Hugh's Letter

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Hugh's Letter


This file is based on a letter found and transcribed by Margaret Ward in New Zealand (CONTACT INFO) in her father's papers. The letter was from her uncle to her grandfather, much of the notes that follow come from Marg's researches.

Hugh George Brown McDonald was born in 1890 in New Zealand, the eldest child of John McDonald from Reiff, and Isabella McLean of New Zealand, who was a daughter of Murdo McLean of Altandhu and Hughina McLeod of Polbain.

It is likely Hugh was named to honour two brothers of his father, Hugh and George McDonald, who died along with the husband of an aunt, Roderick Ross, and a cousin of that Roderick also named Roderick Ross in 1887, see fourmen.htm. The "Brown" in his name was likely a nod to his uncle Donald Brown McDonald who also emigrated to New Zealand. I think "Brown" began as a nickname, denoting Donald Brown McDonald was from Loch Broom as in Gaelic the spelling and prounounciation is closer to "brown" then "broom". Lochbroom was not named by a property developer; it literally translates as "Loch of the showers"!

Hugh served with the New Zealand forces in World War One, and while on leave in 1918 he visited relatives in Scotland, sending home to his father the following remarkable letter; for genealogy purposes it is a treasure trove naming about 32 of the relatives he visited in Coigach, and making clear some previously unrecorded relationships.

After the war Hugh returned to New Zealand, where he settled down, married, raised two children, and became a school principal, dying in 1956.

Numbers in square brackets in the letter are links I have added to footnotes below, which include some background on the people and places Hugh names, with links to the the census transcription files where the people are named.

This file links from my genealogy introduction file at index.htm, which includes links to files with some history of Coigach, and annotated transcriptions of the 19th century censuses for the area.

Any suggestions for additions or edits please feel free to email me, Donald MacDonald-Ross, at;

The Letter

Lower Arboll [1]
4.6.18 [2]

Dear Dad [3]

You see I am here again now & am just going to write down the names of
those I saw at Coigach again, for fear my other letter is lost:

Auntie Maggie [4], Murdo [5], Rodina & her little son [6];
Murdo Post McLennan [7], John Post McLennan [8], Miss Margaret McLennan,
Murdo Alister McLennan, John Roy McLennan & his mother [9], Lexie Kerr
(the oldest woman in Reiff) [10];
Henny Urquhart (now confined to bed) [11], her daughter, Maggie Mrs
McLeod & family & also her husband, Simon McLeod Achnahaird [12];
Murdo McLeod, (Mum's uncle) of Big Dornie [13].

Polbain - 2 old maids, Georgina & Peggy McLeod, also Neil & Murdo. [14]

At Achnahaird I saw Mrs McLeod, Mum's cousin, sister to Georgina &
Peggy. [15]

At Achvrae [16] I saw Mum's cousin, Jean Bain, sister of Kenneth McLean,
Aberdeen & now Mrs McLeod. Kirsty, her sister, I missed. [17]

At Old Dornie I saw Annabella McLeod, Donald Soldier's daughter -
Mum's cousin. She is a Mrs McLean, a widow for 20yrs. Two daughters,
Margaret & Katie are at home. Mrs McLean used to be in Tanera. [18]

I saw on the road, John McLean Shoemaker & Alex McLean Shoemaker
from Altando. [19] I met Murdo Cupar McLeod's daughter too. [20]

Well I hope you get the other letter but if not this one will at least
tell you whom I've seen.  I had a fine trip through. Murdo came to
Ullapool & was going back in the boat. [21]


  1. Lower Arboll is a collection of farms in Tarbat Parish in Easter Ross. An aunt of Hugh, Christina MacDonald, married Andrew Ross there in 1870, and Hugh was writing the letter from their home (Christina is in the 1861 census with her McDonald family at Reiff 61-23 as a 12 year old, with Hugh's father John then aged 6). Fearn in the postal address is the nearest large town to Lower Arboll, though confusingly it is in a different Parish. Hugh's aunt Christina was a gt-grandmother of Donald MacDonald-Ross, CONTACT INFO. Descendants of Christina still live at Lower Arboll.

  2. "4.6.18" means April 6, 1918, based on how Hugh dated another letter.

