Last Friday, an old school friend and I took a nostalgic trip down memory lane when we returned to our primary school in Towie. We were pupils at Towie from 1969 until 1976. It was a delight to be back and to speak to the present children and hear how different their school days are. The blackboards of course are gone along with the gym bars, and laptops now adorn the desks with safety mats and fencing a notable addition to the playground. We still managed to find our favourite spot on the tarmac for a game of marbles!
The younger children gave us an impressive display of various types of dinosaur – they listened, wide-eyed, as their teacher introduced them to the two dinosaurs who roamed the Towie playground forty years ago!
The older children were interested to know if our school dinners were as good as theirs – testament to the current school cook! We chatted to the four pupils who were eagerly anticipating their move to Alford Academy after the summer break. You’re never too old to learn, as they say, and we listened intently as the youngsters and their teacher gave us a local history lesson on a Towie hero – Sir William MacGregor. This story was new to us and I certainly do not recall it being recounted in our time at Towie. I was able to research online to get an expanded version of his fascinating life.
MacGregor was born at Hillockhead, Towie in 1846, the eldest son of John MacGregor, a crofter and his wife Agnes. MacGregor was educated at the school of Tillyduke, just a stone throw away from the farm where I was brought up. He worked as a farm labourer. Encouraged by his schoolmaster and the local doctor who recognised MacGregor’s abiltiy, he entered Aberdeen Grammar School in April 1866 and enrolled at the University of Aberdeen in 1867. He graduated MB and CM in 1872 and obtained his MD in 1874. He then became a medical assistant at the Royal Lunatic Asylum, Aberdeen.
In February 1873 MacGregor became assistant medical officer at the Seychelles and in 1874 he was appointed resident at the hospital and superintendent of the lunatic asylum at Mauritius. This brought him under the notice of Sir Arthur Gordon who was then governor of the island and on Gordon being transferred to Fiji in 1875, he obtained MacGregor’s services as Chief Medical Officer of Fiji. There he had to grapple with a terrible epidemic of measles, which resulted in the death of 50,000 natives. In 1877, he was made receiver-general and subsequently a variety of other offices was added, including the colonial secretaryship. On more than one occasion he acted as governor, and was also acting high commissioner and consul-general for the Western Pacific. In 1884 the ship “Syria” ran ashore about 15 miles from Suva. MacGregor organised a relief expedition and personally saved several lives; his report made no mention of his own deeds but they could not remain hidden, and he was given the Albert Medal and the Clarke gold medal of the Royal Humane Society of Australasia for saving life at sea. In January 1886 he represented Fiji at the meeting of the federal council of Australasia held at Hobart.
MacGregor’s experience with native races led to his being appointed administrator of British New Guinea in 1888. Here he had to deal with a warlike people separated in many tribes, and his great problem was to get them to live together in reasonable amity. It was necessary at times to make punitive expeditions, but bloodshed was avoided as much as possible, and by tact and perseverance MacGregor eventually brought about a state of law and order. He did a large amount of exploration not only along the coast but into the interior. Andrew Gibb Maitland was seconded as geologist in 1891. In 1892 the position was sufficiently settled to enable him to publish a Handbook of Information for intending Settlers in British New Guinea.
MacGregor was appointed lieutenant-governor in 1895, and retired from this position in 1898. From 1899 to 1904 he was governor of Lagos Colony, Nigeria, where he instituted a campaign against the prevalent malaria, draining the swamps and destroying as far as possible the mosquitoes which were responsible for the spread of the disease. Much other important work in developing the country was done by making roads and building a railway. His efforts to improve the health of his community led to his being given the Mary Kingsley medal in 1910 by the Society of Tropical Medicine. He had been transferred in 1904 to Newfoundland of which he was governor for five years. Here again his medical knowledge was most useful in the combating of tuberculosis which was then very prevalent in Newfoundland. He also did valuable work in dealing with the fisheries question, persuading the contending parties to refer the dispute to the Hague international tribunal which brought about an amicable settlement. On 2 December 1909 MacGregor was appointed Governor of Queensland.
MacGregor assisted in the inauguration of the University of Queensland, he agreed to the handing over of his residence Old Government House to be its first home, and one of his first acts as governor was to attend the dedication ceremony on 10 December 1909. He also became the first chancellor and took great pride in the early development of the university. MacGregor was also president of the Royal Geographical Society of Queensland. He chaired the inaugural meeting of the Historical Society of Queensland in August 1913 and became its patron
In 1914 MacGregor retired and went to live on an estate in Berwickshire, Scotland. During World War I he was able to do a certain amount of war work, and also lectured on his experience of German rule in the Pacific. After an operation for intestinal adhesions and gall-stones MacGregor died on 3 July 1919 and was buried beside his parents in the churchyard of Towie.. He married in 1883 Mary Jane, daughter of Capt. R. Cocks, who survived him with one son and three daughters.
Two Australian suburbs are named after him: Macgregor in Brisbane and Macgregor, Canberra.
Not bad for a Towie loon!
It was great to be back in Towie and I am extremely grateful for the time and patience afforded to us by Sally Milne, Head Teacher, her staff and the children in accommodating our visit.