Suitcase Diaries

What in the name of the wee man is going to be in those two burst suitcases that my Auntie Urse hasn’t let out of her sight for all these last years? Well let me give you a taster.

Now this is all true. Its now half past five in the morning today 3rd January and I am too excited to sleep as I anticipate a phone call to a pal of mine today. The call will be about two battered old suitcases that I found when clearing my late Auntie Ursula’s flat in Morningside. I have no idea what was in them, and now, after the holidays, he, a trained archivist of international standing, will know, and be able to tell me.
Actually that’s not entirely true, I do know what’s in them, it’s the seventy odd yearly daily diaries of my Grandfather Rev Donald Macleod, a parish minister in Inverness and for reasons that she never made clear my Aunt kept them tightly in her sight bye her chair and was always very reluctant to let me poke around in them. So I didn’t.
So daily diaries of a Parish minister ? Doesn’t sound very exciting does it? Well let me tell you about just one of them, and given that my postings are sometimes read by members of the Iona Community its contents may interest them.
The story in that particular daily diary was written in the summer of 1937 and tells of a car journey he made over to the lonely Hebridean island of Iona., where a mini conference was going on. It wasn’t really so much of a conference as a holiday gathering of his relations and cutting edge theologians who were gathering to discuss an idea that they had. Most of the blethering took place in a small cottage ( now owned by the Findhorn community ) overlooking the beach at the north end. There were all sorts of folk there.
Some people called Russell who were paper makers from Fife and whose grandson now manages the Columba hotel, a man called Hugh Douglas whose son in law John Harvey went on to be the leader of the Iona Community and whose grand daughter Ruthie is now bravely following in his foot steps. And yes there was indeed a man called George Macleod there too, being bossy as usual. It was quite a gathering and was evidently joined by other folk such as an Episcopalian Bishop who dropped bye to add his sixpence worth. What did they do? Typical Iona holiday stuff. Long walks, swimming, big meals round a common table, prayers, laughter, drench walks in the rain. But it was mostly talks about a project. The plan was that they were all to gather there the next year to start rebuilding the living quarters of the ruined Cathedral.
They must have been barking mad. There was no electricity or running water on the island, they had next to no money, and the island’s owner, the Duke of Argyll, was agin them all.
Plus it was 1937 the world was on the brink of war and George, the leader, was a pacifist. Imagine you were a politician in London in 1937 and heard that a charismatic pacifist church leader in Scotland was just about to launch a big project just as you were trying to wake up the country to the dangers of Hitler.
It’s no wonder they sent a message to the BBC that those people were not to be allowed to speak on the radio.
So that’s just one of the stories in that collection of diaries that my pal has been looking through over the holiday period. You can see why I cant sleep in anticipation of my phone call to him to see what he has found.
But that crazy project, the business plan from hell, worked.
After the war had ended they did all forgather, and dozens joined them. It must have been a living hell. Typically teams of workers used to take a horse and cart down to the Iona beach and fill the cart with sand. Then they would leave it awhile under a dripping gutter at the Cathedral so that the salt would be be cleared out of the sand, before using it as the basis for their mortar as they started their twenty five years of trachle rebuilding the cathedral.
As far as I know a record of that first conference has never been found. Until now, now in Ursie’s suitcases, the ones she aye kept safe by her chair.

I wonder what other stories they will hold.
We now live in terrifying times. Covid, global warming, economic blight, crazy corrupt leaders. Take heart from that story , seemingly impossible things can be achieved. Just look at the restored Iona Cathedral and think of those dafties talking seeming rubbish in the summer of 1937.
If I find any more good stories in my Grandfathers diaries I’ll tell you. Better go back to bed now. Must get my sleep. There’s work to be done and even the impossible can sometimes be achieved. And if your ancient aunt has a couple of burst suitcases that she aye keeps by her chair, make sure you look after them when she goes.
Happy new year, we’re no deid yet.

Comments (6)

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  1. Squigglypen says:

    Waiting with bated get moving!

    1. maxwell Macleod says:

      Cheek! Ach it will nae doubt all be mostly buried the baker’s wife this morning and the wife’s giving me grief about not putting up that shelf, but such is/was life. I was just amused by the thought of these no hopers delivering something impossible in impossible times.
      If anyone out there is short of a subject for a thesis please get in touch, I have about seventy of these wee note books to get through and who knows theree may be the odd gem in there. better than watching cash in the attic

  2. Mons Meg says:

    Two of my cousins emigrated to Fife in the 1970s and found work initially at the Tullis Russell paper mill. Any connection, do you think, to the paper-making Russells whom your grandfather met at the Iona blethers?

    1. Maxwell macleod says:

      I would urge you to read of the extraordinary lives of both Sir David and his son Dr David Russell who owned and ran those paper mills a business that had a policy of diverting some of their profits to charitable causes.
      The stories generated by that policy will take you beyond local charities to the revolutions in Russia and China, to the saving of fishing boat yards in Fife, the restoration of Iona cathedral,the community ownership of Iona’s Columba hotel and the management run policies of the Mill itself. From Mao to Mull, extraordinary stuff

      1. Mons Meg says:

        Indeed, I’m sure their philanthropy is morally edifying. And by all accounts, Tullis Russell was a decent employer. One of my cousins worked there for several years before he got a job on the buses; the other, however, didn’t take to factory work and came back to the quarrying. But neither had a bad word to say about the company; only that they had to share their workplace with a goodly number of mice, some of which were quite tame and would come and eat from their hands at piece-time. I got the impression that the mice provided Joe with some consolation at having to work indoors all day; though, as I say, he ultimately never took to it.

        Anyway… as Jean-François Lyotard would have said, aren’t all these wee stories (petits récits), to be found in burst suitcases the length and breadth of the land, the very stuff of life?

  3. Fay Kennedy says:

    What a gift. You must be so excited. I was just talking to an Australian man on South Beach Fremantle who did some kind of work on Iona in his youth and who had also spent time in Findhorn. Good things travel far and wide.

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