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FROM THE ARCHIVES: Tokens of bygone era can form a fascinating puzzle

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Grace Matheson.
Grace Matheson.

As well as storing records of an official nature, at the Highland Archive Centre we also have collections which have come to us having been discovered by chance, and these can present something of a puzzle.

One such is the Mary Grace Matheson collection, which was found in the loft of a house by someone with no links to the previous family. Nothing was known about the people in the photographs and letters, leaving us to try and piece together parts of their lives.

Grace – as Mary Grace Matheson was known – spent some of her youth, as well as her later years in Nairn, where she died in 1996 at the age of 98. She had worked as a teacher, latterly at Glenhurich Public School in Polloch, Argyllshire until she retired in 1958. At one point in her career, she worked at a makeshift school in a railway carriage at Rannoch Moor, where the only pupils were the four children of the railway stationmaster.

Reading the letters and sifting through the photographs, passports and postcards, we get a sense of her life and her family.

Letter about leaving a house to Grace Matheson.
Letter about leaving a house to Grace Matheson.

Grace was born in Manchester in 1898 to Malcolm Matheson and Johan Nicolson. Her mother was widowed and married her second husband Alexander Stewart in 1914. He was at one time the Provost of Dufftown, and the family lived at Strathdullan, Dufftown.

Grace’s brother Donald spent many years at sea, as indicated by his letters to Grace and their mother, sent from the SS Orna from 1919 to 1931. She also had an older brother, Malcolm, who died in World War I, and was decorated for gallantry in 1917. Their mother erected a memorial to Malcolm at Mortlach Cemetery near Dufftown.

Some of the letters and postcards are addressed to a house called Annfield, in Nairn. On searching in the Valuation Rolls for the County of Nairnshire 1949-1950 we find the house in Tradespark Road; Grace’s mother Johan lived there until her death in 1951.

The inheritance of the house appears to have been the cause of upset for Grace, as her mother had sent her a letter in 1950, the year before her death, saying that the house would be left to Grace and ‘the aunts’. However, Johan had already written her will six years earlier, bequeathing to Grace only the furniture and contents of the house.

We can see from the letter between Grace and a firm of solicitors, that she sought legal help in contesting her mother’s will, but was advised that an appeal would not have any chance of success. Grace’s address at the top of the letter is given as c/o a Mrs Fraser, Cyclists’ Touring Club, Cluny Buildings in Auldearn, which possibly indicates that she was living in temporary accommodation, perhaps a boarding house.

It is clear too, from comments made in letters from her Aunt May and from one J Innes Watson, that they would have been surprised that Grace did not inherit Annfield.

The majority of this collection consists of many photographs of family and friends, and while it has been possible to deduce that Grace’s nephew Ranald died a few years ago, it is not known whether there are any living descendants, as Grace never married or had children.

n Saturday, September 2, sees the return of Doors Open Day at the Highland Archive Centre. Join us on a behind-the-scenes tour at 10.30am, 12.30pm or 2.30pm (call 01349 781130 or email archives@highlifehighland.com to book onto a tour) or drop in to see a display of our favourite historic documents and chat about family history and document conservation from 10am-4pm.

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