Walter Aitchison 1866-1917 His Life - by Paul Aitchison Wigmore
This tells the story of my grandfather, Walter Aitchison, who was born in Huntly in the north east of Scotland in 1866 and died in Flanders in 1917.
He married Blanche Macdonald Johnstone of Aberdeen in 1901 and they had one child, a daughter, Aileen Mary Paxton Aitchison. Aileen was my mother.
The story has drawn on the usual information from birth, marriage, death and census records. Additionally, valuable personal information has come from my mother’s memoirs. These were sent to my brother, Ian, in handwritten form over a period of time and, together with family photographs annotated by her, have allowed a personal flavour to the history. Additional information sources are shown as footnotes.
Walter’s parents were Margaret Paxton and Walter Aitchison. So, in telling this story we have two Walters! This could cause confusion. So, throughout I have referred to Walter’s father as Walter (snr). The simplified family tree (next page) shows Walter’s close family relationships only. The full tree would not add to the story.
Thanks are due to the many librarians and archivists in Scotland who have helped so willingly in this search. Additionally, my thanks are due to Mr. David Arbuthnott, Scottish Horse Regimental Archives in Dunkeld and the staff at the Huntly Express office for allowing me to examine their records. Without their help there would have been even larger gaps in this history! I would also like to acknowledge the information on Walter’s brother and sister, which was reported on the web site of a distant American cousin and the help from Mr. R.L.Hudson of the National Railway Historical Society, Philadelphia on how Walter made his train journey from New York to Texas in 1893.
Last but not least, thanks are due to my brother, Ian, for transcribing our mother’s memoirs and giving me a copy and to my wife, Ann, for proof reading, providing suggestions and accompanying me on my many family search travels over the years.
Walter Aitchison in the Sitting Room at Coniecleugh
Huntly, once known as Strathbogie, is a market town 41 miles North West of Aberdeen on the confluence of the Deveron and Bogie rivers. In 1841 the population of the town was growing to a new plan instigated by the Duke of Gordon. Stage coaches ran to Aberdeen and carters transported goods out and fresh goods back.
Huntly Lodge, 1 mile North of the town, was the official residence of Elizabeth, widow of the 5th and last Duke of Gordon. It was originally built using stone from the ruins of Huntly Castle, was enlarged and reconstructed in later years and further enlarged by Duchess Elizabeth in 1837. This photograph shows Huntly Lodge, now an hotel, in 2004. A broad avenue sweeps up to the Lodge from the town. The top floor was where some of the servants lived, others were in separate quarters.
It was in about 1835, that Walter Aitchison (snr) left Langholm in Dumfriesshire. The story goes that he left with a friend and journeyed North East, but why? As the crow flies, the distance is more than 160 miles! Perhaps Walter (snr)’s decision to seek employment with the Gordons arose from a previous connection with another branch of the Gordon family with lands in both Dumfriesshire and Banffshire? Then, passing through Huntly at about the time when the Duchess was enlarging her gardens, Walter (snr) stopped and gained employment.
Walter (snr) was employed as a manservant and gardener, living in the servants’ quarters of Huntly Lodge, the top floor as seen in the photograph. Walter (snr), from a farming family, was a good gardener and, in service with the Duchess, he won silver medals from the Aberdeenshire Horticultural Society Shows in the years from 1837 to 1846, initially for fruit and vegetables and later for flowers. Some of these medals are with the family.
Duchess was a religious lady and introduced morning and evening worship for herself, her guests and servants. Although Episcopalian, she occasionally attended the Parish Church. On the Sabbath, work inside and outside the house ceased. Walter (snr) came from a devout Presbyterian family. His brother James, who was a medical doctor in Wallsend, near Newcastle upon Tyne, was a very committed member of the Presbyterian churches in both Wallsend and Willington Quay. No doubt, Walter (snr) settled into the religious arrangements with no problem.
With a history of loyal service, Walter (snr)’s responsibilities extended to providing cover when the
Steward was away. This card is an example:
Also living in Huntly Lodge was Margaret Paxton. Margaret was a lady’s maid to the Duchess. She was also a niece to the Duchess’s Steward, Samuel Ford. Her parents, William and Betty Paxton, came from Aberlemno in Forfar, William being a retired farmer.
In 1858 Walter (snr) and Margaret decided to marry; Walter (snr) was then 46 years old and Margaret was 34. They continued to live at Huntly Lodge, where all three children were born. Their two elder children were born while the Duchess was still living there, Samuel Ford Aitchison born in May 1860 and Janet Elizabeth Aitchison born in November 1863. By this time, Walter (snr) was designated a senior gardener with a ‘servant’.
