A tangled web


Tangled webs. Image: Su Leslie 2018

“Oh what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice  …

Sir Walter Scott (Marmion, 1808), ended the line with “to deceive”, but in the case of my three times great grandfather, Thomas Boswell Bisset (1831-1902), I’m not sure.

Why did the man baptized Thomas Gordon and married under the name Thomas Baswell (sic) Bisset, have his children baptized with the Bisset surname, and yet simultaneously appear in census returns (1841-1881) as Thomas Gordon? (1)

I don’t know the answer, but I’m hoping if I lay out the facts to date, you might have some ideas.

So, to begin at the beginning; which is actually the end

The last official record for Thomas was his death certificate, dated 30 June, 1902. In that, his name was recorded as “Thomas Boswell Bisset or Gordon.” His wife was named as Helen Laing Simpson, his age 70, his occupation carter, and his address 10 Henderson Street, Leven, Fife, Scotland.

Thomas’s father was named as Thomas Bisset, farmer, deceased” and his mother as Elizabeth Grieve, afterwards married to Henry Wright, crofter, deceased.” The informant on the record was Thomas’s son, William Reekie Bisset.

At that point, things seemed fairly straightforward. I found only one matching Bisset/Simpson marriage record — in the OPR (old parish registers) for nearby Dysart parish:

31 May 1851 Thomas Baswell Bisset, labourer, son of Archibald B. and Helen Simpson, daughter of John S. both of this parish, were contracted and after proclamation married.

This matched other information I had (2), except that Thomas’s father was named as Archibald, not Thomas, as on his death certificate.

While I love the detail in historical Scottish death certificates, they’re obviously not self-reported, so I assumed that son William simply didn’t know his grandfather’s name was Archibald.

Surely Thomas’s birth record would clear things up

In both the 1891 and 1901 census, Thomas reported his age as consistent with a birth year of 1831, and his birthplace as Wemyss parish in Fife.

Eighteen boys named Thomas Bisset (or variations on either of those names) had their birth recorded in Scotland between 1820-1840 (allowing for a wide margin around 1831), but none had parents named Thomas and Elizabeth or Archibald and Elizabeth, or any likely variation on them (3).

Changing the surname to Gordon produced 68 results. Fourteen had fathers named Thomas, but not mothers named Elizabeth (or variants); and none had fathers called Archibald. But I did find a Thomas Gordon, born to John Gordon and Elizabeth Grieve. The birth was recorded in 1831, in Wemyss parish, Fife.

The record says “May 16 Thomas natural son of John Gordon and Elizabeth Grieve in Kirkland.” (2)

The year and place of of birth and mother’s name matched Thomas’s death certificate; but now I had to add John Gordon to the list of Thomas’s recorded fathers.

One of those weird light-bulb moments

I had found Thomas Bisset easily in the 1891 and 1901 censuses, but in none prior to that. Confused, I’d tried searching instead for some of his children. I knew he and Helen had a son named William, and daughters Barbara, Charlotte and Tomina (listed in the 1891 census). In the statutory birth records, I found a total of 14 children born to Thomas and Helen: Margaret, Henry, Thomas Boswell, Elizabeth, Helen, John, William Reekie, Rachel, Jane, Barbara, Catherine, Charlotte, Tomina Howden and David. (4)

Knowing the children’s names, and that they were all born in the Leven, Fife, didn’t help me find census records for the family. So, although it seemed unlikely, I searched using the surname Gordon.

Et voila!

The 1871 and 1881 censuses show the entire Bisset/Gordon family living in Henderson Street. In the 1861 census Thomas is absent, but Helen is listed as “wife of Head”, so presumably Thomas was simply away from home on census night.

Why Gordon?

When Thomas married Helen in 1851, he did so as Thomas Bisset. All his children had the Bisset surname and he completed the 1891 and 1901 census returns as Thomas B. How could he simultaneously be a Gordon?

Thomas and Helen married just weeks after the 1851 census was taken, so I wondered if finding him on the eve of his marriage might help.

I found a record for Helen Simpson, in Dysart, living with her father John Simpson, 50, handloom weaver; her mother, Janet, age 50; and four siblings, Margaret, John, Charles and David.

This was where their marriage took place, so I assumed that Thomas Bisset/Gordon probably lived nearby. A search produced three Thomas Gordons around the right age, and only one in Dysart; a 20 year old carter living as a boarder with Henry Wright, his wife Elizabeth and their children William, Jessie and Rachel.

The right Wright?

Could this be the Henry Wright named on Thomas’s death certificate as his mother’s husband?

