Thursday, 22 March 2012

Set in Stone

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.La st time we were in Fochabers I thought, "I must look up more about that school" ... 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.

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

Eagles fly here too...


  1. I'm smiling here... Isn't history so amazing when it falls so close to home?

  2. Wow, how fascinating that it all tied together like that and brought back so many memories from your childhood. How amazing!

  3. Oh WOWWWWW...that's really something!!! I'm speechless. Your grandpa was composer, astronomer, clockmaker? My goodness! One talented person, just like you. :-D

    LOVE reading this post and about coming full circle. :-)

  4. Hi as an old boy of Alan Wilson Salisbury Rhodesia I really apprecaited this and so did a lot of my school chums on face book.
    Paul Carpenter

  5. Daisy
    It was such a fun adventure tracking all this down and I had no idea it would get this complex when I started looking into that school's history!

    No, just the same name, not the same man. That William Marshal was born 100 years before my grandfather. Funny thing - grandpa did play the piano beautifully so many they were related? I'd love to think so! ;-)

    Hi Paul
    So glad you and your friends enjoyed reading this story about Alan Wilson's birthplace. :-)

  6. Ooops...sorry I misunderstood. Your grandpa played the piano? WOW! I've always loved to learn to play the piano, but never did he he...I know what you mean about you'd love to think they were related. :-D

  7. Hello Michelle, I am also an Allan Wilson Old Boy 1960-64. I am interested in the reference to Bill Teague. Was he a pilot in South Africa?

    John Attwell

  8. Lovely Michelle, bitter and sweet....
    Love the last photo, wish I could walk right into it.....♥

  9. John

    I had a reply about Bill, but it seems to not be here! I'll see if I can find the details for you.

    It's such a gorgeous view and the river is stunning from start to sea. Love it. :-)

  10. John
    Here's the email I had from a friend's friend...

    "Bill Teague (in his 80's) was in the SAAF and Air Canada. But don't know his exact dates of service.

    He is a very experienced and well-known aviator in Vancouver/Victoria area of British Columbia. A fund of knowledge. One of the old-school...

    Also a great supporter of Rhodesia. He knew many of the old CAA/Air Rhodesia pilots, including Captains John Heap and Ken Hansen."

  11. Wonderful story of coming full circle - thoroughly enjoyed reading this Michelle. Life can work in wonderful ways - we never know what we may find down a road.

  12. Definitely a fine account of a lovely chance encounter with connections from both of your "home lands". Nothing breathes life into history like a personal connection. Thank for sharing this great story and for referring me to it from the similar account we discussed.


  13. And now, here you are, in Scotland, writing about the men, their work, their connection to each other, and to your life [in a round-about way].

    It shows how connected we all are, though many try to deny it.

  14. I missed replies here!

    Well said. We certainly are all connected, in so many ways. ;-)

    Where are you, old friend? I miss your blog and emails!

    Ahhh... I remember discussing this, but I am sorry I never noticed your reply here till today. Hopefully you'll get the notification that I didf finally reply.

  15. Interestingly, three years after Allan Wilson met his fate, Miss Mary M. Thompson, "the lady engaged to Allan Wilson", married James "Jimsolo" Dawson in 1896 at Balnacoal, near Fochabers, Morayshire, Scotland. (That was James Dawson the trader, and confidant of Lobengula.)



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