Alexander Geddes was a great Scotsman. He was a man, the son of the tenant of a small hillside holding in the parish of Glass. He left his native land when he was 17 years of age to push his fortunes on the great republic of the west; and when he died he was the absolute owner of more than two thirds of his native parish and he had erected on it a mansion house of a substantial and beautiful character.
And all his career never affected his genial bon-homie and his plainness and frankness. These were among the most pleasant characteristics of his nature, jovial, honesty, frank and kind, his memory will live for long in Glass. The inscription on the grave of the architect of St Paul's Cathedral translates as 'If you seek his memorial, look about you.' And if regard be had to the beautiful change he wrought on the physical appearance of the parish of Glass which he loved so greatly, altering as he has done bare hillsides to lovely wooded stretches, and introducing to this upland parish some of the latest features of scientific attainment, then such an inscription would be applicable in the case of Alexander Geddes.
So much for generalities. Mr. Geddes was born at Bodylair, Glass on the 3rd May 1843. It is superfluous to note that the oldest was the late William Geddes, Principal of Aberdeen University. Other brothers were Mr Peter, Mr. James, who rose to be a judge in Bengal and died in India in 1880, and John who bore the name of his father and who died in youth in 1846 through a fall from a horse.
In the death of the laird of Blairmore there has gone the last male member of a most remarkable family. Of four sisters three survive. The eldest Jeannie lives at Crieff. Another sister Helen still survives. Miss Maggie Geddes died in Dresden in 1873, and the youngest daughter Charlotte is the widow of Mr James Reid of Auchterarder House who was the head of great locomotive works in Glasgow. His eldest brother William had been sent to Elgin Academy to enjoy higher learning than was possible in Glass. He became the parochial schoolmaster of Gamrie and wrote a most beautiful poem, now a classic, on the Old Churchyard of Gamrie.
The day came when the worthy farmer of Bodylair could congratulate his son on being appointed to the Greek Chair at Aberdeen University of which he lived to be the principal. In an intellectual atmosphere suggested by such facts Mr Alexander Geddes was brought up. He received the rudiments of his education at the parish school then under Mr Arthur Stephen, a fine type of the old parochial Schoolmaster, whose twin brother was at the same time head of Fordyce Academy. Two years spent at King’s College have the young student an intellectual equipment that was in later years to stand him in good stead when he sought a place in the commercial affairs of America.
In 1880 when he was 17 years of age he sought his fortune in Canada. The lad went first to Montreal where he had experience as a soft goods merchant, as it is called there, in the business of Mr. William Muir. He stayed there only a short time, giving his services later to Mr. Alex. Mitchell – of the Dufftown Mitchells of Parkmore. Here we should say that his mother was Jane, a daughter of Peter Macdonald and Elizabeth Mitchell – the latter of the family of Parkmore.
Mr Alexander Mitchell was a very extensive grain merchant in Montreal, and there young Geddes found considerable scope for his undoubted business energies. In course of time Mr Mitchell established a branch in Chicago, then a shadow on Lake Michigan of the now mighty city and its promoter had the presence of mind to send his relative Mr. Geddes to aid in its establishment. That was before the great fire of Chicago. Mr. Geddes was then beginning to find his feet as the saying goes. He saw the vast possibilities of Chicago. He took advantage of them, and that meeting place of the West and East became the sphere of his activities attended to the last with success. On October 7, 1871 there broke out the devastating fire of the Lake city. Three and a third square miles lay in ruins and there were consumed in the flames, buildings etc. to the amount of 190 million dollars. In that calamity Mr. Geddes suffered grievously.
He had then begun business on his own account as a produce broker; he was comparatively young and in the devastation of his premises he saw dire possibilities. These, it need hardly be said, were surmounted and today in the billiard room of Blairmore House is to be seen an interesting remembrance of the great calamity, in the form of a fire proof safe, which, containing scripts and other valuable papers, the property of Mr. Geddes, came safely through the conflagration. In a characteristic sentence Mr. Geddes had inscribed on the safe an epitome of its history and on the peaceful heights of Blairmore it may be read today.
From that time onwards Mr Geddes business flourished exceedingly, growing in proportion as the great city of Chicago has itself grown as a great distributing centre of the physical needs of mankind. For some years he had a junior partner Mr. George Ward. He was loth to associate himself, on Mr Ward’s death, with any other, particularly as he had in view the fact that soon John might come to take a responsible share in the business. Although Mr Geddes had then to work under severe pressure he had a laudable object in view and he found his reward when Mr. John Geddes was put in a position to display and develop his first rate business capacities, and when the deceased gentleman came across to join in the celebrations of the coronation he knew that he had left his large interest in very capable hands.
Mr. Geddes, we believe, was financially interested also in meat packing companies of which industry Chicago is the world’s centre. Among those which he had shares were the International and the Continental. In Chicago he lived a most busy life and it is a pleasure to recall how he used to say that in the great scene of American activity the personal clement told for so much as it did and does. The extensive business he conducted had, we believe, its foundation in his own integrity his transparent honesty and his wonderfully attractive qualities and its great success may in large measure be credited to his own sense of self-reliance. If he made a decision he abided by it. Seldom did he ask in business matters the advice of anyone. Shrewd, far seeing, decisive he came to a conclusion almost with instinct ion; and the parish of Glass proclaims today in its re-created outward appearance, how successful that course has been. Than that of Mr. Geddes there was no more familiar figure in business circles in Chicago.
