Thursday, 26 May 2011

Searching for Ptarmigan Pie by Alastair Glegg

In the spring of 1939, as the storm clouds of war were gathering over Europe, a young couple celebrated their engagement by taking a climbing holiday on the Isle of Skye. Donal Lindsay Glegg was 28, and just beginning to make a name for himself as a landscape painter and illustrator. Mabel Glenny, a year older, was a medical doctor working at the Bristol Infirmary. Both were experienced mountaineers and loved the challenges set by the dark jagged peaks of the Cuillins, but in those days finding accommodation could be a problem. They had spent previous Highland holidays in tents and caravans, and there were always places which provided board and lodging for climbers, but they had a dream of finding a little place of their own to use as a base for what they hoped would be many years of visits to Scotland in their future together.

After much searching they came upon a ruined croft across the river from a tiny village. The tumbled-down pile of stones did not look like much, but the chimney was still standing, and the site had wonderful views of Sgurr Dearg and the sea. They paid a formal visit to Dame Flora Macleod in Dunvegan Castle and arranged a 'feu' (or lease) to allow them to restore the croft; this they did themselves, helped by local people, especially with the thatching of the roof with reeds. It was not very big, and it had no plumbing or water or electricity, but when the peat fire was lit it was warm and cosy after a day in the mountains and glens of Skye.

A few months later they had to move their wedding date forward as war was imminent, and other things became more important. Donal was ruled ineligible for active service because of his diabetes, and spent the next five years as a lecturer on camouflage and concealment for the War Office. Mabel spent the war in looking after Alastair and Fiona, born in 1940 and 1942, and bandaging firemen and ARP workers during the Blitz.

After the war was over and a semblance of normality had returned, the young couple, like so many others, tried to pick up the pieces and resume their interrupted lives. Donal held exhibitions of his oil paintings and water colours in London and New York, and illustrated articles and a book with his lively pen-and-ink sketches and cartoons.In 1946 they wrote and published a little book about their search for a croft, which they titled Ptarmigan Pie.Things seemed to be going well. Donal's reputation was growing, commissions were coming in, and their second daughter, Flora, had been born in 1948, but a year later a terrible blow fell. Donal was forced to cut short a painting trip to the Canadian Rockies and return to England the diabetes he had lived with since the age of 12 was taking its toll, and he was going blind. He never painted again.

The adjustment must have been enormous.After a few years in which they tried their hands at farming in they decided to move to what was then Southern Rhodesia to open a hostel for the children of missionaries working in central Africa. They had always been involved in Christian youth work for organizations like the Crusaders and the Children's Special Service Mission, so this was an area in which they felt they could do something really worthwhile. Donal could still see enough to get around, although he could not read or drive and Mabel's medical training would obviously be a help. The only reminders of what might have been were the paintings of Scotland, the Alps, and the Rockies hanging on the walls of their African home. Donal and Mabel remained there until the political climate of Zimbabwe made it advisable to leave, and they joined me (their son Alastair) in VictoriaBritish Columbiawhere they lived until their deaths some fifteen years later.

They never talked much about the days before Donal lost his sight, and we never heard the full story of the croft on Skye. The wonderful paintings were still there, of course, and some old photograph albums. Most of those just contained the typical pictures of family and friends, but one recounted their travels in Scotland, and was clearly the main source of the photographs and drawings published in Ptarmigan Pie. Ten years later my wife Peggy and I were planning a trip to Britain, and arranged to meet up with my sister Fiona who was travelling from Botswana to see her son and his family. We had all visited Skye previously, and wanted to go back, so an idea was born. Would it be possible to find the croft described in our parents' little book written sixty years earlier? Donal had added captions to some of the photographs, and occasionally a compass rose to give the orientation. There was a map of Skye with an arrow, and another photograph with an arrow pointing to a white dot which must have been the croft. From this evidence it could be deduced that their croft was somewhere due west of Sgurr Dearg, set back in a low hillside, near a river with a steep bank, and close to the sea. The hamlet of Glenbrittle was the obvious place, especially as it is known as one of the main bases for climbers of the Cuillins.Of course, the croft might not even be still there, but the site should be identifiable.

We arrived in Skye in October 2006 and found the caravan we had booked six months earlier on a farm near Broadford. The weather forecast was typically pessimistic for the time of year, but we planned to drive to Glenbrittle the next day anyway as our time was short. The morning brought driving rain which got steadily worse as the day went on, but we drove north to Sligachan, then west towards Merkdale where the little road leads steeply down south to Glenbrittle. The weather was really dreadful, and we arrived at our destination in a downpour. We had all agreed that the croft must have been on the west side of the river, above a steep river bank, fairly near the sea, and facing east towards Sgurr Dearg. The mountains were hidden in cloud, mist, and driving rain, but we could make out the ruins of one deserted croft across the estuary, along with three other small houses which were either occupied or holiday homes.  None of them seemed quite right, however.

We decided to go back to the tiny village to see if there was anyone who might help. Carefully avoiding some protective and vociferous Border Collies, we went round to the back of the Glenbrittle Memorial Climbing Hut where there were some signs of life.After shedding our soaking outer clothes and shoes we were allowed inside to talk to the Warden and three Lowland climbers who had wisely decided that it was not a day to be outside. We showed them the photographs and explained our mission, and the hikers were interested, but could not help. The Warden, however, did suggest that we should go and see Mrs. MacRae who had lived in Glenbrittle for many years and might remember something or be able to identify the location of the croft from the photographs. Fiona knocked on her door, and we were greeted by a charming white-haired lady who kindly invited us to come in out of the rain.

