Two steps forward … trying to know more about a Morrison ancestor

A few days ago I got a message from a very distant relative by marriage.

It seems that this man’s great uncle was married to Henrietta Balsillie, the half-sister of my 2x great grandmother, Isabella Wallace.

Isabella and Henrietta were both children of Jane Morrison.

Jane Morrison has, to date, been a shadowy figure in my family tree. I know she married my 3x great grandfather Donald Wallace in 1861, had five children and was widowed in 1872. She married John Balsillie in 1873 and went on to have another five children – Henrietta being the youngest.

Elizabeth Cruden (nee Brown), Alexander Cruden, David Ramsay, Margaret Ramsay (nee Cruden), Isabella Cruden (nee Wallace).

L-R:  unknown, but probably Elizabeth Cruden (nee Brown), Alexander Cruden, David Ramsay, Margaret Ramsay (nee Cruden), Isabella Cruden (nee Wallace).

My correspondent asked me about the photo above which I’ve written about here – speculating about the identity of an old lady in the picture. Jane Morrison was one of the possible candidates. My conclusion was that the old lady in my photo WASN’T Jane, but only on the basis of the plausibility of one family story over another. I didn’t have any real evidence.

So, feeling rather pleased with myself recently for finding a research technique that seems to work for me and produce good results (see recent posts about the Ramsay family), I decided to don metaphorical Inverness cape and Deerstalker hat and throw myself, Sherlock-like, into the life of Jane Morrison.

One of the best lessons I’ve learned recently is to start at the end – with the most recent information available. For Scottish records (and all my ancestors are Scots), this means birth records that are at least 100 years old, marriage records 75+ years old, and death records that are 50+ years old.

What I already know

Jane Morrison married in 1861 and gave her age on the record as 22. That means her death record should be available (assuming she died in Scotland). However, despite trying various spellings of Balsillie; wildcard searches, and using her maiden and first married names to search on, I haven’t been able to find a death record for Jane Morrison / Wallace / Balsillie.

This could mean she died outside of Scotland, changed her surname (perhaps a third marriage), or that the person indexing the records transcribed her name in such a way that the Scotland’s People algorithm doesn’t recognise it as being a possible match for Balsillie.

Census records

So I tried census records. There is no record of an appropriately aged Jane Morrison / Wallace / Balsillie in the 1911 census of Scotland – but in the 1901 census I found Jane living at 2 Lawrence Street, Dundee. She was a widow, aged 57 and the head of her household which included four adult daughters:

Bessie aged 26, a jute weaver

Bella, 25, (actual name Helen, not my 2x great grandmother Isabella) occupation confectioner “on own account”, which I presume means self-employed or a business owner

Mary, 20, a jute weaver

Henrietta, 18, also a confectioner on own account

Also in the household were two boarders, Peter Young, 22, a telegrapher; and Andrew Balsillie, 22, a railway worker.

Were Bella and Henrietta makers of Scottish tablet? photo credit: Andy H McDowall via photopin cc

Were Bella and Henrietta makers of Scottish tablet? Photo credit: Andy H McDowall via photopin cc

Going back 10 years to the 1891 census, I found Jane’s second husband, John Balsillie, still alive and head of the household at 5 Stewart Street, Dundee. The family consisted of:

John Balsillie, 66, a grain weigher and contractor

Jane Balsillie, 47

Christina Wallace, step-daughter (Jane’s youngest child by Donald Wallace), 16, a jute warper

Betsy Balsillie, 16, jute weaver

Helen Balsillie, 15, jute weaver

Mary Balsillie, 13, scholar

John Balsillie, 11, scholar

Henrietta Balsillie, 8, scholar

Mill, Dundee. The Wallace and Balsillie sisters would have worked in mills like this. Photo credit: BBC

The 1881 census shows the household living at 5 Pitfour Street, Dundee. It consisted of:

