In the year 1800 there was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, a sixth son to William Cairncross (1759). This son, named Thomas, became, like his brothers, a baker, and in 1826 he sailed for the Cape to join three of the brothers who had accompanied Benjamin Moodie to Cape Town in 1817. For some years Thomas was employed there, marrying Caroline Matilda Clarke, an 1820 Settler, in 1832. But in 1835 he moved to Swellendam, where he conducted a bakery for thirty-one years, dying in 1866. In 1847 his fourth son, Charles, was born. Charles became an attorney, but, falling foul of the Supreme Court under Chief Justice de Villiers in 1877, he was suspended from practice for two years. In 1875 he married Elizabeth M. Bindeman, a Norwegian, and they had two children, Archibald Campbell Cairncross, born at Mossel Bay on the 3rd of June, 1876, and Ada, who eventually married Wilhelm. Relations between Charles and his wife unfortunately deteriorated, and they separated. Mrs. Cairncross went to Cape Town with her two children, and managed to support herself and them by teaching. Charles went to the Transvaal, and became a burger of the Transvaal Republic. During the Zulu War of 1879 he served with the Intelligence Staff of Lord Wolseley, and during the First Boer War (1880-81) he fought for the Boers. He joined the Staats Artillerie and in 1895 was a Lieutenant in charge of the Johannesburg Fort. He assisted at the capture of the Jameson Raiders on 3rd January, 1896; and when the Boer War broke out in 1899, he participated in the attack on Fort Tuli, in Rhodesia. When the Staats Artillerie was finally overwhelmed in June, 1900, he was taken prisoner and sent to Ceylon. Father and son were estranged from about 1866, but were reconciled for a time in 1923. Charles died in Pietersburg in 1928.
Archibald, known to all and sundry as "Cairn", left school in Cape Town in 1891 and obtained a billet as a farm hand in the Zwartland, Hopefield, in the Marmesbury district of the Cape. Here he remained for three years, supplementing his meagre pay by assembling farming machinery imported by a Cape Town firm. At the age of 18, in 1894, having saved a little money, he set out to explore the world on horseback. En route for Upington, he tarried long enough to spend a month or two assisting a storekeeper. Unfortunately mistaking his employer's instructions to try and collect a debt of £50 from a local farmer, Cairn seized the latter's wagon and produce, with the result that the farmer took legal action against the storekeeper, who had to pay £50 in damages. Needles to say, Cairn promptly renewed his wanderings. Reaching Upington, he was employed to drive 1,200 sheep to De Aar at £1 per day. This he successfully accomplished, but found the clouds of dust raised by the sheep so suffocating, that he declined any further shepherding and rode his horse up to Bechuanaland. Here he entered into a cattle trading partnership with two friends, Fisher and Fletcher, and seemed about to reap a rich harvest, supplying the newly-formed Rhodesia with cattle, when Southern Africa was smitten by rinderpest, and overnight the business collapsed, the partnership being dissolved.
Cairn, now reduced to one horse, rode to Pretoria, sold his horse, a salted one, for £80, and joined the Staats Artillery in November, 1895, unaware that his father was then a lieutenant in the Johannesburg branch of the Staatsartillerie. He had hardly joined when an incident occurred that might well have cut his career short. The duty of firing the time signal gun at noon every day devolved on him and his friend Jack O'Leary. Unknown to them, President Kruger' s grandchildren, the Eloff s, one day filled the gunbarrel with potatoes, which, when the gun was fired, by one of those tricks of fate, struck the President's State Coach, the President being inside. Cairn and Jack were arrested and an awkward situation for them developed. However when President Kruger heard their excuse he magnanimously overlooked the affair. Fate, however, continued to dog Cairn's footsteps. No sooner had he escaped one predicament than another arose. He became one of the sentries guarding the President's house in Church Street, and fell asleep at his post one night. Here he was discovered by no less a person than the President himseif, and awakened. Offered the alternative of taking immediate punishment rather than court martial, he chose the former and President Kruger forthwith seized him by his arms above the elbows and gave them one squeeze. So powerful was the President's grip that Cairn was scarcely able to use his arms for several days.
