Till a’ the seas gang dry…G.E.S. 1942 – 2017.

In February of this year my father-in-law died. He was unique – a hard worker from a working-class family, he bucked expectations and made it into grammar school.  He was an avid reader and poetry lover, not to mention a real romantic. He also became a savvy businessman, an innovator and inventor who made a successful career in the nascent electronics industry at the beginning of the 1970s and subsequently lived all over the world. By the end of his life he had lived more years away from Scotland than in it. But he never lost his love of the country or the area where he was born. He once told me, when I dared to say that my favourite part of Scotland was the Highlands, “Well you’ve clearly never seen the Solway Firth.”

Rockcliff Solway Firth July 2017

(A view from Rockcliffe over the Solway Firth, with typical Scottish summer weather).

In death as in life, my father-in-law continues to travel. His ashes were brought back from Hong Kong, where he had lived for at least the past 35 years, to the US. Cultural differences meant that his Cantonese wife did not want to keep the ashes. They were couriered to San Francisco until his sons could decide how or where to best memorialize him. For a man who lived in the US, Bermuda, Scotland, England and traveled to many other destinations, it wasn’t going to be easy.

With an impending trip to Scotland, I decided that we should take some of the ashes with us and scatter them near his birthplace. Airlines have strict policies around the transportation of cremains, and I realized I wasn’t going to be able to adhere to any of them in the short period of time before we flew. Policies include having the ashes in an approved container, being able to show the appropriate paperwork and placing the ashes in your carry-on luggage. As I didn’t have all of the paperwork (somehow the death certificate had not accompanied the ashes on their travels) I decided to try and circumvent the restrictions as respectfully as I could. I ended up on my knees in the garage, transferring spoonfuls of ashes from the travel container into a ziplock bag. I placed the ziplock bag in a screw-top plastic tub and put it in my hold luggage.

My luggage, my family and the container flew across the US and spent several nights in upstate New York before catching a separate flight to Scotland. Neither the US carrier nor the budget European airline that took us from NY to Scotland were any the wiser that I had flouted their rules.

Several sleeps and one long car drive later and we were standing on the shores of the Solway Firth conducting an impromptu ceremony to scatter a share of my father-in-law’s ashes in the land of his forefathers.

This area of Scotland was meaningful to his family for many reasons. Not only was it where he was born, but most of his family lived no more than a hundred miles from Castle Douglas, where he grew up. So far I have traced as far back as maternal 5th great-grandparents to this area. His love of Robert Burns’ poetry was likely fanned by its proximity to two Burns residences  – the Burns house in Dumfries and Ellisland Farm . Connections to Burns oozed from every possible corner. The country house hotel we were staying at, an elegant house built in 1752, had featured Robert Burns as a guest of the original owner. (Suffice to say that Burns may not have been invited back after writing a somewhat insulting poem about the owner’s wife). The location that we had eventually chosen to scatter the ashes proved serendipitous too. Picking a spot to scatter ashes is not easy when there have been no advance instructions given by the deceased.  We had aborted the event at a  previous site the day before due to disgusting weather – heavy rain and wind that would most likely have thrown cremains back at us as soon as we relinquished our grasp on them. The village of Rockcliffe had been recommended to us as a more sheltered, rocky bay right on the Solway Firth.  As I had looked at the map I had seen place names that meant something to me, the chief researcher of family history. Colvend, Barcloy Mill – I had to go back to the Stevenson family tree to confirm what I thought – that Rockcliffe beach was a stone’s throw from some of the places where one of the family lines had lived.

His maternal grandmother, Mary Jane McKay, was born at Colvend in 1887, as were many of her siblings before and after. The graveyard near Colvend had a headstone (below) with several family names on it, including his great-great grandfather John McKay, who died nearby in 1902.

John McKay headston Colvend cemetery

It’s likely that my father-in-law would have had a lot to say about the notion of scattering ashes, the choice of location and what was the best thing to do. But the fact is that he chose not to leave any directions for his death, and so those closest to him had to find a way to do something meaningful. My husband wanted one of us to recite a Burn’s poem but we couldn’t settle on one. Eventually we went for “My love is like a red, red, rose”, which I sang, competing with the blustery wind as the ashes were sprinkled into the clear water. A simple love song for the big man with the big heart.