Once again we went over the whole long story and spread out the photographs on her kitchen table; she was interested and able to identify the general area, but was not sure about the croft. She did, however, say that the name 'Glegg' was familiar, and went to call her son who lived next door. He came in and a long discussion ensued about which croft it might be: there was one still inhabited called Rowan Cottage, which might be the one, but he also mentioned a ruin to the north of Rowan Cottage. At this point the name 'Glegg' again came up, and he was able to solve the problem of why it seemed so familiar. He went back to his house, and returned with an oil painting,Summer in the Cuillins. Written on the back of the canvas was "To Mrs. MacRae, August 1940, With best wishes, D. Lindsay Glegg". It had been given to Mrs. MacRae's mother-in-law when she and her husband used to provide accommodation for climbers and it had been hanging in their home for sixty-six years. Some of the paint is flaking off a little, but the colours are still vivid, and the composition of the painting with its dark foreground and a broad expanse of sky and clouds over the mountain peaks is typical of Donal's work.

Elated with this totally unexpected discovery, we set out again into the rain to try to identify the croft.Mrs. MacRae had by this time decided that we were harmless, if a little odd, and insisted in lending Fiona her green Wellington boots. We sloshed down the road to a little gate, skidded down a muddy track towards the river, and immediately recognized the site of the croft by its position - above a steep river bank and set well back into the hill. We crossed the river on a swaying suspension foot bridge, and squelched our way up hill for a few hundred yards, following what might have been laughingly called a path.

Cattle tracks, bog, tufts of rank grass, and all the time the same determined, drenching deluge. Fiona and Peggy had pink and black umbrellas, and our progress was watched with disbelief by a gentleman in the window of Rowan Cottage - not really a day for a country stroll. The remains of the croft were another hundred yards north: it was in worse repair than when Donal and Mabel had found it, and the chimney was no longer there. However, the site and the position of the door and windows made it quite clear that this was what we had been looking for. The existing walls were only a few feet high, some stones had obviously been removed, and three rowan trees were growing out of the ruins. It was smaller than it appeared in the pictures, only about ten by twenty feet, and set well back into the hillside which made it appear even smaller. Having taken some photos from the shelter of the umbrellas, we squelched our soggy way back, still watched by the suspicious gentleman in the window of Rowan Cottage.

Back at Mrs. MacRae's we found that she had dug out an old guest book and a climbers' log and there were several relevant entries: April 21-23, 1940 had the signature 'D. Lindsay Glegg', and in May 1940 there was the entry 'Mr. and Mrs. D. Lindsay Glegg'. Furthermore, there was in the climbers' log a poem headed Being a last tribute to a famous pair of trousers appertaining to a certain lady doctor, by H.M.N., dated May 22, 1940. Surely there could not have been two lady doctors climbing in Skye at the same time in the early days of the War, just a few months before the Battle of Britain. Mrs. MacRae displayed true Highland hospitality: she had set her dining room table with tea, coffee, cream scones, oatcakes, and cake, and we spread our wet clothes in front of the fire to dry a little as we gratefully ate the delicious meal and talked about our discoveries and what had led to them. We took some photographs and made a copy of the poem before saying goodbye to our charming hostess.

So that was apparently the wonderfully successful conclusion to our quest. We drove home to our little caravan in high spirits, gaily fording the numerous flooded patches of road as the downpour continued, and celebrated our discoveries with a game of Scrabble and a jug of red wine. We had hoped to return the next day to get some better photographs, but the weather was still too cloudy and that will have to wait for another day. The last words of the book Donal and Mabel wrote about their adventures on Skye are appropriate here:

"Night comes slowly in the Northern lands, but at last the golden path fades from the sea and a grey mist creeps up the glen and makes us shiver.
The time has come to close the door and light the oil lamp and to leave the mountains to the hill foxes and the stars to whom this land belongs".

But that of course is not really the end of the story, just the end of a chapter. The croft had been found, but more questions had arisen, especially about the poem. Was it really about Mabel? Who was the author, 'HMN' - H. Masterman Neave, of Macclesfield, Essex? Mabel was a doctor and a climber, and the poem seemed to describe her exploits, but it also suggested that the Famous Trousers came from Alberta which was puzzling as neither she nor Donal had visited the Rockies before the War. The signatures in the guest book are adjacent, and show that they were there at the same rather unlikely time, May 1940, so they must have known each other. On our return to Canada we searched the Internet for clues, and immediately met with success. From 1966 to 1968 the President of the Alpine Club of Canada was a gentleman called Roger Neave, who was born in Macclesfield in 1906 and moved to Canada in 1928. He died in 1991. There clearly must be a connection, and it seemed likely that 'HMN' was a brother or perhaps a cousin. I contacted the Alpine Club of Canada and learned from a Past President that Roger Neave did indeed have a brother called Hugh, and that he was noted for writing and reciting poetry. This seemed to be the end of the search, but there was to be one more twist to the tale - Hugh Neave had himself married a doctor. At this stage I decided that we had gone far enough: there is no record of a Mrs. Neave on Skye in 1940, and perhaps it is better to leave the story with this question still unanswered than to dig further into the provenance of the Famous Trousers.

The trip was far more successful than we could ever have imagined, and just as importantly, perhaps, we met and talked to many people, all of whom were interested and helpful, and some of whom have become friends. The story has taken on life of its own, as Mrs. MacRae pointed out in a letter we received after we had sent her a copy of the original Ptarmigan Pie:
We enjoyed your visit very much and have spoken a lot about the picture to various family and friends. . . We appreciate it all the more now we have met you and re-discovered the history behind it. . . [the story] will be of interest to all our family as they get older. History is all the more precious the older one gets.

Donal and Mabel would have been pleased with that. And that really is the end of this story - except, of course, that I am sure that some day soon we will again be taking the Road to the Isles.

We are indebted to Alastair Glegg for the use of this article.

© Alastair Glegg. Not to be reproduced in whole or in part without the author's permission. 


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