A tantalising distraction

He lost the use of one arm fighting Arab slave traders in central Africa. In later life that did not stop him joining the Killermount golf club in Glasgow where he played very badly but with great enthusiasm much to the dismay of caddies who had to chase after him.  Fred Moir is now something of a legend in Malawi where he played an active part opening what was then British Central Africa to “trade and robust Christianity”. So what is his link with Canna?

Tantalising glimpses of his life appeared as I was starting to research the early years  of John and Margaret.  His story was one of those tempting distractions that tease every writer and I did spend some time following him up the Zambezi in the wake of David Livingstone but eventually I had to leave him and come back to the Hebrides.

Fred– or Frederick Lewis Maitland  – Moir is worth a book of his own. And in fact he has written his own first person account of opening up Africa to trade in the 1870s  (After Livingstone: an African Trade Romance) But sadly he did not play much more than a walk on part in the story of John and Margaret. Though it was a very important part.

When an angry bull appeared on the Boat of Garten golf course, sending the players flying into the Club House, he faced the bull with an umbrella…

He first flits across Margaret’s own memoir (From the Alleghenies to the Hebrides) when she describes meeting him as a friend of the family she stayed with when she was at school in Helensburgh (which is quite another story). She knew him as ‘Uncle Fred’, by then an old man with a flowing white beard.  “But still a monument of courage.  When an angry bull appeared on the Boat of Garten golf course, sending the players flying into the Club House, he faced the bull with an umbrella, opening and shutting it to the astonishment of the bull, who then ambled off”.

Next appearance is at John and Margaret’s wedding in Glasgow in 1933 when Fred Moir gives Margaret away. The old man redeems a very quiet affair with a reception at his home 16 Kensington Gate, hiring a limousine for the newly weds and orchids for the bride.

That would be that as far as I was concerned if it wasn’t for his grandson, Fred Pattison, who became a great friend of John and Margaret (see last week’s blog) and sent a letter full of anecdotes when I was just getting to grips with research – including many affectionately humorous stories of the man he called Gogo.

“He liked to demonstrate his useless arm by dangling it like a rag doll. But he was very good at fixing and mending things. He always carried with him a small pocket oil can which he used wherever he was – on squeaking gates, etc.”   He seemed to have been quite bad at other things – golf and driving his snub-nosed Morris, “He was once observed setting off from Glasgow for London with his wife going round a blind corner on the wrong side of the road.”

The elder of Westbourne Presbyterian Church failed to excite Sunday school children with his stories (“modesty about African experiences resulted in rather dull presentations”). But he is well remembered in Malawi.  As Fred Pattison discovered: “When David and I visited Malawi in 1991 we found that all the children knew the name of Fred Moir because his exploits are taught in all the schools.”

Fred Moir died at the age of 87 in 1939.  If someone is not already thinking of writing his biography – and a film to go with it – they should start now.

Big Hector and a prize bull (or is it a heiffer?) on Canna – no need for umbrellas.

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