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                        History of The Telfer Family at Tarbet Manse 1897 - 1925 > 

The History Of The Telfer Family at Tarbet Manse 1897 - 1925

By Margaret Sinclair, Mamie’s daughter with vital input and support from Alastair Cuthbertson, Jean’s son

This document tells something of the story of Telfer family life in the Tarbet Manse, Loch Lomond, from 1897- 1925. Much of it draws on surviving correspondence between members of that family, particularly the oldest daughter of the Manse, Mamie, and her lover Jack Martin. It includes an interesting insight into the impact of the First World War on family and community life.

The Appendix contains background notes on the family consisting of the Reverend and Mrs. A P Telfer and their four daughters: Mamie, Jean, Margaret and Florence.

In 1897 Alexander Prentice Telfer was called to Tarbet United Free Presbyterian Church, after eight years of teaching in Duff Free Church College, Calcutta. This Church was built in 4 months in 1844 after the Disruption broke up the Arrochar Parish Church congregation. The oldest daughter, Mamie, was born in India and was five years old when their life in Tarbet began. The next child, Jean, born in Girvan, was then only a year old. Two more girls were born in the years following his induction to Tarbet.

The Ballyhennan U F Church at Tarbet

The Telfer household in Tarbet was a lively one, brimming with life and over-run with visitors, during the 28 years it occupied the Manse. The whole family engaged with the congregation and the wider community of Tarbet, Arrochar, Ardlui and Luss.

In a memoir, Margaret’s son, John Monteith, quoted from her childhood letters to give some idea of life in the Manse. As education was a top priority, all four daughters attended school in Helensburgh daily.

 In winter this meant starting off by lamplight to walk the mile to Arrochar Station and then on the homeward way picking up the lamp from the Station and walking back home in the dark.

In summer the Manse was full of young families and missionaries on leave, arriving sometimes unannounced, and there were always village and church events to support, as a very young Margaret described in a letter to the Maybole Aunts, in 1908.

On Friday night there was another concert given by Mr. Wilson, the headmaster of one of the Alloa [visiting] schools . Florence, May and I were the housekeepers and Mother, Jean and Mamie went to it. Daddy was busy in his study with a paper which he has to read tomorrow at the Zoological Club [No, Mother says it is the Theological Club]. Mother was playing Mr Wilson’s accompaniments on Friday night. Instead of going to the concert Florence and I went over to Arrochar on Saturday with Mother and we made a good many calls. We were late in getting home and I was very tired and went to sleep as soon as my head touched the pillow.

The “family” nature of what is now called the Ministry Team in Tarbet Church is described in a tribute from the Dumbarton Presbytery to celebrate Alexander’s fifty years of ministry.

Assisted by his like-minded and devoted wife, [and his daughters, they might have added] he dispensed a gracious hospitality in the Manse, visitors from the Mission Field being specially welcome. He communicated to his own people something of his own enthusiasm for Foreign Missions, with the result that their contributions were generously maintained, year after year.

This tribute ended with a quotation from one of his sermons. The theme was commitment to Christian Faith.

Here then is something that it is worthwhile to give ourselves to. It is no passing gift, no ephemeral virtue. It is eternal. It will never fall out of date. We shall never wish to undo it, never wish to unlearn. It is a treasure now, both to the possessor and to those around him in a world of need and sorrow; and it will remain with us, beautiful and a joy forever to God and his redeemed children after all earth’s needs are over and God has wiped all tears from our eye.

There is a studio photo taken in 1911 that the Telfer daughters called, “The Four Disgraces.” Mamie, twenty, was the oldest of the four Telfer girls, small, sparkling and challenging -  a word probably not much used then, but it sums her up. She was not allowed by her sisters to be too often on her dignity. Jean was fifteen, her mother’s right hand in keeping house. Then there was Margaret, thirteen, showing, as Jean did, the promise of remarkable dark-eyed beauty. Florence, eleven, was a dainty Dresden shepherdess waiting to catch up. The older folk of Arrochar Parish still remember tales their grandparents had been told of the four beautiful daughters of the Manse.

Margaret, Mamie, Jean and Florence Telfer.


Just before this photo was taken, the Telfers had invited the Martin family to share a picnic by Loch Lomond, on 15th September 1911. The Martins were holidaying in Arrochar and this getting together had been suggested by mutual friends. The two families had much in common. Both fathers had served in the Missionfield in India, and had had to return home because of ill health.

There were four Martin sons and these word pictures of life in the Manse that we can enjoy come from letters written from Mamie to Jack Martin the eldest, over the years 1911-1921. Jack was nineteen on that picnic day, studious and shy. He had eyes for no-one but Mamie. He always remembered that she wore a dove grey dress with a lace collar. It was the age of love at first sight and these two young people were steeped in the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson and “Lorna Doone.” There must have been a lot of laughter and nonsense with eight high-spirited young people, “playing the goat,” as the younger Martin boys were apt to do and “teasing,” which the Telfer girls practised sometimes ruthlessly. The younger ones, still children, sharing a day of holiday, were perhaps hardly prepared for what must have been visibly happening to the two older ones.

