I am choosing to start this particular story with a marriage.
It is the 30th of April 1918 and we are in St Thomas’ Church, Rutland Place Edinburgh where a wedding is taking place ‘after Banns according to the Forms of the Church of England’.
Adele, the 36 year-old daughter of Elias Le Couvey, a Fundholder, and his wife, Francoise Bourget, is currently residing at 16 Dryburgh Gardens, Glasgow West.
John, the 58 year-old son of Roderick Kerr, a Building Contractor, and his wife, Christina MacLennan, is normally to be found at The Manse, Harris, Inverness-shire but is presently living in Rouen, France.
All four of the parents are already dead.
John Kerr was born in 1857 at Borve on the Isle of Harris. This future Minister is the son of a Carpenter according to the record of the 1851 census.
It is 1861 and 6 year-old John, the eldest of two children, is living in Little Borve where his father works as a Joiner. It is easy to imagine him playing with his 3 year-old sister Rachel in this idyllic spot, sitting in fertile machair land, bounded inland by the craggy outcrops of time-served Gneiss and on the other by Atlantic-swept shell-sand beaches. A decade later and this small family remains in Borve.
On the 23rd May 1877, Roderick Kerr, a Joiner of Borve, Harris, succumbs to ‘supposed chronic and acute rheumatism’. He was 65 years old and it is the 20 year old John who witnesses the event with his ‘Mark’, an X. Now, I am as surprised by this as you probably are – How come a 20 year-old who is later study to become a Minister, is found to be ‘illiterate’? Well, the simple answer is that I’m not sure! However, I have checked, double-checked and then done a bit more checking, and this HAS to be the right person. The Marriage certificate, the census data and my database of all from Harris who bear the name Kerr convinces me of the fact. But I did do another check, just now, just in case.
1881 finds 26 year-old (actually he’s 24) John boarding at 33 Russell Street, Glasgow where he is a Student of Arts at the University. His future wife is still a couple of years away from being born. Back in Little Borve, his widowed mother, who was a Midwife, is living with her daughter Rachel Morrison and Alexander Morrison, a General Merchant. Little Roderick Morrison is 1 month old and we can presume that his Grandmother’s experience aided his progress into this World. I also wonder whether her knowledge helped limit her to only giving birth herself to John and Rachel?
It is now 1891 and our attention turns to foreign parts, but not the French mainland as might have been expected. 8 year-old Adele le Couvey, the middle of 5 children, is living at La Rue Faiveusaie(?) in the parish of St Saviour on the British channel island of Guernsey where her father works as an Agricultural Labourer. She had been born in Forest, Guernsey.
John, meanwhile, has moved to 479 St Vincent Street, Glasgow and is now a Student of Theology, but not of Arithmetic as he has shaved 4 years off his age, reducing it to 32.
In 1901 18 year-old Adele, is living at Le Bordage in the parish of St Peter’s in the Wood (which sounds much nicer as St Pierre Du Bois, but the enumerator clearly wasn’t going to allow more French onto his form than was absolutely necessary !), Guernsey where she is employed as a servant in the household of John G Lenfestey, a 57 year-old Grower. She is the sole servant to this family of 3 adults and 7 children.
John is working as an Assistant Minister in Dalavich, Argyll and gives his age as 36 which is a mere decade below the truth. Of course, it is just possible that I have been tracking the wrong person, but the number of John Kerr’s born in Harris who follow the path towards becoming the Minister living at The Manse, Scarista is unlikely to make this so.
At 9:30 in the evening of 1st April 1909, back in Borve, 85 year-old Christy Maclennan passes-away of old-age and the 52 year-old bachelor John becomes an orphan.
In November 1914 the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) began operating recreation centres for the troops in France and the Scottish Churches Huts Joint Committee of The Church of Scotland’s Guild established 25 centres, manned by 350 workers, in France and Flanders. In his Marriage Certificate of 1918 John is described as ‘Minister, Parish of Harris (Hut Worker YMCA)’. In Rouen, France.
Whilst it is easy for us to have an image of the ‘Ayatollah’ as described in the pages of Finlay J Macdonald’s books, I think one should also dwell upon the fact that this 61 year-old man had the compassion, the humanity and the decency to follow the many, many islanders who went to that terrible conflict and to provide such support and assistance to his comrades, in their home tongue, as his advanced years allowed.
The remains of this story are best left to be read in the place that led me to investigate this unusual coupling, namely in the pages of Finlay J Macdonald’s ‘Crowdie & Cream’ where the Minister appears, albeit posthumously, as ‘Ayatollah Kerr’ and Adele as the kindly, if at times slightly gullible, face of friendliness.
The ‘Ayatollah’ was slightly more accurate with his Arithmetic when it came to his wedding because the 61 year-old reduced his true age by a mere 3 years. He was actually 26 years her senior!
John’s paternal grandparents were John Kerr and Marion MacLeod, a Weaveress, of Scarista. Their eldest son , John, was also Carpenter/Joiner who moved to Birkenhead, Cheshire.
You are spared one of my customary links to the ‘Ayatollah’ because, although there definitely is one, the precise location of our ancestral paths meeting is lost in time…
…but not in space, for it is certainly somewhere on Harris!
More on the YMCA and other volunteer agencies supporting the troops can be found here: