Can you remember the Scottish link binding together the three picturesque villas you can see below? Fortunately, these villas have survived the wave of destruction which, in the name of renovation (and profit), has deprived Arcachon of some of its most beautiful “Arcachonnaises”, as these 19th century architectural jewels are locally called.
I’m going to give you at once the answer to my question but if you want to get an idea of what these beautiful old houses look like today, you can read my last post about the subject. It is entitled ‘A mysterious Laird Macgregor in Arcachon‘. You will find in it some of the photos we’ve taken of the villas at the end of last summer. We’ll go back there soon to revisit the ‘Ville d’Hiver’ in winter when the sweet scent of the mimosas mingles with the vivifying smell of the pine trees in the oceanic atmosphere.
Now, here’s our link! Once upon a time there lived in Arcachon a Scottish gentleman rich enough to own the three beautiful villas you can see on the photos above. His name was William Laird Macgregor and when he bought villas ‘Eugénie’ and villa ‘Hermosa’ he immediately renamed them. The first one became ‘Glenstrae’ after the name of clan Macgregor’s territory in Scotland and the second one ‘Soleil Levant’ perhaps because, from its gazebo, the lucky owner of this villa could admire the sun rising on the Bay d’Arcachon. ‘Craigcrostan’ (which means ‘cliff of the puffins’ in gaelic), the third villa and certainly the most sumptuous one was built for him by an English architect on the dune Laird Macgregor had bought for the purpose. This villa proved to be big enough to serve as a lycée at one time.
Each villa in Arcachon has its own story to tell and the history of the town is in itself a fascinating one. It emerged in the mid 1850s from amidst a dense forest of pine trees, oaks and shrubbery and there were no road to reach the place which was then inhabited by a few fishermen and peasants. Following the advice of local entrepreneurs, Arcachon rapidly developed into a seaside resort which became very popular with the Bordeaux bourgeoisie. Rich and famous people began to come from all over the world and among them great artists and writers . Clearly the town had been designed for people who had wealth if not health. Arcachon became reputed not only for the beauty of its landscape but also for the healthy benefits of its balsamic and oceanic air and its waters. We know that Laird William Macgregor had settled there for medical reasons.
At its southern entrance from the Atlantic ocean, Arcachon Bay is crowned by Europe’s largest sand dune, the Dune de Pyla (or du Pilat), nearly 3 kilometres long, 500 metres wide, reaching 107 metres in height, and moving inland at rate of 5 metres a year. (Wikipedia)
I immediately tried to know more about Laird William Macgregor but it was not easy matter. Except for the fact that the man had the reputation of being of a rather eccentric nature I did find nothing about him around here. I will carry on my investigations in the months to come. The gentleman may have been buried in a local churchyard and we might well fall upon his grave one day or other…
However, if my local investigations have proved to be rather disappointing, though the magnificent Craigcrostan villa can give us an idea of its first owner’s tastes, I’ve found a lot of information on the web. First of all, I’ve fallen on a very interesting page about this mysterious Laird Macgregor in a very lively autobiographical book written by an American lady whom he met in San Francisco in the aftermath of the American Civil war (1850-1870).
To begin with, I must confess that I had made a mistake about the meaning of the word ‘laird’ in ‘William Laird Macgregor’. Laird usually means ‘lord’ in Scottish but here it happens to be part of the family name of the gentleman, ‘Laird’ being the name of his father and ‘Macgregor’ that of his mother.
My investigations about the mysterious Laird Macgregor of Arcachon owe much to the page I’ve found in Ellen MacGowan Briddle’s book. First, we learn that in 1876, when she met William Laird Macgregor in San Francisco, the ‘delightful old English gentleman’ was seventy, which leads to the conclusion that he was born around 1806. As it is also mentioned that the gentleman came from the famous family of shipbuilders named ‘Laird’ and that his mother was a ‘Macgregor’, it confirms that he did belong to the well-known Laird-Macgregor family rooted in Greenock, near Glasgow.
The gentleman’s father, William Laird, was born in Greenock to John Laird and Janet Galbraith in 1780 and he died in England in 1841. He married Agnes Macgregor who was born in Scotland in 1780 to Gregor MacGregor. She died in England in 1853 and they had 5 children. William Laird who was a gifted entrepreneur, moved to Liverpool in 1810 to develop the family rope manufacturing business and in 1824 he established an Iron Works at Birkenhead where he would be joined by his eldest son, John Laird, in 1828. There would be much to say about the family business but it is not our purpose here.
So, John Laird, born in Greenock in 1805, happened to be the eldest son in the family and as such soon followed on his father’s steps, becoming famous in England, and all over the world, in the shipbuilding trade and also locally as a developer and politician in his town of Birkenhead. As for William Laird Macgregor, the gentleman of Arcachon, he was born as a ‘second son’ in Greenock in 1806. As such, he inherited his mother’s name of Macgregor and also her estate in Scotland but I could not find out where it is situated. The family having moved to England in 1810, William Laird Macgregor must have left Scotland at the age of four. He may have come back to his native country later but I have found no details about that. How confusing are all these names ! A MacGregor Laird, the youngest son, was born in 1808 and he would become famous as an explorer in Africa. I’ve found out no traces about the other two children.