They were only three years away from the Great War.

Jack and Mamie discovered that they were both enrolled as students of the Arts Faculty of Edinburgh University. Jack felt it seemed almost too good to be true. One wonders if the student year started in January because letters were exchanged early in 1912. Although they must have at least seen each other in the distance, almost daily, during the student years that followed, they wrote frequent notes and letters, while playing the game of pretending not to know each other, when they were in the same classes!


In August 1913, Mamie was in the Lennox family home in Maybole staying with Aunt Anna, the younger Lennox sister, while Aunt Flora, the older sister, helped their sister Margaret Telfer with the Church’s dreaded Annual Sale of Work in Tarbet, on which the Stipend, the family income, for the following year, to a great extent depended. Collecting all the goods for sale took weeks and the day itself always seemed more than 24 hours long. The challenge of it cast a shadow over the whole year.

Mamie wrote from Maybole to Jack.

On Saturday we got a great surprise. Just as we were setting out to see a new baby [6 days old, a dear wee thing] a telegram arrived from Tarbet saying “Probably visitor this evening.” We expected Auntie Flora but who should appear but Father, very tired after all the hurry and worry of the Sale week and badly needing a rest.

On Monday, Dad took me to Ayr and we went out to the [Burns] Monument. On Tuesday he went back home and I suddenly felt very lonely.

Mamie and her Father were kindred spirits, though all his daughters deeply loved him. Mamie, however, had been an only child for her first five years in India and, during the months when she and her Mother were in the hills to escape the heat, her Father received almost daily letters from there, which shared with him all the little girl’s sayings and doings. He copied these, in his beautiful script, into an exercise book, which is our kind of family heirloom.


The Manse family felt that they lived under scrutiny and Mamie was in the habit of walking a mile or more to the Post Office in Arrochar when she was posting postcards or letters to Jack! When Jean was in the same predicament a year or two later, she did the same - And now I’m going over to Arrochar to post this, but I’m afraid I won’t get over in time for this evening’s post. This was at a time when both sisters were writing three times a week to their young men, which we can believe that everyone in Tarbet knew all about anyway!

As well as sharing friends, Jack and Mamie were more and more drawn into one another’s families, as 1913 went on. In one note she told him, Willie (Angus,) a Telfer Cousin, and an international rugby player, treated Peggy and me to tea down town. Willie and she are sensible lovers. Reading the letters, we have to wonder how these two intelligent people (Jack and Mamie) took so long to accept what was happening to them. How can lovers be “sensible”? Mamie was more restrained but Jack’s diary speaks the language of love every time her name is mentioned - how beautiful she looked and she had smiled at him and gradually the language became more lyrical….. She is such a darling…

Mamie used the letters to send Tarbet news also.

 The only items of interest have been a. A Children’s Treat [Lady Colquhoun of Luss] b. A picnic with Kingstons, Griersons and Us.  c. Tarbet School Prizegiving. It made me feel very old because it is now ten years since I left  d. Return of the Bride and Bridegroom .

These were the Winchesters, back from honeymoon. He was the Minister of the Established Church in Arrochar. There was never anything but goodwill between the Arrochar Church and the Telfers’ United Free Presbyterian Church in Tarbet. This was very different from what happened in Scotland in some parishes, after the Disruption had split them into two warring factions.

Mrs Winchester seems to have made a good first impression, which is lucky for herself, poor thing. She told me she was terribly afraid of offending someone in some way without meaning to. It is bad enough to be a Minister’s daughter but I swore long ago that I would never be a Minister’s wife.

Jean, the “home bird,” as her sisters called her, was accustomed to being chief helper to their Mother. The Manse family managed on the minimum stipend, with a lot of hard work, to provide meals for sometimes sixteen to eighteen visitors at a time, who often arrived without warning. It was what they spoke of as “The loaves and fishes thing.” Fortunately there was a village shop and the farm families of the parish were generous with gifts. There is a lot of cooking and multitude-feeding mentioned in the letters and no-one can ever have gone away hungry.

Jean had been accepted for nursing training but could not start in hospital till she was 22, so she was her Mother’s mainstay. She finished her education (thanks to the generosity of Miss Dodds, one of the Telfer circle of close friends), in “Queen Street,” Ladies’ College, Edinburgh, studying music and art and then had the opportunity to study music further in The Domestic Science College and also for brief spells  abroad. She played the organ on Sundays in Tarbet and Ardlui while her sisters led the singing.

August 1913: Mamie wrote to Jack, giving some idea of what it was like to keep house in the Manse.

I have really been rather busy. It is not easy to combine the duties of housekeeper and student at one and the same time. Suddenly in the middle of a Latin sentence or a passage of History, I remember what is to be for tomorrow’s dinner. Yesterday after reading history notes in the sun, I was picking berries for jam. Still I do get a good deal of time to stew [slang for study]. Jean takes by far the greater share of the housekeeping burden when she is at home.

Excitements were not lacking, such as a (Religious) Revival Meeting, in Glasgow, attended by Jean and Margaret. “It must be a terrible strain to go on like that week after week,” was the comment. They had managed to combine this with a shopping expedition - a new costume for Jean. They all loved clothes. The great excitement was arriving home at midnight, Mamie explained, also, presumably, walking the mile home from the station as usual in the dark.


