Posts tagged ‘Moray’

Jun 11, 2017

Mairi and Elsie the Madonnas of Pervyse



At this time one hundred years ago two women were three years into serving on the front lines in Belgium under direct attack.

Shortly after the start of the Great War in August 1914 a young Scottish woman, only 18 year old from Nairn in Northeast Scotland, Mairi Chisholm, and an English nurse, Elsie Knocker, decided they would go to Belgium to help wounded soldiers despite being forbidden by the British authorities.

tatler two english women

Mairi and Elsie became the Madonnas of Pervyse and throughout the war newspapers reported their bravery and endurance while under constant bombardment. At their dugout north of Ypres the two remained there for three and a half years tending the sick and maimed.

Initially the women had set up their medical station in an unoccupied area of Belgium, as part of the Belgian Red Cross, but it became clear that the faster men could get attention the better were their chances of survival and so despite the dangers the two women moved close, very close, to the action. Abandoning their official role with the Belgian Red Cross they raised funds to set up their dressing station directly behind the front lines at Pervyse near Ypres and became attached to the garrison there. Their first cellar hospital was reinforced and a steel door supplied from Harrods. Telephone communication was established between there and every trench and given they were right up among the action it was boasted some men were on the operating table within 20 minutes of being wounded. Apparently fearless the women did not shirk from going into no-man’s land and on one occasion rescued an injured German pilot who lay there.

nurses with medals

Elsie and Mairi

They lived and slept in their clothes – dressing consisted of pulling on their boots and brushing their hair. Frequently exhausted they filled in time between nursing casualties from the front lines making soup and cocoa to feed to them and their comrades in nearby trenches and outposts along with providing food and care for local desperate starving children.

Mrs Knocker known as Gypsy either from her fondness for being out on the road or else her penchant for large earrings spoke very good French and German and was skilled as a mechanic and driver. In a huge Wolsley ambulance they drove right up to the front to pick up the wounded but these monster vehicles were criticised for being too obvious to the enemy as well as guzzlers of fuel. But then waste did not figure much in any of the calculations of those behind the Great War. The woman resented instructions to drive miles around the Belgian countryside in them on minor errands, such as collecting supplies of bandages. 

mairi chisholm and ambulance from paper.jpg

A soldier, Mairi and Elsie alongside their ambulance in 1916

On one occasion they were instructed to drive five German prisoners to a detention centre which they did. More bizarre was when they were told to take out a group of ‘sightseers’ from England around the battle zone. Visitors were not uncommon on the western front and another who called in to see them at work was the Irish Nationalist leader John Redmond MP.

 Once the Germans got to know about Mairi and Elsie and their remarkable work they deliberately targeted them. When they were bombed out of their cellar in Pervyse, only 50 yards from the trenches, the women moved into a tumbledown cottage where they were shelled twice more. The village of Pervyse was bombed and ruined; its church had its spire shot away and lost all its windows. Graves in its cemetery gaped open offering up their dead in a land producing dead on an industrial scale where men’s bodies were piled up on floors and propped against walls – there was no dignity in their sacrifice.

“No one can understand…unless one has seen the rows of dead men laid out. One sees men with their jaws blown off, arms and legs mutilated.” (Mairi Chisholm)

mairi chisholm nursing in field 1917

At 4 a.m. on March 17th 1918 the women’s makeshift hospital came under a gas attack that almost killed them and more or less ended their time at the front. Wakened by the assault the women were badly affected – deafened, blinded and suffocating they struggled to locate gasmasks for themselves and their patients. Mairi’s little fox terrier, Shot, licked her hand frantically as she fell into a state of near collapse and while Mairi survived the dog died from the gas. The other dog, Chink, and their three cats survived by burying themselves in bedclothes so not breathing in any of the gas directly. Forced back to Britain, Chisholm briefly returned to the front but was too ill to remain there long and she and Knocker served out the war as members of the newly formed Women’s Royal Air Force.

Mairi Chisholm was born in 1896 in Nairn and died there in 1981. This indomitable young Scottish woman came from a wealthy background; her family owned a plantation in Trinidad. They moved to the south of England when Mairi was a child and here she was given her first motorcycle, a Douglas, by her father. She enjoyed stripping it down, repairing it and riding it around the lanes of Dorset and through her love of motorcycles she met the much older Knocker, also a biker, and together they went along to motorbike and sidecar trials.


