Help wanted: must be interested in mysteries and have good eye for detail. Knowledge of 19th century Scottish religious practices useful

photo credit: chefranden via photopin cc

photo credit: chefranden via photopin cc

I seem to have hit a lot of brick walls lately.

I’ve been working on several branches of my tree and am becoming more confused by the minute. In particular, my 2x great grandfather George Leslie, and his parents John Leslie and Elizabeth Robertson are proving to be – in Churchill’s words – “…a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

Let me explain and perhaps – my wonderful blogging whanau – you can see what I cannot — or have knowledge I lack.

I believe John Leslie and Elizabeth Robertson to be the parents of “my” George Leslie,  based originally on George’s marriage record shown below.

Marriage of George Leslie and Janet Traill, Auchtermuchty, 1857.

Marriage of George Leslie and Janet Traill, Auchtermuchty, 1857.

It was normal in those days for women to have their maiden name recorded on official documents in Scotland, which is incredibly helpful in researching maternal lines. The document also indicated that John and Elizabeth were still alive in 1857; as otherwise “deceased” would have been written after their names.

Normally Scottish death records also show parents’ names, but in George’s case it shows only surnames, and that both parents were by then deceased. The informant of George’s death was his son, also called George. It seems likely that if he didn’t know his grandparents’ names, he may not have actually known them.

George Leslie, death record, 1902. Both parents are reported as deceased, and neither's Christian name is given.

George Leslie, death record, 1902.

George’s age on his death record was given as 70; which would have put his birth around 1831-32. His age on the marriage record in 1857 was given as 30; which would meant he was born around 1826-27. In the 1901 census, George’s age was given as 74. In the 1891 census, as 65; and the 1881 census as 53. It’s not unusual for ages to vary like this in nineteenth century census records – or even on statutory BDM records. These things are a guide, not gospel. However, on all but one census record I found for George, he gave birthplace as Elgin, in Morayshire.  The exceptions are 1851 and 1871 where I haven’t been able to find a record of him; and 1841 where his birthplace was shown as “out of county”.

With these parameters, I searched for a birth record – or more accurately a baptism record – using FamilySearch and Ancestry.

What I got were two baptism records for a George Leslie whose parents were John Leslie and Elizabeth Robertson – both for the month of August, 1822.

The first was in New Spynie, Morayshire, with a birth date of 3 August, and baptism on 31 August; the second in Portsoy, Banff, with a baptism date of 4 August. The New Spynie baptism was in the parish church, and so I was able to get a copy of the actual record from Scotland’s People.

George Leslie, baptism in the parish church of New Spynie, 31 August, 1822.

George Leslie, baptism in the parish church of New Spynie, 31 August, 1822.

The New Spynie baptism records says “George natural son to Elizabeth Robertson and John Leslie was born 3rd and bapt 31st August 1822. Witnessed George Stewart and Alan Stewart.”

Natural son means that John Leslie and Elizabeth Robertson weren’t married – at least not to each other.

The Portsoy baptism was in the Episcopal Church, so I haven’t yet accessed the actual record – but the entry on Ancestry says:

George Leslie or Robertson

George Leslie or Robertson.


 Location, location, location

The parish of New Spynie is about  2 miles from Elgin which George consistently claimed on census records was his birthplace. Because of that, it seems reasonable to believe that this record is for the right person. A little bit of extra support comes from the 1841 census, which shows a George Leslie aged 15, agricultural labourer, living with his mother Elizabeth Robertson (age 45), in Bishopsmill – the main village in the New Spynie Parish. George’s birthplace is shown as “out of county”. This census record is the only one I’ve found for a George Leslie of about the right age living with another person that I can link to “my” George.

Portsoy is about only 27 miles from Elgin, though it is in the county of Banff, not Moray. When I first found the 1841 census record, I did wonder about the entry for George’s birthplace, but in light of the two baptism records, I’m beginning to construct a new scenario for George’s early life.

So here goes

Elizabeth Robertson and John Leslie have a son together, born in Portsoy, Banff, on (probably) 3 August 1822. They are not married to each other. They name the child George and have him baptised the day after his birth in the Episcopal Church in Portsoy. Sometime in the following weeks, the couple – or perhaps only Elizabeth – travel to Bishopsmill in New Spynie Parish and have the baby baptised again in a Church of Scotland Church.