In spite of the hard work, there does sound through these earlier letters a contentment with the rhythm of Manse life.

My time here is divided between Spring Cleaning, Mamie wrote, Sick Nursing, and last but not least, essay writing. Today I am in full charge. Mother has gone to Glasgow and Nurse always sleeps through the day. Aunt Bess is keeping very much better I am thankful to say, but she is a caricature of her former self. Still, in some ways she is more lovable. She used to be so stately and dignified that I rather stood in awe of her. But now she is so helpless and dependent, just like a little child and I can pet her and humour her to my heart’s content.

Aunt Bess, a half sister of Margaret Telfer’s, had come for refuge to the Manse and stayed on. Elderly single women were dependent on family support, as they grew old. As she became increasingly frail she remained, as a not entirely comfortable family member, but there was never any suggestion of moving her anywhere else. The cost of a nurse must have been borne by some other family member, perhaps another Lennox half sister.

While Jack and Bruce Martin explored Europe, in 1913, Mamie wrote to describe life in the summer in Tarbet Manse. All the Tarbet young folk were home.

The frivolities have not yet quite ceased. We have been up at Blairannich [The Powells’] the last two Saturdays and are hoping to go up again tomorrow. If it is fine, we are to have a picnic on the “steep, steep side of Ben Lomond.” But I am afraid that, after all the rest of the week has been fine, the weather will break on Saturday. Tonight there is to be a dance at the Hedderwicks’ and Jean and I are going – much to my disgust. I have refused the last two invitations, so I really had to go this time. It begins at 9 o’clock, just when I’m beginning to go to bed usually. (The Manse family coined the expression “Hedderwickery.” which meant that these occasions were grander and more formal than the others.) Here Honor Mitchell came in and I didn’t get this posted in time. We went to the dance and came home at 12 like Cinderella. How much longer they went on I know not. What I enjoyed most was watching Honor and Alfred Ernest. She was the Belle of the Ball.



In August 1914, a year later, Mamie, like so many, did not see the war clouds gathering. She was planning a Ben Lomond picnic, the annual challenge; taking the steamer to Rowardennan, spending a night on the top and then hurrying down to catch it back home.

27.7.14. I’ve been breathlessly busy since I last wrote. 1. Getting the family out of the house. 2. Keeping house. Perhaps the Kingstons may be coming up the Ben on Friday too. I do hope the weather holds.

1.8.14 : I wrote my last letter in a fearful hurry and forgot one of the principal things I wanted to say. Maggie (the “extra” Telfer daughter, adopted daughter of close friends) has got an invitation to go to Islay and she may be going on Saturday. In that case she couldn’t very well climb the Ben the day before; she would be too tired to start on such a long journey without a day to rest in between. So, I wanted to ask you if it would be possible for you and Wedderburn (a University friend) to come a day earlier, on Wednesday evening and climb the Ben on Thursday [which happens to be Maggie’s birthday] and then you will get a bit of her cake and mine. I know it is frightfully short notice and I am sorry to hurry you. The only way you could manage to let us know would be to write to Mr Wedderburn on Monday evening if you are not too tired. He would get it on Tuesday morning and you would have his answer on Wednesday morning. Then if you still can’t come on Thursday, could you wire [I’ll refund the 6d because it’s all my fault.] If you can come on Wednesday, just come. We’ll expect you for a meal of sorts.

The reason I want to know is because there will be quite a big party and I want to let them know……the Kingstons, the Winchesters, Mother, Auntie Anna and the kiddies – not Jean of course, as she is still away. I’ll be glad to see them back because I have been so busy. I’ve only just managed to finish Horace [exam set text].


There was to be no Ben Lomond expedition that year, for the world was about to change, with the declaration of a War that many people had believed could not happen. The young men were ready to join up and go.

Mrs Powell is in a fearful state just now, for Ronald wants to be off.

Ronald was one of the many young men who frequently visited the Manse. The good folk of Tarbet paired him off with Jean.

Willie Angus is awfully keen to go. I quite expect he will.

Arrochar and Tarbet families were hard hit in the early months of the War, as the Scottish regiments bore the brunt of the German offensive. Mamie wrote:

Nearly all who have gone from here have been wounded: the 3 Gillies boys, Mr Workman and Hugh Hedderwick. The lot with whom Captain Law, Helen Hedderwick’s husband, went out, have lost 25 out of 28 officers. He is one of the three remaining. The slaughter is just too terrible to think of.

The War and the threat of parting forced Jack and Mamie to abandon the myth of being “sensible lovers” and to face up to the true nature and depth of their “friendship.” The process was a painful one, because of the social restrictions of the time. Engagement, when there was no marriage date, was frowned on and students were expected to postpone marriage till their studies were complete. They measured all bad times afterwards by the darkness of that Black October. They had been trying to deal with the situation by not meeting or writing, for a time. It was to be a four week parting and then it stretched to five and then….