Meanwhile, Dr Jameson was gathering his forces at Pitsani whence, on 31st December, 1895, he invaded the Transvaal, an event graphically and sardonically described by Sarah Gertrude Millin in her book "Rhodes". The fight with, and the capture of the Raiders, caused the Transvaa1 to seethe with excitement; and Cairn was summarily dismissed from the Staartsartillerie, lest he be an English spy.
In company with Jack O'Leary (subsequently killed by the Matabele) and some others, Cairn left Pretoria with a donkey wagon and trekked to Bulawayo. Being without trade or profession, Cairn was unable to find employment, and after some weeks of aimless drifting he joined the Rhodesian Horse Volunteers, becoming a trooper in the Artillery. No sooner had he donned uniform than the Matabele rising commenced, and he found himself involved in Warfare.
Some years ago, about 1950, Cairn, then aged 74, possessor of a remarkable memory, and assisted by his diary, prepared the following narrative of his experiences during the Matabele Rebellion of 1896:
"In April, 1896, together with others, I was sent to Johannesburg and Mafeking to bring up transport for Victoria. On getting back to Bulowayo in May, I was put in charge of a Maxim gun section, the Matabele rising being in progress, many farmers and their families having been murdered. On the night of the 22nd we left Bulawayo to go and attack the rebels, who were in a stronghold down at the poort of the Umguza. At 2 am, of the 24th of May we stormed the stronghold, clearing the enemy with a very small number of casualties to ourselves. That night we retired to Van Stader' s farm. There we held a slope across a stream, and in the morning the Afrikander Corps was sent out as an advance screen. They went up the opposite slope and we saw them go over the top of the rise. We then received the order to advance, but to our surprise the Afrikanders came back at a much quicker pace than they went. There was no time to think; we got into action where we stood, as behind the Afrikanders we saw the ostrich plumes of the Matabele. We let the Boers through our lines and then closed up to meet the enemy, giving them a warm reception with rifles and machine gun fire, though we did not break them until they were within twenty yards of us. They were able to wound a few of our fellows with their assegais. In front of our lines the dead lay as though a reaper had gone through them. Here misfortune overtook me. The bugle sounded "Cease Fire" and then "Boot and Saddle" - I, in excitement, continued firing my gun, was made a Saddle" - . . . . . . made a prisoner, charged with disobeying an order, brought in front of our Commandant, and reduced to gunner. After this action we were taken back to Bulawayo. On the journey my leg got so swollen that my pants had to be cut off, and on reporting sick I found I had a splinter of a bullet in the knee - so I was made prisoner again for not reporting wounded! For weeks I was in hospital, only being discharged in July.
Major-General Carrington then arrived in the country and took charge of operations. We went out to Mlino Valley and formed camp, and on July 17th we marched into the Matopos with 1,200 men, five Maxims and four mounted guns, attacking Nabagaan in his stronghold with 500 men. As we entered the hills we met a superior force of the Matabele; we got repulsed, retired into a valley and were surrounded. We had to fight to keep the Matabele at bay from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., before Carrington sent a native force to help us out. It was then a retreat as hard as we could go back to the Mlino Valley. Through having boots which were too large 1 got my feet blistered until they were raw, and as I could not keep up with the column, I got underneath a bush, though with no hope of escaping the Matabele assegais. However, Father Bartholemo came along on his horse, saw me and enquired what was wrong; when I told him, he made me take his horse, and so I escaped certain death.
