Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Set in Stone

I wrote this several years ago, but decided to post it again for friends and family.

What do New Orleans, Rhodesia and this very impressive stone building in Scotland have in common? Some things I never knew and someone I would NEVER have expected!


© Copyright Ann Harrison and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

This gorgeous neo-Gothic building is a school in the Morayshire town of Fochabers; we pass on our way to Aberdeen. I love it because it looks like a place Harry Potter might have gone to school. I decided to look up more about the place and what I found has led me on a most amazing (and very moving) journey through three continents and my childhood memories. I hope you enjoy this remarkable adventure as much as I have.

The school is the Milne Institute; it was built by a man named Alexander Milne who was born in Fochabers in 1742. He worked at Gordon Castle (on the edge of town) until he had a disagreement with the Duke of Gordon. It seems that the Duke wanted Alexander to tidy up his unruly red hair and Alexander, being a thrawn Scot, took such offense to this command that he quit his job... and sailed off to the Americas. Alexander made a fortune brick-making in New Orleans. When he died, he left instructions for lots of good works, including the "Milne Asylums" for orphaned boys and girls to be built in Milneburg, New Orleans... and the "Milne Institute"free school for all the children of his home town of Fochabers.

Link
That might have been the end of this blog post, except in finding the story of Alexander Milne I stumbled onto a name I knew very well... Allan Wilson.

wikimedia.org Shangani memorial panel postcard

To most people that won't mean much, but to any Rhodesian it means a LOT. Allan Wilson's story was one I learnt about in school history, but I never knew he was born right on my "doorstep"  until I found him listed as a "famous Fochaberian" and read that he had been a student at the Milne's Institute school.

The Famous Fochaberians site says this:

Allan Wilson was educated at Milne's Institution, excelling in outdoor pursuits. In 1878 he emigrated to South Africa and joined the Cape Mounted Rifles, later being commissioned as a lieutenant in the Basuto Police. He was appointed Major in command during the Matabele Campaign in which he and many of his soldiers were killed.

He led his small band of soldiers across the Shangani River seeking to capture Lobenguela, the King of the Matabele. The King escaped them. On their retreat, Wilson and his men found the Shangani in flood … after a brave fight, they were all killed. Buried in the Matopo Hills near Cecil Rhodes' grave, Allan Wilson was long regarded as a national hero.


Reading that brought back so many memories, especially of childhood visits to the Shangani memorial, where Allan Wilson and his men now rest, in the absolutely stunning spot high high up on those giant granite Motopos hills that will always be home.

Some friends sent me photos of their own memories of the Wilson Memorial, to share. The first two are lovely family shots, courtesy of Bill Teague. He's the little guy pointing up in the bottom photo. :-)



This colour one if from my friend, Robb. It looks just as I remember it and gives a tiny glimpse of that glorious view that led Rhodes to demand that he be buried here.


And here's the song I can still sing -
the ballad to Allan Wilson and the Shangani Patrol.



I feel near tears writing this, as I did this past Mothering Sunday, when we took a drive out to another memorial site to Allan Wilson that I suspect very few Rhodesians know about. The people of Fochabers placed two standing stones in a memorial garden in 2002, to commemorate all the brave, remarkable people born in their town. So we went there to take a look...


The stone on the left has Alexander Milne's name first (and a William Marshall, which is the same as my grandfather's name! Would be nice to think we could be related.)


...and the stone on the right has Allan Wilson's name at the top.


We took photos, shed a few tears, and stood in awe that we'd come a full circle in such a story; so wonderfully complex, this journey of lives and deaths...

Another stone memorial, another stunning view.

It's a long walk up to that burial site on the Motopos hills. As a child I remember hating the walk in the searing African sun, but once you were up there... oh what a view! I'd turn in a circle and feel like an eagle, flying free.

Did Allan Wilson's spirit fly free and return to his own home on the River Spey?

Eagles fly here too...


3 comments:

kjsutcliffe artist said...

My Dad went to Allan Wilson school.

S'funny - I have dusty memories of Rhodesia/Zim from my childhood. I shelved them when I left and then re-invented myself when I arrived in the uk in my early 20s.
My folks now live here too and they talk of the places you mention and I know that I have been there/visited there/have family there/etc etc but - my memories are dusty. Suddenly, having quietly not worried or thought about it - feel saddened. I suspect that due to the self imposed pressure of not being a 'when-we' I chose to file my childhood away.

Michelle said...

Hi K J :)

I understand. We moved first from Rhodesia to South Africa, where at first I tried to fit in, then became rebellious and fed up and later just became as invisible as possible to avoid any comments on who/what I was. Then went through that all again moving to the UK.

Each time I've moved countries, I've lost bits of myself. It's taken me years to find myself again. Sounds corny, but yeah... I've worn a lot of masks in order to get by. I THINK I've finally reached the stage of chucking the masks, but what lies beneath at this stage? :\ I'm still finding out.

I see you are an artist! I will have to check that out. :)

Thanks for stopping by.

kjsutcliffe artist said...

Hi,thanks for popping over, no we are not connected via facebook and I found your blog late last night and saved it to investigate further this morning only to discover your roots (and routes) are very similar to mine - think all Rhodies did a flight or fight sort of life style once they left!
we also moved to RSA but I only lived there for a couple of years before setting off to the UK - initially on holiday with the idea of returning after about a year. Ended up staying......!