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Cormilligan

A ‘Sonnet Redouble’ celebrating the life and times of William McCaw.

Many years ago a book was recommended to me, by a venerable local worthy who knew I was interested in local history. This book was written by a nineteenth century polymath James Shaw, who was village schoolmaster in the tiny hamlet of Tynron, Dumfriesshire, in the mid to late 1800’s. The book was called “A Country Schoolmaster”. It was a fabulous insight into the Victorian mindset and life, and also contained a wealth of local history, topography and folklore. One of the chapters which especially enthralled me was entitled ‘A visit to the herd’s house’, this was the first time I had heard of William McCaw.

The charm of this chapter made me resolve to visit this place, which really is in the middle of nowhere!. After some more research, consulting maps etc, I set off on a fine sunny day on my quest. Walking for several miles into the hills I eventually found the old abandoned farmhouse of Cormilligan. The house is in a derelict and rundown state, open to the elements and sadly neglected. It’s situation however really is something to behold, an atmosphere of utter peace permeates the air and you can see forever!. The biggest surprise however awaited me on entering the house. There to my utter astonishment were name after name after name, written or scrawled all over the inside gable end wall of the house. As I read, it quickly became apparent that these names had been written there by  actual living descendants of William McCaw, many, it seemed now, living in New Zealand. These descendants had returned, like the migrating salmon, to the land of their forefathers. Intrigued, I was resolved to find out more about this story, and the more I found out the more resolved I became that I should write some fitting poetic work to commemorate this unique, beautiful, and spiritual place.

The project lay in the recesses of my mind for several years before I finally got round to getting something down on paper. This year, (2002) I resolved to commence the project. I accessed the New Zealand telephone directory via the inter-net and looked for some names of McCaws in the Wellington area whom I thought might correspond with some of the names written on the walls at Cormilligan. The name Stuart McCaw looked like a good bet, I rang it up. Bingo!, yes, this Stuart McCaw was the great grandson of William McCaw of Cormilligan.
A correspondence began. The family in New Zealand now numbers several hundreds, they are still a very close-knit family and meet regularly for ‘clan’ gatherings. Stuart McCaw, his wife Jan, and Stuart’s father, Bob McCaw, e-mailed me many fascinating articles from the family’s written archive, most of which was written by the original William McCaw. It records in detail his life, family events and history, and his mind-boggling decision to move the whole family lock stock and barrel to start a new life in New Zealand in 1880, when he himself was aged sixty!.

I decided to attempt a Sonnet Redouble on this worthy subject – fifteen poems in all – telling the epic tale of William McCaw’s life as a shepherd, or herd, in Scotland, some of their family history and fascinating stories; the ship’s journey to New Zealand, his eight grandsons who died during the First World War, daily working life on a 19th century farm, etc.

The poems were completed around Sept. 13th, 2002, almost 122 years to the day that William McCaw set foot in New Zealand, and after some final editing were e-mailed to the McCaw family in New Zealand. On the 28th October 2002 the poems were read at the 100th birthday celebrations of Dorothy McCaw, who is daughter-in-law to the original William McCaw of Cormilligan.

Rab Wilson.

Cormilligan was filmed by Ayrshire filmmaker Kenny Caldwell’s ‘Being There Productions’.