3.10.14. Mamie wrote to Jack from 202 Morningside Road, Edinburgh, her Telfer Grandmother’s home, where she had lodged during the University years.

I didn’t half thank you for the book. This was R.L. Stevenson’s Collected Poems – inscribed. When you gave it to me I felt so bewildered I couldn’t think. But I can’t pretend that I didn’t understand what you wrote in it. What was written was a quotation from “Catriona,” sequel to “Kidnapped.”

“She came between me and the sun. We said what a fine thing friendship was and how little we had guessed of it and how it made life a new thing.” The last sentence was underlined. Judging from the dog-eared, insect-eaten state of the wee book we have now, it was in Africa with them. So it was precious. From then on, pretence was dropped.


They met again, on 8th October. .Mamie remembered, always, a long, long walk by the canal while they tried to make sense of what was happening to them. The Blackness of October must have been during these days of emotional stress and uncertainty. From where we are now, it is hard to understand fully the real and painful problem they were struggling with. They were surely carried away by feelings that could no longer be denied. From what they wrote afterwards in their love letters to each other we can imagine the passion they discovered. In a letter of 12.11.14, Mamie describes how she had been “struck dumb,” with the happiness of being with him; something she seldom was! In another letter of 15.11.14  after spending a Saturday together, as they were wont to do, she writes, Yesterday was just glorious. Oh Jack, my own dearest love, how I am looking forward to next Saturday. This was in her more restrained mode!

They kept the powerful love-letters they wrote to each other, then and in the years that followed, and carried them to Africa with them; treasure that they could not be parted from.

As 1914 came to an end, and 1915 told the same story of death and destruction, the love-story unfolded against a background of continuing loss, as friends and family were taken by war. Mamie wrote

 I can’t understand why we are allowed to be so happy at a time like this when there is so much sorrow all around. Mrs Grierson’s poor young sister-in-law - one of the first to be bereaved - has been here several times. She looks so sad and tries to be so brave. And I heard the other day that Honor Mitchell’s Laddie has been killed at the front – “died of wounds.” The engagement was made public just before the War.

Honor had been the “Belle of the Ball” at the Hedderwick’s dance in 1913. Mr. Grierson was Head Teacher of the Tarbet School and the two families had grown up together.


Some things inexorably did not change. There was, as always, the Sale of Work, the annual nightmare, Waterloo and Bannockburn rolled into one. They never expected to survive it, the family knew they had to do it and almost always it was a resounding success, thanks to the enthusiastic support of the congregation; and the Manse family were assured of their livelihood for another year.

Mamie to Jack; 16.8.15. Home.

We have scarcely time to breathe. The Sale is on Wednesday and we are busy packing things tonight to be taken over tomorrow. Heaps of things I would like to say, but no time.

I am in a tearing hurry again, getting things ready for the concert. To make matters worse I put my foot through the only skirt that is suitable for the occasion. It is a navy blue silk that has been in the house for years and is very wide and therefore fashionable once more.

However I have got a little quiet time now. The others have all gone up to bed and I’ll have to go soon or they’ll be shouting down to know if I have gone to sleep here in the dining room. But I felt I must have a talk with you. I have been just longing for it.


The small church at Ardlui had services only in the summer and students usually helped out.

Mr Winchester’s Ardlui student called on Monday. Jean said he had been greatly excited to hear there was a sister coming home from Edinburgh. Mother shook her head in mock pity afterwards and said, “Poor Mamie, what a pity you are not in a position to accept his attentions. This was teasing, as they all knew Mamie’s antipathy to the idea of marrying a Minister. Jack at this time was more interested in training as a teacher.


The Ben Lomond Expedition did take place in August 1915 and Mamie wrote a full account.

 I herewith enclose a sprig of white heather which I found about halfway up the Ben. We have really done the feat at last; it was all arranged very hurriedly. Mr Jubb of Luss wrote up to us on Sunday and we went on Monday. We all, except Father and Mother, went [including Auntie Flora] and met Mr Jubb and party in Rowardennan. The party consisted of Mrs Torrance of Tiberias Mission and her two daughters and three friends. Dr Torrance meant to come too, but he was too busy. He is helping at Stobhill just now.

 We were oppressed with heat all the way up; I thought we were never going to get there. But we did and it was worth it all. The warm sunshine didn’t last long and we saw the storm clouds gathering at the foot of the Loch and the water turning a lurid red. Then the thunder began to growl, first in the distance and then nearer and nearer. Gradually it got darker and the mist closed in round us, cold and clammy, shutting out everything. The reverberations swept around from the South, West and North, then over to the East and back to the South. Our hair was curling with the electricity. I actually heard my hair sort of frizzling on my brow; it was an uncanny experience. Florence took off her hat and her hair stood straight up on end! I suppose it really was dangerous to be so high up in a thunderstorm but it was magnificent. It was an experience I shall never forget. 

I seemed to get so near to all the Big Things, the Things that really matter. The grandeur of it was awesome but it made me realize as never before the greatness and majesty of God. I do wish you could have been there. I was wishing that all the time. I don’t know how other people felt and I don’t think they knew how I was feeling. But you would have known. I think you yourself would have been feeling much the same. I couldn’t help thinking of last year and of what might have been. Poor Wedderburn. I wonder if he knew we were there and that I was wishing he could have been too. He was one of the early casualties.