  3. "Dad" as mentioned at the top of this file was John McDonald of Reiff, he last appears in the censuses there in 1871 at Reiff 71-73 as a 16 year old. He was born 27 March 1855 at Reiff, and died three years after Hugh wrote his letter, 1921 in New Zealand. John emigrated in 1879 aboard the ship Timaru along with a few relatives from Reiff. He started out life in New Zealand as a shepherd, then as he accumulated some money he began dealing in livestock and eventually leased from the Crown 5,944 acres of high country farmland known as "Dalvey".

    "Auntie Maggie, Murdo, Rodina & her little son" refers to a Ross family at Reiff. The Auntie Maggie mentioned would be Margaret MacDonald, sister of Hugh's father John. She was born in 1851 at Reiff. About 1877 she married to Roderick Ross of Reiff, and had five children, including the Murdo and Rodina mentioned here. Maggie with four of her children (including Murdo and Rodina) was in the 1891 census at Reiff 91-30. Maggie's husband Roderick drowned in 1887 along with two of her brothers (George and Hugh MacDonald), and a cousin of Roderick also named Roderick Ross, see fourmen.htm.

  4. Murdo was born 1881, and married Jane "Jeannie" MacLeod from Reiff (possibly "Murdo Cupar McLeod's daughter" that Hugh mentions near the end of the letter), they were grandparents of the current generation of Reiff Rosses, including the wife of Andrew Muir (CONTACT INFO), and the husband of Frances Ross, secretary of the new Coigach Community Heritage Group, see CCHG.

  5. Rodina was born in 1887, at birth she was named Margaret, but on the death of her father Roderick the same year (see fourmen.htm), she was renamed Rodina, dimunitive of Roderickina. Not certain yet who her little son was.

  6. "Murdo Post McLennan", like his brother John who is next listed by Hugh, had his nickname as he was a postman. He and his brother John were in the 1891 census with their parents and other relatives at Reiff 91-32. Murdo was in the 1901 census with his parents still alive then, at Reiff 01-28, an area of Reiff known as "Blairbuie" or "Laide of Reiff". At that time he was 42 years old and unmarried, though he later married Mary Moir Campbell and had two children, and married a second time, to a Jessie MacLeod.

    The book, Peoples and Settlement in North-West Ross, (SOURCE), includes a photograph on page 336 of the former postman's house in 1972, saying it was then the last inhabited thatched house in Coigach, though since modernised.

    Roderick Dykes MacLeod in Scotland ("Roddy"; CONTACT INFO) and Donald Neil MacLeod in New Zealand (CONTACT INFO) are both descended from a sister of "Murdo Post McLennan" named Annie, the two of them have done lots of research on the McLennan family tree!

  7. "John Post McLennan", like his brother Murdo who is the previous person listed by Hugh, had his nickname as he was a postman. He and his brother Murdo were in the 1891 census with their parents and other relatives at Reiff 91-32. He was in the 1901 census at Reiff 01-27 in an area of Reiff known as "Blairbuie" or "Laide of Reiff". In 1901 he was 44 years old, married to Barbara MacLeod of Achnahaird. I think the next two people listed by Hugh; Miss Margaret McLennan and Murdo Alister McLennan, were children of John and Barbara, whose thirteen children included a Margaret born 1909, and a Murdo born 1916.

    John's wife Barbara was a sister of one of Kate Ferris's grandfathers (CONTACT INFO). Roderick Dykes MacLeod in Scotland ("Roddy"; CONTACT INFO) and Donald Neil MacLeod in New Zealand (CONTACT INFO) are both descended from a sister of "John Post McLennan" named Annie. The three of them have done lots of research on the McLennan and McLeod family trees!

  8. Though clearly related to the other McLennans, I am uncertain exactly who "John Roy McLennan & his mother" were,... the "Roy" as a nickname was likely to differentiate him from "John Post McLennan", Roy was a common form of the Gaelic word Ruadh, meaning red, so at least we can guess at his hair colouring!

  9. Lexie Kerr was Widow of Duncan McLean, she was christened 11 August 1834, and was in the 1891 census at Reiff 91-28 as "Alexanderina". Based on early censuses I think she would have been 86 in 1918 when Hugh met her.

