Memory and Imagination



But then as was firmly pointed out to me at a museum in Tain, there are not two or even three Killmuirs in the Highlands of Scotland – but many.  Translated from the Gaelic Kilmuir means Church of St Mary, and there are many of these in the north.


We weren’t able to find out to whom the ruined chapel in Creich was dedicated. We know, however, Dornoch Cathedral is a Church of St Mary.


Perhaps this will be explained – perhaps not. As of now it is for me part of the mystery and magic that bred the passion to confront evil and protect the innocent.

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David Maxwell Fyfe on memory and what fires his imagination. Click above.

At some point my attention was drawn to the name that Maxwell Fyfe had selected when he was appointed Lord Chancellor. I thought that perhaps it would tell me something about what mattered most to him.


He had not after all selected a London or Sussex name, the places where he was living at the time of his appointment.

In his autobiography A Political Adventure Maxwell Fyfe wrote:


“I had thought of calling myself Creich from the little place in Sutherland with the ruined chapel, the graveyard of which contains the bones of my forebears. Sylvia said that she was not going to spend her declining years spelling her name to butcher’s assistants, so I called myself Kilmuir of Creich – the of Creich not being part of the title’”


I had not taken part in an earlier family expedition which had visited Kilmuir, or rather Kilmuirs, north of Inverness. There are two, one on the Black Isle, overlooking the Moray Firth, and another Easter Kilmuir in Easter Ross, overlooking the Firth of Cromarty. Maxwell Fyfe gives no indication as to which it might be. There is another Kilmuir on Skye, but the family knew that the name was inspired in some way by his mother, and she had hailed from north of Inverness.


We mounted our own expedition, or rather two, interested in Kilmuir but also Creich and Dornoch, of which he became Baron Fyfe, when he was elevated to Earl at the end of his career. Our explorations led to revelations, and an understanding of what fired his imagination.


First and foremost we found that it was Sutherland that excited him. It was the land north of the Firth of Dornoch.

While searching I found that he had written an introduction to an autobiography written by the Duke of Sutherland. In it he wrote:


‘A friend of mine, who was born and bred somewhat  west of Inverness once told me that as a child she had always felt that crossing the Dornoch Firth was passing out of the Highlands into a strange country. There was a nursery feeling of climbing up a map and coming out of the top. I made properly deprecatory noises but I had an uneasy feeling that I knew what she meant. The very name Sutherland, the “southern land” looks north to the Viking settlements of Orkney and Shetland.'

Maxwell Fyfe, brought up and educated in Edinburgh, knew the area as his mother’s homeland, a place to holiday. However it seemed to mean more to him than that: ..


‘To the imagination of my boyhood the countryside … had a magic of its own. I shall never forget the joy of walking over the heather, finding a place to bathe and later pulling a heavy boat in half a gale on Loch Shin and watching its length fade into the hills or further west seeing the mass of Ben Mohr Assynt climb into the clouds. To me the old tales were very close.’


Creich was a largish parish on the shores of the Firth of Dornoch, the identity of which has been subsumed by the newer village of Bonar Bridge. Within the parish is the area called Migdale, where his mother’s family were tenants in a mill from the late eighteenth century, when John Fraser returned from the American War of Independence.

There is a record of the family’s stay in Migdale recorded by Gladstone’s Napier Commission, when it visited Bonar Bridge. Migdale was part of the Skibo estate, which stretched down the firth towards Dornoch, which was subject to a very late ‘clearance,’ the eviction of 150 families from the estate in the 1870s. Most other estates in the area had already cleared their lands during the preceding century, as Scottish landowners became more remote from their northern lands, and those who dwelt on them.


The delay to the clearance was in part caused by an agreement (a Tack) drawn up in 1798 by a previous owner of Skibo, William Dempster. He had wanted to ensure that his tenants were secure on their lands in perpetuity. I found that Maxwell Fyfe has a copy of that Tack amongst his private papers .


It was overturned eighty years later, and Maxwell  Fyfe’s  great uncle, the brother of his grandmother, died ‘heartbroken’ on the day of the eviction. Maxwell Fyfe’s mother, Isobel, was seventeen at the time, and already a friend William Thomson Fyfe. They were to row and part, and then reunite only after the death of WT Fyfe’s first wife. Maxwell Fyfe was born when his mother was forty, having already enjoyed a successful teaching career. David was her only child, and she clearly instilled in her son the magic and memories of her world.

Isobel was in fact brought up in Dornoch, a country town being restored at the end of the nineteenth century. The extraordinary feature of Dornoch is its thirteenth century cathedral ‘built by the last Scot enrolled in the Calendar of Scottish Saints.’ Dedicated to St Mary, the church, although quite small, dominates the town square. And there are periods of history when Dornoch is portrayed as a holy place, housing various communities of believers. Now it is all golf.


Maxwell Fyfe was thrilled to be given the freedom of Dornoch. He wrote:


‘Now, after many years have slipped away I share with author (the Duke) the honour of being a freeman of Dornoch. I hope that  I shall be forgiven for mentioning that to me nothing will be more memorable than the ceremony and no possession more valued than the scroll that marked its bestowal.’

So as a member of a cleared family of Migdale, and a freeman of Dornoch, Maxwell Fyfe’s memories and those of his mother fired his imagination. And in that fire he forged his intentions. He described this as

’idealism'.  And in that he strove for improvement, to challenge the status quo, to introduce movement in atrophied systems, he was reaching for ideals.


It is easy to conjure magic in your mind on the shores of the Firth of Dornoch.  It is an astoundingly beautiful place. It is easy there to create an ‘imaginative perception’ of liberty in a landscape that, despite its beauty , told old stories of the way things were and how they could be.


And why Kilmuir, since neither Kilmuir is in Sutherland?


Maxwell Fyfe is silent.


Two explanations are available.


It is mentioned that the Frasers may have been fishermen from Easter Ross, so it is possible that they started from Easter Kilmuir, although there is no clear evidence.