In the next letter, Mamie was down to earth again, writing about making jam with her Mother and sewing.

We weren’t in bed till midnight. Then this morning I got up with the kids so that I could write to you and give it to them to post. But Jean was sent on an urgent message to Arrochar and I had to do everything about both breakfasts myself. This afternoon, Jean and her friend Ada Hain have gone out a cycle run and though they had promised to be back to make tea they are not back yet and I have to get it myself and it’s close to post time. Mother goes away tomorrow, Mr MacPherson( an elderly locum minister) has arrived. He seems a genial old man with a strong sense of humour and a great fund of stories. I think we shall get on well. But how I wish you were coming tomorrow.

Mamie complained at a later time that elderly Ministers were not always regarded as suitable chaperones. Were chaperones expected to be bodyguards as well? Mamie wondered.

There is a record, in one of Mamie’s letters, of their father, the Minister himself, being involved in the heavy spring cleaning. It says something about the kind of man he was.

When Father and I came home on Wednesday, we found Jean and Mary [our occasional home help], spring cleaning so we had to set to at once. Thursday was a lovely day but we spent it beating the stair carpet at intervals. None of us could go on long without blistering our hands. However it is safely laid now and Mother was delighted to find how far things were on, when she came home.



By the time Mamie and Jack graduated in 1915, the War, with a rising toll of dead and wounded, was a year old. Like so many young men, Jack was not sure of the way to go and it was complicated by the shame of being rejected as medically unfit for front-line service. He said in a letter that he wished he could wear a badge to explain. However, by the end of that year he had been accepted for the Royal Army Medical Corps. In 1916 he applied to the Seaforth Highlanders and after officer training in England he ended up serving in the trenches in France.

During the fighting in France, The Scotsman published daily the names of the dead and wounded. In 1917 when the big push was launched on the Western Front, Mamie wrote to Jack

There is such a long list of Seaforth names today. I think you must have been up at the Front.

There would follow an agonizing day or so of waiting for the vital postcard. Express Post printed postcards were provided for the soldiers in the front line to send home and they came home fast. Soldiers could summarise the news by ticking a box. Mamie describes the relief on the days the card arrived with a tick in the I am well box. Casualties were heavy and inevitably the families waiting at home found names they knew in the paper and that darkened these days with sadness for the families whose names they saw there. When Jack had his own platoon, he had the duty of writing to each widow after her husband’s death and returning the letters she had sent him. He described the task as Awful.

During these war years, the Manse was as full of people needing comfort as it had ever been. Gone was the chatter, laughter and argument of previous years. The daughters were too much absorbed in their own lives to recognize how worn out their Mother was by the war years, sharing the sorrow of the families in Tarbet who were struggling with loss and uncertainty. Mr Winchester, friend and colleague, the Minister of Arrochar, was in France for much of the war as a chaplain with the King’s Own Scottish Borderers.


Jack’s brothers had been wounded in 1917, Bruce at the Front and Frank, shot down in his plane. Jack himself was wounded in 1918. A bullet had broken a bone in his knee and his war was over. His mother and Mamie visited him together in hospital, carrying the volumes of Shakespeare’s comedies to cheer him.


At long last in November peace was declared.

Young Margaret Telfer’s Armistice Day lettercard to her Mother postmarked Nov12.18, tells how it had been in the University.

Friends! Friends! Isn’t it just too good to be true? We were just wishing we could fly home for the night. Oh what a day it’s been. Witness the enclosed cutting [not there] . Florence was going to stay in the house today but I went out as usual not intending to come home till the usual time. I didn’t hear anything till the bells began to ring, just as Dicky lecturer] began his discourse and the annoying man kept us scribbling the whole hour though we were not taking in  a word he was saying. When we came out at 12 the Quad was full and the matric office packed. Somebody was delivering a speech in there but it was impossible to see who it was! I wish you’d seen the men calmly unhooking the boards off the cars and simply commandeering all cabs, motor lorries etc we happened to meet. However nobody minded because everybody was in the same state of excitement and the ring-leaders among the students were the ex-servicemen. Another procession was arranged for 3.30 from the old Quad and the ex-servicemen were all to appear in uniform. Well, I dashed home, found Aunt Agnes and a neighbour eating a mundane dinner and quite oblivious of the fact that peace had been declared.



Following recovery from his injury, Jack and Mamie had to decide on their future together. While Mamie taught at her old school in Helensburgh, Jack, who could now be called Reverend, was looking for a Kirk and Manse and doing pulpit supply work. There were many young men with the same ambition and understandably the experienced older men were first to be considered. In the end in 1919, he opted to accept a short-term post in the Headquarters of the Free Church, organizing conferences and courses for young men.

For a time the way ahead was uncertain; whether to accept the offer of the HQ post which had now been offered on a permanent basis or to continue the search for church and manse.