Eighteen-year-old Mairi rode her motorcycle from her home in Dorset to London where she met up with Elsie and together they became dispatch riders in Women’s Emergency Corps. Mairi’s daring riding around the city and hairpin corners on her motorcycle caught the eye of Dr Hector Munro who was setting up a Flying Ambulance Corps to help Belgians under German attack. He invited Mairi to become part of the unit and she encouraged him to extend the invitation to Elsie.  

‘Would you like to go out to Flanders’ and I [Mairi] said ‘Yes, I’d love to’.

The women, invariably described as English although Mairi was a Scot, were recognised for their outstanding contribution and service during the war – for almost its entirety. Press and public clamoured for news about the most photographed women of the conflict and they were officially recognised both by Belgium and Britain – awarded the Order of Leopold, Knights Cross (with palm) for courageous work on front lines, the British Military Medal and made Officers Most Venerable Order of the hospital of St John of Jerusalem. Chisholm got the Order of Queen Elisabeth of Belgium and the 1914 Star.

mairi chisholm flag day 1918

Mairi on flag day 1918

Daring Mairi took up car racing despite suffering poor health as a consequence of being gassed including septicaemia and suffering from a weak heart. She returned to Nairn and became a successful poultry breeder with her childhood friend May Davidson. There was a move to Jersey but Mairi Chisholm went home again to Nairn where she lived out her life alongside Davidson.

For a time both women were big celebrities, their exploits featured in newspapers but few remember them now. They deserve to be remembered as do the 350 nurses who died during that grotesque and unnecessary exercise in death.

Chisholm’s papers are held in the National Library of Scotland. Her diaries are with the Imperial War Museum.

again in beligium.jpg

Oct 4, 2015

Glenlivet – Battle for the Land

The Crown Estate is a diverse portfolio of UK buildings, shoreline, seabed, forestry, agriculture and common land that generates valuable revenue for the government every year

The Crown Estate is run from New Burlington Place, London, along the lines of a money-making enterprise from what is essentially nationalised land. The income from the Crown Estate feeds into the UK treasury. Efforts to have income from the Crown Estate in Scotland be used within Scotland have been rejected by governments in London. The largest of the Crown Estate holdings in Scotland is the Glenlivet Estate. Formerly the Crown Estate was known as Crown land.

The following is an article written by the journalist Peter Chambers in the early 1950s when the Crown land commissioners decided the crofting lands of Glenlivet would be turned into an area for forestry. There was no prior consultation with the people whose families had settled on, broken the back of the land and farmed it for generations. This is their story.

glenlivet farmland

Glenlivet – Battle for the land

One day last summer two strangers appeared in the remote Banffshire valley of Glenlivet. They came down over the hillside carrying a theodolite and a red and white ranging rod. They were quiet and unassuming men. They wore tweed suits.

In a quiet and unassuming manner they began pegging out the land.

Glenlivet folk are used to surveys – they live on a Crown estate. But the little white pegs made them nervous.

“What are they up to?” they murmured among themselves. “That is our grazing land.”

Then the secret came out – the secret that the Crown Commissioners had carefully kept from their Glenlivet tenants. The hill-sides were scheduled for afforestation. All the land beyond the surveyors’ peg was to be put under trees. Not five hundred thousand trees. Not five million trees. But forty million of them – a vast plantation of pine and fir and spruce, blanketing 20,000 acres of hill-grazing from Tomintoul to Ben Rinnes and from Glen Avon to the Ladder Hills.

The farmers in this area get the three-quarters of their income from sheep. For them, afforestation means the end.

In the centre of the area lies Glenlivet, a valley shaped like a Chianti bottle with the cork, the 1500 feet Bochel jammed at the base of the neck. A single narrow road skirts the Bochel and leads into the Braes of Glenlivet. The rolling, gentle country is like a little Shangri-La cradled among the mountains of Upper Banffshire. The valley floor is dotted with grey stone, single-storey farm houses.

Fat black cattle browse languidly in the sun. The oats are only just beginning to turn biscuit coloured (it is 800 feet above sea level). By using fertilisers and Swedish type seed the Braes farmers have advanced the harvesting time by nearly a month. They have not lost a crop to the frost in eight years. Before the war came, and Government subsidies, made fertilisers possible, they lost one crop in every two.

