Sunday, 16 October 2011

More ramblings on Bute - and why this man kerfed children

In the early part of the Nineteenth century, before the railways and steamers turned it into a holiday resort, Rothesay was a centre for the herring fishery and associated commerce. The Firth of Clyde generally was home to countless little herring skiffs, with almost every port having its family of boat-builders and numerous variations in design, but all sharing the basic features of speed, light build, deeply sloping keels and lugsail rig. They were nimble to handle the nets and fast, partly to get the catch home but mainly to run for safety in sudden changes of weather. On fairs and days of rest these boats turned out rigged for racing and in due course the first small racing yachts would copy the skiffs pretty closely.

In those early days before the fishing industry became mechanised and destroyed the stocks the Clyde contained herring in their millions and a major industry evolved, curing these and sending them to the Baltic states in fast schooners designed for the purpose. One such vessel was the Inverune, built for Donald Macewen originally of Otter, near Inverary, around the end of the Eighteenth Century, when he moved to the isle of Bute. On Donald's death the Inverune passed to his son John, by this time already her master, and his herring business passed to his younger son Colin.

John continued to trade with the Inverune for many years, carrying salt herring to Scandinavia and returning with timber for the ship building industry and occasionally making shorter trips within Scotland with general cargoes. He built up a considerable fortune, while his wife produced children at a prodigious rate, ending with a round dozen. Disaster struck on a date which I have been so far unable to discover, but probably around 1840, when the Inverune was driven ashore on the West coast of Ireland in a winter gale and broke her back.

Captain John's career now took a curious new turn. In 1843 the Great Disruption happened in Scotland, when an enormous number of members and preachers in the Church of Scotland left to form a new organisation, the Free Church. Some of the issues were doctrinal, which Scots keep falling out about (an old professor once told me that the reason the Scots love to argue is because it's free). Others were political and related to the Church of Scotland having sided with the landowners in the clearances and enforced emigrations.

Curiously, because of his background, a major supporter of the new church was the Eton-educated John Campbell, the second marquess of Breadalbane and a freemason and massive landowner. It's difficult after all this time to understand why such a fellow would be attracted to a disputatious and frugal bunch like the Free Church. Campbell commissioned a very fine yacht to carry missionaries from the new church to the islands and the wooden schooner Breadalbane was duly built by J Barnhill of Cartsdyke, West Greenock and launched in 1844. At just over fifty feet over the deck 13.4 feet in beam and twentynine tons she was apparently a fine sight.

John Campbell
It's said to be very bad luck to go to sea with a preacher and Captain John Macewen now had to contend with up to six of the creatures. One can imagine them, like black crows, pacing the deck engaged deep in discussion on textual minutiae or huddled in prayer in the vessel's commodious main cabin. For the next few years Macewen took these strange evangelicals to remote places where the people were often still at least partially pagan. I've read that there were difficulties finding volunteers for the more extreme places, like St Kilda. Indeed that island ended up with one of the most extreme members of the new cult, who could hardly have been welcomed by a population struggling constantly to stay alive, scaling the cliffs to capture gannets and so on, without having to feed an additional and entirely unproductive mouth.

While this was going on Mrs Macewen back home in Rothesay gave birth to her twelfth and final child on the day after Midsummer 1848. He was to become Sir William Macewen, one of the most successful and inspirational surgeons of all time. During his childhood in Rothesay he was to spend time playing around the Fyfes' Red Shed and eventually learning some wood-working skills from them. Almost certainly what he learned from the Fyfes, not just in terms of manual skills, but also in confidence and self-reliance had a profound effect on his subsequent work.

By the age of twentynine the future Sir William was a full surgeon at the Royal Infirmary in Glasgow and at fortyfour he was Regius Professor at Glasgow University. Among his achievements he pioneered neuro-surgery by removing for the first time a brain tumour. The twentyfive year old patient was surprised to find himself alive after the procedure.

Initially a champion of anti-septic sprays Sir William converted early on to aseptic surgery, boiling his instruments and banishing those with wooden handles. He recognised the status and importance of nurses and was an enthusiast for women being educated and having their own careers. He made a detailed study of the growth of bone.

Throughout his career Sir William continued to moonlight as a police casualty surgeon and worked among some of the poorest of Glasgow's rapidly growing population. The children of recent immigrants from the Highlands and Ireland were often malnourished and suffered from the terrible deforming bone disease of rickets. Sir William recalled the Fyfes' practice of bending wood by the process known as kerfing, making a series of saw cuts across the plank and bending it. He adapted this by reversing it to enable the children's legs to be opened up, kerfed and straightened. Securely held in straight splints the young bones soon recovered.

Sir William's last major achievement was as a founder of Erskine Hospital, set up in 1916 to cope with the huge numbers of mutilated and limbless soldiers returning from the war. Again he recalled his early days in Rothesay, encouraging carpenters and pattern-makers from the shipyards to transfer into the manufacture of wooden artificial limbs.

Sir William declined to take holidays, but built himself a fine country retreat at Garrochty in the South-west corner of Bute, with a private pier for his boat. He continued to operate until shortly before his death in March 1924, just short of his seventysixth birthday.



  1. Thank you for posting this - Captain John McEwan was my great-great-grandfather.

  2. I'm impressed, I've the greatest respect for him and his family. I'd love to know if you have any information to fill in gaps in my story. You can email me privately on this site.

  3. Thank you for this most interesting information. My McCaw ancestors once owned South Garrochty and I was there just last week, visiting St Blane's church remains, overlooking that beautiful site.


The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water