Monday, 9 May 2011


Hugh McMillan - fetching the milk at the farm
When growing up, the past (even the recent past of your family) can seem something that's very far removed from the life you are living. But, the older you get - the more you realise that you and your generation are not 'unique' in the personal relationships that are built.

Life is like the land and the four seasons which shape our year, here in Scotland: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. Like a life itself - the seasons reflect to us the chapters of our life. And if we look, we can see that old family photos can reveal so much to us about our here and now and the legacy that we have inherited from the generations who have lived before. Yet, "to look" is not always so easy because - to do so objectively - we must consider our changing world. And if we want to capture aspects of life for the future - we need to record these while we still can.

Dogs, horses, cows - my dad was always so relaxed around animals
and loved to take our family out in to the countryside
sharing with us his appreciation of nature

The first photo of my dad above used to sit near the piano in my family home. The picture showed my dad as a boy, an ordinary photo then of him walking with his dog, carrying back milk he had collected at the farm. As a young person, "I knew everything" about that photo that had been taken in Garvald. Yes, all the details of "my dad getting the milk with his dog at the farm" but no specific details in answer to the more searching questions I have today as an adult...

My Dad told me how very, very happy his childhood had been as a young boy. Working outdoors with his dad growing vegetables, his dear dog Sweep helping him to herd the cows to the milking at the dairy near to their home by Arthur Seat. 
How much as a boy my dad enjoyed living in this Edinburgh which was (back then) so very different from what it is today. Sheep grazed at Arthur Seat (back then called the King's Park) and from the McMillan home they had a clear view of the Fife coast and in Edinburgh, the fields sloping down to the sea at Seafield and Portobello.

By the time I grew up, houses had spread out in to the fields but at least a golf course (and the fertile volcanic slopes of Arthur Seat) still ensured a large area of green vegitation. The golf course, just above the beach,  "the sands at 'Porty' where my dad enjoyed family days out. Taken by his mum, the portrait above showing my dad in the middle, his father on the left and dad's sister Freda on the right (and of course Sweep the dog which went everywhere with them). Happy family day trips to the beach and then, as an older boy, dad also there with his friends to catch the horses exercised on the sands by troops from Piershill Barracks. (See Mike Kelly copyright notice).

17th Lancers exercising their horses at Portobello beach

After the exercises were finished, the horses would be left to relax on the sands and then, when ready to go - the young boys would help to catch the horses by their reins and for this the troops would give them pennies to spend on some sweets. Life was good! And also, as my dad's dad, was a well known and popular tram driver, my dad would go to see him at work and hitch free rides around the town.

Days seemed full of sunshine and in the evening's dad's mum would often sing and play the piano. Described as a gentle creature, Mary Hardie had actually grown up in the next street to Fred McMillan. They had met young, fallen in love and married but sadly, the life enjoyed took a severe change of direction when my dad was just ten.

Out of the blue my dad's father died of an anurism. One day he went out to work and then he was 'gone'. The shock and financial burden on his young wife was tremendous. Wanting to help, and now "feeling he had to be the man of the house" my father thought he must do something and so an approach to the RAF was made. At just 11 years old, my dad was accepted in to the service but immediately he was posted down south. My dad's experience was not a happy one. As a family, we heard of his childhood and then his life after meeting mum. And, what is not spoken about but left to go undiscussed - these memories can eventually fade away and maybe be lost forever.

It seemed to me that from the moment my mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer my dad began to 'drift' away. 65 days from that diagnosis to her being gone and, after more than 50 years of marriage, my dad was very lost. Increasingly he would ask me questions about the past. The project I started for mum "People of the Sea" - this was a great help because it would bring back memories but not of his life before mum. Painstakingly I searched for photos, read pencil scribbles on the back of them (thanks to Mary McMillan for writing things down!) and then on Father's Day I surprised him with the launch of his very own exhibition for ONE! His reaction was so dramatic, I was taken aback. "You've given me my life back! All my life, the memories before I met your mum that were slipping away, I remember it all, a flood of memories pouring in."

A window opened in my dad's mind as for more than two hours he spoke without stopping about everything. Details I knew that even mum had never heard - the eighty plus years of the jigsaw puzzle of his life coming together. His loving mum, so gentle, young and happy until he was ten. But sadly, how much the years had aged her when he travelled back up from England to see her again in Edinburgh for that short hello and very distressing long goodbye. How much this photo must have been treasured until - too painful to look at, it was safely put away and then the years passed it by (photos without their story).

The personal cost of economic hardship and the cruel realities of war.  Away for a couple of more years, my dad abroad then told his mum was critically ill and given compassionate leave. But rushing to see her, arriving at the hospital  "they were leaving her room" - his mum had passed away in that last ten minutes he'd been tried to reach her...

Hearing my dad's full story was pretty shocking - and the great irony was that I was preparing to launch "People of the Sea" (inspired by my mum and only now I was really learning about my dad). Yet suddenly, I understood SO MANY things that explained other parts of my own life. Without any family left around him, when my dad had married my mum from the fishing community, yes, I could see why his concentration had moved to talk only of her family and not want to discuss the extent of the personal loss he had known. Losses which had ultimately distanced him from the opportunities for him to discover details about his ancestors and "People of the Land".