His lairdly form and honest voice – his Scotch accent which he never lost – were there very familiar. In business circles of the city he was held in very highest esteem, a fit illustration coming to hand to his widow a few house after his death. The cable was sent from Chicago at 5.48 pm on Wednesday (American time) and addressed to Mrs. Geddes, it said: – Those undersigned and many others of the Board of Trade extend you heartfelt sympathy in your great bereavement. The membership of this Board are unanimous in their expression of sorrow in the loss of their old friend and fellow member.
When Alexander became the principal heritor of the parish, he showed his affection for it in so beautifying and improving his native glen that the property is now one of the most lovely in the north of Scotland.
He first acquired property in Glass in the autumn of 1876 when he purchased the old Blairmore estate bounded by the Drumuir road on the west and the Cairnborrow property on the east and in this connection we cannot fail to note here the beautiful words of his brother, the Principal, when he put on record in a publication for private circulation, language which illustrates the great satisfaction with which the family saw Mr Geddes become a Scottish Laird and a laird too in the parish of Glass.
"With the rise of his (Alexander’s) good fortune, a still greater feat was achieved, and one that proved the crowning enjoyment of my father’s life, namely the purchase by his son from Lord Fife of a large portion of his native parish. To see his son sit as Laird or owner of broad lands when he himself had yearned, for long in vain, to become TENANT of a few genial acres, was to my father an exceeding joy and he would say with brimming heart, his cup was running over, all through the great prosperity that had attended and the notable generosity that distinguished his youngest son."
Two or three years later Mr. Geddes supplemented that acquisition by a purchase from Mr Stevenson of Cairnborrow which brought him to the banks of the Deveron and included the site of the present mansion house. His next purchase was Aswanley on the right bank just facing the mansion house.
His next purchase was in 1888 when he bought, along with Mr. John Walker of Edinglassie all the remaining property of the Fife family in the parish of Glass, the estate of Edinglassie falling to Mr Walker and that of Invermarkie to Mr. Geddes. This purchase rounded off the growing estate in a very convenient manner. His last purchase was Glen of Bellyhack which is situated partly in the parish of Botriphnie. Thus while he began life as a poor boy on the small farm of Bodylair, he died absolute owner of two thirds of his native parish. From the very first he carried out extensive improvements and as he was himself of a thoroughly practical turn of mind he was, more frequently than otherwise, the planner of the buildings he constructed. He built a handsome and most convenient steading at Mains of Blairmore and another at Asswanley; but the fact, indeed, is that he renovated most, if not all, of the farm steadings on the estate at the cost of many thousands. A great believer in the local and national advantage of cottar houses of those he built many; draining operations he carried out on a large scale; and he planted hundreds of acres of land quite changing the appearance of the landscape in many directions. He took pride and pleasure in seeing everything in the best of order, and he was most happy when he knew that everyone around him was doing well and was comfortable. That reminds us of an incident which was thoroughly characteristic.
Four years ago he was seeking to let Mains of Blairmore, which had been for some time in his own hands, and in the public announcement regarding it Mr. Geddes inserted these words; "A competent and likely to be contented tenant is more a requirement than even a fair rent" He was most considerate in his dealing with his tenants and they in turn had a great regard for him and were proud of his achievements. His mind was always on the schemes or improvement which he had in view. While he enjoyed a day on the moors he could not be called a keen sportsman. He seemed to enjoy himself more in the supervision of workmen who were carrying out some scheme he had in view. If he were seen quietly leaving the hill he might have been next seen over-looking what a gang of labourers were doing, inspecting a building in course of erection or watching the progress made in land reclamation. That was a work on which he spent largely, for at the farm of Blairmore he took in from what was little better than a morass a hundred acres of land at a cost of about £15 per acre. He made roads, planted belts to provide shelter from the wind and in fact recreated the estate.
Some large local expenditure naturally helped materially the condition of many parishioners, while the improvements effected certainly sweetened the lot of numerous families.
With all his success he never lost his interest and friendship in his old school mates in the parish. He had numbers of them in responsible positions round about him and the relations between him and them were of the most cordial character, with the result that his interests were ell cared for, whether he himself was present or absent.
He took a hearty interest in the general work of the parish and was a member both of the School Board and of the Parish Council. Mr. Geddes built for himself a large and beautiful mansion house on a slight eminence overlooking a beautiful stretch of the Deveron and opposite to Straitinnan Hill, the whole appearance of which he altered by extensive planting. He adopted the wise plan of laying out the garden and grounds before beginning to build, which he did in the autumn of 1884, the house being finished in 1886.
In the grounds are bowers of natural beauty fitted to afford great pleasure. The house is a very handsome building and although there was an architect appointed, Mr. Geddes himself really planned a large part of it. On the side next the river it resembles the Scotch baronial style while the other side is of a castellated form. It is all built of blue heathen, every stone of which was gathered from the surface of the estate and the facings are of Kemnay granite. It is furnished throughout in very elegant style.
If he were proud of his beautiful home, as he might well be, Mr. Geddes was even prouder of the installation of electric light which he introduced to it, for the whole of it was his own work, and from beginning to end not an engineers was at it. The water which provides the power is taken from the Deveron in an aquaduct about 1200 yards above the house. Mr. Geddes was opposed in theory to accumulators and he arranged that the light should come straight from the dynamo without having re-course to an accumulator. The plan proved most successful, and the work has gone on smoothly and efficiently since its establishment in 1893.
The stables, the coachman’s house, etc. are lighted by it as well as the mansion house and there are altogether close on 150 lights. The whole idea a lasting monument to his mechanical ingenuity and skill.