Alas, the Duchess fell ill on 24th January 1864 and passed away at Huntly Lodge on the 31st. Walter (snr) already had some responsibilities for the Home Farm, Coniecleugh, but remained in residence at Huntly Lodge. Their third child, named Walter after his father, was born there on 4th January 1866. However, when it was let to a tenant (it is presently an hotel), the family moved to Coniecleugh farm with Walter (snr) as the tenant.
Coniecleugh farm covered 400 acres, of which 200 was arable. Walter (snr) employed 6 labourers and 3 female domestic servants, a significant improvement from his beginnings as a gardener, no doubt helped by an inheritance received by his wife, Margaret, from her parents.
Walter (snr) farmed here until his death of heart disease on 6th October 1877, aged 66 years, and was buried in Dunbennan churchyard. His elder son, Samuel, was not interested in farming and moved to Aberdeen, where he worked initially as an engine fitter. So, Margaret took over tenancy of the farm with her nephew, John Armstrong, as overseer. Her younger son, Walter (the subject of this biography) was still at school in Huntly at the time.
Walter aged about 10 years of age
GROWING to MANHOOD
Walter grew up with his older brother and sister, Samuel and Janet. When the family moved to the farm of Coniecleugh and he reached school age, he would typically walk to Huntly across the fields (as his daughter did later) to the Huntly Gordon Schools. Walter is remembered as a lad who was popular with his fellows. After school hours, and when games were finished, he was often accompanied home through Huntly Lodge policies to Coniecleugh by his town companions, a round trip of about 4 miles [Undated Huntly Express obituary in family files, probably Thursday 19th July 1917].
Huntly Gordon Schools
Walter was eleven years old when his father died.
By April 1881, we know that Walter (age 15yrs) was the only child still at home. Samuel was working in Aberdeen as an engine fitter. Walter’s sister, Janet, (age 18yrs) was living in Huntly as companion to aunt May Ford and waiting for her boyfriend, Patrick Walker Thomson, to return from the USA. (Patrick had emigrated from Aberdeenshire when he was just 20 years old, accompanying a Scottish sheep farmer named Lytle).
Walter was still at school. However, it is likely he left school when he reached 16 and started to learn farming with his cousin John Armstrong.
Meanwhile, Patrick had set up on his own in Texas and returned to Scotland to marry Janet. [Los Olmos Ranch by Mary Walker Thomson 1951 on US Family web site (no longer supported)].
The wedding service took place at Coniecleugh on 16th June 1885. The service was conducted by the Rev. A. B. Dickie, United Presbyterian Church, Huntly, assisted by Patrick’s cousin, the Rev. W. Lumsden Walker, Episcopal Church, Thurso.
Patrick then returned with Janet to his ranch in Texas. There, with the help of friends, they built a big stone house, “Olmos Ranch”, so named for the elms that grew along the banks of their creek. Squabbles over the fencing in of private land and the almost constant fighting in Mexico kept the whole border unsettled but the railroad came through and the sheep did well. Patrick Thomson had a flock of over 70,000 sheep with an average yearly clip of 200,000 pounds weight.
While Patrick and Janet were expanding their sheep ranching in Texas, Walter continued to gain experience with the business of running the family farm. He had now grown into a broad shouldered man of 5ft 10ins height with sandy coloured hair and a moustache. John Armstrong had retired and Walter had the help of only two farm labourers. He was not a gentleman farmer.
His busy life was enlivened when, in 1891, his sister Janet made a home trip to Coniecleugh with her three children. His mother had the help of a cook and a housemaid, both of whom carried other duties around the house and farm. This photograph, taken during their visit, shows Janet at the back, standing alongside Walter, her brother. Janet’s daughter Mary (age 3yrs) is in her arms. Seated left is Janet’s older brother, Samuel, centre is Janet’s mother, Margaret, with her grandson Kenneth (age 6 months) on her lap. John Armstrong is seated right with Janet’s elder son, Walter (age 5yrs), standing in front of him wearing a Scots bonnet and kilt with sporran.
After this visit, the family returned home to the farm in Texas. Alas, on 27th October 1892, Janet died giving birth to twins (Patrick and Janet) at their home. Her two new born children died two weeks later.
Understandably, this was a severe shock to the family and Janet’s death was recorded in the Huntly Express of 29th October 1892. She was only 28yrs old.
Concern within the family centred round the wellbeing of the three very young children, Walter (6yrs), Mary (4yrs) & Kenneth (1½ yrs), on a sheep farm in Texas with no mother. How could they help?