I don’t know a great deal about the Episcopal Church in Scotland, other than it had been associated with the Jacobite movement and that until the early nineteenth century, Episcopalians in Scotland suffered considerable religious discrimination. The north-east of Scotland – where George was born – was considered something of a Episcopal stronghold. Prior to the introduction of statutory birth, death and marriage records in Scotland in the 1850s, churches – in particularly the Church of Scotland – were the principal record-keeper, so it may have been that George’s second baptism was a way of ensuring that his birth was “properly” recorded.

Because OPR records have very little information compared to statutory BDM records, I’m a bit stuck. I have searched Ancestry and FamilySearch for birth, marriage and death records for any likely candidates for George’s parents, but both names are quite common and no records really leap out at me.

The only clues I have to Elizabeth’s identity are her age and birthplace in the 1841 census, but as ages tended to be rounded and birthplace was confined to “in county” or “not in county”, they aren’t exactly strong clues. John Leslie is even more of a mystery.

I suppose a first step is to establish if my multiple baptism theory holds water. Are any of you knowledgeable about the Episcopal Church in Scotland in the 1820s?

Secondly, I thought it might be useful to find out if the Kirk Session Minutes for New Spynie Parish in 1822 still exist. Because John and Elizabeth weren’t married, if one of both of them belonged to the Parish, it’s possible they were hauled before the Parish Council for a telling-off. Again, does anyone have any contacts with the local family history society that I might email?

Meantime, I’ll have to put aside George and his parents and see if I can have any more success with George’s wife’s family — the Traill’s of Auchtermuchty!

 Information about Scottish Episcopalianism:

Scotland Church Records, FamilySearch

History of the General Register Office of Scotland (pdf)








18 thoughts on “Help wanted: must be interested in mysteries and have good eye for detail. Knowledge of 19th century Scottish religious practices useful

  1. You knock me out, Su ! – I become dazed within five seconds by all this. How you manage to keep it up on a regular basis is beyond me, but I surely am impressed – even if you have come to a temporary halt. Wish I could help …

  2. Ah, a difficult one. The Kirk Session Minutes for both those parishes might help: I’ve used the minutes myself but it has entailed a visit to Edinburgh. The minutes have been digitised but they are not indexed therefore not searchable – you just have to scroll through the relevant dates and try your best to read the writing. What you need is someone able to do this who regularly visits the records centre in Edinburgh.

    Will have a think and see if anything else strikes me. But it may be you just cannot get any further, in which case I think it’s find to construct a scenario (or scenarios) that work with what you do know, providing you remain aware it’s a scenario and not the facts!

    (Heir Hunters is a daytime tv programme here in the UK where the relatives of people who die without a will are traced. Involves experts trawling through BMDs to construct family trees.)

    • Thanks Judy. I’ve used Dysart Kirk Session minutes which have been transcribed type the Fife Family History Society I think. Brilliant reading! I really must find Heir Hunters; sounds like fun!

  3. Just doing some rummaging around in the records, and on FindMyPast there is an 1851 census entry for a George Leslie ag lab, son of farmer Robert Leslie and his wife Betsy Leslie. Could be unrelated or father Robert could be a relative of the George Leslie who fathered the illegitimate George Leslie baptised in 1822.

    • Hi Judy. I thought I’d replied to this, but the comment isn’t showing, so apologies if you have already had my musings on this George. I had seen this entry before and got quite excited; then I looked and noticed that this George is still living with Robet and Betsy in 1861, when I know my George was in Dundee with wife and babies. Thanks for finding the entry and reminding me. I’m learning that elimination is a way forward too! 🙂

  4. I’m no help at all, I’m afraid, but I did have a giggle at the number of “Leslie” and “Robertson” references in this article, and the mental bell that rang — –that odd genealogist Pavlovian response — each time I encountered one of them. They don’t apply to me, obviously (Leslie is my first name, and I’m a Robertson only by marriage), but my eye kept gravitating to them nonetheless. Wishing you good luck with the brick wall, Su!

  5. I wish I could be of some help, but those records are not at all familiar to me. But it sure sounds like your theory makes sense, if someone would baptize a child twice. Maybe two different sets of grandparents each wanted him baptized in their church? Good luck—after your break from this one for a while!

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