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Nellie McClung: Stone house a reflection of the workmanship of its creator

This column first appeared in the Victoria Daily Times on July 24, 1937. There is a substantial stone house on Ash Road in Gordon Head that looks out across an orchard to the sea.

This column first appeared in the Victoria Daily Times on July 24, 1937.

There is a substantial stone house on Ash Road in Gordon Head that looks out across an orchard to the sea. In one season it becomes a show place where garden lovers come to gladden their eyes with the sight of a whole field of langorous Regal lilies, whose petals are thick and soft as duchesse satin.

The house is made of dressed stone, quarried and cut by the owner, who took the stones of his own land and lovingly fashioned them for the building of his home, spending five years in doing it. The house, which is a large and handsome one, is finished inside with Douglas fir, also home grown, and every vibration in it gives a feeling of home and harmony.

“Things have a dreadful permanence when people die.” So it is with the stone house, which now stands solid, secure and ageless, but the skilful hand that fashioned it has turned to dust.

However, George Watson’s memory will be green and fragrant for many years to come, for he has left other monuments that, like the stone house, will resist the erosion of time. He served this community long and well in many capacities. While he was a member of the council of Saanich, he was closely identified with the march of progress, and it was he who fought for the water supply that we enjoy here now.

“Watson and Water” was the slogan at many an election.

Banshee Lee, a delightful woodland path, was given to the people of this neighbourhood by George Watson, who bought a strip of land 15 feet wide and almost a quarter of a mile long, and another neighbour, Miss Finlayson, who donated 15 feet beside it, from Ferndale Road down to the sea. So this became a path to the beach for all the children of the neighbourhood, and Watson stipulated, when the gift was made, that this would always be a path and not a motor road, so the young bathers who run down to Margaret’s Bay now with their towels under their arms, run safely.

On June 19, my mind suddenly turned to the stone house on Ash Road, when over the radio I heard that Sir James Barrie had just died in London. I knew the message would bring “muckle” grief to the family there, for the name on the gate is “Thrums.”

I went over to see Mrs. Watson and Marjorie, her daughter, that night, when the word came. The rain was streaking the windows and guttering down the drains to make ponds in the freshly plowed land. Ferndale Road was shining like a mirror, and though the night was heavy with clouds, the long summer evening was still light.

It seemed fitting that the sky should be sorrowing for the passing of James M. Barrie, that spirit of the Eternal Child, who had “plucked at the skirts of the grey old world all these years, coaxing her to come and play with him” — the strange little Pied Piper whose sweet music has set all our hearts dancing.

“My husband was James Barrie’s cousin,” Mrs. Watson said, “and he, too, was born at Kirriemuir — and in the same tenement. The Barries lived at one end and the Watsons at the other. My husband was 10 years younger than James, but age was nothing to James.

“All the children and young people loved him, and when he came back from London it was like a visit of royalty, and him so humble and sweet and always a little sad, as if the world even with all its applause and success was a perplexing place after all. But he always had stories for the children and he was full of games and fancies!”

Two of Watson’s sisters had gone from Canada and had visited at Barrie’s London house on Robert Street where he lived with his wife for 15 years, and had received a warm welcome both from Sir James and Mary Ansell, his wife. She was a lovely woman, much younger than James, and the Watson sisters had nothing but good words for her, though they could see neither of them were happy. In some ways, James was always a child and in other ways an old man, but always the soul of kindness, and when his wife left him, he gave her two houses and a great fortune.

Then we talked about his books and what wonderful women he had created in them.

“And they are all patterned after his mother, Margaret Ogilvy, Mrs. Watson said. “And my husband said his picture of her was exactly to the life.”

We talked about his love of children and of how he had adopted a family of three boys, one of whom was killed in the war, and one lost his life in a drowning accident, but the third one, Peter Davies, was the man who sat with him in the end; and of how he dealt so kindly with women in his books, even the Painted Lady of Double Dykes with her graceful little airs. When profanity poured from her lips, he said, she “swore like a bairn who had been in ill company.”

“Scottish women are independent and resourceful,” Mrs. Watson said. “Reverence, independence and backbone were the cardinal virtues of these humble folk.”

Our talk shifted then to the beginnings of the Gordon Head settlement, and of how she and George thought nothing of putting the baby in the buggy and coming out from town, six miles through the bush. Her people, the Grants, who still live here, owned many acres of this lovely country. This was long before the forest was cleared away.

On one of these six-mile trips, the Watsons saw the spot on which the stone house stands, and suddenly knew it for their home, but it wasn’t for sale. Some man had built a little house there and called it “Jersey Hall,” but he was gone and no one knew who had the selling of the land.

But one day, Willie, her brother, came in to see them in town and announced that “Jersey Hall was for sale, and if they did not buy it, he would.” He named the price, at which George Watson exclaimed: “It might as well be a million. We haven’t the money.”

She said: “We’ll take the place, Willie, but first I have to put my bread in the pans. I’ll go and see about it then.”

“By night,” she went on, with a quiet chuckle, “it was ours.”

“And where did you get the money?” I asked, forgetting my manners in my interest.

“I had it by me,” she said. “I saved $10 here, $5 there, and we all had a little income from Scotland when we came. I just put mine by thinking I might need it for something. No, George did not know about it and he never asked.”

Barrie did not create the resourceful, keen-witted Scottish women who grace his pages — he merely recorded them!