I believe so. I found an OPR marriage record (November 1839) that matches (the only Wright/Grieve in the time-frame), a death certificate for Elizabeth Wright nee Grieve, and birth records for four children born to the couple: William b. 1840; Helen, b. 1842 (d. 1846); Janet b. 1845; and another Helen b. 1849.

If the 1851 census record IS for the man I know as Thomas Bisset, he was living as Thomas Gordon a few weeks before his marriage, which took place in his local church.

At this point I have so many questions.

Why did Thomas Gordon use a different name when he married?

Why did he complete census returns with his old name? Especially as his wife and kids WERE by birth/marriage Bissets. Did they even know how the returns were being recorded?

And most importantly, why Bisset? Why not Gordon, or Grieve, or Wright?

Bisset is a name used extensively in my mother’s family; my grandmother was Margaret Simpson Bisset Cruden, her mother Catherine Simpson Bisset Black and her mother was Thomas Boswell Bisset‘s daughter Margaret Simpson Bisset. They were named to honour parents and grandparents, so I really need to know who Mr Bisset was and why Thomas wanted his name.

Any thoughts, ideas and suggestions about how to proceed? I would welcome them.

margaret simpson bissett headstone 1900 small

Great, great grandparents in Dysart Cemetery, Fife, Scotland.


  1. The entire Gordon/Bisset family used the Gordon surname in each of the 1861, 1871 and 1881 censuses, despite the children all being baptised Bisset.
  2. Helen’s death certificate, issued in 1914, named her parents as John Simpson and Janet Whittock, and I had census records that connected Helen to John and Janet.
  3. Given that OPRs weren’t always meticulously well-kept (or preserved) it is possible that Thomas was born to a couple called Archibald Bisset and Elizabeth Grieve or Thomas Bisset and Elizabeth Grieve and either it wasn’t recorded, or the record has disappeared or been really weirdly indexed. If that’s the case, I will probably never know.
  4. Although Thomas and Helen were married in 1851, I couldn’t find any birth records prior to 1856, but these would  have been parish records, and some parishes were better at record-keeping than others. I know that the couple did have at least one other child — Boswell — born in 1854, as I found a death record for him dated 1857. Four of the other children; Thomas Boswell, Elizabeth, John and David also died in childhood.

37 thoughts on “A tangled web

  1. Hi Su – what a mystery!

    Some thoughts:

    There is a Thomas Gordon b. 1831c in the 1841 census at West Gallatown, North Side, Dysart, Fife with a Boswell Gordon who was born 1775 in Kinghorn, Fife son of William Gordon and Barbara Henderson. This may account for the use of the name Boswell in Thomas’s name. He married Helen Moyes in 1797 in Kinghorn. Looks like they had the following children:

    Adam b. 1800 Kinghorn
    William b. 1802 Kinghorn
    Helen b. 1805 Aberdour
    Robert b. 1807 Aberdour
    John b. 1808 Aberdour > likely the John who was Thomas’s father as per the baptism.

    Looks like Boswell died in 1845 – in West Gallatown. Occupation – Carter. (Down as Boswald) and his wife Helen died in 1848.

    You likely already have this information.

    The Archibald Bisset(t) part is definitely the head scratcher. There aren’t a lot of men with that name in the area, the main standout one being born in 1784 – a farmer in Carnbee, Fife. He married in 1822 and had two daughters. Died in 1855 intestate but his administration etc. makes no mention of a son.

    The only thing I can think of is that maybe Elizabeth had been a bit on the wayward side and that Thomas’s father could have been one of two men she had been seeing, John Gordon and Archibald Bisset? She decided John was the father at the time of baptising Thomas – perhaps he had initially stood by her, but then changed his mind? Then maybe she told Thomas his father was actually Archibald – but he was entitled to use the surname Gordon as it was the name he had been baptised under, but maybe preferred Bisset?

    A suggestion might be to look into the Kirk Session records for the area to see if there was anything about Thomas in terms of maintenance payments by his father.

    Another thought is around Elizabeth Grieve – her death record states she was the daughter of Thomas Grieve – a Gardener and Margaret Drummond. Not seeing any baptism for her or a marriage for her parents. It is possible there is some kind of convoluted family life for her too and perhaps Bisset might be to do with her side of the family?

    I am miffed that I cannot locate Henry and Elizabeth in 1841 – have you had any luck locating them?