John Balsillie, aged 53, shore labourer

Jane Balsillie, 37

Ann Wallace, 18, sheeting weaver

Maggie Wallace, 16, cop winder

Isabella Wallace, 14, sheeting weaver

Christina Wallace, 9, scholar

Betsy Balsillie, 6

Helen Balsillie, 5

Mary Balsillie, 3

John Balsillie, 1 month

1871 census

In 1871 Jane Morrison was living with her first husband, Donald Wallace at Woodside, St. Madoes, a village in Perthshire. The couple had four children, Ann, aged 8; Margaret, 6; Isabella, 4; and James, 2. A fifth; Christina was born on December 23 1871.

Widowed with five children

Donald Wallace died on January 23 1872, aged 40. He was a farm servant, and his death record gives the place of death as Castle Huntly, Longforgan – about 10 miles from St. Maddoes. Castle Huntly is now a prison, but in the nineteenth century, the area was part of an estate owned by the Patterson family. It is likely that the Wallace family would have been living in a cottage tied to Donald’s job, and if so, his death left Jane and her five children – including one month old Christina – not only without a husband, father and breadwinner, but also without a home.

I know that Jane Morrison married John Balsillie on 21 March, 1873 in Dundee – fourteen months after the death of her first husband. John was 49 and a widower. Suspecting that Jane would have become homeless (and almost certainly penniless) after Donald’s death, I wasn’t surprised she remarried so quickly. What I did wonder was why she had moved her family to Dundee.

Work? And perhaps a place to stay

In the nineteenth century, Dundee was one of the most important industrial centres in Scotland. The textile industry was central to the city, with both linen and jute weaving.

It seemed possible that Jane moved there after her husband’s death in order to look for work (for herself and her older daughters) in the jute mills. Checking the census records, I also found that Jane had been born in Dundee, so even more likely, she was returning to a place where she may have had family members who could help support her, if not financially, at least emotionally.

Jane’s early life

Jane’s marriage records gave her parents’ names as Peter Morrison and Betsy Philips. Peter’s occupation was shown as ‘weaver’, and both parents were deceased at the time of her first marriage in 1861. Whether she had siblings, and other family members in Dundee, I didn’t know.

I searched Scotland’s People for a birth record for Jane Morrison. When she married Donald Wallace, her age was given as 22 which would have meant she was born around 1839-40. The ages she gave on later census returns would have put her birth around 1844, so I searched the records for the years 1835-1845. I also searched the whole county of which Dundee is part, and allowed for quite broad variation in her surname (even searching on her mother’s maiden name) – but with no success, so I broadened the search to include all of Scotland. Strange as it may seem, I have yet to find a birth record for a child born in the right time period to Peter Morrison and Betsy/Elizabeth Philips/Morrison – let alone one called Jane.

Returning to census records, I found that in 1861 Jane was living as a domestic servant for the Lion family in Moneydie, Perthshire. Her place of birth is (as on other census returns) shown as Dundee. Donald Wallace is also listed on the same census record as a ploughman at the Lion farm. Jane’s age was given then as 20; Donald’s as 28. Moneydie is a village in Perthshire; about 30 miles from Dundee, and also about 30 miles from Donald’s birthplace of Kirkmichael, Perth.

I’ve tried to find Jane in the 1951 census, but this is proving difficult because I don’t know where she might have been living. If she was around 20 in 1861, it is reasonable to assume she was a child in 1851 and living with family. However, I have found no records for a family comprising Peter Morrison, Betsy Philips and Jane Morrison – or even one of the parents and Jane.

It is of course possible that Jane’s parents died before 1851 and she was living elsewhere, but with the information I currently have, there is no way to really know that.

I could search death records for people called Peter Morrison and Betsy Philips/Morrison, but according to Scotland’s People, there are 19 OPR (Old Parish Register) death records for men called Peter Morrison (exact spelling) between 1835 (my earliest guesstimate of Jane’s birth) and 1854 (when statutory records were introduced); plus a further 34 Peter Morrisons in the statutory records for 1855-1861 (when Jane married).