From a newspaper obituary I’ve learned that William Laird Macgregor died in Arcachon in 1893, probably in the villa Craigcrostan which had been built in 1880. In 1876, at the time of his meeting with Ellen MacGowan Briddle he is said to have lived in the South of France in a “white marble palace”. He was a great traveller and was accompanied in his travels by his faithful servant named Broughten, probably the same man who used to wait for him at defined checkpoints to fetch, one after the other, the blankets in which his master used to wrap up snugly when he embarked on one of his daily horse-car périples in the streets of Arcachon. We also learn about the old man’s deep affection for Nellie, the author’s little daughter who reminds him of the little girl he had lost. And a few lines full of humour reveal some of the gentleman’s small eccentricities…
Here’s Ellen MacGowan Biddle’s book. On the cover photo from left to right we can see Act. Master John McGowan, U.S.N., Ellen McGowan Biddle, and Col. James Biddle, 6th Reg. Indiana Volunteer Cavalry.
Below is the page I’ve mentioned a few lines ago, about William Laird Macgregor. I’ve tried to replace it in its context but I recommend the reading of the whole book for it is a very interesting and moving testimony about life in the aftermath of the American Civil War. It reads like an adventure novel and last but not least it is very beautifully written.
SITTING on a rose-covered porch, with the odour of jessamine, heliotrope and magnolia all about me, my thoughts went back to the delightful days of my life spent in Mississippi; the inspiration came upon me to write the reminiscences of my army life beginning in that beloved State.
E. McG. B.
SANTA BARBARA, CALIFORNIA.
‘Never set sail to fear :
Come into port grandly
Or sail the seas with God.’
In January, 1876, I started with my little daughter and nurse for Arizona. We took the express train for Chicago, there changed cars for Omaha, and thence to Ogden. The road was not new to me, though it had greatly improved since I first went over it. A short stop was made at Ogden for passengers to identify their luggage and pay for any extra weight they might have. We were soon off again for San Francisco, as we supposed our next stop; but the weather had become very cold, heavy snow was falling, the drifts were great, and we were soon stalled.
The snow-ploughs opened the road over which we had come to a little frontier town, and our regular meals, such as they were, were brought to us from there. Fortunately, I was prepared with some tins of pate de fois gras, chicken and deviled ham, also tea, an alcohol lamp and many other little things packed by my dear thoughtful mother, whom I think no emergency ever found unprepared. We were snow-bound three days before the snow-ploughs succeeded in digging us out. All this trouble has now been overcome and the winter is a delightful time to cross the Continent.
On our arrival in San Francisco we went to the Occidental Hotel, which has always been frequented by army people. We remained there the entire winter. Just as the Colonel was starting from Arizona for me trouble broke out on the Mexican border, and he was ordered out with a squadron to drive back Mexican soldiers from violating neutrality laws; and
on his return from that expedition he had to go out after the Chiracauhuas and Apaches, who were under the celebrated Cochise. The character of Arizona at that time was entirely in favor of the Indians, the food consisting of baked mescal-root and other things growing wild in the land they travelled over, so the raids on the white settlers were almost continuous.
While we were waiting for the Colonel I had the pleasure of seeing many of the friends who were so kind to me during that winter when I was there ill and the Colonel at the Modoc War. We also made the acquaintance through Admiral Almy, U. S. N., of a delightful old English gentleman, named William Laird Macgregor. This gentleman belonged to the famous family of ship-builders named Laird in Eng- land, but being a second son he had taken his mother ‘s name of Macgregor when he inherited her estate in Scotland. He was well known by all the older officers of our navy, whom he had entertained delightfully at his home in the South of France. He was a great traveller and had been making a tour of our country, intending to return home via China ; but had been ill and was obliged to wait until he was strong enough for the voyage. He was over seventy years old, but most intellectual and agreeable, also a little eccentric and very systematic, weighing himself before and after each meal; always carried a pedometer or odometer when walking or riding. Broughten, his excellent valet, looked after him as though he were a child. Mr. Macgregor became very fond of my little daughter, who reminded him of a little girl he had lost many years before. He sent to Scotland for pure jams and candies, and many delightful books, which Nellie still has. He was most kind to us both in many ways and we grew very fond of him. Our friendship lasted until his death, many years after, at Arcachon, Gironde, France, where he had built in that lovely climate a white marble palace. For years after we left him, during the time we were in Arizona, he sent English and French papers to us; and, to my astonishment, one day I saw a letter I had written him, descriptive of our journey to Fort Whipple, printed in one of the English papers. He was kind enough to say that Nellie and I had brightened up his enforced stay in San Francisco. I have always believed in the doctrine of compensation. Surely, here was an example. A few years before strangers had ministered unto me and brightened my sick-room, and now here, in the very hotel, I was able to do the same good turn for a stranger.
Reminiscences of a Soldier’s Wife Ellen McGowan Biddle 1907 Stackpole Books 2002
There are still many zones d’ombres in the life of the Scottish lord, or laird , who owned three villas in Arcachon. So our investigations are going on… Pray Mr Sherlock Holmes, would you help us?
In the meantime, bonne lecture !