City singer traces lion taming ancestor’s lair

Dean Owens at the grave. Picture: Ewen Weatherspoon
Dean Owens at the grave. Picture: Ewen Weatherspoon
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IT’S a mystery one hundred years in the making.

A Leith musician has tracked down the grave of his mysterious lion taming great-great-grandfather after a chance encounter at a gig.

Singer-songwriter Dean Owens had long heard tales of his family’s roots – devoting a song on his latest Nashville-recorded album Into the Sea to his grandmother Dora Salvona Owens, who grew up in a family circus in Scotland.

Performing the song at Perth’s Southern Fried Festival this summer, he told the audience that research into his family tree had revealed his great-great-grandfather Ambrose Salvona, who founded the circus, was a lion tamer buried somewhere in the Highlands – but the trail had gone cold.

Ambrose was thought to have travelled to Scotland from Italy with a dancing bear in the late 19th century, but little else was known about his life.

But in a stroke of luck, among those at the gig was Judi Menabney, a senior cultural manager with High Life Highland – an organisation responsible for family history in Inverness.

After telling her colleagues at the Highland Archive and Registration Centre about the mystery, they resolved to help find Ambrose’s final resting place. The dogged team soon discovered the lion tamer’s lair – Tomnahurich Cemetery, a sprawling Inverness burial ground sometimes known as “the Hill of the Fairies”.

And further details they unearthed revealed Ambrose had been married twice and was the father of at least ten children, before moving to Inverness aged around 80.

The lion tamer seems to have been a popular character in the local area, with friends footing the bill for his funeral and even leading a procession across town to his final resting place.

The inscription on his tombstone, which Dean visited recently with his dad George, reads simply: “In Loving Memory of Ambrose Salvona. Lion Tamer. Died at Inverness 13th October 1917. Aged 88 years.”

Dean said: “I can’t believe the final resting place of my great-great grandfather has been found. I’m very grateful to Judi, Anne and their colleagues for all the work they’ve put into discovering his story.”

alistair.grant@edinburghnews.com