Islay: call to place

MV Finlaggan at Kennacraig

Back in May, we took the ferry from Kennacraig in Kintyre to Port Askaig on beautiful Islay (pronounced Eye-la) where we spent a wonderful week tramping all over the island. We last visited on our epic Hebridean tour of 1989, parts of which we replicated last summer, so we were well overdue a visit, especially as we had only been there for a couple of days the first time and felt we hadn’t done it justice. Since then, of course, a certain amount of Islay whisky had been consumed and it was not impossible that a distillery – or two, or more – would appear on our itinerary.

John and Janet Sinclair, John and Meg

In addition to the scenery and whisky, another attraction of Islay was the pull of family lore. One of my great-grandfathers, my mother’s maternal grandfather John Joss Sinclair, was born there in 1866. John was destined to be a Church Minister, as decided by his father. However, he declared that he had no intention of going around the countryside with his collar on back to front, and at 16 years old he ran away from the island to mainland Scotland.

Over the next few years John was employed in farms around the West of Scotland and became a noted ploughman. Eventually, he arrived at Kilmacolm to work on The Green Farm where he fell in love with the farmer’s daughter, Janet Carson. John and Janet’s first child, and only son, John, was born in 1886, sometime before their marriage. By 1901 seven daughters had been added to the family, so Janet’s life must have been a hard slog.

John Sinclair ploughing, 1908

John and Janet worked on farms in Coatbridge, Cumbernauld and Amochrie, and John was eventually in charge of a Clydesdale stallion. In his fifties, he gave up farm work and returned to Kilmacolm. They moved into the Bridgend Toll House, which came with his new job in charge of the road-menders. The Toll figures largely in Mum’s many happy memories of her childhood. Here she is in the late 1920s as a baby and toddler, “Wee Chrissie”, with her grandparents. For reference, Janet must be about the same age as I am now. How times have changed!

John never went back to see his parents, only returning to Islay in later life with one of his grandchildren (not my mum) to see his sister Katie MacAffer. He and Janet are both buried in Kilmacolm – compare the gravestone below as it was after my great-grandmother died in 1949, and as it is today. (Thanks to my cousin, Tracy Rice, for the current photo.)

When we visited Islay in 1989 I either didn’t know about this family history or wasn’t especially interested, I can’t remember. However, in the last few years I’ve worked with Mum to blog about her memories – you can read her post John and Janet for a fuller version of what I’ve written here – and now I’m much more aware. I’m not about to start researching our family tree (far too much like hard work) but I love collecting the stories Mum is passing down and decided on our recent visit to Islay to look out for any references to Sinclairs or MacAffers.

So we went to Islay looking for whisky, walking and family history. The next few posts will tell you how we got on. This post, I’m linking to Cathy at ~wander.essence~ who has a monthly Call to Place strand in which she invites you to write about what enticed you to choose a recently visited or future destination. Head over there for her fabulous traveller’s tales!

The call to place: Hampshire

Anabel and Becky, Winchester 2018

Last week, I left you with a bit of a riddle. I said I would soon be off for a short break to the south coast of England with John who was visiting a university in a city where I lived briefly as a young woman. I also told you that it was near the home of a blogging friend whom I was going to meet, and invited you to guess where and who. By the time my scheduled post was published, that meeting had already taken place. The university was Southampton and the blogger was Becky who lives in nearby Winchester, when she’s not in the Algarve, and writes at The life of B and It caught my eye in Portugal.

Becky and I had been discussing a meetup for some months, envisaging that we would both travel to somewhere in-between our homes, but John’s trip was too good an opportunity to miss. He’s a regular, if infrequent, visitor to Southampton and I’ve wanted to accompany him for years, long before I knew Becky. Somehow, it never worked out, but this visit was on a Monday allowing us to make a weekend of it. Why was I so keen?

Let me take you back 40 years to 1978. I was finishing my undergraduate degree in Sheffield and hoping to study Librarianship at postgraduate level. To do this, you had to have a year’s experience working in a library. At that time, many councils and universities had Graduate Trainee posts which allowed you to experience all aspects of library work. I applied for several and accepted the first one I was offered – Hampshire County Council. I thus spent four months each working in Southampton, Winchester and Farnborough. Apart from one short visit a couple of years later, I’ve never been back until now. What would be different? What had stayed the same?

I have very few photographs of that time. Forgive the quality of this one, scanned from an old slide, which shows me standing outside Southampton Central Library in the autumn of 1978. My very first library job. Could I replicate this picture?

Anabel in Southampton, 1978

We had a wonderful weekend searching for the answers to these questions. On Saturday, we met Becky in Winchester. I can report that she is an excellent tour guide, and I’m very grateful to her for taking a few hours out of her busy schedule to show us around. On Sunday, John and I took a walk through Southampton’s Old Town and on Monday, while John was working, I did some more exploring myself and hunted down some old haunts. Full posts on Southampton and Winchester will appear in due course*.

As for my year in Hampshire, it passed very quickly and in October 1979 I returned to Sheffield to study for my MA. While there, I met John as I’ve already described in a previous post. He had another year to go on his PhD in Sheffield, but I was going back to Hampshire. Part of the traineeship arrangement was that I (and 5 other trainees) would work for the council for at least two years after university. The library would save up librarian vacancies during our year out and slot us in when we returned. However, in May 1979 a Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher had been elected and all the talk was of cuts, cuts, cuts. Much like now.

In the early summer of 1980, Hampshire wrote to say they had no librarian vacancies but would appoint returning trainees to library assistant posts and we would all have to compete for anything better that came up. This was a blow. When I told John, he said “You could write and tell them you’re getting married and don’t want to come back.” What! This was the first time the M word had been mentioned between us, so I took it as a proposal and, well, here we still are.

I didn’t actually say that to Hampshire, but I suggested that, as they were obviously having difficulty finding jobs for us all, it was in everyone’s interests if I applied elsewhere. Luckily, I got a job in Nottinghamshire – much nearer Sheffield! But I did wonder as I toured Winchester last week what our lives would have been like if I had gone back.

Many of you will know Cathy who has created several blogs over the years but is now settling down as ~wander.essence~. She’s revamping her approach to travel writing and is encouraging us to do so too. One of her challenges is Call to PlaceI invite you to write a 700-900 word (or less) post on your own blog about what enticed you to choose a recently visited or a future particular destination. I’m linking this post to that invitation – Cathy’s own most recent call to place is to the Four Corners area of the USA. Follow the link to find out more.

*See: