Records of a Bygone Age: Donald Horne Learmonth of Housebay

By Ian Cooper

Republished here with kind permission of The Stronsay Limpet

As recorded in an earlier article in the ‘Limpet’, the Learmonths were involved in farming at Housebay for nigh on fifty years, a time that had seen the farm brought up from a run-down unit in the throes of bankruptcy to become one of the best farms in Orkney. The ‘Improving Lairds’ and the Learmonths of Housebay: Robert Followed by His Son Donald Horne Learmonth

This involvement ended when Donald Horne Learmonth, in partnership with his mother Catherine, found themselves in financial difficulty meaning that, in November 1892, they had to sell all their stock, implements and sundries at Housebay to try to meet their commitments. The farm itself was rented, and they also had to give up the lease on it.The ‘Improving Lairds’ and the Learmonths of Housebay: Robert, followed by his son Donald Horne Learmonth.Part 2

Some pages copied from the Housebay sale catalogue of 1892

Following the sale at Housebay Donald, along with his wife Roseanna and their four children rented and moved to Gaitnip Farm near Kirkwall for a time, then relocated to Aberdeenshire where his occupation was given as a ‘cattle dealer’. Among a number of documents belonging to DH Learmonth and deposited in the Orkney Library archives is a well-worn map depicting the gold fields of South Africa, but whether Donald had visions of making his fortune digging for gold, whether he planned to resume a farming career there or had another career planned is unclear. What is known is that he felt drawn to South Africa to start a new life, with his wife and family to follow him there as soon as he became established. Sadly, this wasn’t to be, as tragedy struck before his family could join him, as reported in the Orkney Herald of 6th April 1904:

Fatal drowning accident in the Transvaal

Death of Mr D.H. Learmonth

Details have now been received of the death by drowning in the Transvaal on March 10th of Mr D.H. Learmonth, sometime tenant of Housebay, Stronsay and afterwards of Gaitnip, by Kirkwall. The Pretoria News of March 12th says:-

A fatal drowning accident occurred at Magalies River on Thursday afternoon, March 10th, whereby Mr D.H. Learmonth, late inspector of donkey transport, lost his life.

He was driving in a cart with two horses, and shortly after 1 o’clock in the afternoon, whilst on his way back from Commando Nek, essayed to cross a drift in the river just at the place where the stream flows over the main road from Rustenburg. The river was in flood at the time, being much swollen by heavy rains and the drift was dangerous. The boy who was driving advised him not to cross, but he anticipated no danger and bid the drivers proceed. It is said that, just as he reached the centre of the stream, a great wall of water was observed coming down, and seeing this, an attempt was made to turn. The horses faced the water, but could not move the cart quickly enough. The water caught the vehicle and overturned it. The whole team was carried down the river. The boy managed to get safely to the bank, but Mr Learmonth was swept away and drowned.

From the S.A.C. post at Reitfontein, Corporal Harrison and Trooper Brooks proceeded to make enquiries on receipt of information and, searching along the bank of the river, discovered the cart. Further down the bodies of the horses were found lying on their sides on a mudbank left by the receding stream.

The body of Mr Learmonth has not yet been recovered, but as the struit is still very much flooded and the banks are steep and difficult of negotiation, it is probable that it will not be found until the water recedes, it being most likely caught on an obstruction and held there. It is not known what friends Mr Learmonth had in South Africa, but it is generally understood that he has family connections in Scotland. Those knowing anything of his family, if they would leave particulars at the office of the Resident Magistrate, Pretorius State, would confer a favour on those who are anxious to make the occurrence of the death of Mr Learmonth public. The boy Angus Conkie, who drove Mr Learmonth, came into town this morning and stated to Mr Rose Innes how the affair occurred. When they got to the Magalies River, just near its junction with the Crocodile, they tested the drift and found it to be very deep. There were three men there who had attempted to cross but could not, and they advised Mr Learmonth not to try it. It was too much swollen to admit of them doing so. They outspanned and waited. After a while two others came up on bikes, who said they thought it could be crossed. The boy Isaac essayed to cross, but found that the water was up to his middle and the current was very strong. About 2 o’clock Mr Learmonth decided to inspan and try it. They did so, with the result that they were swept away. One of the men on the bank called out to Isaac to help his master, as he was being carried away. Isaac turned to help him, and managed to reach where he was struggling. Learmonth caught the boy by the shoulder from the back and supported himself for a while, but suddenly he let go, and was carried away by the current.

Donald and Roseanna had eight children, the oldest of whom would have been aged 18 and the youngest aged 5 at the time of Donald’s death. His widow Roseanna (nee Houston) stayed on in Aberdeen for a time, renting out lodgings and apartments there until at least 1910. Some time after this, she moved to Ontario, Canada to live with some of her family, where she died on 7th June 1943. A memorial to Donald, Roseanna and some of their children stands in Greenwood Cemetery in Georgetown, Ontario.

Housebay Stronsay Ian Cooper

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