John MackayFrom Clyth to Chicago: a stonemason’s journey
Duration: 18m 13s
Recorded: 31 December 1979
About this recording
John Mackay (1893-1984), from West Clyth, was a stonemason who made his mark far beyond his native Caithness.
As a young man in 1911, John played a part in constructing the monument at the Badbea clearance village. After fighting in World War One, he emigrated to Canada and then to the USA where, in the 1930s, he helped build skyscrapers in Chicago.
Before the outbreak of World War Two he worked on St Andrew’s House in Edinburgh and later repaired the bomb-damaged House of Commons in London.
John spent his retirement in Edinburgh but returned to Caithness every year. It was on one of these visits, around 1979 or 1980, that Marshall Bowman had the foresight to sit down with John and record some of his memories. John was the great-uncle of Marshall’s late wife Veronica.
Marshall, a retired Wick High School geography teacher who lives in Lybster, has kindly made his recording available to Wick Voices.
Marshall’s recording was made on an old-style cassette recorder and we have had it digitised. The sound quality is variable, and relatively poor in places. Nevertheless in this 18-minute edit we get a real flavour of John’s remarkable life.
He makes only a brief mention of his World War One experiences in the recording, saying: “I wasn’t on the Somme but I was very, very close and it was just as bad.”
John was an advocate of communism throughout his adult life.
He died in January 1984 in his 91st year.
Listeners may wish to note the following to give context to parts of the recording:
• At 1 minute and 20 seconds approximately: John is referring here to the population in the Occumster area; he then talks about the building work his father (we think his name was Alex) did in Edinburgh around 1879.
• At approximately 3 minutes: This is a reference to the “Widows of Clyth” disaster of 1876 in which six fishermen (David Sutherland, Thomas Sutherland, William Sutherland, Robert Sutherland, Donald Sinclair and William Mackay) were lost at sea, leaving five widows and 26 children between them.
• At approximately 4 minutes and 35 seconds: This is a reference to the Wick and Lybster Light Railway which operated from 1903 to 1944.
• At approximately 6 minutes 5 seconds: A reference to the monument erected in 1911 to commemorate the people of Badbea, using stone from some of the abandoned houses. John Mackay would have been 18 at this time and there was still one man living at Badbea: John Gunn, who worked on the Berriedale estate.
• At approximately 6 minutes 40 seconds: This is a reference to reconstruction work on the Ousdale Bridge, where the men worked 11 hours a day.
• At approximately 8 minutes: John is talking here about the croft at West Clyth, the roads near Clyth harbour and the barytes mining operation at Roy Geo during World War One.
• At approximately 9 minutes 35: Further reference the Wick and Lybster Light Railway, and how the railway connection must have had an impact on Lybster’s shopkeepers as people from down the coast began buying goods in town.
• At approximately 10 minutes 50 seconds: Reference to the construction of the Clyth lighthouse.
• At approximately 12 minutes 15 seconds: A brief mention of John’s Great War service.
• At approximately 12 minutes 35 seconds: This part is about John’s father building village halls in Caithness.
• At approximately 12 minutes 45 seconds: This is a reference to the first car in Lybster (we think the garage was beside the Portland Arms).
• At approximately 13 minutes: John is reminiscing here about some of the old businesses in Lybster, including coopers, bakers, shoemakers, blacksmiths and a watchmaker.
• At approximately 13 minutes 25 seconds: John talks about four pubs in Lybster, including one called the Ship Inn.
• At approximately 14 minutes: Off to Canada and the USA, and a description of the work involved in building skyscrapers in Chicago.
The "Recorded date" stated above is an estimate.
With thanks to Marshall Bowman for recording John Mackay’s memories and for making his tape available to Wick Voices.
Thanks also to Alasdair Pettinger of the Scottish Music Centre, Glasgow, for digitisation services.