Harley-Davidson devotees rescue crumbling Scots home of legendary motorbike maker

A TINY but ’n’ ben is about to get a new – and noisy – lease of life. The cottage in Angus is the former family home of the American Scot who helped found the most iconic motorbike ever produced. Now devotees of the Harley-Davidson brand have used their own money to buy the cottage to turn it into a pilgrimage site for bikers around the world.

Genealogical research by an Angus Council employee discovered that the father of Arthur Davidson, who co-founded Harley-Davidson with his childhood friend William S Harley, lived in the stone-built house in the hamlet of Netherton of Melgund, near Brechin, until the mid-1850s when his family emigrated to the US.

In July, after three years of hard graft, it will be opened to the public to give Harley-Davidson fans worldwide a glimpse of the Scottish roots of the man whose bikes they idolise.

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The labour of love has been carried out by the Davidson Legacy, a group of Scottish Harley-Davidson devotees. Maggie Sherrit, one of three fans who in 2008 pooled together their savings to buy the cottage, which had fallen into disrepair, said: “The cottage is almost exactly as it was when the Davidsons lived there.

“We hit upon the idea of restoring the cottage and letting it out as holiday accommodation, enabling Harley-Davidson fans to experience what life was like for the Scottish forebears of one half of the Harley-Davidson dynasty.”

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Sherrit and friend Mike Sinclair had been keen to buy the cottage but couldn’t raise the cash by themselves. “We didn’t have enough money until a friend, Keith Mackintosh, was infected by our enthusiasm and offered to chip in,” she said. The Davidson Legacy was duly born.

The cottage is a faithful restoration of the traditional but ’n’ ben that Arthur’s grandfather, Alexander Davidson, his wife Margaret and their six children lived in more than 150 years ago and is the first phase of a project which the group hope eventually will also include a Davidson Legacy visitor centre and museum.

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“[There is] the kitchen – complete with box beds and a 19th-century range identical to the original, irreparable one that was in the cottage – a pantry and a sleeping area in the loft space,” said Sherrit. “In keeping with the 1850s restoration, there’s no running water or electricity but the amenities block in the garden has showers, toilets and all other mod cons.”

However, the restoration was far from an easy ride, and it took years of funding applications, as well as organising planning permission and coping with challenges such as the roof falling in, vandalism and a serious crack developing in one gable end of the cottage, before work could start in earnest on the property. However, Sherrit says she doesn’t regret a moment of it. “We had to save this cottage,” she said. “If it was flattened, the only tangible link between Angus and Harley-Davidson would be gone forever.”

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The family’s connection to the area was discovered by Norman Atkinson, cultural services manager of Angus Council. “I was always intrigued by the local rumour that the Davidsons of Harley-Davidson lived near Brechin before they emigrated to America,” he said.

“I used my genealogical expertise to work back from Arthur Davidson to his grandfather, Alexander Davidson. Thanks to the 1851 census, I discovered that Alexander Davidson was a wright employing two men who had lived at Netherton of Melgund, a hamlet somewhere in the Brechin area, with his wife Margaret and their six children.”

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The Davidson family, including Arthur’s future father William, left Scotland in 1857 to join Alexander’s mother-in-law, a Forfar widow who had emigrated to America years earlier. They settled in Wisconsin and it was there that, in 1903, Arthur, the youngest son of William, went into business with Harley, making motorcycles in his family shed.

The cottage will be officially opened on 14 July with a party featuring bands and support from local bikers. “It’s been incredibly hard work but we’ve had so much help and support from the biking community, especially Harley-Davidson owners,” said Sherrit.

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“Over and over again, we’ve heard the unmistakable noise of six or seven Harleys heading our way and then stopping at the cottage so they could stand where the Davidsons stood almost two centuries ago. Everyone who visits is astounded by what we’ve achieved at Netherton Cottage. You don’t get many chances in a lifetime to save history – this was ours.”

Atkinson said the Davidsons would have lived a simple life at the cottage. “The Davidsons weren’t the poorest of the poor, but Sandy Davidson would have had to work extremely hard all the hours of the day to feed his family,” he said. “As a wright, as well as making wheels, he’d have turned his hand to anything metal or mechanical: shoeing horses, mending gates, repairing ploughs. America must have offered Sandy and Margaret a very tempting chance of a new life.”

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The full story appears in the June edition of Scottish Field