The future became clear when Jack and Mamie met Dr Turner, friend of the Martin family, Senior Missionary in Livingstonia, Nyasaland, (now Malawi) who was home on leave. He spoke to them of the desperate need for missionaries and teachers in Livingstonia. They both had missionary blood in their veins, as he pointed out, and they suddenly realised that of course Livingstonia was where they should go. Mamie was glad to think of being able to assist in Jack’s work and use her teacher training.

The serious problem that had to be resolved was that Mamie’s earnings were the main support for the continuing education of Margaret and Florence and Alexander’s failing memory meant that plans for retirement would have to be made. Worry about money, they knew, was responsible for a lot of the stress Margaret Telfer suffered. For a time Mamie wondered about Jack going out to Africa alone and she would continue working for a time and follow later. Jack refused to consider that. They had waited for ten years There was however a way out of the dilemma. Jack had received a generous war gratuity which was still intact and they took the decision to give it to Alexander to help with the fees for Margaret and Florence.  

Rev. Telfer with his wife outside Tarbet Manse




After supporting so many anxious and bereaved folk of both parishes throughout the war years, Mother Margaret was showing symptoms of near breakdown. Mamie was anxious about the effect the threat of parting and separation would have, but they both knew it was for them the right thing. They were after all planning to celebrate their wedding at home, whereas both mothers had gone out to India to be married there! Even when the seven year term, first suggested, was reduced to three years, the thought of the long parting was still painful, for Margaret. She was of the generation of women who used their rich natural gifts in the home and the thought of parting was agony. It made everything harder. They had hoped that “tact and love” would triumph and it did in the end when August 3,1921 was finally agreed, for the wedding date. The three sisters were to be bridesmaids and the way ahead seemed clear at last.

 It was inevitably a stressful time leading up to the wedding with the immediate departure for Africa hanging over everything, the young couple excited and looking forward and Margaret struggling with the pain of parting.

Wedding presents arrived in abundance as both families had wide connections and of course the Tarbet folk were glad to be able to show their appreciation of the Telfer family’s years of service. Jack pointed out the wisdom of holding back from their own purchases till they saw what was finally still needed! They were practical as well as visionary!

Decisions were difficult. Surely they consulted Mother Margaret, who had been this way before them, for advice which would help them to know what just had to be go with them and what could be left at home, meantime.

Jack and Mamie had been gathering bed linen and small furniture for a Manse, already. Jack had made a revolving book case, which was much admired. Such skill was to be useful in Nyasaland. 80 cubic feet was the space allowed for luggage and Jack had to have his motor cycle and side car, Huzz and Buzz. For the first time they argued, but not too bitterly. They were in agreement about the books

….We must have Stevenson and Dickens and the International Library of Short Stories and Poetry of course and some History and ……


After all the uncertainties, the wedding day went smoothly. Mamie’s sisters wore ankle length muslin dresses and wide brimmed hats to match, each of the three in a different pastel shade. She wondered in a letter to Jack, describing the dresses and hats, if the small bride would be noticed in the midst of all the magnificence!


 In a burst of extravagance, for the honeymoon, Jack had booked a week in the Loch Awe Hotel. He harked back to that time – and to his extravagance - every time we drove past this magnificent Hotel in its spectacular setting, in the decades to come. It had clearly been a fitting climax to the decade of waiting. He had justified the extravagance to Mamie by pointing out that for the next few years they would be living very simply indeed, in material terms. 



Livingstonia Mission 1921-25

The Livingstonia time more than fulfilled the promise Jack and Mamie had sensed when they decided to go there. They were appointed to Bandawe by the Lakeshore. Their letters describe a full and busy life, immediate “bonding” with the Tonga people and enjoyable co-working with Dr Burnet, Head of Station and Mrs. Treu, the South African nurse. Mamie’s dream of sharing Jack’s work went beyond the instruction of the girls and women. She wanted them to feel more confident of being able to make a full contribution to the life of the Station. “We are only women,” was an expression that was not allowed!

Mamie’s letters describe the fulfillment of this time of shared work and also their pleasure in the beauty of the Lakeshore and the mountains. From the first day, they were at home.




Summer 1925 

In 1925, Mamie and Jack went home on furlough. She was desperate to reach home, after the four years in Africa. She had hardly reached Edinburgh, however, before she became seriously ill and had to be admitted to hospital. Her Mother, longing to see her, could not wait and made the journey from Tarbet several times to visit her in hospital. Mamie’s letters describe how they found again the loving understanding they had known, which had been threatened during the high stress of the wedding and the departure to Africa, in 1921.

The shadow of losing their home was however hanging over the family. Precarious health but, more importantly, his failing memory made inevitable Alexander Telfer’s retirement. There would be another family living in their Manse. A small house had been found in Edinburgh, but the Manse chapter was at an end. Mamie’s frustration over the delay in reaching Tarbet bursts from the letters from her hospital bed. Jack in fact reached Tarbet before her.

19th September, 1925: Mamie wroteTARBET AT LAST AFTER MANY DAYSCAPITAL LETTERS are hers!