On the 26th of July we went to our attack, under Captain Nicholson, against Fingu. We got into action about 9 a.m. at the foot of the Umlugulu Mountain, and within ten minutes we had casualties of thirty out of 150 men. The Matabele held us at bay. One Matabele at about thirty yards was causing our casualties to rise. We had a one-pounder, two Maxims and twenty-five rifles against him, but could not shift him. The whole line was held up and could not advance. The Cape boys attacked Mount Nogue but got driven back with heavy casualties. Captains Nicholson and McFarlane appeared behind us; the line was retired two hundred yards and then came into action again. A few scouts were left in the line from which we had retired and they picked off the Matabele who had held us up. He climbed on top of a large boulder and was shouting insulting remarks to the retiring troops, when he was shot by the scouts. I had my leading mule shot clean through the head, so I had to drag the gun out with three animals. The retirement from this fight was like a rabble going home. We got back to camp late that night.
We rested in the Mlino Valley until the 24th of July, when we had a forced march along the outskirts of the Matopos to Sugarbush Camp. Me made camp here on the 3rd of August, under Captain Plumer, moving on the night of the 4th out of camp to make an early morning attack on the Matabele stronghold, which was a mass of granite koppies. As day broke, we were split into three columns to make attack on three different points. My column went under Captain McFarlane and attacked from the west side, scaling the granite koppies. On top we got into close action with a Matabele impi and the mountain battery opened fire with case shot; but our flank was hotly pressed. We had two Maxims and the second gun's crew deserted their gun when a tripod leg was shot away. Captain Llewellyn, who was in charge of the machine guns, rushed to the gun, picked it up, and resting the broken leg on his knee, opened fire on the Matabele who were then pressing hard on the mountain battery. The promptness of Captain Llewellyn saved the mountain battery from being cut up. Captain Holmes made an attempt to reach the gun, but was mortally wounded. Battery Sergeant Major Ainslie, plying his rifle with great skill, was also killed, by a Matabele who had crept up to within ten yards of him. Lieutenant Hervey, leading a strong party against a ridge of granite when a large force of Matabele was implicating the troops, was mortally wounded, and died in the field. Things were going very badly with us, when Sergeant Mackenzie of the Rocket Section fortunately got his war rockets into action. After three rockets had been fired among them, the Matabele scattered into the hills. We were, however, unable to follow, being fagged out and weakened with losses, so Captain Plumer retired us to Sugarbush Camp. We found out afterwards that this action had broken the back of the rebellion."
When the Anglo-Boer War broke out in October, 1899, Cairn was in the 4th Division of the British South African Police, and stationed in Northern Rhodesia. (The "division" consisted of 25 men!) He volunteered for war service and being a machine gunner, was accepted. Sent down (after a bout of blackwater fever) with reinforcements to Col. Plumer, he joined the latter at Crocodile Pools, a few miles to the north of Mafeking, which had been invested by the Boer forces in October.
Incidentally, among the Boers under Eloff were the brothers William and John Cairncross, subsequently taken prisoners. Cairn took part in the fighting at Gaberones and in the relief of Mafeking on the 17th of May, 1900. From there his company went to Pretoria, arriving after its capture by Lord Roberts on 5th June, 1900. In February, 1901, he was one of the 800 Australian, New Zealanders and Rhodesians besieged at Elands River, near Rustenburg. The siege lasted for two weeks and the position was most gallantly held against some four thousand Boers. On the day before the relief, Cairn was shot in the head and left for dead, but recovered in time to be removed to hospital at Kimberley. This siege is graphically described by Creswicke in his "History of the Boer War" (page 72, Volume VI). After his discharge from hospital he was sent back to Rhodesia. In 1901, but later in the same year he and a hundred and sixty other men under Captain Drury, were sent down as a bodyguard to Lord Methuen. They were all captured at Tweebooch, between Ottoshoop and Lichtenburg, Lord Methuen being wounded. Stripped stark naked by the Boers who needed their clothing, they had to make their way to Lichtenburg with such protection from the sun as they could devise with grass and twigs. Capt. Drury was given a pair of Puttees by the Boers! They all suffered most severely from sunburn, Cairn spending nearly a month in hospital before recovering. Thereafter he went to Pretoria and was put in the Intelligence Department with General Paget. When Olivier's commando broke up General Broadbent's forces, he reported to the Officer Commanding, but the latter paid him no heed and he succeeded in getting a transfer to General Remington, with whom he remained for the rest of the war, mainly in the Eastern Transvaal. He was present at the fight when the Staats Artillerie made their last stand and his father was captured. Father and son actually spoke to one another on the battlefield, but did not recognise each other, as they discovered years later when discussing their war experiences.