It was decided, probably by Walter’s mother, Margaret Paxton, that a visit must be made to Texas to see what could be done to help the family. So, in June 1893, a friend of Margaret, Eliza Ragge, sailed for the USA on the SS City of Rome from Greenock and stayed as a nanny until Patrick was able to let her return home.
Walter and his mother had to make arrangements for the management of the farm at Coniecleugh while they were away. When this was done, they took the train from Huntly to Aberdeen and to Glasgow.
There, they boarded the SS Furnessia, which took 10 days for the trip to New York via Moville, Londonderry and arriving on 19th September 1893. [Shipping detail from www.ellisisland.org]
From there they will have probably stopped overnight before taking a train to Texas. The journey would not have been straightforward! A possible route was the “Southwestern Express” from Jersey City (ferry transfer across the Hudson) to St.Louis. Then an overnight stay before travelling on to San Antonio. The journey would have taken at least 4 days. Their journey is outlined on the map below and illustrates the magnitude of their undertaking!
Considering that Margaret was 65 yrs of age, the whole journey to a foreign land was a considerable challenge. Sensibly they travelled in 1st class cabins to New York. The rail journey would also be in the best class with good quality hotels for overnight stops. We do not know how long they stayed, but it was probably about 3 months.
On their return, Walter persevered with his farming and gardening interests and the breeding of Shetland ponies.
On 27th November 1897, Walter’s mother, Margaret Paxton, died aged 75 yrs and was buried alongside her husband, Walter (snr), in Dunbennan churchyard.
After this, Walter was in full charge at Coniecleugh.
Independence, Marriage and Family
The farm was mixed with several hundred sheep cared for by a shepherd, a herd of dairy cows providing milk to Huntly Creameries, and Clydesdale work horses.
Walter installed a housekeeper, who brought with her a young daughter aged 6yrs. The shepherd, foreman, 1st horseman and the cattle man were all in tied cottages; two single men lived in a bothy and were fed by the wife of the foreman. There was also a herd of Shetland ponies, for Walter was building up a reputation for quality breeding.
In 1898 Walter was now 31yrs of age and single, probably thinking he ought to find himself a wife! Walter met Blanche Macdonald Johnstone, in Huntly at the Roman Catholic Ball. This was quite an important event and Blanche’s aunt Christina was a leading light. Blanche used to come to Huntly from Aberdeen with her younger brothers (Blanche was the eldest in a family of 12 and the only girl) and stayed with a family on B&B terms.
Clearly, Walter and Blanche were attracted and Blanche had an excuse to visit Huntly because her grandfather used to farm on the other side of the river. For one of the visits it is recorded that Blanche went for a cycle ride with her friend Bella Robertson. Arriving at Huntly cemetery, they hid their bicycles behind the hedge and went off with their “lads” for an afternoon! Walter had Blanche in his gig and Bella went off with his friend, eventually returning to the cemetery, collecting their bikes and returning home as if nothing had happened out of the ordinary!’
Blanche Macdonald Johnstone
Blanche in her early 20s
Blanche lived in Aberdeen with her parents, Charles and Mary Johnstone, and those of her brothers who remained at home. They were a very strong Roman Catholic family with their own pew in the Catholic cathedral of St. Mary’s in Aberdeen. Charles and Mary had thirteen children with Blanche, the eldest, born on 27th May 1872. There were twelve younger brothers but one died in infancy. As you might expect she was mother to her youngest brothers and greatly loved by them. Looking through the family records the name ‘Blanche’ continues to appear among their children in later life.
Charles, Blanche’s father, was the second son of the Johnstone family at Nether Auchmull farm. He left home to start as a travelling salesman to the tea trade before setting up as a wholesale merchant. He was a wealthy man and owned a house in Whitehall Terrace, Aberdeen. When Blanche was sixteen, he was able to send her to a school in Paris. On her return she took over the little mother role until her marriage in 1901.
Walter chose his Newcastle cousin, Dr. James Aitchison, as his Best Man. (The Newcastle upon Tyne cousins, committed Presbyterians, were often visitors to Walter at Coniecleugh, sometimes with their sisters). Just before the wedding Walter had a bilious attack and it was thought he might not manage to turn out! Fortunately, his Best Man was able to provide medical support and all went well.
The wedding took place on 26th June 1901. The wedding photograph, in the garden of the Johnstone house in Aberdeen, shows Walter and Blanche, his cousin, Dr. James and the bride’s retinue. Also in the picture, as a page boy, is Roy Johnstone, son of Blanche’s eldest brother. Roy reported to me that ‘Walter was a lovely man’.
