Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 28 August 2014

Gilfillan's bizarre prophecy fulfilled

ON A sunny July afternoon on Derry Quay in the year 1830, a tall, distinguished looking man, with a patch over one eye, disembarked from his ship with obvious difficulty.

ON A sunny July afternoon on Derry Quay in the year 1830, a tall, distinguished looking man, with a patch over one eye, disembarked from his ship with obvious difficulty.

This was 37-year-old Alexander Gilfillan, who was returning to his home at Gorticross near Eglinton after years at sea as a naval doctor.

Quite plainly he was ill. Gilfillan watched impatiently as a deckhand lowered his personal effects on to the quayside - a surgeon's trunk and an odd looking bundle of deep brown wood, which appeared to be very heavy.

The trunk, containing medical instruments, was of course, his stock-in-trade. As for the wood, morbid as it sounds it was for his coffin.

Yet the Grim Reaper was not to call on Gilfillan for another eight years.

In that time, he would marry, see great tragedy in his family, and with his own death, help to fulfil a prophecy, which he himself had made.

The clues to this strange tale are to be found in the leafy little graveyard of Enagh Old Church at Judge's Road outside Londonderry.

Here, a large gravestone records that this is Alexander Gilfillan's last resting place - died March 27 1838 aged 45.

But it is what follows that really catches the eye, for the reader is informed that Gilfillan, a surgeon, sailed with the great Sir John Franklin to the Arctic.

A further line adds that he died at Gorticross on the same day as his 81-year-old father.

How did a County Derry man come to sail with Franklin, one of the world's greatest explorers, and is anything known of his encounters?

Alexander was born at Gorticross in 1793, the youngest son of farmer Joseph Gilfillan.

At the age of 15, he persuaded his parents to let him take up Latin lessons in preparation to become a doctor.

He was later to recall the sheer delight in running through the fields towards the River Faughan on the way to his teacher's house.

In August 1813, Alexander joined the Royal Navy with the rank of assistant surgeon.

Apparently he was a very striking character - tall, good-looking, with a ruddy complexion and a shock of black curly hair.

But it was his medical skill that drew the attention of his navy bosses and in 1818 he was called upon to join a great voyage of discovery to the North Pole on HMS Trent.

For the local lad it was like a dream come true, especially when he heard he was to be under the command of Sir John Franklin.

As it turned out the expedition was a catastrophe.

Both the Trent and a sister vessel, Dorothea, were all but wrecked near the Arctic Circle in a series of massive ice storms.

Then Gilfillan suddenly fell victim to snow blindness. His eyesight was irreparably damaged, and it seems the episode was only the beginning of a life of misfortune for the doctor from Gorticross.

Although appointed to the rank of full surgeon in 1822, he was temporarily invalided out on half-pay when the sight went completely from one eye.

Gilfillan was fuming over his treatment and from then on became the reluctant surgeon hoping to get decommissioned. But the navy would not let go and, unbelievably, he was declared fit for service overseas.

His posting commenced in November 1827 at the Naval Hospital, Kingston, Jamaica. Here, he spent two miserable years, a broody character, with a patch over one eye, often chided by his fellow officers for refusing to drink alcohol.

Eventually, in obvious ill health, he was allowed to return home.

Back at Gorticross, in May 1831, Alexander married Elizabeth McCutcheon the daughter of a local farmer. Sadly, tragedy was lurking in the wings.

Their first child Joseph was scalded to death at the age of three when a pot of boiling water tipped over him. Other children followed, but Alexander Gilfillan was now drinking heavily.

In 1838, perhaps sensing the end of his life was near, he turned to making his coffin from the bundle of wood he had brought from Jamacia eight years earlier.

But why wood from such a long way off? The answer surely is that he encountered the national wood of Jamaica - Lignum Vitae (the wood of life).

It is a very rare wood - so dense that it will not float; so hard that it can be used for engine parts.

Lignum Vitae is aromatic and has healing properties. For some reason the idea of being buried in this almost indestructible medicinal wood must have appealed to Gilfillan's imagination.

Then came his bizarre prophecy.

One morning amid his alcoholic grumpiness he said to his ageing father: "Old man! You see that white horse out in the farmyard? Some day it will carry you and me together to the graveyard."

Oddly enough his words came true. Father and son died on the same day, in the same house, within hours of each other and were buried together - as the gravestone testifies at Enagh Old Church.

Footnote: The coffin wood did remain intact. Joseph Gilfillan, Alexander's son (incidentally born posthumously and given the same name as the child that died), recalled seeing it when the grave was opened to bury his mother some 60 years later.

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