The Anglo-Boer War ended, Cairn returned to the B.S.A. Police in Rhodesia in 1902. By October, 1910, he was a Sergeant-Major, in charge of the mule and other transport at Bulawayo. Towards the end of 1910, the Government having decided to introduce motors into the transport units, Cairn was sent to Cape Town to learn to drive a car and to carry out road repairs. Early in 1911 he qualified for his driving licence - one of the first to be issued.
In November, 1911, he resigned from the Police, as he was about to be promoted to the rank of Lieutenant with pay at the rate of 10/6d per day, when as a Sergeant-Major, he was drawing 17/6d. From 1912 to 1914 he hunted big game in Northern Rhodesia and the Caprivi Strip, shooting, among other animals, three lions and eight elephants, whose tusks he was forced to abandon, the police being on his trail for poaching. Later he turned to copper mining, and to railway construction.
When the Great War broke out on the 4th of August, 1914, Cairn and 72 other Rhodesians paid their passages from Rhodesia to England and joined the King's Royal Rifle Corps. Of the 72 only six survived the war. Drafted to the Rhodesian platoon, Cairn landed in France in December, 1914, and in the trenches at Weisgaet on New Year's Day, 1915. He fought at the famous Hill 60, where he contracted trench feet as a result of standing up to his knees in mud for seven days. After a short spell in hospital in London, he returned to France in April, taking part in the 2nd Battle of Ypres. Wounded by shrapnel in the neck and right shoulder, he was sent to the Liverpool Hospital., where he made a recovery in time to rejoin his regiment at Armentiers. Here they were badly strafed and the whole division was moved out to recoup. On 1st July, 1916, Cairn, now a sergeant, participated in the Battle of the Somme, where the division was again badly strafed and had to be moved out of the line. Thereafter, Cairn and the K. R. R. C, were sent to Alexandria, and from there to Salonika, in Greece. Taking part in patrol skirmishes Cairn was among those who went up the Varaar and Struma Rivers; but they were driven back from Lake Doiran in November, 1916. Back at Salonika, Cairn fell down a shaft one right when inspecting a picket, and dislocated his knee; and he was sent to the Malta Hospital and later to England. All this time he was suffering from the after effects of trench feet. Leaving the Bristol Hospital at the end of 1916, he was sent to the Pioneer School of Instruction at Reading in February, 1917, and in May returned to France, the regiment being cut up at Passchendaele. Wounded at Polygon Wood on 26th September, 1917, and unable to wear boots, he was discharged from the army on 18th October, 1917, and for the next eleven years he was unable to move about without the aid of crutches. Thereafter an improvement enabled him to dispense with crutches; but his legs never healed properly and caused him endless pain and discomfort.
In 1915, Cairn met Beatrice Burchell, a hospital nurse, and married her in April, 1917. After he war he and his wife hired a farm some 4 miles outside Nelspruit in the Eastern Transvaal, and in 1927 they bought Carnbeg, near Schagen, where Cairn farmed until his death in May 1958, at 82 years of age.
Beatrice died on 22nd April, 1953.
Two coincidences in Cairn's life are worthy of special note - he served under Field Marshal Plumer three times - in 1896, when Plumer was a Captain, in 1899-1901 when he was a Colonel, and in 1914-18 when he was a General. And Cairn had the unique distinction of guarding both the giants of South African history - President Kruger in 1895 and Cecil John Rhodes in 1896 during the Matabele War.
About 1951 Cairn's name was inscribed on the Roll of Pioneers by the Rhodesian Government.
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