons - Neil, now of Maidens, and Iain who died in Glasgow aged one month.

DONALD (1880-1967) MINISTER OF THE FREE CHURCH

Donald, born on the 7th April 1880, was the youngest of the family. He left St Kilda soon after his brother Alex, in about 1896, to serve his apprenticeship with Yarrow Co., the shipbuilders on the Clyde where he qualified as a ship's carpenter and worked as a shipwright. During his time at Yarrow's, with the help of others, he founded the Highland Mission in Partick, Glasgow, where he had a congregation of five hundred. It is now under the auspices of the Free Church.

From 1920-24 he trained for the ministry at Edinburgh University and the Free Church College. He served as a minister at Minard, Ayr, Scalpay (Harris), Fort Augustus and finally Kilbrandon on the Isle of Seil, near Oban. He was married on 26 July 1907 to Mary Ann McKinnon who came originally from Grimsay, North Uist. The had six children, John, who died aged 4 years, Morag who married Alexander Fleming, Donald married Mary McAulay, Rachel married John Morrison, Dolly and Mary were unmarried. Morag's son, Alisdair, has led several St Kilda Work Parties.

Patricia Page 1/1/97

EPILOGUE

If you should find yourself at the Lochmaddy Hotel in North Uist, you may see in the Visitor's Book three significant entries -

These three Fergusons (Neil, Donald and Alex) are the kindred of Neil Ferguson. In July 1953, nine years after Neil's death, they arranged to meet at Lochmaddy in order to sail from there to St Kilda aboard a lobster fishing boat owned locally. They took with them a stone to mark the grave of their kinsman. Immediately after erecting it they set off on their long return journey. A violent gale sprung up, however, and engine trouble added to their peril. They hoisted as much sail as appeared safe in the circumstances, but the gale ripped it and bore it away. By some miracle they reached West Loch Tarbet, Harris, long overdue and worn out


From St Kilda Portraits by David A Quine - ISBN 0 9508135 3 2." This book portrays the life of the people of St Kilda - those who were present at the Evacuation - their life, traumas and subsequent problems - others who had emigrated to Australia or left in the 1920's. It is about the painters, school teachers, missionaries and scientists telling their own story and giving their own portraits. It is complementary to David Quine's first book - St Kilda Revisited.

corrections have been made by me. Neil Ferguson, November 2008 (deceased 1/29/2015)

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