… another brick in the wall?

david leslie with craig leslie 1964

Descendants of George Leslie, my grandad David Leslie, and my brother Craig. Kirkcaldy, Scotland, c. Mar-Apr 1964. Photo: Leslie family archive.

I’ve been working on my surname line for a while but have struck a brick wall at my 2x great grandfather, George Leslie.

While I’m confident I have accurately documented George’s adult life – certainly from his marriage in 1857 — information about his parentage and early life is sparse and less certain.

One of the great things about Scotland’s statutory records is that details of parentage are generally included on marriage and death records, as well as (more obviously) those of births. Oh what joy when the information on these sources is present and consistent!

Unfortunately, when George died in 1902, his son (also George), reported his grandparents by surname only – both Leslie — and both deceased.

The only record I have then which names George’s parents is that of his marriage to my gg grandmother, Janet Traill. They are named as John Leslie and Elizabeth Robertson. John’s occupation is shown as flax dresser, and the record indicates that both parents’ were alive at the time.

Looking for evidence

Without corroborating evidence, I had to assume that the names on the marriage record were largely correct in order to search for traces of George’s birth and early life.

George’s age at death was shown as 70, which would have made his birth year 1832. However, this is inconsistent with other records, including his marriage and census returns.  George’s age may have varied across records, but he consistently reported his place of birth (in census records) as Elgin, in Morayshire.

I used both FamilySearch and Scotland’s People; and searched for children named George Leslie (or Robertson) – born between 1810 and 1840 – where the father’s name was John and the mother’s Elizabeth.

I allowed for name variations and misspellings with wildcard searching, and in Scotland’s People, searched both OPR (Church of Scotland) records, and those of other churches.

Search results

Ultimately, three records were returned – two in Morayshire, and one in neighbouring Banffshire.

  1. George Leslie born 20 May 1833, baptised 27 May 1833; in Rothes, Morayshire to John Leslie and Elspat Riach in 1833.
  2. George Leslie, baptised 4 August 1822; in Portsoy, Banffshire, to John Leslie and Betty Robertson
  3. George Leslie born 3 August 1822 and baptised 31 August 1822, New Spynie, Morayshire; 1822 to John Leslie and Elizabeth Robertson.

Hunches and deductions

I’m confident that the Rothes-born George is not my ancestor, for several reasons.

  • While his birth date is not entirely inconsistent with the age given on George Leslie’s death record, it is much later than any of the records created in George’s life-time –which would have been self-reported.
  • While the mother’s first name is a variation of Elizabeth, the surname is different. Though it is conceivable that an error was made on George’s marriage record, one of George and Janet’s children was given Robertson as a middle name, and I can find no other source for that name than George’s assumed mother.
  • Finally and most importantly, census records consistently show this man living in Rothes with his family, when I’m confident my 2x great grandfather was in Angus and Fife.

But here is where it gets a bit complicated.

I believe that the second and third records actually relate to the same person – and here’s why.

The August 4th baptism took place in the Episcopal church of St John at Portsoy in Banff. These records aren’t available through Scotland’s People, and I found this on FamilySearch.

The records of the St John’s Church in Portsoy are held at the University of Aberdeen, so I emailed the Special Collections Librarian who kindly photographed and sent me the appropriate extract of the birth register. Copyright conditions mean I can’t publish this photo, but I can transcribe it. The extract reads:

August 4th 1822 Leslie     George son of John Leslie, Farm Servant to Capt. Cameron, Banff, born in fornication by Betty Robertson, Forres. Sponsored Adam & (Ian, Jm??) Wilson, Square Wrights, Portsoy

The baptism register from the Church of Scotland kirk at New Spynie  reads:

1822 Leslie           George natural son to Elizabeth Robertson and John Leslie was born 3rd and baptised 31st August 1822. Witnesses George Stewart and Alex (Alan?)  Stewart.

The case for one George, two baptisms

As I noted above, my search had quite wide parameters, yet returned only three hits across a 30 year period – and two of those births were in the same week in 1822.

  • The New Spynie register records the child’s date of birth as 3 August. The Portsoy baptism took place on 4 August, which was a Sunday. According to Stewart Brown’s book History of Everyday Life in Scotland 1800 -1900, “baptism was to take place in front of the congregation during a time of regular worship, and as soon as possible after a child’s birth.” (p.126).
  • The parent’s names are virtually the same in both records (Betty being a variation of Elizabeth)
  • In both baptism records, George is noted as illegitimate (“born in fornication …”, “natural son … ”)

Why two baptisms?

Before statutory records, the Church of Scotland was the “official” keeper of BDM records. Parishes were also responsible for poor relief (welfare). I have found several instances of children being baptised in the parishes of both parents. I think this was a kind of insurance, so that if poor relief was ever required, the child was “of the parish” and therefore eligible. I think it likely that this child was baptised the second time in New Spynie, in the Church of Scotland, for those reasons.

I am though at a loss as to why the kirk at New Spynie was chosen for a second baptism, when the Portsoy extract says that the mother, Betty Robertson, was from Forres — another parish in Morayshire.

