Born: 16 February, 1917, in Tain, Easter Ross
Died: 1 March, 2004, in Easter Ross, aged 87
ROSEMARY Mackenzie was born in Tain, and Tain defined her existence. She founded the town’s museum and was an unrivalled source of knowledge on the district and its peoples.
Born Margaret Rosemary Isabella Munro, her father was WJ Munro, the district clerk for Easter Ross and a noted raconteur whose dry wit and after-dinner speaking skills were in demand throughout the Highlands. Her mother, Winnie Burnett, was an exceptionally talented artist.
Rosemary’s relatives were unconventional. Her mother’s sisters used to cycle from Edinburgh to Tain when the north road still had grass growing down the middle. An uncle, George Munro, was a founder member of the Magic Circle and owned a magic shop in London that was mentioned in Compton Mackenzie’s Sinister Street - it was the source of weird and wonderful presents which Rosemary and her brother and sister always remembered. Another uncle was lead violinist for a North American symphony orchestra.
Rosemary’s upbringing was firmly rooted in Easter Ross. She accompanied her father on visits, learning about not only the district but also the visible mark left by her own relations in terms of farm and croft ownership, family connections, and road and bridge construction.
Her father died in 1933, and suddenly the family were in much more straitened circumstances. Her brother had to leave university and Rosemary trained to be a secretary in Edinburgh. She worked for the Edinburgh legal firm of Strathern and Blair, whose clients included the Duke of Buccleuch. His secretary was ill and Rosemary’s services were volunteered, with accommodation provided for her in the servants’ quarters at Drumlanrig Castle. One letter he dictated was to "Dear Loopy". Another household member had to explain to her that it was for King Leopold of the Belgians.
A rising star in the law firm was a brilliant young lawyer, Ian Drummond Mackenzie. He and Rosemary fell in love - he had been very shy and she made him laugh. It must have been an interesting collision of stiff Ramsay Garden Edinburgh with Highland democratic Tain.
The Second World War intervened, and they married at St Cuthbert’s in Edinburgh in 1940. Rosemary joined the Land Army with friends from Tain. Ian, who had joined the Seaforth Highlanders in 1939, saw active service in France and was then posted to North Africa, where he was killed in action in 1943.
After this huge blow, Rosemary applied for service overseas and was sent to Stranraer for training. A new forces’ club was set up and Princess Mary, the Princess Royal, came to perform the opening ceremony. Rosemary was one of five YWCA officers to be presented. She later wrote: "Just before the princess arrived, a formidable lady came up to me and said, ‘who are you?’ I told her and said we were waiting to be presented. She said, ‘you are far too young’, and proceeded to tell me why she should be in the line. I told her if she was quick she might meet the princess this way, pushed her into the kitchen and turned the key in the door."
Rosemary was posted to Italy as welfare officer in Bari, looking after troops on furlough from the front. Life was very much about using initiative and ingenuity to cadge and barter items and services.
After the war, Rosemary returned to Tain and became, for a brief period, private secretary to Captain Allan Ramsey, a cousin of the Queen, who lived at New Tarbat. More significantly, she came to know Miss Rosa Williamson Ross of Pitcalnie, hereditary chief of the Clan Ross. She had historic papers and documents, dating back to the 15th century that had to be ordered and recorded, and Rosemary helped her with this task, going on frequent visits to Register Office in Edinburgh to have them catalogued, repaired and preserved.
They found Peter Williamson post marks. He ran a Penny Post in Edinburgh from 1773 to 1793. Miss Rosa was not at all wealthy and Rosemary took these down to London to be sold. Afterwards, on special occasions, Miss Rosa would say: "We will have lunch on Peter Williamson today." This whole experience fired Rosemary’s latent interest in the history of Easter Ross and her lifelong association with the Clan Ross.
In 1966, Tain celebrated the 900th anniversary of the award of a charter by King Malcolm Canmore, from which it sought to claim the title of Scotland’s oldest royal burgh. The Queen Mother visited the town, and Rosemary was asked to organise an exhibition of local material. (She pulled together items of such colour and interest that the Queen Mother stayed far too long, nearly wrecking the rest of the day’s timetable.) Thus was born the Tain Museum. The collection was magnificently random, set out in ramshackle cases acquired from a grocer. Labels were hand-written with copious information, and it became a collective memory of a town and a district. Items included photographs of the world’s oldest eel (it was caught in the Tain River, lived for more than 60 years, outlasting the boy who caught it, and was obituarised in the New York Times) and of the world’s "oldest aspidistra", which again belonged to a Tain man, was more than 100 years old, and had crossed the Atlantic twice.
People started to bring in more objects and documents. Swarms of volunteers were co-opted, and Rosemary taught herself antiquarian skills and expertise. She was indefatigable in identifying new material and exhibits, often finding them on enthusiastic "ploys" into the countryside, with her friends, nephews and nieces as willing conscripts. Many other Highland museums of later foundation took their cue from Tain.
As her reputation grew, people from all over the world wrote and came to see her in increasing numbers, seeking information on their ancestors who had come from Easter Ross. As she tracked links and names from her own records and those of the town, she became a living reference book.
She became a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and was made an MBE in 1985, which gave her great pleasure as her father had been awarded the OBE for his own services to the district. She later relished being chieftain of the Tain Highland Games. Her enthusiasm, energy and involvement remained unabated right up to her tragic death in a car accident.