By Fiona Grahame
“ we lived in an eerie borderland between the seen and the unseen worlds” F.M. McNeill
It is said that Daniel McNeill would every eve at the going out of the old year take a turn about the outside of his Manse in Holm, Orkney. Reverend McNeill and his wife Jessie produced 12 extraordinary children with ‘more than a dash of the pagan’ beneath their Presbyterian veneer.
They were to make an impact on society well beyond their island community not just as founding members of the Orcadian Woman’s Suffrage Society but into the carnage of a world war, social reform and politics in 20thC Scotland.
Right from the start the McNeill’s believed in educating both sons and daughters equally. The foundations of learning took place in Orkney then on to school in Scotland, Europe and university. Jessie McNeill died in 1897 and daughter Charlotte (Hatty) stepped into the role to take care of her father and later on her sister Margaret who was going blind.
Four of the McNeill boys and three of the girls were to graduate from Glasgow University. The eldest daughter Mary McNeill graduated in medicine in 1905 and after a year in London she returned to Orkney as a doctor . Like most of the McNeills she was very musical and could speak several languages. In 1914 she travelled to Leicester to allow her doctor brother , David, to take his skills to France as part of the Royal Army Medical Corps.
As the war raged on Mary joined the Scottish Women’s Hospitals set up by Dr Elsie Inglis whom she had met in Orkney during a speaking tour on the cause of women’s suffrage. For her work in the units in France and Salonika Mary was awarded the Médaille des Epidémies (en vermeil),The Order of St Sava and The Douseaus War Service Victory Medal. After the war she worked as a doctor in Palestine,India and Uganda where she fatally contracted typhoid in 1928.
The First World War had an immense impact on the McNeills. The mischievous and jovial Willie McNeill left behind a young wife and child in Ireland when he was drowned with the sinking of the Laurentic. Once a luxury liner of the White Star line the Laurentic carrying 43 tons of gold ingots struck 2 mines north of Ireland on 25th of January 1917. There were 121 survivors but 354 lives were lost that day with many freezing to death in the lifeboats. Bodies continued to be washed ashore for several weeks with Willie’s ending up on Heisker Barra where his lone grave is cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
In the same week that Willie was drowned, Patrick, an expert in Classics died of pneumonia. He had volunteered on the first day of the war and had been serving aboard HMS Emperor of India.
Duncan, the youngest of the McNeill’s , was wounded in Palestine and almost succumbed to typhoid. When he returned his father had died and the family was in dire straits financially. Making sure your children are well educated had been a costly business for Daniel and Jessie McNeill.
Florence is probably the most well known of the McNeills. She was a leading suffragist in her role as organiser of the Scottish Federation of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Central to the suffragist movement were issues of social reform and equality which led Florence in 1915 to be the organising secretary of the Association for Moral and Social Hygiene, a gender equality pressure group. She conducted social research in London and in 1916 jointly published with F.J. Wakefield “An Inquiry in Ten Towns in England and Wales into the Protection of Minor Girls “ . After the war and travels to Greece and Palestine she joined the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom taking part in the Peacemakers Pilgrimage – ‘Law not War’.
Despite this activism Florence is most remembered now for her writings on Scottish folklore, tradition , cookery and the founding of the Clan MacNeill Association. What receives less attention is that Florence and her brother Duncan were founding members of today’s Scottish National Party in 1933 and Florence was its first Vice President.
Not bad for a family from Holm in Orkney who grew up with “the sound of wind and waves always in our ears, and in our nostrils the smell of heather and peat-reek and the salt sea spray”. F.M. McNeill.
This article first appeared in iScot Magazine