Portrait of Walter & Blanche
Walter gave gifts to Blanche and the bridesmaids for the wedding day. Blanche received a pearl necklace, the bridesmaids received true-lover knot brooches set with diamonds and pearls. The service was fully choral and Mendelssohn’s Wedding March was played as the couple left the cathedral. For going away on honeymoon, Blanche wore a white serge costume with a collar of pale blue and gold appliqué work and a white hat. [The Aberdeen Catholic Herald of 28th June 1901]
Their honeymoon location was a secret and remains so to this day!
The Family Man
The next year (1902), Patrick, the widowed husband of Walter’s sister Janet, revisited Scotland and stayed with Walter and Blanche at Coniecleugh. Patrick needed monetary assistance with his farm plans because, shortly after the visit by Walter and his mother in 1893, the US tariff on wool imports had been reduced and the bottom fell out of the home market. We do not know whether Walter or his mother gave or lent money to Patrick but it is entirely possible.
At church with Walter, Patrick saw and was smitten by the organist, Mary Ann Jamieson. In May 1903 Mary, a music teacher, accompanied Patrick to the USA and they married in New York on May 11th before travelling on to Eagle Pass, Texas. Patrick now had a wife and a mother for his children. [ibid Los Olmos Ranch]
Shortly before Patrick and Mary Ann departed for the USA, Blanche gave birth to my mother, christened Aileen Mary Paxton Aitchison. (Aileen was the name used throughout her life; Mary was the name of Blanche’s mother, Paxton was the maiden name of Walter’s mother). Aileen was born at Coniecleugh on 5th April 1903 at 8 o’clock in the evening. Walter caused a laugh by putting his watch to the baby’s ear as soon as he saw her. The proud father registered her birth at Cairney on April 9th. However, there was alarm when Aileen went down with pneumonia only 3 months later. Nursing care was provided by a sequence of nurses and Aileen recovered but the family had had a shock.
Blanche & baby Aileen
With Aileen being cared for at home, Walter and Blanche were able to accept invitations to events round and about and to give entertainment themselves.
Both were very good dancers. Walter would take Blanche with the pony and trap, leave the horse at the stables of the local hotel and change for the dance/ball. Because Eightsome Reels, Lancers and Quadrilles required so much energy, Walter would bring four collars with him to change during the evening! The return home in the dark was accomplished with one candle in a lantern on each side of the trap. In frosty weather, the horse was fitted with special nails in its shoes.
Walter and Blanche entertained with big evening parties, mainly Whist was played but the billiard room was there for those who preferred that. Walter was not fond of cardsso no doubt he was able to sidle away from time to time to the billiards.
Walter entertained shooting parties on his land. He was a very good shot. To assist in recovering fallen animals and birds, Walter had a clever cocker spaniel, Bob, which followed him around as his shadow. The shoot usually came back with rabbits, hares, a few snipe and black cock from the nearby forest. Sometimes they brought back pheasants and partridges by kind permission of a local landowner.
Once, a poor shot hit Bob and as a result Bob was permanently deaf, entirely dependent on his nose! On this occasion Walter, usually in control of his feelings, was very angry indeed and the man was not invited again!
Wild duck were very difficult to shoot but, using his punt, Walter would take Bob on to the islands in the river and both had an enjoyable day.In the two large and well drained gardens, Walter grew gooseberries, blackcurrants and vegetables and also found time to plant foxgloves in cream, white and pink on one corner of the farm road. He and Blanche also grew many flowers and they would wander round the gardens together as a relaxation. On one occasion, while they were out, Blanche’s father and two of her brothers made a visit and decided to help Walter by weeding his flower border. When Walter returned home he discovered that all his new plants had been pulled up. Charles did not know a weed from a flower. Walter, a respectful son in law, suffered in silence.
Walter and Blanche also entered flowers into local shows, winning prizes as Walter’s father had done before him. (This interest was inherited by Aileen, who won prizes for her vegetables in local shows when living in Gloucestershire).
Walter was an affectionate father, not Victorian. Aileen remembered how, as a child, she would wake her father early and recite “If all the seas were one sea, what a great sea that would be” and other rhymes. He was never cross but would slosh her with shaving cream. Sitting on his knee by the fireside she would go over a large rainbow coloured clock faced card, which also had the alphabet on it. On the reverse side were endless riddles which she never tired of repeating to him until her mother told to go off and do something else. If he was encouraged to chase Aileen, he would catch her and rub his bristly face over her; Aileen called this a dry shave.
