Being out in the countryside with my dogs gives me time to think. I’ve learnt the pleasure of solitude without being lonely, and that’s a good feeling for me.

Welcome to "Man with two dogs" - the family website for dog owners and dog walkers.

This is my countryside diary which appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper.

The Davidson Legacy to Harley-Davidson® – The Scottish Banner

August 31st, 2013

It was old fashioned good luck that saved the near-derelict cottage known locally as the ‘old Davidson cottage’. Local tradition had it that in the mid-1800s it was tenanted by Alexander Davidson whose grandsons were the Davidson side of what has become the Harley-Davidson motor empire.

Built in the latter part of the eighteenth century as the wright, or carpenter’s, house for the local smiddy or blacksmith’s shop, the original building had been a single storey, clay and bool but ‘n ben. i.e. A two-roomed cottage built of stones cleared off adjoining fields, bound together with clay mortar – a method of construction common in eighteenth century Angus and Perthshire.

The location of what Harley-Davidson enthusiasts might regard as a world heritage site is the township of Netherton on the B9134 road between Brechin and Forfar. The cottage sits on an elevated position above the road, looking across the flat, fertile plain of the Howe of Strathmore to the foothills of the Grampian Mountains. Close by is the site of the important 7th and 8th century Aberlemno Pictish Standing Stones, and in Alexander Davidson’s time the lands were all part of the Earl of Minto’s estates.

When the cottage came on the market it was a sad old building smothered in ivy with stems as thick as a man’s wrist, and a gaping hole in the roof. There was evidence of fairly recent occupation. The last tenant had been Bella Edwards who had looked after her father there until his death aged 96, and Bella herself had died aged 94.

Lacking any modern services, there was no electricity or toilet and Bella had a key to a shed where she could draw water and carry it home in a pail.

This was its condition in 2008 when Mike Sinclair, a lifelong Harley-Davidson devotee, learnt of the cottage’s provenance and decided to buy it pretty much on impulse. Whatever problems he anticipated, the reality of the task he had set himself proved much more onerous.

Initial reaction to his purchase was indulgent disbelief at his naivety; hoped-for funding didn’t materialise; boundary disputes and planning issues consumed time and money. But a core band of staunch supporters who shared the dream helped see the project through the rough times.

In order to regularise the project Mike formed the Netherton Cottage Development Company and ‘The Davidson Legacy’ with Maggie Sherrit and Keith Mackintosh, two other committed enthusiasts.

An entry in the 1851 census revealed that Alexander Davidson (b.1807) was tenant of the cottage and he is described as ‘wright’ for the adjoining smiddy. He employed a journeyman blacksmith and an apprentice who lived in the cottage with the family.

Sadly, all traces of the smiddy have disappeared under a housing development. To have been able to recreate the working area would have given an added dimension of authenticity and authority to the site.

Alexander (Sandy) Davidson married Margaret Scott (b.1810) in nearby Aberlemno Church in 1832 and their six children were Ann, Margaret, William, Marjory, Alexander Jr., William C., and John. To accommodate his family, Sandy raised the height of the original clay biggin’ and added two upstairs rooms.

It is interesting that when Mike Sinclair first peered into the dilapidated interior of the old house there were still the remains of Sandy and Margaret’s original box bed in the kitchen and family living area – a common arrangement for the period.

The story shifts to Margaret’s mother who lived on the nearby Guthrie estate where Guthrie Castle is the clan seat of clan Guthrie. Widowed, she took the brave step of emigrating to America with her unmarried children, settling in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Clearly a formidable personality, she built up a thriving business trading with the Native Americans. According to family tradition, in a letter to Margaret she wrote that ‘if a man can do an honest day’s work he’ll make his fortune in America’.

Perhaps it was the prospect of turning the page on his old life and of being completely his own man in a new one but the outcome was that, in 1857, Sandy and Margaret, and their surviving children, packed up their life in Scotland and followed Margaret’s mother to Milwaukee.

Settled in his new life Sandy quickly found work as a jobbing carpenter. His son, William C Davidson, married Margaret McFarlane from Stirling and they had three sons. The boys clearly inherited their grandfather’s knowing hands and became pattern makers working for the railroads.

The story given to Mike Sinclair is that the three brothers Arthur, William and Walter were all keen fishermen and that they cycled to the many lakes around Milwaukee to enjoy their sport. In 1902 an engineer called Merkel started producing single cylinder motorcycles in Milwaukee. This sparked the idea that if the brothers built their own motorcycles they would no longer have to rely on pedal power.

In 1903 the three brothers set up their own workshop with Bill Harley, an Englishman, who was the engineer responsible for the design of the first engines. Thus was born the Harley-Davidson engineering dynasty. To use a hackneyed phrase – and the rest is history.

The company history is well documented but the purpose of this article is to draw attention to that little bit of Harley-Davidson that is forever Scotland.

President Woodrow Wilson, referring to the historic accomplishments of Scots in America, said – “Every line of strength in American history is a line colored with Scottish blood.”

He surely was referring to the talent, resourcefulness, skill and work ethic which characterises the Scots, and which the three Davidson brothers inherited from their Scottish grandparents, who had the vision of a better life and the courage and drive to reach out for it.

Mike Sinclair was determined that Netherton Cottage, where the Scottish end of the Harley-Davidson story started, should be more than just a visitor attraction. It has been painstakingly restored to recreate true authenticity and maintain the building’s inherent simplicity. Within the constraints of finance, contemporary knowledge and practicality it has been restored to a state that Sandy and Margaret Davidson would recognise and feel at home in.

Opened in 2012 the museum is in its infancy. Mike Sinclair, Maggie Sherrit and Keith Mackintosh have resolutely avoided creating a sterile space for visitors to come and only look. Held in trust and self-financing, Netherton Cottage is available to rent for holiday breaks throughout the year to experience living as the Davidsons did.

The skyline hasn’t changed, the weather is as unpredictable, the atmosphere of rural industry as vigorous as ever. Sandy would identify with the rhythm of the farming cycle although farming methods are greatly changed; but then he and Margaret never saw a Harley-Davidson parked outside their door either.

Next year is Scotland’s 2014 Year of Homecoming and Mike looks forward to welcoming H-D owners not just from America, but worldwide, to the museum. A glance at the visitor book shows that after just one year there have been visitors from every corner. Interest grows exponentially as these visitors return home and tell other H-D enthusiasts

It all could have been so different. The cottage could have suffered the fate of the old smiddy, been demolished and replaced with a modern bungalow. Bella Edward’s long occupancy, living in much the same conditions that the Davidsons did, protected it from modern conversion. For that, H-D petrol heads owe her a debt of gratitude.

Emotional and historical links between Scotland and Milwaukee have been restored.


Written on Saturday, August 31st, 2013 at 1:18 pm for Claivers.