Can’t believe I am here at last. Left Edinburgh at 10.5 [Mother Martin saw us off] and arrived here between 12 and 1 and Dad met us. Rested in the afternoon and Dad and Jack went out. In the evening I explored the near neighbourhood of the Manse – garden, green etc. Also examined every nook and cranny of the house and noted all the changes. Feel as if I am in a dream or Africa was a dream.

Comfortingly, the life of the Manse was going on as though they had never been away and as though it always would go on. Of course there were extra visitors coming to hear about Africa but Mamie still made time to visit beloved places. Soon she was helping Mary, who must have been with them for fifteen years, to “redd up” the house, as though the last four years had never been.

Margaret arrived with a friend, and so did Jack’s youngest brother Henry, soaked and ravenous, having cycled from Stornoway. Henry had attached himself to the Telfer family since the 1911 picnic and remained attached, as young people did. He had a special affection for Florence the youngest of the daughters, but it is believed he just enjoyed joining in the bustle of the family life. He was apt to arrive at the Manse without announcement, as so many did, confident of the unfailing welcome that was there for everyone. He and Mamie enjoyed walks along the shore or into the hills and his bagpipes made music that, he always remembered, she had enjoyed.

During that September, Mamie must have been re-living many glad and painful times chronicled in her decade of letters to Jack from 1911 -1921. She was feeling all the comfort of homecoming, even while she braced herself for the farewell to the Manse.

Somewhere there is a full account of the Minister’s last sermon in the church he loved delivered to the congregation who loved him and the family so much. It is thought that all the daughters were there.

Regular news came from Dr Turner and others in Nyasaland and all the family shared the excitement. The posts were good in those days.

12.11. Jack went to new house where he helped mother to stain the floor.  Sent off  Xmas stuff to Nyasaland.

22.11.  Dad’s last sermon was wonderful. No-one would ever suspect  he needed to retire………

27.11. Farewell to the dear old Manse. Jack and Mamie were moving to St Aidan, Edinburgh, for the final months of their leave, and the Telfer family were moving to the little new house in Plewlands Terrace.

Mamie’s Diary. 26.12. 25 .We had a great evening altogether and All Together. The Four (Dis) Graces of Tarbet Manse sat down to a meal in Plewlands Terrace, together for the first time since August 1921, certainly for the only time till next furlough.

We can be sure there was a lot of laughter as well perhaps as some tears. It is good to know that this last time “All Together” was so happy.

Margaret and Jean Telfer’s wedding that took place at Ballyhennan Church, Sept 1928.      Photo outside Tarbet Hotel





When they returned from furlough in 1926 Mamie and Jack were disappointed to be posted to Ekwendeni, though Mamie did manage to do some teaching and encouraged the women there to value learning. For the birth of their first child she had to make the difficult journey to Livingstonia, where nursing and medical care was available. There was a great welcome for baby Margaret throughout the mission but Jack and Mamie were home sick for Bandawe.

They were therefore delighted when plans were made for them to return to Bandawe in 1928 for the birth of their second child. Dr Burnet and Miss Patrick, the Nurse, were there and their friend Berita could take over the care of Margaret. Her own son Morca was the same age and the two little ones played happily together. The Bandawe people were delighted to think of another child being born to Jack and Mamie there by the Lake.

Tragically, in spite of the first class medical and nursing care both Mamie and a baby boy died. Mamie had contracted the deadly blackwater fever.

At the graveside service, Yoram Mphande, their friend, spoke not just about how Mamie had taught the women but also how she had been like a mother or sister to them.


After taking Margaret home to his parents in Edinburgh, Jack returned to Bandawe to finish his term. He writes, in a letter to his parents, how hard it was for him to make the decision, when his term was finished, to go home for Margaret’s sake and leave Bandawe where “every tree and flower” brought back memory of happiness lost.



Many years later, in 1997, the third generation of the Manse had a re-union weekend in Tarbet. This get together marked the centenary of Alexander’s Tarbet induction. These are some reflections from that time.

As well as all the talk nowadays about Team Ministry there is enthusiasm also for Community Involvement, Outreach and Pastoral Care. Margaret and Alexander, our grandparents, just did them and more. The Manse is still full of all of them, as we found when we had that cousinly re-union; Bed and Breakfast in the Manse and the Sunday Service in the Arrochar Church.

It was easy to imagine them all. Data (the name the Rev. AP Telfer’s grandchildren gave him) in his study, compass-setting for them all with his commonplace book of quotations from the literature of the world’s religions and its poetry, ranging from Rabindranath Tagore through the classicists, including Buddha, to Stevenson and Meredith. Grannie, the Team Manager, with her warm welcome for young and old, sick and sad, troubled and merry. “Seventeen to lunch and fifteen to supper,” Mamie complains in a letter to Jack, And we have a mother and her little sick daughter staying. They are home from India and it is thought that Loch Lomond air may work a cure.” Margaret Telfer worried about young men far from home and single lady missionaries and asked them for week-ends and Christmas so that they would not be lonely. There’s a lot to live up to.