Sitting by the fireside in Charlie Grant’s farmhouse, Upper Clashmore (oil lamps, rural gas-cooker hot and cold running water in the bath) was eighty-one year old Elizabeth Macpherson. She tucked a strand of wispy white hair under her black bonnet and told me the history of the Macphersons of Glenlivet.

Her great-great-grandfather came to the Braes after the Forty-five, when many Catholic Highlanders took refuge in the glen from Cumberland’s vengeful armies. Macpherson cut his farm out of the virgin land at the head of the glen, damming up the burns to make the water spread and rot out the heather.

Wester Scalan the farm was called, and for over one hundred and fifty years Macphersons of four generations worked the land. To-day, the sheep are grazing where the Macphersons raised their corn, and the croft stands roofless a derelict in the foothills of Breac Leathad, like a monument to depopulation.

“I was one of eleven brothers and sisters,” said Elizabeth Macpherson. “Now I am the only Macpherson left on the Braes.”

glenlivet old woman

You pass a parish hall, a shop, a school, a church – and suddenly the road ends. You are in Chapeltown. Father Philips, whose manse is built on the east end of the church, has the cure of 120 souls. That is the entire population of the Braes.

Around the inside walls of the church, decorated green and blue and purple, hang the Stations of the Cross. They are exquisitely painted in the Italian manner. On the altar screen the image of Our Lady has the narrow, pointed face, gracia plena,of an early Sienese Madonna. In the window of the school (sixteen Braes children, fourteen orphans from the towns) there is a statue of Christ. At the west end of the church, where the crofters file in to attend Mass, there is another; and this statue is inscribed, “Come to me all ye who labour…”

The bus calls at Chapeltown once a week to take the young people to the Picture House in Dufftown. The Glen itself offers more social pleasures however. A pink poster advertises a Grand Dance in Glenlivet Public Hall, Friday 28th September. At the Tomintoul cattle-mart everybody was talking about the afforestation scheme.

“I heard this – ‘We’re leaving you some grazin’.’ And I said to him, The grazin’ you’re leavin’ me isna enough to keep six sheep alive. And he went red in the face because he kent it was true.

“I’ll tell you one reason why the estate isna payin’. Twenty years ago there was only the factor and a clerk to manage it. To-day there’s a factor, an under-factor, a clerk o’ works, a clerk and a typist – five o’ them for the same bit o’ ground.”

One hundred and seventy head of cattle were sold a Tomintoul that day. One hundred and fifty of them came from Glenlivet.

Mr Sandy Yule, thirty years a cattle auctioneer in the Northeast, said: “They’re the finest cattle in Scotland – bar none.”

We drove down the neck of the glen to Glenlivet Distillery – the oldest licensed distillery in the North of Scotland. The distillery employs thirty-five men, and at peak working periods produces 8,000 gallons a week of as a fine malt whisky as was poured down a Highlander’s throat.

At Drummin I met Captain J. Gordon Smith, Area Executive Chairman of the N.F.U., who was born at Lettoch on the Braes. Looming above the hen-coops in the backyard of Drummin farm is the thirteenth-century ruin of the Wolf of Badenoch’s castle.

“200,000 sheep, 2000 cattle – that’s what we sold out of the Glenlivet area last year.” Captain Smith told me.

But how many will they sell next year? At Drummin 90 acres of grazing have been pegged off for the forest.

map glenlivet

The Forestry Commission remain a poker-faced reserve on the Glenlivet question.

“The dispute is between the Crown Commissioners and their tenants – our part in the affair is purely technical. An acre of hill-grazing grows 7lbs of mutton a year.

“The same acre under trees will yield a yearly minimum average of forty cubic feet of timber. The choice is between 15/- worth of mutton and £6 worth of soft-wood, which Britain is having to buy abroad at inflated prices. From the economic point of view there is only one answer…”

The Glenlivet farmers will not accept that answer. They do not believe the Forestry Commission’s claim that the forest will employ ten men where one was employed before. They do not want to be foresters. They want to be farmers, because they have been farmers for generations for generations.

And they will fight for that right.


I think we know how that story ended for the crofters.Forestry does very well at Glenlivet. Woodland planting to compensate for the carbon emissions from London’s Regent Street’s Christmas lights was undertaken a few years ago. The Crown Estate’s website explains that the old township of Altnaglander, close to the woodland of the same name, consists of ‘ruins and field systems.’ As well it might.