At the age of five, Aileen went down with pneumonia for a second time. When recovered, her parents decided she should not go to the Gordon Schools in Huntly because of the 2¼ mile walk each way through the fields and woods. A Miss Hanna was engaged as her governess, a young girl of about 18 years of age. Miss Hanna was very conscientious in her duties but also a member of the family group. She and Walter would sometimes tease Aileen at tea time by pretending they wanted the very cake that Aileen wanted. Of course they always relented.
On Sundays, Walter came down early and cut the bacon for breakfast, a change from the porridge, egg and toast of ordinary weekdays. Then the horse and trap were brought round at 10am for the 5 mile drive into Huntly. The horse went into the Gordon Arms stables while Walter walked to the United Presbyterian Church and Blanche and Aileen walked to St. Margaret’s Roman Catholic Church for Mass. On special occasions, like Aileen’s 1st Communion and Confirmation, Walter came with them to St. Margaret’s.
Aileen, age 5yrs, on pony
After church, in Spring and Summer, Walter took Aileen on a walk round the garden, where they would pick buttonholes or he took her on a pony round the fields before returning to lunch of soup, roast beef and pudding. Walter was very fond of milk puddings with a jug of cream and rhubarb jam.
On summer Sundays, they would often go for a picnic. Walter would take Aileen with him to gather wood and find water. During these times Walter talked to Aileen about wild flowers. He knew where the wild flowers were to be found, a knowledge which Aileen retained and passed on to her daughter, Anne, who won wild flower prizes in the local annual show.
On Sunday evenings Blanche often played the piano and Miss Hanna sang.
Walter and Blanche had only the one child. Walter would have liked twins and, no doubt a son to carry on the farm. But it was not to be.
Farmer, Shetland Pony Breeder and Man of the Community
Parish School Board Member
Territorial Force Officer
Walter had several hundred cheviot sheep cared for by a shepherd, Adam Hutton, who lived in a cottage in the policies with his wife. Adam was a very wise man and much valued by Walter. There was also a herd of dairy cows tended by the farm cattle man. The maids helped with the milking twice daily. It was then put through a cooler and taken each morning to the Huntly Creamery.
The farm had six work horses. The mares were pedigree Clydesdales with prizes to their credit and added value to their progeny. Walter had a great love of horses and would break them in, himself. One neighbour was particularly concerned because training the horses in the field by the banks of the Deveron, he thought Walter would fall in. But he never did. With the railway running on the other side, Walter was keen to ensure that his horses would be used to noisy trains.
In addition to the farm animals, Walter and Blanche kept hens. Boxes of eggs were taken by trap to the nearest railway station (Rothiemay, 3 miles) for shipment to Edinburgh. Such was the care taken that there were never any complaints about broken eggs. Sometimes Walter would take the eggs to the station himself with Aileen sat up along side him. Ducks, geese and turkeys were also raised but it was not easy. One summer day the carrion crows carried off 21 young turkeys. The ducks were a problem because, being so near to the river, they would not come in at night. During the day they would waddle off to the river and lay their eggs while swimming there. Blanche loved a duck egg so she would take the punt and fish the eggs up with a ladle tied to a rake handle.
Rabbits were also caught for eating. Walter had ferrets, Blanche or her cook did the preparation and cooking.
Shetland Pony Breeder
The Huntly Express of 5th July 1907 refers to the Shetland Pony Stud Book, Vol xvii and says that ‘perhaps the most interesting feature is the record of exports for the year – including 5 export certificates to Philadelphia from the well known stud of Mr. Walter Aitchison, Coniecleugh. Those ponies which did not come up to show standards were sold on the market, many going into coal mines
Walter’s reputation as breeder and judge was such that he was elected President of The Shetland Pony Stud-Book Society for 1908-1909 but the Society is unable to offer any details of Walter’s tenure in office.
The Shetland Pony Stud-Book Society presented Walter with a large solid silver medal (presently with his granddaughter’s family in Australia). It bears no personal inscription although it looks as if it should have been inscribed on the blank reverse side. The face has a beautiful Shetland pony with a long mane and tail in relief. In big letters is ‘Shetland Pony Stud Book Society’ as a “horseshoe” shaped edge over the pony. At the pony’s feet in smaller lettering but still in relief is ‘Presidents Medal’ but no date. The silver mark is Birmingham 1908. The Society is unable to shed any light on it but the evidence suggests it was an award to Walter as President. He just did not get it engraved!
Justice of the Peace
This added responsibility, together with his Presidency of The Shetland Pony Stud-Book Society, did mean that something had to go. In 1909 he reluctantly gave up his membership of the Cairney Parish School Board.