There was no diminishing in the loving support from the congregation showing an almost family-like closeness. Indeed it was still there for me (Margaret) as a child, in the 30’s. All of us of the third generation have lived with something more than history. We took this profound long-lasting relationship with people and place for granted. From Tarbet shoals of letters - even legacies - arrived. Florence, the Tarbet daughter I was most close to, once said to me when I suggested she worked too hard “We all have so much to live up to. It can’t be any other way.” Interestingly, she was the one who also said she could not bear to revisit.

One wonders just how many folk all over the world have cherished memories of the Tarbet Manse.





The Reverend Alexander Prentice Telfer’s (APT) Parents, Siblings & Daughters

Alexander Telfer was born in Carluke, Lanarkshire in 1855. His father, also called Alexander, was the son of John Telfer, a farmer in Carnwarth, Lanarkshire. APT’s mother was Jane Prentice, the daughter of a sawyer.

APT’s father was a miner in Carluke in the 1860s but later became a master dairyman in Edinburgh. APT had two younger sisters and a younger brother.

APT’s father died in 1889 aged 59 and his mother died in 1917 aged 84.

One of APT’s sisters emigrated to Australia and had sons, one of whom, Willie, later became a Scottish rugby and cricket international player.

After her husband’s death, APT’s mother continued to live in Edinburgh along with one of her daughters. It was to this home that APT’s daughters would later visit and sometimes stay during their education.


Notes on APT’s Training and Ministry

APT graduated with an MA from Edinburgh University and then trained as a teacher at the Free Church Training College at Moray House. He distinguished himself there before adding a divinity degree to his MA. He taught at Edinburgh Ladies’ College (Queen Street) where he met his future wife, Margaret Lennox, who was a pupil there. She was the daughter of an Ayrshire farmer. There he fell in love with her, though like Jacob in the Bible they had some years to wait before her family welcomed the union. The other two Lennox sisters were also educated in Queen Street and Anna then taught secondary pupils in Maybole, a rare opportunity for a woman at that time.

APT was ordained into the ministry in 1888 and that same year was appointed to the chair at the Free Church Missionary (Duff) College in Calcutta. The following year he married Margaret in Calcutta and they had one daughter, Mamie, while living in India. By 1896, while still in his early 40s, ill health forced him to retire from India and return to Scotland where he took up his ministry centred in Tarbet.

APT continued to serve the churches in and around Tarbet until 1925 when loss of memory led him to retire to Edinburgh where he died in 1938.


Notes on APT’s Four Daughters

Following on from Mamie’s birth in India, APT and his wife had three more daughters: Jean, born in Girvan in 1896, and then Margaret and Florence born after the parents moved to Tarbet.

With four daughters in the Tarbet Manse, there was never any suggestion that girls need not be educated. After initial schooling in Tarbet, all the girls travelled to St Bride’s School in Helensburgh.

Mamie went on to take an Arts degree in Edinburgh and then a teaching qualification before teaching in her old school in Helensburgh.

In 1921 she married the Reverend Jack Martin, the man she had fallen deeply in love with in her student days. They went out to Central Africa as missionaries returning on furlough in 1925. They returned to Africa and a daughter, Margaret, was born there in 1927. Tragically, Mamie died in 1928 after giving birth to their second child who also died. Tarbet and Loch Lomond held a special place in the hearts of Mamie and Jack.

Following schooling, Jean wanted to train as a nurse but in those days she could not start until she was 22 years old. Pending her training at Glasgow Royal Infirmary (GRI), a kind benefactor paid for her to study music and art at Queen St in Edinburgh and she played the organ for services in Tarbet and Ardlui. In the time leading up to her training to be a nurse, it is clear that Jean was a huge help to her Mother in running the very hospitable Manse. There was cooking, cleaning and helping to entertain the almost endless stream of visitors. This hospitality had to be achieved when there was little money to pay for it. After her nursing training she rose to become a Sister in the GRI. There she met and married in 1928 Dr (later Sir) David Cuthbertson a rising star in the medical firmament. They had a daughter and two sons: Lilias, Iain and Alastair.

Margaret graduated with Honours in English at Edinburgh University in 1922 and did what her sisters vowed they would never do. She married a minister, John Monteith, another rising star, but in the Church of Scotland. She and her sister, Jean, had a double wedding in Tarbet Church in 1928 taken by their Father. The Monteiths carried on the family tradition of open house and community involvement in their two parishes of Fairlie and Bridge of Weir. They had one son, John. Following her husband’s early death in 1941, Margaret became Home Organising Secretary of the Church of Scotland Women’s Foreign Mission Committee, a post she held until retirement in 1958.

Florence secured a place to study medicine in Edinburgh at a time when women medical students were few. After some years in General Practice, she moved to London to take up a career in the pioneering field of Child Welfare. Then, in middle age, she took further training and became a Radiologist. She married in 1948 Ludovic McWhinnie Steele, an engineer, known to us of the younger generations as ‘Uncle Mac’. In all the years in London, he never lost his pronounced West of Scotland accent. He complained about the closeness of the family he had married into and about the Tarbet Manse tradition of hospitality being carried on in their London flat, but truly we believe he enjoyed it.

The Rev. Telfer with his family outside Tarbet Manse. Daughter Jean second from the left and wife Margaret extreme right.