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Hillhead Cottage

Hillhead Cottage today


A romantic interlude in these early memories was the arrival of the steam threshing machine on the hill where stood the neighboring farm, clearly visible from the windows upstairs. Thereafter we boys built a mill in the kitchen from tables, chairs, and odds and ends. One sat in a compartment tearing up newspapers, the other gathering them us as they were tossed outside, putting them in paper bags and stacking them to one side, all in faithful imitation of the process on the hill. It was a good game and there were plenty of old newspapers to feed the machine.

Another memory is of the winter of 1894-95, the most severe in the then living memory. The snow kept falling until it reached what must have been a depth of over 36 inches, for we could not see over it on the path which was cleared from the rear door to the road. The road itself was kept plowed and here, on the only available firm ground we poured water which quickly froze making a most wonderful slide. So wonderful in fact that the butcher's horse slipped on one of his rounds, overturning the van and throwing the butcher to the ground with broken ribs. He took it in good nature, laying no blame, but for we children it was an event; for we had acquired the distinction of being responsible for the broken ribs.

February 1895
For some time now, we children had been carefully excluded from the study, where Johnnie lay, grievously ill, and slowly wasting away. There is no recollection of ever being admitted until the last. We were left completely to the care of Betsy, who adored us too much to be a curb of any consequence on our exuberance in the absence of any suspicion of what might be impending.


One day, late in February 1895, we two boys were summoned to the study. We saw our father for the first time in many months, visibly altered, propped up with pillows, his countenance emaciated and lined, eyes dim and protuberant. We were taken forward to the edge of the bed, wide-eyed, knowing at once that this was no ordinary occasion. Placing his hands on our shoulders in turn, he looked at us fixedly and said in a hoarse and barely audible whisper, “You will look after Mother"
We both solemnly promised, with no inkling at the time of the reason why.
Next day we three older children were sent off  to our Uncle Tom Gray the Baker and Aunt Jeanie in Carluke. Meanwhile George and Grace arrived from Stonehouse quickly followed by William. George took over many of the household tasks, feeding the poultry,  chopping odds and ends for firewood and was a great help in many small unobtrusive ways, for which Maggie, in later years, said she was eternally grateful.
Thus, the ever faithful Maggie was watching and waiting by the bedside in the night, with only the flickering flames from the open fire playing on walls and ceiling, when her one and only Johnnie passed away peacefully in the early hours of March 2nd, 1895. As a last gesture she reverently clipped a lock from his hair, which survives today, mute evidence of ·that tragic moment. She remained there, alone with her  dead, until morning light appeared.


So, this was the end, the long years of suffering, uncertainty and ever present foreboding had come to a close. The immediate presence, if not the influence, of our much loved and revered father, had ceased to be.
Our father had maintained a vast correspondence during his retirement, with fellow students, with former teachers, with former members of his Bible Class and others in Rothesay, and acquaintances from boyhood days. This was one way in which he could still feel part of the active world, -though himself forever banished and a mere spectator. Thus, it came about that all of these correspondents were immediately notified and many responded, converging on Carluke from near and far, to pay their last respects.
Memory recalls Uncle Tom entering the room one morning with the terse announcement, “]ohn’s deid". Aunt ]eanie immediately burst into tears. We children, having been carefully insulated from any knowledge of the imminence of death, always hovering over the household, had no idea of what this implied. It was explained to us gently.
So we were prepared, as we assembled to watch from the window a few days later, for a long procession approaching from the lower end of the street, first the black hearse drawn by two plumed horses, then two  closed carriages, followed by a great male concourse, black frocked and high hatted, filling the street from curb to curb. The picture remains vivid in memory.
We were still at the window, disturbed and wondering what all this meant for us, some time later, when the carriages returned.

 Extracted by Kind Permission from The Grays of Stonehouse by John Gray III .

For further information and details of the artist Alexander Lightbody (1855-1905) please visit this website 
JenniferWilsonArt

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Read more stories from the Places section
Mauldslie Castle 1914 (video) (the next story in sucession)
A History of Education
Castlehill Colliery
Climpy Wind Farm (video)
Early New Zealand Settlers
Law Hospital


Created before 2012