Walter was already effectively commanding the Elgin squadron of the 2nd Scottish Horse and, when he was appointed Captain in 1911 his hands were full.
Walter in Officer’s Mess Kit
TERRITORIAL FORCE OFFICER
During the Boer War the Caledonian Society of Johannesburg formed a Corps under the name “The Scottish Horse”. Regiment No. 2 was then formed from Scots from Australia and officers and men from the UK. At the end of the war the two regiments were disbanded.
Within months of peace being signed, the Marquis of Tullibardine was commissioned to recruit two regiments in Scotland to carry on the name and the honours of the Regiment. As a unit of the Imperial Yeomanry, they were to be trained as cavalry but, as it was expected that many keepers and stalkers would join, special emphasis was laid on scouting and the use of the rifle.
The 1st Regiment was raised in Perthshire in 1903. The 2nd Regiment was raised in 1904 in Aberdeenshire, Elgin, Nairn and Argyllshire. The Marquis of Tullibardine (son of the |Duke of Atholl) was appointed Lt. Colonel of the whole.
Walter, a keen horseman, signed on in 1903 and was posted to the 2nd Regiment on 29th February 1904 as a 2nd Lieutenant.[Army Lists at TNA Kew; Officer records at Scottish Horse Regimental archives, The Chapter House, Dunkeld Cathedral, Dunkeld.] He was responsible for the Huntly troop to his superiors in F Squadron in Aberdeen. Three weeks later, he was on parade during the evening of 21st March with his troop. The Huntly Express reports that
‘This was their first parade and drill on horseback, the place of meeting being the large field within Huntly Lodge policies on the west side of Deveron Bridge. Twenty troopers were forward and, in their neat and serviceable uniforms, they presented an attractive appearance. Adjutant Grant, son of Sir Arthur Grant of Monymusk, was present and put the men through the earlier part of the drill; Lt. Aitchison, Coniecleugh, taking command when Adjt Grant left’.
The Express then went on to describe the uniform of the troopers and commend their enthusiasm:
‘The uniform is a dual one, all of the khaki colour. The one rig-out has tunic with facings of bright yellow, knee breeches and brown leggings and boots. The other has the trews with yellow stripe. There is a comfortable military-looking cloak and the headgear consists of a Balmoral bonnet with red and white checked edge and a slouch hat with plume. The Huntly Corps gives promise of being an excellent one and the men seem to be entering into their drill with much interest and heartiness’.
Walter entered into his troop commander role with enthusiasm. Orders for evening parades were posted by him in the Huntly Express. Examples illustrate this:
In April 1905 Walter attended the Cavalry School and passed exams for promotion to Lieutenant. At the Annual camp in 1905, Walter’s report described him as ‘Very good’. In April 1906, Walter attended the School of Musketry in Hythe, which he passed. He was then gazetted as a full Lieutenant (5th May) and at the Annual camp in that same year reported as ‘a very good officer’. (Summer camps were held on the Duke of Atholl’s estates near Blair Atholl and Dunkeld).[Annual Reports based on Inspection at Annual Camps held in Regimental archives]
Walter Aitchison with his men at Annual Camp at Blair Atholl
In 1907, there was a memorable manoeuvere watched by the Duke of Connaught and the military attaches of many countries. Undoubtedly, Walter would have taken part. A Leader in the Huntly Express ‘Playing at War’ talks of the value of this training exercise in Perthshire after the pitiful experiences in the Boer war.
In 1908, Walter’s troop was re-assigned from F Squadron in Aberdeen to E Squadron in Elgin. At the Annual Camp report in 1910 it is recorded that he ‘has commanded a squadron, shown ability, a very good officer, not passed for promotion’.
Sometime in the next twelve months Walter clearly passed muster when he was promoted to Captain on 11th August 1911, he was 45 years of age.
Here he is at Annual Camp at Blair Atholl. He is far right in the officer group with the Marquis of Tullibardine on his right. The Inspecting Officers are in the navy blue uniforms and white topped hats. The date is either 1912 or 1913 and his position in the group indicates that he was the Officer Commanding the Elgin Squadron.
At one annual camp a local farmer brought his horse round and it kicked Walter’s mare, Gladys. Walter was angry at this and took his switch to the horses rump. It should not have been at the camp or, at least, had a red bow on its tail to denote its habit.
The man complained to the Marquis of Tullibardine about Walter’s action. Later, the Marquis said to Walter “Next time take your switch to the man as well”. The horses were all tethered in long lines and a kicker could do untold damaged.
War was round the corner. On 1st July 1914, Walter was promoted to Major.
