A fascinating and moving tale of migration and enterprise links a small cottage in Scotland to Harley-Davidson, the world’s most famous motorcycle company. In 1857, the Davidson family left their home in Aberlemno by Brechin, Angus, to make a new life in America, never to return. Their old home still stands, thanks to its restoration and repair by Harley-Davidson enthusiasts Mike, Maggie and Keith. The modest, stone-built dwelling is now a magnet for Harley fans the world over, fitted out as it would have been in the 1850s to commemorate its role in the history of the iconic motorcycle brand.
The Davidsons set sail to a new beginning in the New World
In 1857, Sandy Davidson, a tenant craftsman, his wife Margaret, their six children and two other workers were living in a two-bedroomed tied cottage on the estate of Lord Minto in Angus, Scotland. Sandy’s long days were spent making and mending cartwheels, fashioning wooden shafts for implements and repairing agricultural carts. We may never know exactly why they took the decision to emigrate - though surely they were seeking better opportunities for the children.
They set sail for America. The journey was grim and shortly after arrival, their 17-year-old son Alexander died of typhus. Sandy, Margaret and their remaining five children settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. William followed in the footsteps of his father as a cabinet-maker, while pursuing his passions for mechanics. At the beginning of the 20th century he built a workshop in his backyard that today is simply known as ‘The Shed’. In this simple building his American-born sons Arthur, Walter and William, along with their friend William Harley, would start up what was to become and still is the most famous and successful motorcycling company in the world, Harley-Davidson.
The cottage is found, rescued and restored
By 2008, the Davidsons’ Scottish cottage was abandoned and derelict. Harley-Davidson enthusiast Mike Sinclair, aware of the property’s provenance, heard it was on the market, drove over and decided to make an offer. There wasn’t much time. As Mike explains, ‘It was falling down. It was going to get knocked down. We had a month to get it and the only way to get it was to buy it.’ This legacy of motorcycling history was secured.
Mike, along with fellow Harley fans Maggie Sherrit and Keith Mackintosh, set out to restore the cottage to how it was in 1857 when the Davidsons emigrated. The restoration has been painstaking, involving myriad planning, funding, vegetation and weather challenges, and fixing, repairing or replacing everything from the floor to the roof, reusing as many materials as possible, and sourcing original and replica furniture and soft furnishings. A second ‘service’ building had to be built next door. Twelve years after spotting the cottage, the friends have created a living and breathing legacy and a very cool piece of social history for all to visit and enjoy.
When the American Davidsons and the Sportster S came to visit
The Davidson cottage, as it’s now known, attracts visitors and bikers from all over the world. ‘Our visitors’ book is a real good read, actually,’ smiles Mike. ‘From Tasmania to Mexico, they all find their way here eventually. We get a lot of people interested in the social history, too.’
An absolute highlight was last year’s launch of the Sportster S here - the first launch HD has ever done of a new bike outside of the USA. ‘We had the Harley president, Jochen Zeitz, and Bill Davidson, over. They were riding the Sportsters around and came to the cottage,’ said Mike. ‘Bill was very emotional about being in his ancestral home. It would have been his great, great grandfather, William C, who he was named after, who lived here. In fact, quite a lot of Davidson family members have visited. They all find it really emotional.’
The future - and how to get involved with the cottage
The Davidson Legacy Preservation Group came about when Mike, Maggie and Keith decided it was time to sell the cottage and retire. The Group's chair, Nyree Aitken, explains, 'The group formed as we didn't want the cottage to be lost; developers who wished to knock it down were the only people making offers. Demolition of the cottage just couldn't happen so we formed the group in October 2021.'
The DLPG plan to keep the historic cottage free and accessible to all, and to build on the great work done by Mike, Maggie and Keith. Nyree continues, ‘There are lots of folk interested in heritage and in the cottage. Originally it was for bikers, then as we got into it we found it was about the social history, too. We’ve learnt that Margaret would have tended a garden with fruit and vegetables, so we’d like to replicate it as best we can. That will involve community groups, and we’ll be looking to raise funds and run it with a project worker so it can be open all of the time. It's not just Harley fans and bikers but people from all walks of life who visit the cottage. The restoration and the link to Harley-Davidson makes this cottage a true gem worth saving.’
The cottage is open to visitors - drop by, just as we did! It’s atmospheric and inspiring. Find out more about the Davidson Legacy at https://thedavidsonlegacy.com/