  10. Henny Urquhart was quite elderly in 1918, she was christened in 1833, and died unmarried a few year's after Hugh's visit; 16 November 1922, though she did have a daughter, the next person named, Maggie McLeod. In the 1891 census Henny (as "Henrietta"), was with three of her unmarried siblings at Reiff 91-22.

  11. Maggie's birth was registered in 1865 with surname as Ross, to mother Henny Urquhart, but no father named. She was known in the community as "Maggie Simon", as she married 8 March 1894 to Simon McLeod of Achnahaird. In the 1881 census Maggie was with her mother and other relatives at Reiff 81-14, and Simon was with his family at Achnahaird 81-2. So far I do not have any notes on the children of Maggie and Simon that Hugh mentions seeing.

  12. Murdo was missing in the 1881 census, but his family was then at Dornie 81-2. His sister, Hughina McLeod, was maternal grandmother of the visiting Hugh, so that explain's why Hugh used the expression "Mums uncle". Murdo and Hughina were together as children in the 1841 census at Polbain 41-3, their older sister with them then, Chirsty, is an ancestor of Allana McLean of Toronto (CONTACT INFO).

  13. The mother of Georgina, Peggy, Neil and Murdo was Elizabeth McLeod, who was a sister of Hugh's maternal grandmother Hughina McLeod. Elizabeth with her husband John McLeod and the children Hugh was to meet in 1918 were in the 1881 census at Polbain 81-1.

  14. I think the "Mrs McLeod" Hugh mentions was Catherine "Ketty", she was an unmarried 21 year old servant in 1881 at Achnahaird 81-9, but I cannot see her in the 1891 census.

  15. "Achvraie" is spelled many different ways in records, in the census files I use the form "Achadh' a Bhraigh".

  16. Jean "Jane", Kenneth, and Kirsty were children of Mary McLennan of Reiff and Kenneth McLean of Altandhu (a brother of Murdo McLean, Hugh's maternal grandmother, the two brothers are with their parents and other family members in 1841 at Altandhu 41-12). Jean was in the 1881 census with her husband Alexander MacLeod at Achadh' a Bhraigh 81-4, they raised eight children there.

    Jilly Wilson in Scotland (CONTACT INFO) has done lots of research on the Reiff McLennans and related familys, and has on her website a few paragraphs regarding these people and Jean's husband Alexander that she has transcribed from the reminiscences of Kenneth MacLeod in 1967;

    "Jane couldn't speak a word of English and Sandy had just a scattering. yet their family did very well at school. Kirsty Bain, Jane's sister who lived in Rief used to brag about Jane's children. On one occasion she was bragging to a neighbor (Maggie Ross - Simon MacLeod's wife) that her sister Jane's daughter could write two letters while the kettle was coming to the boil on the fire - to which Maggie replied 'they must have had damn bad hearths'.

    Sandy had a horse and cart and he earned a little money every summer carting the salmon catch from the station at Badentarbat where they had an ice house. The salmon fishing were let to a man named Rae, a southerner without a trace of Gaelic, but he loved to tease Sandy to hear his 'quaint' English. On one occasion, he suggested to Sandy he should keep a pig 'Ah yes, Mr Rae', Sandy replied, 'but you know a pig is a very costing/expensive animal' "

  17. Annabella was born 18 July 1858, daughter of Donald McLeod and Catherine McLeod. Her father Donald was not a soldier himself, but held a nickname carried over from his father Murdoch who was a Chelsea Pensioner, veteran of the Peninsular wars in the early 19th century, interesting the nickname carried on a generation! Allana McLean in Toronto (CONTACT INFO) is a descendant of Donald's sister Christina, and has sent details on Murdoch from his death registration, and from his discharge papers, see Polbain 41-3.

    Another sister of "Donald Soldier McLeod" was Hughina, the grandmother of Hugh who wrote the letter, and a gt-grandmother of Marg Ward in New Zealand (CONTACT INFO).

    Annabella was with her father and other relatives in the 1871 census as a twelve year old Scholar at Dornie 71-33.

    Annabella's husband had been James McLean on Isle Tanera, she was with him and the two daughters named by Hugh, and other relatives in the 1891 census at Tanera 91-3.