Major Walter Aitchison, 2nd Scottish Horse
THE GREAT WAR 1914-1918
The Outbreak of War
The 1st and 2nd Regiments of Scottish Horse mobilised under the Colonel Commandant, the Marquis of Tullibardine, K.T., on 4th August 1914, the two Regiments being commanded by Lieut.-Colonels S. Steuart Fothringham and M. G. Farquhar respectively. Recruiting was at once opened, and within 48 hours the two Regiments enlisted sufficient men to complete the establishment and replace any men found medically unfit. Practically every man that joined up was an ex-Scottish Horse man. [The Sword of the North, Highland Memories of the Great War by Dugald MacEchern MA BD published by Robert Carruthers & Sons, Courier Office, Inverness in 1923]
On 12th of August (1914) the two Regiments went into camp at Scone, Perth, leaving Depots at Dunkeld and Aberdeen, and on the 15th the 1st Regiment proceeded to join its Divisions at Bedford; the 2nd Regiment to Doncaster. However, Walter did not go with them. With his special knowledge and skill with horses, he was ordered to buy horses for the Regiments. On 14th August an advertisement appeared in the Huntly Express, which read:
From this advertisement and its timings, it is clear that no time was to be wasted! With this job completed, Walter joined his Regiment at Doncaster.
Now, in Doncaster and settled for a time, he was able to think of his family. On 31st August 1914 he wrote his Will. In this, he left his whole estate to his wife, to be held by her as trustee for the purposes of firstly payment of his debts. Then Blanche was to hold and use the residue for the joint use of herself and Aileen until, when Aileen reached the age of twenty one years, she would divide the estate between them. His Will was witnessed by a fellow Officer, Captain W. Loring and by the Medical Officer, J.A. Simpson. No doubt Walter was not the only one to write his Will now that they were mobilised and awaiting orders.
During this time at Doncaster, a group of Scots Greys men were drafted in to the Regiment. The photograph, below, shows Walter (centre) with these men.
In November 1914, the Regiments were posted to Sunderland and Newcastle to defend the sea coast from possible invasion. Their responsibility was from Newbiggin northwards. During this period in north east England Blanche visited Walter and took Aileen with her at least once; they met the Newcastle cousins, staying with them in Jesmond. This period guarding the coast continued for nine months. With the Newcastle cousins being so close, for Walter it must have seemed like a home from home.
Then, in August 1915 the Regiments were put on alert for movement abroad. Despite his age (nearly 50yrs) Walter volunteered to go abroad with his regiment; he had been with his Squadron (E) since 1908 and knew all the men well.
The 1st line (the 1st, 2nd and newly formed 3rd Regiments) were held in readiness to proceed to Devonport to embark for overseas, each unit was brought up to a four Squadron basis by the inclusion of a complete squadron from each of the 2nd line units.
On the evening of the 16th August the 1st Brigade, together with the Supply and Transport Column and Field Ambulance, entrained, and on the 17th embarked on H.M.T. “Transylvania” under the Marquis of Tullibardine, who had been appointed Brigadier-General. Nothing was known as to the actual destination, but rumour said Egypt, the general idea being that the Brigade were to take over the horses belonging to the 2nd Mounted Division, which had been sent to Gallipoli, dismounted. Every one was in high glee at this idea, but a rude awakening was in store. On leaving Malta instructions were issued that the Brigade would be equipped with Web Equipment and proceed to Mudros, where they would trans-ship and proceed to Gallipoli as a dismounted Brigade. The difficulty of equipping over 2100 men on board ship can easily be imagined, but the whole thing was carried through in about 12 hours, and then came the business of attempting to pack all the Cavalry equipment and all the paraphernalia that goes to equip a Mounted Brigade, for storage at Alexandria, where the transport was to proceed after disembarking the troops at Mudros on the island of Lemnos.
After being on the Peninsula six nights, the Brigade took over the part of the front line, then held by the 2nd Mounted Division, which had become very weak in numbers. On 7th September, Walter went to the front line trenches with 2Lt Hudson and 24 men for a 24hrs tour of duty. They returned unharmed. Shelling continued but on 17th September they marched out to the Reserve trenches. However, the next day there was trouble. Heavy bombardment by our naval forces brought a reply from the Turkish Artillery and heavy rifle fire.