Oh my love is like a red, red rose,

That’s newly sprung in June

Oh my love is like a melody

That’s sweetly played in tune

As fair art thou, my bonnie lad,

So deep in love am I,

And I will love thee still my dear,

Till a’ the seas gang dry.


Wintering the bees in Osnaburgh.

Skeps, boles and the Dairsie Manse.

I knew that the house we were going to stay in had not always been a dwelling. Situated just outside the village of Dairsie in Fife, it was a renovated out-building behind the original manse. (A manse was the house provided for the local minister and his family). It was a solid stone-built edifice crouching next to a rippling field of ripening, bearded barley.  The landscape has probably changed little since the 1800s.

The village of Dairsie  is shown on several maps as “Dairsie or Osnaburgh” and the navigation in the car we hired also gave us the choice of going to one or the other even –  though they are essentially the same place. I was born and brought up in Fife but could not recall why this tiny village – no more than a small grocery store, a pub and a few original stone houses – had a mysterious extra name.

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Ordnance Survey map showing the dual names “Dairsie or Osnaburgh”. The Manse is marked towards the bottom left.

I did some “light” research on the origins of the name “Osnaburgh”. A similarly named town in Lower Saxony, Germany, called Osnabruck had given its name to a course linen fabric woven there. Internet stories centered around the suggestion that the first inhabitants of Osnaburgh/Dairsie were German immigrants who manufactured the same cloth. In the 1850s the name was noted in the Ordnance Survey book of place names with the following explanation:

“This village is also called Osnaburgh, from the circumstances that the first house in the village being occupied by a weaver who was working for some Cupar manufacturers a type of cloth called Osnaburgh cloth. The Rev. Mr Scott says that for the one letter directed to Osnaburgh there are fifty directed Dairsiemuir. He emphatically states that Dairsiemuir is the proper name. “*

The Rev Scott along with the schoolteacher and the local postmaster all concurred.  It’s likely that “Dairsiemuir” was a “planned” village, with houses built specifically to house hand-loom weavers so this explanation fits well with the history of the location.

The Rev. Mr Scott who gave this affidavit was the parish minister living in the Dairsie Manse in the 1850s. Unlike many of his parishioners, who had to cram a large family and a loom into two rooms, the Rev Scott lived palatially just outside the village. The Ordnance Survey book also describes the Manse:

“A neat and well-constructed house two stories high with suitable offices, vegetable garden and 6 acres Glebe land.”**

In 1861 the Reverend Scott was 59 years old, according to that year’s census. His wife was considerably younger and they had a one-year-old child – suggesting either that the Rev. had married late in life or that perhaps this was his second marriage.

The Manse was reached up an elegant driveway bridging a small stream. There was a very large walled garden to the left as we entered, and our house, the “Bee House”, was a short distance behind.

The current owners of the Manse had chosen this name based on the building’s former use as a place for “wintering” bees. Behind the wood-burning stove in what was now an elegant living space, there was a series of small square cubbies called “boles”. A “bole” in Scots is an alcove in a wall. Each bole was big enough to hold a wicker “skep” – a domed basket used in bee-keeping to encourage a hive. The skeps containing bees would be brought inside in winter to ensure the colony’s survival.


A wicker skep in a bole.

Bees had to go outside to keep the hive alive, so in one corner of the original building there was a hole in the considerably thick wall. This was the bee escape route. The current owners kept the feature during the renovation.


The bee “escape” route  set high in the wall.

Having never heard of bee boles or skeps before, I did some more “light” research and discovered that there is a whole organisation devoted to the preservation of boles. They have documented many of these in the bee bole registry! The boles in this house were included along with a photograph of how they looked pre-renovation.  You can view it here.Dairsie kitchen window barley

The unspoilt view from the kitchen window of the Bee House to the field of barley and beyond.


*Note that the name “Dairsiemuir” seems to have fallen into obscurity too. “Muir” is a common Scottish word tagged on to many place names, meaning “moorland”. It is also a common surname.

**Glebe land was a parcel of land that came with the manse used to support the minister of the parish, possible through farming use.