  18. The two "Shoemaker McLeans" were 6 and 1 year old sons of John McLean and his second wife Margaret in the 1891 census at Altandhu 91-42 (not yet transcribed). The father John was in the 1881 census as a Widower at Altandhu 81-17.

  19. Likely "Cupar" was a wrongly spelled transcription by Hugh of a nickname "Cooper", based on the occupation of barrel maker. I think Murdo Cooper McLeod would have been the Murdo in the 1891 census at Reiff 91-31, as that Murdo was son of a cooper, and his mother was a McLennan, sister of the mother of the "Bain" McLeans Hugh mentions meeting above. Murdo Cooper McLeod's daughter Jane or "Jeannie" married the Murdo Ross that Hugh met, and as the "Cooper McLeods" were neighbors of the Ross family it is likely Hugh would have met them on his visit.

  20. The Murdo referred to was likely the Murdo Ross mentioned at the top of the letter, returning from Ullapool to Reiff by boat.

An earlier letter written by Hugh has been found and transcribed 2003 by Hugh's niece, Marg Ward. It was written 2 June, 1918;

Dear Dad,

When you got my cable from Achildibui you would know that at last I had reached this part of the country. I'm on 7 days leave before going to the Depot at Aldershot. The position I had teaching English at Hornchurch did not last because I was on leave from France when I went into hospital. Such men are not eligible for jobs over here. As far as field service goes I have had more than most of them who are the work but nevertheless, there are good teachers in France who have been there over 2 years. I did not enlist to be a teacher and now that I am going overseas again, I feel more satisfied with myself.

Well on Thursday night I left Euston Stn, London at 7.20 & by mid Friday, I was in Inverness having come by way of Carlisle and Perth. I just managed to catch the train for Kyle ( a stupid fellow in the station in Inverness told me to go to Kyle & take a boat then to Coigach but I knew there was a car from Garve to Ullapool. Well I reached Ullapool all right the first part of the journey was rather uninteresting. We stopped for a cup of tea at one place - saw a couple of fine stags on the roadside - horns just in the velvet. We put down an old soldier at Lady Fowler's Estate to work there. When we got this distance, there was a change in the scenery for the better. there is a forest on both sides of the road which would be young in your time. I am told that the big house is well up on the hill out of sight. The stables are by the roadside. Near here are some falls which I did not have time to see - Measdch? Falls. Afterwards we the Loch to Ullapool and a very enjoyable trip it was. The car stopped at Ullapool about 6.30 and would not go on till next night.

After I had tea with a man called Murdo MacLeod, I started to flash about that 20 pounds you sent me. I got a car to take me right on to Reiff. I found nice company too in a Miss Mary Stuart who knew where I wanted to go, so on we went in style. The car took me right to the gate and then took her home to Badenscallie. Her father is salmon fishing here. So I landed here in Reiff in a little over 24 hours from London - good going isn't it?

Here I found Auntie looking pretty well - Rhodina and her little boy (she is married to a McLeod & her husband is on coast patrol) Murdo is here too. Rhodina's husband comes from Laide, up the hill here. Well I went along & saw the old house where you were born. I took a photo of Rhodina & her baby standing where the front door was. Murdo MacLennan owns it now. I have seen Murdo Post MacLennan, John Roy MacLennan, John Post MacLennan whose photo I took with a fine salmon in his hand. I have yet to see your old mate Murdo Alister McLennan. He is away to church just now.

Rhodina & I went in to see old Henny Urquhart who is now confined to bed. She was glad to see me but did not say so in English. She stops with her daughter, Maggie, Mrs MacLeod. Her husband is Simon McLeod, Achnahaird. Mrs McLeod made a great fuss of me. I saw Miss Margaret MacLennan too, Murdo Alister's sister. Alister Bain was her father. I think Uncle Alex used to know her well.

Neil McLeod's nephew was here last night. He's a McLean. His mother was Barbara McLeod, Neil's sister, and the father, Murdo McLean Shoemaker.

I was at Red John McLean's place. He is son of Duncan McLean. His mother who is the oldest woman in Reef(!), (Lexie Kerr), stops with him. She is about 88 & still gets about. Well that is about all I know of reef. I saw the spot beyond the point where our 2 uncles were drowned. I was up on top of the Dhun(?) & also took a photo of it.