L-R: Aunty Chrissie's friend, Aunt Chris Thorburn, Hugh and Jean McMillan,
Christine Telfer (cousin), Crissie and Billy Thorburn 

As a young dating couple, yes I knew my Mum and Dad went on their first ever holiday together to Garvald - but exactly why that had been a special place in dad's childhood I didn't know and don't today. Do I have family there? Who knows... Entering his 90th year, my dad 'technically' lives on but all stories once shared have faded away as the cruel clouds of vascular dementia have rolled in. Too late for new questions, only my own patchwork of gathered information remains to tell me that my dad's folk were once "People of the Land". Recent generations settled in Edinburgh, Musselburgh (East Lothian) and on the far side of the Firth of Forth, the McMillan's worked on farms in Fife, near Kinross and over to the west, perhaps in Stirlingshire. 

If the hills could talk, what stories would I learn but recently (looking at the colours in this photo), a memory came back to me. Sitting in my dad's car some years ago he was outside and had opened the door "Jean, where's my tin?" Mum, reached in to the glove compartment and passed him a travel sweets tin. I didn't pay much attention until I saw mum wink and affectionately say "Aye, Johnny Apple Seed".

When the door closed I asked her what she'd meant. She laughed at their secret "Have you never seen yer faither go one of his wee walks when he stops the car? - He gathers up seed pods from the brightest flowers and then pops them into his pocket. After drying them out at home he collects up all the seeds and they go in to the tin he's gone off with. He'll take a walk, disturb the soil and scatter the seeds in other places so he spreads the flowers around the land" "Really?" I said, absolutely amazed - "Oh yes, he's been doing his bit for nature for years". Quite bemused by this I thought it over and then asked "And so he goes back to see the flowers in bloom?" "Och no" said mum, in a knowing way "that's not the point, he's just trying to leave the world a better place than it was when he came in to it."

The Road Home?
In the distance, the farmland from where the McMillan's came from.

Just last week I went back to the area where 'I believe' some of my dad's people once worked the land. I looked at the colours of the fields and the brightly shining crop of yellow Rapeseed in the distance which more or less marks that spot. I thought of the flowers which plant themselves, the seeds that are scattered by the wind. But then I smiled as I also recalled the sunshine yellow and  orange poppies which mysteriously arrived in to my own garden (quietly dropped there along the border of my path by my dad). Such a small effort to spread some colour in to another person's life and yet, each year when I see yellow and orange poppies flower it makes me smile.

Likewise, it was both the McMillan and Thorburn  interest in photography which has given me photos I can appreciate and share - like this one taken by my dad of myself, then just a baby in my mum's arms. Looking back, it was on mum's 80th birthday (May 2006) that she asked that her present be a celebration of the People of the Sea. That promise was given by me in laughter without any vision of what would be achieved: exhibitions visited by 12,000 visitors, 2010 Compendium Album of the Year, Creative Project of the Decade 2000-2010 and in 2011, Culture Sparks social media award for Marketing Impact. And now this weekend, my Celtic Reflections blog has had it's 10,000th visitor... So much has come out of the last five years of this work but now, for me personally, a time to begin a new chapter in my life as I take up an exciting new longterm project (quite by chance: my new job beginning on my dad's birthday and from an office overlooking the farmland that my dad's folks came from).

Wishing a Happy Birthday in 2011 to my Dad, Hugh McMillan
"People of the Land is inspired by you"

Looking on the personal work I have been doing (before this new job) I realised that increasingly, I've seen myself taking photographs of those who work on the land. Indeed in 2010, I took the opportunity to specifically go and photograph various friends who were working the land in the Highlands (a second home where I have holidayed all my life). Very keen to take these photos, thinking at the time that the people's skills (such as Peat cutting) the 'know how' to do this was being passed on to less and less folk with each new generation.

In 2010 - 2011, I've been photographing people working the land in the Lothians and Scottish Borders. However, when over in Fife I had an experience last week which signalled to me it was time to start doing something with all these photos. Wanting to know more about my dad's past, I asked a farm labourer who I might speak. Away in the distance of the land behind me, he pointed to a farm saying "ah, you really need to go and speak to the old guy that lives on the hill up there". As I followed the directions and the farm grew nearer - I wondered what to say but we'll never know. Getting out my car I shouted to someone, "which house does the old guy stay in" and the person called back "oh I'm sorry, he has passed away"...

After that conversation, I sat by the field of Rapeseed that I had first seen from the distance. Watching the sun set over the crop, I felt philisophical about what had happened and decided. Yes, it may well be that I discover absolutely nothing more about my own roots but "no matter to that". I think, just as my dad planted seeds to flower for others to enjoy. Maybe then, my photos will plant positive seeds of thought with those who see them. My photos and stories, maybe nudging some faded memory back in to flower or even, just passing on a smile.  Whatever, I am never short of reasons to get out with my camera and enjoy a walk in Scotland's beautiful scenery. I love talking to folks I meet on these walks and also, now that I must surely know nearly every inch of the Edinburgh to Eyemouth coastline - well, I can now look forward to discovering so much more about the People of the Land on BOTH sides of the Firth of Forth, as this new chapter in my life will allow me to.  (Anyway, more about my new job in a future blog - as for now, I go to post photos to my Facebook page of this evening's very beautiful sunset - check out in my May out and about album. The sunset by the Forth tonight, so 'perfect' this evening, it seemed almost to be a Celtic Reflection of the lovely day that I have enjoyed outdoors).

9.05.11: Me enjoying this evening's sunset by the Firth of Forth

A New Chapter Begins


  1. Beautifully written, heart warming, brought back a flood of memories about my parents and their parents before them, even made me cry! I'm so happy a friend recommended your blog and facebook page and your photography is amazing! Keep up the great work you are doing, you are making this world a better place! Thank you!

    Mary Ann Russell

  2. Aww ;-) Thanks Mary Ann for such a lovely compliment - very kind of you to take the time to post your comment, your words are much appreciated. Kindest regards, Shona