On the other hand, for the same period, there are no OPR (Old Parish Register) death records for women called Betsy Philips, but five for women called Elizabeth Philips, 43 for Elizabeth or Betsy Morrison and 106 statutory records for Elizabeths and Betsys Morrisons or Philips.

And that’s without allowing for any misspelling or variation on the names.

With so many possible matches, I’d need to spend a fortune on Scotland’s People credits even trying to identify my ancestors.

So I am left knowing only a little more about Jane Morrison than I did at the beginning. My next step is to follow the trail of her children to see if this can shed any light or provide clues.

A postscript

One of the first things I noticed looking at the 1871 and 1881 census records was that James Wallace, age 2 in 1871 did not appear on the 1881 census alongside his sisters.

James Wallace died in Dundee on 5 February 1873 – barely a year after his father’s death. He was aged 4 years one month. The cause of death was croup – a respiratory infection.

Another postscript, of sorts

I began this post by describing Jane Morrison as a shadowy figure, and I end it feeling much the same. I don’t know when or where she was born, or when and where she died. I do know that she was orphaned before she married – possibly when she was still a child. She buried a husband and son within 13 months, during which time she also probably became homeless and moved with her children to Dundee. She married an older man, bore another five children and was widowed for a second time in her 50s.

To us, living in the early 21st century, remarrying so soon after a spouse’s death may seem somewhat heartless, but for Jane Morrison, there may have been few other choices. I wonder then if her second marriage was a happy one? Was John Balsillie a good step-father to her children? Did the couple care for, and perhaps love one another?

I can never know these things.

I do however know that my 2x great grandmother Isabella Wallace – who was seven when her mother married John Balsillie – gave two of her daughters Balsillie as a middle name. Whether that was a mark of some respect for her step-father I don’t know, but I’d like to think so.

Help from the blogging whanau takes me a step further back (which in genealogy is a good thing)

James Low was a wright, or joiner. photo credit: Alan Cleaver via photopin cc

James Low was a wright, or joiner. photo credit: Alan Cleaver via photopin cc

In response to a recent post about Helen Low, Olwen, of Tall Tales and True suggested to me that the address shown on Helen Low’s birth record may have been Welltree, as in …

James Low wright in Welltree

Olwen said:

“Welltree … is marked on old maps but on Google Maps seems to be just a junction where the A914 meets Freuchie Mill Road. There are some references to Welltree by Freuchie/Fruchie in old directories.”

I had been feeling that I’d hit a dead end with Helen Low, but Olwen’s comments inspired me to try again – and as it turns out – may have given me THE crucial bit of information I needed.

Building the case

I had found an OR (Old Parish Register) marriage record for James Low and Elspet Robertson, from 1811 in the parish of Kettle. The Fife Family History Society has online a parochial directory for Kettle (1861) which contains information about the various settlements and villages within the parish. Welltree isn’t mentioned in the text, but within the directory itself, one of the first entries is for a blacksmith named William Birrell — in ‘Welltree, by Freuchie’.

I also looked for Joiners and Wrights (James Low’s stated occupations on Helen’s birth and death records). At the time of the directory, there was a Joiner/Wright in Welltree. Not James Low (he would have been at least 70 by then), but with Welltree seeming the most likely address on Helen’s birth record, this was another little piece of information against which to cross-check records.

Knowing that James Low and Elspet Robertson married in 1811 meant that I could start to put some parameters on their likely ages and birthdates.

Assuming they were at least 16 when they got married (over 20 actually seems to be much more common for the time), I could put their births at before 1795. I also knew that Elspet Robertson bore a child in 1825, and although I’ve found quite a few records of births to women in their 40s amongst my ancestors, I decided that it was unlikely she was born before 1780. James, of course, may have been much older – that was an unknown.