Auntie is in a house just at the end of a steep rocky gully that runs to the sea in the direction of that rocky point. It is about a quarter mile this side of your old place & is the first house going into Reiff. It is just where the road bends to go round that deep gully.

Yesterday Murdo borrowed Red John McLean's bike(!) & the 2 of us set out to see all our friends between here & Achvrae(!). First of all we went to see Mum's uncle Murdo McLeod at Big Dornie. He was the only one at home. His wife was at church & we missed her. I took a snapshot of his place there. It is very nicely situated on the coast with the beautiful Summer Islands lying in the distance. He was very glad to see me & sends greetings to you all.

Then we went on to Polbain & called on the 2 old maids, Georgina & Peggy McLeod, (cousins of Mother?). They live very comfortably in a nice little house. There I saw a photo of Jack & me taken in Featherston (where they were en-camped before leaving for war). John Neil was their father's name. Peggy was very quiet & did not say a word of English to me but they both kissed me goodbye. Then we went to see their 2 brothers a litle nearer this way - Neil & Murdo. Neil's wife talked the Gaelic all the time too but he spoke English well. Neil has a son a prisoner in Germany.

Then we went on to Achildibui PO where I sent a cable - then thru' Badenscallie to Achvrae(?) to see 2 more of Mum's cousins. Jean Bain, sister of Kenneth McLean, Aberdeen. She's a Mrs Alex McLeod. She was delighted to see me but got very excited & talked Gaelic all the time. She could only pull herself up now & again & say a word or 2 in English. I took their photo in front of the house. Kirsty Bain is an old maid. She was away at the sacrament & we missed her. The sister said that she would be dead(?) at not seeing me.

Then we went to Old Dornie to see Donald Soldier's daughter, Mrs McLean. Her maiden name Annabella McLeod. She used to go to school with you. They have only lately taken Old Dornie. She used to be on the island of Tanera. She has been a widow for 20 years. Her husband's brother stops with her. She has 2 daughters there - Margaret & Katie. I liked Katie very much. She is a fine, big, good-looking Hielan' lassie. On the road we met old John McLean Shoemaker & Alex McLean Shoemaker from Altando. I met Murdo Cupar McLeod's daughter too on the way.

It seemed to me as if everybody in the countryside knew me & knew I was here but they all had the advantage of me because I did not know any of them. I had a fine welcome in every house with a meal given in. We landed home full of oatcakes, cream & all sorts of good things. Everyone was sorry that I could not stop a while with them but I said that I would bring you here for a trip after the war. You will then be able to stand on the hill where you bade farewell to these parts so many years ago.

Evening - Since writing the above I have seen your old friend, Murdo McLennan. He asks very kindly after you all - I've told them all the same story that you were all well & that I am going to show you round here when the war is over (This never happened).

There is not very much change since you left. The people still live as their fathers did before them. Many of the houses you knew have fallen to ruins & others of the same sort have taken their place. The house where John the tailor lived is in ruins too. The biggest house near here is Murdo Post McLennans up the hill here at Blairbuio(Sp?) This evening we took a walk to see your old schoolhouse at Laide (now rebuilt). I took a photo of that part from the roadside in the distance & then from the same spot, took one of the islands. We could see the top of Old Dornie from the road there. I had a good view of Ben More? The scenery here is very fine. The view of the Islands from Achnahaird is magnificent. Auntie & I are the only McDonalds here now.

Yesterday it seemed to me that everyone in the countryside knew me. I became quite accustomed to stopping & shaking hands with all I met. Then 'I knew your father' & 'How is Sandy & Donald?' 'Is your mother keeping well?' Then the Gaelic & I was lost. I can see I'll have to get some wee Hielan' lassie to teach it to me. Today I got a glimpse of the island of Lewis in the distance.

As you know my stay here has been only 2 days. I go in the morning about 4am. You see then I have not had much time to do all that I would like to but I've made the best of what time I had. I hope this letter will interest you all. The welcome I've received here has given me much pleasure & reflects great credit on you. Tomorrow night I expect to be in Tain(?) again. I'll close now with best love to you all from all the good people here.......Your loving son, Hugh.

This file, and others dealing with history and genealogy of Coigach, links from my homepage at:

Any suggestions for additions or edits please feel free to email me,

Donald MacDonald-Ross, at:

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