On 20th September, Walter and his Squadron were employed in digging a Communication trench till midnight. Drainage trenches were also dug. For the next two days work consisted in digging a SAP from the 3rd Regiment lines towards the Turkish lines. Then at 20.00hrs Walter and his squadron went into the firing line. The other squadrons were in Support trenches. On 25th September, work commenced on a trench linking Walter’s squadron with F Squadron. Being practically at sea-level and quite close to the sea, little depth could be reached before striking water, so that it became a question of building up instead of digging down; and being so close to the Turkish line was rather an unhealthy occupation, in addition to having the Gallipoli climate to contend with. The one bright spot in an otherwise pretty dull existence was that, being so close to the sea, one could sometimes take advantage of a quiet time to have a dip, though even this often ended in a hurried finish, with one’s clothes under one’s arm, for the Turk seemed to have a decided objection to seeing anyone bathe.
Sickness began to take a rather heavy toll, dysentery and fever being bad. The weather on the whole was dry.
On 27th at 16.00 hrs Walter’s trenches were heavily shelled with one man killed and one man wounded. At 19.15hrs the whole Regiment gave rousing cheers for good news from the Western Front and this brought immediate heavy fire from the Turkish lines, no casualties were reported. Otherwise there were quiet days and days where the Turks shelled heavily for 30 minutes or so. Eventually, on 6th October, the Regiment was relieved by the Fife & Forfar Yeomanry and moved to the reserve trenches. Back in the Reserve trenches Walter began to get ‘Gippy Tummy’. Alas, it was worse than that; he reported sick and was hospitalised on October 11th with dysentryReturn Home
Officers and men with sickness beyond the resources of the Field Ambulance were transferred to Hospital ships. These ships were continually moving in and out of harbour, perhaps two a day, and tremendous difficulty was sometimes experienced in getting the sick on board, the ships having to stand a good way out. Walter was shipped to Alexandria and admitted to 15 General Hospital on 18th October 1915. He must have responded well to treatment for he was moved to Shepherd’s Hotel and had time to go shopping for souvenirs before being shipped home on 24th November.*
Home for Christmas and then Walter was given a Training Assignment in Pitlochry while he fully recovered. Blanche and Aileen were able to visit him there, where he was billeted in the Moulin Hotel. This assignment lasted for about a year.Flanders
On 5th January 1917, Walter was ordered to proceed to Southampton ‘for the purpose of joining the Expeditionary Force’. He was struck off the strength of his regiment and attached to 44 MAG Ammunition Column, part of the 4th Army in France. [Regimental Archives at Dunkeld]
In May Walter was allowed a short leave home. During this time Aileen records that “He took me in the boat and made me struggle with the long pole and learn the correct way to breast the current high up and then drift to the mooring place.” Walter was even more aware that he might not return home.
This picture shows Walter, Blanche and Aileen (then 14yrs old) at the front door of Coniecleugh after the break in May.
On return to Flanders Walter was attached to the Heavy Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery, where large field guns were employed in the bombardment of enemy trenches and fortifications. These heavy guns were directed by aircraft spotter planes and were up four miles behind the lines. Unfortunately this was far from safe as they were the targets for large calibre artillery.
Walter’s duties in both units centred on the wellbeing of the horses, to ensure their ready availability for duty. Walter was the man for this.
On 17th July 1917, the weather was mixed when Walter stepped out to visit the Horse Lines. Overhead there was the sound of shells passing over or landing elsewhere.
Walter is buried in the Brandhoek Military Cemetery, Vlamertinghe, Belgium in
Plot I, Row N, Grave No. 2, which I visited with his daughter, Aileen, my mother, in 1959.
A very fulsome obituary appeared in the Huntly Express, others appeared in the Aberdeen Evening Gazette, Aberdeen Free Press and Aberdeen Daily Journal. Smaller mentions were in the Carlisle Journal, Daily Telegraph, Glasgow Record and Scots Pictorial.
After Walter’s death Blanche decided to continue in the tenancy of Coniecleugh. Aileen, my mother, was only 14 years of age and was sent to a boarding school in Dumfries.
After the War was over, Blanche received Walter’s medals from the War Office: the 1914-1915 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. These medals are with the family.
Aileen left school at 18 years of age (1921) and joined her mother at Coniecleugh, taking over the raising of the poultry. In 1926 Blanche, now aged 54yrs, gave up the tenancy and moved to a house in Church Street, Huntly in active retirement. Aileen married William John Wigmore in 1933 and moved to set up home in Dursley in Gloucestershire. There, she had three children: Paul Aitchison Wigmore (myself), Anne Macdonald Wigmore and Walter Ian Charles Wigmore. It is interesting to note that the name Walter continued in active use. Ian was called Walter throughout his service with the RAF.
From this study it is clear that the grandfather we never knew was a loving father, a kind and fair man. I am sure that if he had been alive to see his grandchildren he would have shown the same love and attention to us as he did to Aileen, his daughter.