Having some parameters, I decided to look for James and Elspet in the 1841 census. There are two James Low’s – but neither seemed a likely match for my ancestor. Both seemed too young, were heads of households that didn’t contain any names I recognised as family members, and indeed one “Low” was probably a misspelling of “Law.”

Old Parish Records – deaths in Kettle

I then searched death records for James. I began with the OPR records from 1824 (prior to the birth of their last known child, but after conception would have taken place) to 1854 – when statutory records began. I decided to try deaths in Kettle Parish first and got two matches, one in 1833 and one in 1840. Neither showed the age of the deceased so I decided to try both records.

The first was for:

Feb 22 1833 Low James in Well-Tree, age 54

Death record for James Low, Welltree. Source: Scotland's People.

Death record for James Low, Welltree. Source: Scotland’s People.

The other record, in 1840, showed the deceased’s age as 17 years, so it seemed most likely that if either of the records was for “my” James Low – it would be the first.

Of course, I can’t guarantee that “my” James Low died in 1833 (he may have moved from Kettle Parish and died somewhere else), but based on the age and location, I decided to see if I could find anything else that might support or refute the hypothesis that this was a record for the correct person.

Circumstantial evidence — Scottish naming pattern

I’ve talked quite a lot in the past about the Scottish naming pattern – whereby children were named after family members according to quite clear “rules.” Eldest sons were named after their father’s father; eldest daughters after their mother’s mother; second sons after the mother’s father, etc. Third children were often given their parent’s name and middle names were given if children were named after someone with a different surname.

This was of course just a pattern and naturally not everyone adhered to it. But most branches of my family seem to have done so, and it’s been a really useful tool for hypothesizing grandparents’ names based on knowledge of what the grandchildren are called.

In the case of James Low and Elspeth Robertson, I had records of seven children born to them: Michael, Helen, Alexander, Rachel, Elizabeth, James and William.

If the Scottish naming pattern had been adhered to, James Low’s father should have been called Michael and his mother Rachel. Similarly, Elspet’s parents would have been called Helen and Alexander.

The only James Low I could find born in Scotland between 1760-1795 with parents called Michael and Rachel was born in Kettle, on 19 July 1779 – which would have made him 54 in 1833 (the ages shown on the death record I found above).

Taking away the parents’ names filter – I found records for 14 children called James Low born in Fife between 1760-1795 and around 30 born in the neighbouring county of Perthshire. None of those other James Lows had parents called Michael or Rachel.

Uncommon names

Normally I take the naming pattern with a grain of salt, but Michael and Rachel were unusual names in 18th and 19th century Scotland.

For example, in FamilySearch, children born with the first name Michael between 1760 and 1850 returned 2579 hits, compared with 257,973 Williams, 292,902 James’s and 155,268 Alexanders.

Similarly there were 6544 Rachels in the time period compared with 216,306 Elizabeths, 423,262 Janes, and 130,318 Isabellas.

For that reason I’m inclined to believe that the birth record I found is that of my James Low.

The birth record says

19 July 1779 Low was born James son to Mihil (Michael) in Orkie Cotton and Rachel Stones his wife and was baptised 25th of same and witnessed the congregation.

A Fife Family History Society publication listing village and hamlet names in 1838 records both an Orkie (in Freuchie) and an Orkimill (in Kettle).

An acceptable conclusion?

If I were a lawyer building (or trying to refute) a case, I would have to say that most of my evidence is circumstantial. But, frankly, that’s probably the best I’m going to get, so for the time being I am working on the hypothesis that my 4x great grandfather, James Low was born to Michael Low and Rachel Stones on July 19, 1779, became a Wright/Joiner in Weltree, married Elspet Robertson in 1811, fathered (at least) seven children – including my 3x great grandmother Helen Low, and died in Weltree in 1833. If that is the case, he probably lived his entire live within an area of around 2 sq miles. Sitting here, half a world away from the place of my birth, and of James’s, I find myself wondering about the nature of place and identity. But that’s for another day.