A life less ordinary

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Sub-heading: Axel Firsoff a man with a gun, a feud and who courted controversy

By Hugh Boag

High Corrie may today be a quiet secluded clachan in the hills above the main village.

But in the 1950s it appears to have been a rather more lively settlement with a bitter feud between Arran’s best know writer and a gun carrying Russian.

Much is know of the the dramatist, poet and writer Robert McLellan, who worked principally in the Scots language, and who’s works are celebrated every year during the McLellan Festival.

The other gentleman is rather less well known but a fascinating character to boot. And despite spending just a few short years on the island left a lasting mark with his book Arran with Camera & Sketchbook. The man was Axel Firsoff.

He came to Arran with his wife Marjorie and son George, after living in Aviemore, in the autumn of 1948 and first settled somewhere to the south of Whiting Bay. He later moved to Rigside in Sannox and finally to Burnbank in High Corrie where he was living in September 1950 when he finished his book.

But it was during the four years that he lived here that he had a running feud with McLellan, who lived next door, and was said to sleep with a loaded pistol under his pillow such was his fear of being a white Russian among Scottish Communists, with allegiances to the old Soviet Union and Ukraine, wherever they may be – even in High Corrie.

Old locals speak of the antagonism between them and the story goes that Mclellan once used a frying pan to drive a horse or cow at him.

But the feud apart Firsoff, a keen mountaineer and skier, certainly spent a great deal of time learning not only the history of Arran, but its landscape – by walking its length and breadth, its geology, flora and fauna, its language and  its people to write a comprehensive narrative on the island – which although fascinating – can be a little dry. He also took all of the photographs and drew the sketches.

It is quite obvious in reading the book to see how Firsoff became a leading amateur astronomer and a prolific published author but even in this field his views, including those on extraterrestrial life, were controversial. And it all started on Arran.

While on the island Firsoff acquainted himself with James Morrison Rollo Gladstone, a former Rector at St Paul’s, Rothesay, and a retired Canon from the Episcopal Church would lived in The Manse on the island.

Gladstone had recently declared himself the rector of the local Sannox Congregational Church, despite having no authority whatsoever from the Bishop. Four years into Canon Gladstone’s unauthorised takeover he proposed Axel Firsoff for membership of the British Astronomical Association and he  was elected in 1951.

But where did it all begin. He was born Valdemar Alex Firsoff, but preferred to be called Axel, in the Ukraine (then part of Imperial Russia) on 20 January 1910, despite numerous sources implying he was Swedish, but he often translated Scandanavian languages into English, which is probably the reason for the confusion.

Around the time that he was seven, the Russian Revolution occurred and the Firsoff family fled to neighbouring Poland, living in the south of the country, not far from the Czechoslovakian border, now known as Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

Their new home was in the region of the Tatra mountains, which would play a huge part in Firsoff’s future interests, because mountain scenery, geology and skiing all became subjects which interested him greatly, and about which he would write many future books.

In the 1930s Firsoff gained a degree in English, philosophy and astronomy and followed this up with an MA in languages, both awarded at the University of Krakow. He worked briefly at the Krakow Observatory. Precisely what Firsoff did just prior to the Second World War is unclear, although it seems he may have worked for a short time at a Swedish observatory.

As related in his later books, in 1939 he became Secretary of the Federation Internationale du Ski, which explains his presence in Zakopane in Southern Poland at the time of competitions for that year.

However, with Germany invading Poland in September 1939, staying in that country was no longer an option for Firsoff, so he decided to live in Scotland which many of his Polish countrymen, many in the military, had now chosen as a base.

He  had become a great lover of mountain scenery in his youth in the Tatra highlands, to the choice of Scotland as a home was very understandable. During the 1950s there were stories that Firsoff helped supply the Norwegian resistence via fishing boats from Scotland during the Second World War.

Firsoff would make very good use of his MA translating from Scandanavian and European languages into English for book and newspaper publishers. That work and led to him becoming an author and being an accomplished artist and photographer meant he could also provide many of the illusrtations.

In 1944 had already married and his wife Marjorie Lillian gave birth to their son George. By 1947 he had published his third book entitled The Unity of Europe. The same year he was granted British citizenship.

At the time The Unity of Europe was published Firsoff his wife and young George were living in a cottage called Shunem in Aviemore. While based there he wrote one of the his most successful books, entitled The Cairngorms on foot and ski, published in 1949, by which time he had moved to Arran.

According to Firsoff, after the book’s publication he became an instructor for the British Skiing team at Aviemore in the build-up to the February 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo, but it is not clear how he fitted this in with living on Arran.

There followed the Arran years but by 1954 he had moved to Lochearnhead presumably so he could carry out research for what was to be his final mountain guidebook entitled In the Hills of Breadalbane, an account of the region in the southern/central Scottish Highlands.

The following year he had moved south to Glastonbury in Somerset which would become Firsoff’s permanent address for the rest of his life and work. until his death in 1981.

  • With thanks to John Inglis for bringing this fascinating man to my attention and for lending me Arran with Sketchbook and Camera.
Burnbank in High Corrie, as it looks today, where he had a feud with Robert McLellan who lived next door.

Alex Firsoff as he would have looked when living on Arran. NO_B06firsoff01

Burnbank in High Corrie, as it looks today, where he had a feud with Robert McLellan who lived next door. 01_B06firsoff02

Firsoff’s drawing of Burnbank Cottage in the book. 01_B06firsoff03