It is of course one thing to argue that the same George Leslie was baptised twice; another to argue that this child was my 2x great grandfather. I think that there is some support for that hypothesis:

  • The parent’s names exactly match those my gg grandfather George reported at the time of his marriage
  • The parish of New Spynie is about 2 miles from Elgin; the place George consistently reported as his birthplace. If George lived in New Spynie as a child he may have assumed it to be where he was born.
  • 1822 is at the early end of possible birth dates derived from other records of George’s life. However, I’m going to make the entirely unscientific assertion that adults more often shave a few years off their age, than add a few years on.
  • The 1841 census shows Elizabeth Robertson, aged 45 and George Leslie, aged 15, as the occupants of a dwelling at Front Street, Bishopsmill, New Spynie Parish. Elizabeth is recorded as of independent means and having been born in the county (Morayshire). George is shown as an agricultural labourer, born outside the county.

Dazed and confused

As always, I have more questions than answers: why New Spynie? Why the Episcopal church? Was John a member of the congregation? Or perhaps his employer Capt. Cameron was.  Who was Capt. Cameron? Was Betty Cameron also a servant of the Captain’s? What happened to John Leslie and Elizabeth Robertson after the birth of their son?

I’ve been working on this for a while and am beginning to feel that I wouldn’t recognise resolution if it danced naked in front of me. So I’m turning to you my blogging whanau. Any thoughts on my logic (or lack of)? Suggestions for further research?




18 thoughts on “… another brick in the wall?

  1. It all sounds logical to me (but keep in mind I know nothing about baptisms, Scotland, or church records). Certainly the names and dates support your conclusion.

  2. I think your thinking is spot on. May I suggest that you search for Elizabeth Robertson’s death record to see if George is the informant? It should list his address (as you know). If he was her only son, it is highly likely he was the informant. I would also suggest that you use the valuation rolls to try to tie your George to this Elizabeth. Also, have you looked for the Kirk Session records for the parish? They would likely include this case. Have you found John Leslie in the census?

    • Thanks for this. I have tried searching death records. There are around 300 that fit the criteria of what I believe I know about Elizabeth. I’ve honed in on the obvious ones (places I can locate her in life), but no joy. I can’t search Scotland’s People by informant sadly. I hadn’t thought of valuation rolls, but have done so, and sadly that didn’t help either. I have been trying to find out if the New Spynie Kirk Session Records are available, but no joy so far. I’m not sure if the Episcopal Church had a court of Session! No joy with census records for John Leslie either. There are just too many, and I don’t know enough about him to narrow the search down. I’m beginning to think this will have to go on the back burner, in the hope that more records become available in the future. 🙂

      • Bummer to all of that! It sounds like you are really scouring what’s available. It also sounds like your John Leslie will be very much like my John Brown who was the illegitimate father of Andrew Brown. I only have that one record with his name and parish. I currently have no plans to try to solve it. Your Elizabeth though, it seems like there could definitely be a way to find her. I have a few ideas bubbling in there. 300 possible death records is so many, do you have no way to narrow it?

        Wouldn’t it be fabulous if informants were a search category on SP? Even if they didn’t show the informant in search returns but linked results to specific records with the informants name. Too much work for them with so little reward though, sigh.

        I hope you are struck by a brilliant search strategy very soon! Good luck.

        • Thank you. Any thoughts on ways to track Elizabeth gratefully received. I guess I have eliminated a half-dozen or so of my 300! Sadly, they were the most likely given the tiny amount I feel I do know about her. 😦

        • Have you tried looking at the birth records in the parish that George was born in for Elizabeth’s birth? In my family, usually illegitimate children were born in the parish of the mother’s birth (not always, but almost always). If you could make a smaller list of potential candidates for your Elizabeth, it might help you narrow down your list of death records to a much smaller number. You could probably track all of the birth record Elizabeths forward. The OPR records are so detailed in the index that you wouldn’t need to purchase the images to get possible birth/baptism dates to work from.

        • In the few records I have for Elizabeth, I can locate or reference her to three parishes. George’s first baptism was in Portsoy, but the record says his mother was from Forres parish. His second baptism was in New Spynie, and I have a record of Elizabeth living there 15 years after George’s birth. The first baptism was in the Episcopal church, and those records aren’t really accessible. It’s only because I found a reference on FamilySearch that I emailed the Librarian at Aberdeen University where the records are kept. There aren’t any online indexes and I don’t think the Episcopal church had Sessions like the Scottish Kirk. I also really don’t know why he was baptised there, and then three weeks later in New Spynie. I assumed it was because Elizabeth was from New Spynie, but I haven’t found any birth records that support that, or in fact that indicate she was from Forres. If she was baptised in the Epicopal church in Portsoy, there is no record of that that I can access. Perhaps a trip to Aberdeen!!!! 🙂

        • You’ve helped so much; in the best way by sanity-checking what I’m doing. Knowing that I haven’t missed obvious things is great for my confidence. Thank you 💐💐

    • Excellent. I am an advocate for people learning more about their family history and sharing the stories before they disappear. It is time-consuming, but I never notice that until afterwards. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Janet Trail, 2x great grandmother – Shaking the tree

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