Auchindrain Township | Partners, Children and Population Control
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Partners, Children and Population Control

Partners, Children and Population Control

When Queen Victoria journeyed through the Highlands in 1873, she described the inhabitants of Auchindrain as “very exclusive…hardly ever marry[ing] out of their own village”. This was not true – in fact, there was a system of marriage between local communities that produced genetic diversity in the townships.

Throughout history, one of the challenges facing geographically and socially isolated communities has been the need for genetic diversity.  In the modern world, we understand the biological and developmental problems caused when there is not enough variation in the gene pool, and that there needs to be a continuous crossover of genetic material between different families.  We call this process “genetic flow”.

The people of Auchindrain did not understand genetics, but experience passed down over the centuries meant they were generally aware of the dangers of inbreeding in both people and farm livestock.  It was very important for communities like Auchindrain to produce healthy children; they played a major role in the farming workforce.

In each generation the farming families had to have a son or nephew ready to inherit – until the 20th century women generally could not own land or hold tenancies.  Elderly, sick and disabled people were cared for within extended families: children looked after their parents in old age. At the same time, the population could never be allowed to grow larger than the township’s economy was able to support.

Social conventions developed to keep everything in balance, and our population records contain much evidence of genetic flow in action.  In each generation, most of the township’s children left in their mid to late teens, going to other similar communities where they lived with a family and helped with housekeeping and farmwork until they got married.  Some young men moved on into Scotland’s towns and cities where they learned trades and then settled; others joined the army or went to sea.

Some young women also ended up in towns and cities as domestic servants until they, too, got married.  Only very few returned to live at Auchindrain later in life.  In the farming families (the tenants), when the son or nephew marked out to inherit the share in the tenancy got married, the woman almost always came from another community.  In these ways, the genetic material from Auchindrain went elsewhere through the sons and daughters who left, and was itself refreshed as women from other family lines came into the township.

Single male householders almost always had a younger woman as housekeeper, and in a context where travel was difficult, working hours were long, and opportunities to meet people were limited, such arrangements not infrequently lead to marriage.  One good example is Catherine MacArthur from Kilmichael (around 20 miles to the south), who came to Auchindrain as a 17-year-old to keep house for the 32-year-old Neil McGugan.  Neil was an industrial worker rather than a farmer and at the time was employed in the nearby nickel mines. Catherine kept house for him for some years, then children started to appear, and in due course the two were married.

In the same way, in the late 19th century Mary McCallum of Kilmartin kept house for Eddie McCallum before marrying him.  Likewise, in 1944 their son, also Eddie, married Peggy Cuthbertson from Fort William who had been his housekeeper since 1940.

Research has shown that almost every family here was related to at least one other as “cousins”, but the connections were not as close as might be expected in such a small community.  There were some marriages within the township, but rarely between people who had grown up together, which tended to support genetic diversity. In 1876, Malcolm Munro, born here in 1847, married Mary McCallum (also from the township). The couple went on to have three children here, all of whom would have new genetic combinations.

Sometimes, the two processes of intra-township partnerships and migration were combined in ways that contributed to genetic flow elsewhere. John McGugan (son of Neil and Catherine McGugan) married Isabella Munro (daughter of Malcolm and Isabella Munro) on 24th June 1903. The couple did not marry in Auchindrain, instead moving more than 50 miles away to Colintraive.  It is hard not to question the nature of their disappearance; we do not know if these young lovers ran away in order to get married, if their marriage was scorned, or if one of the pair had family or work where they went. What is certain, however, is that when John and Isabella had children, this doubled the impact of the genetic variation they produced –  both between families and introducing their genetic material into the new environment of Colintraive.

Peggy and Eddie MacCallum in the living room of the New House, around 1960.

Neil McGugan, his wife Catherine McArthur, and an unknown woman, photographed at the house door of Building O in the late 19th century.

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