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Silence fell at the graveside as the Tsar sang a Gaelic lullaby to his Scots nanny; STORY OF SCOT AND RUSSIAN ROYALS IS REVEALED.

GIANT snowflakes fell softly on St Petersburg as mourners gathered to pay their last respects to a remarkable and much-loved woman.

Silence reigned in the shadows of the onion-domed Cathedrals and the nearby Winter Palace as the coffin of the Tsar's governess was carefully lowered into the ground.

The silence was suddenly broken by a strong, clear voice which sang in a language unknown to anyone present, except the immediate Imperial family.

Alexander II, Tsar of all the Russians and renowned as the liberator of the serfs, was singing a Scots Gaelic lullaby, word perfect and in an accent usually heard on the Isle of Mull.

The occupant of the coffin, buried in a cemetery normally reserved for the Royal family and Russian aristocrats, was Catherine McKinnon from the Ross of Mull.

The Tsar had learned the lullaby as she cradled him in her lap, singing and speaking in the soft tones of the Hebrides.

The story of how Catherine became the nanny of the young Alexander, survived being a Scot in St Petersburg while Russia was at war with Britain in the Crimea, was owed a small fortune by a Russian aristocrat and finally died in Florence is a tale never told outside the island until today.

Her life is the stuff of sweeping, romantic novels in the tradition of Dr Zhivago and Wuthering Heights.

Sadly, even on her native island her story is almost forgotten. All traces of her stay in St Petersburg, including photographs, were destroyed during the Russian Revolution and when the city was under siege during World War ll.

The cemetery where she was buried was destroyed by the Bolsheviks because it was the final resting place of Tsarist aristocrats.

Only the sterling efforts of the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University, aided by the Central University of Missouri and many enthusiastic amateur historians like Kevin Byrne on Colonsay, unearthed the fascinating tale.

BUT while there was little written about her adventures, for generations after her death, the story of Catriona Bheag, or Little Catherine, was kept alive in the oral traditions of Mull and some older islanders still remember the tale.

As John Campbell of Taoslan, Ross of Mull, reminisced: "The woman who went to Russia... Catherine McKinnon, she didn't come back, no, she was buried there.

"They sang a Gaelic song... that is what they sang at her graveside... she was in Russia at the time of the Crimea and she said the only thing she feared was that they would take Scots prisoners and treat them badly."

Catherine was born around 1778 in Uisken on the Ross of Mull. Her mother was "a MacDonald" and her father, John McKinnon was known locally as Gobha fada, the "tall smith".

She was the oldest of four known children, followed by her brother, Colin, and sisters, Janet and Ann.

Professor Donald Mackinnon, born in 1839 on Colonsay and who became Edinburgh University's first Celtic Chair, 1882-1914, a grandson of Janet, "as a boy had seen several letters written by Catherine which displayed that she had had a good education."

At an unknown age, Catherine went to Edinburgh and lived with an aunt from Gribun, "Mrs Smith."

There she met an English "lady of rank" whose husband held an official appointment in St Petersburg.

This lady persuaded Catherine, then aged 26, to return with her to Russia as the family's governess.

Catherine arrived in a Russia only three years ruled by Tsar Alexander I. It was a nation at war - with Persia, then Turkey, over the annexation of Georgia, with Sweden over Finnish annexation and with France in 1805 as a prelude to Napoleon's invasion of 1812.

Her employer introduced her to the Tsar's family. Later she entered the Imperial household as a "governess to the younger branches of the family".

She served from the last part of Alexander I's reign (1801-25) into the first part of Nicholas I's reign (1825-55), with years of duty to the young Alexander II, born in 1818.

The canny Scot accrued substantial savings during her loyal service to the Imperial household.

In a will dated 24 June, 1836, from Odessa, the Princess Natalie Akazatoff Corsine granted Catherine an annual payment of 2,000 roubles, should Catherine survive her.

Five years later, on 15 November, 1841, the Princess borrowed 20,000 roubles at six per cent interest from Catherine and guaranteed her a second and equal amount, should Catherine survive her.

Colonel Michael Kiriakoff, of the Tsar's Guard at St Petersburg and a landowner near Odessa, received the money from the Princess and became the sole heir and legatee.

Catherine received two Bills of Exchange of 20,000 roubles each in his name. By today's value, that would be worth pounds 10,000 - a small fortune in the middle part of the 19th century.

In 1848 she gave power of attorney to Russia to collect the debt owed her by Colonel Kiriakoff. But Russia had changed from the country to which she travelled 40 years earlier.

The population had increased and moved into the cities and landowners and gentry in the countryside had the wealth and power.

The revolutions of 1848 engulfed Europe, and Russia was drifting towards the Crimean War.

DURING the war, Catherine was protected from angry factions of the St Petersburg populace by the Imperial Family.

She never feared for her safety and her only concern was that any Scots who were captured and imprisoned should be treated well.

Towards the end of her life, Catherine moved to live in Florence with a "Madame Stianti, the Lady Elena Maybanury who was the widow of Mr Francis Stianti".

Even then she still thought she'd get her money from Colonel Kiriakoff, but, after the Crimean War, Kiriakoff's estate near Odessa and his assets were mortgaged to the Rural Bank there.

When she died in Florence in February, 1858, 80-year-old Catherine had still not received the Russian money owed to her by the legatee of the Tsarist's family.

When he died, the two Bills of Exchange against Colonel Kiriakoff were transmitted to the Italian Consul General in Odessa.

Various descendants of Catherine tried to claim the `Russian Fortune' but the exact number of her heirs in Scotland and in Canada was as big a problem to solve as Kiriakoff's debts, the Stianti claim, or Russian and Italian laws.

The international squabbles over the cash of Little Catherine from Mull showed how an inheritance can generate both co-operation and conflict among the hopeful inheritors.

During five decades of the 19th century, Catherine's heirs in Scotland and in Canada expected some return for their efforts, but received no money.

The mixture of dubious documents, too many heirs and international conflict doomed any success for the heirs of Catherine McKinnon.

But perhaps Catherine was best remembered by a doomed Imperial Family who sang a Gaelic lullaby in her memory.

She never returned to Mull, but at the end Catriona Bheag was remembered thousands of miles from home in her native tongue.

Mike Davis, a historian employed by Argyll and Bute Council's Libraries, said he had never heard of Catherine McKinnon's story but that such an epic tale deserved to be repeated on Mull and beyond.

He said: "There were many women from the Western Isles who went into service on the mainland or abroad - but I've never heard a more fascinating story than Catherine McKinnon's."
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Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jan 15, 1999
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