    • Hi Alex
      Thanks so much for all the research you’ve done here.
      I did find the 1841 census, and thought the same as you. I was going to include it in the post, but then I found some other bits of information that have led me down a deeper rabbit hole and I thought it best to write a separate post (don’t want to totally lose my readers with and endless tome).
      Quick question: what was your source for Elizabeth’s death record? I have the register entry from Scotland’s People and it says her mother’s name was Helen Drummond.
      Boswell Gordon was also married to a Helen Drummond (2nd wife; the one that died in 1848 — not Helen Moyes whom he married first), so that got me wondering all sorts of stuff.
      I haven’t found Henry and Elizabeth in 1841 either.
      Thanks again

      • Ah sorry not sure where the name Margaret came from – it says Helen yes!

        Very interesting re Boswell’s second marriage. I wouldn’t be surprised if Elizabeth’s son got mixed up with the information around his mother’s parentage – especially if perhaps he never knew them. That is the problem with information on certificates – only as reliable as the information known by the people providing said information!

        Now I have Helen in my head (must have been having a brain fade yesterday) I see there is a marriage in Canongate, Edinburgh between a Thomas Grieve and a Helen Drumond in 1805. But not seeing any baptisms of children for them.

        Very interesting that Boswell married a Helen Drummond – I wonder if maybe Thomas Grieve died and Helen married Boswell and their children ended up getting a little too friendly? They weren’t blood related after all. I have seen some Scottish records where a widow marries again under her maiden name rather than previous married name. The Canongate marriage between Thomas Grieve and Helen Drumond gives her as being the daughter of an Alexander.

        Still doesn’t really answer the Bisset bit though!

        • Thanks Alex. I saw the Boswell-Drummond marriage and got excited, but, like you — nothing else to link them.
          I looked at the census records I do have for Elizabeth and it looks like her birthplace was recorded as Kinross-shire. A very small county — so not quite so daunting if I need to wade through lots of possibilities.

        • Hi Su and Alex

          Another interesting conundrum is that on the 1841 census, Hellen Gordon, wife of Boswell Gordon, gives her age as 50. That would have made here 14/15 in 1805!

          My money is that the age is false and that Helen Drumond, wife of Boswell gordon is the same Helen Drumond who married Thomas Grieve and gave birth to Elisabeth grieve.

          Boswell Gordon, and his first wife, Helen Moyes, are my 4x Great-Grandparents.

          My view on the Thomas Boswell Bissett ‘or’ (-iginally) Gordon is this.

          In 1831 Elisabeth Grieve, daughter of Helen Drummond, step-daughter of Boswell Gordon, gave birth to a son. The boy was registered as being the natural son of Elisabeth and John Gordon (Boswell’s 22 year old son). John, a Sergeant in the 91st Foot regiment, was probably not around to refute the allegation. John Gordon married an Ann Flanagan in Manchester in 1832 and died in South Africa in 1850.

          Thomas Gordon, son of Elisabeth Grieve, is raised as grandson of Helen and Boswell Gordon.

          In 1841 Thomas is listed in the household of Boswell Gordon. (unfortunately the 1841 census doesn’t list relationships).

          Boswell dies in 1845, Helen Drummond dies in 1848.

          With Boswell, Helen and John Gordon all deceased, in 1851 Thomas Gordon is listed (as Thomas Gordon) in the March census in the household of Elisabeth and Henry Wright (his mother with her new husband).

          Elisabeth confesses to her son that his real father is Archibald Bissett (possibly the farmer in Carnbree. It is possible that Elisabeth was working as a servant on the farm at the time she fell pregnant.)

          Two months later, at his marriage to Helen Simpson, Thomas lists Archibald as his father.

          Having been raised for 20 years as grandson of Boswell Gordon, that would also explain why Gordon/Bisset is used interchangeably thereafter, and the name Boswell being used in his descendants.

        • Hi Duncan
          Thanks so much for this. I have been working on much the same theory.
          I only recently found out about John Gordon’s life and military service, and realised that would have made him seem expedient as a father for Thomas. From his military records it’s not totally clear if he could have been in the UK between postings at the time — frustratingly I found the relevant pages of the regimental records were missing.
          I agree with you about Helen’s age and had found the Grieve/Drummond marriage record. It names Helen’s father as Alex Drumond, a farmer in Orwell, in Kinross-shire. One of the few fairly consistent bits of information about Elizabeth Grieve is a birthplace of Kinross-shire, so that seemed to fit. However, I haven’t found a birth record for Elizabeth Grieve, nor a death record for Thomas Grieve, so it’s all hypothesis at the moment.
          I’m wondering if the Wemyss Kirk Session records might prove enlightening as I suspect Elizabeth might have been hauled before the Session over Thomas’s birth. But I’m in New Zealand, so a search of those records will have to wait til my next trip back to Scotland.
          Which of Boswell and Helen Moyes’ children are you descended from?
          Once again thanks. It’s great to know that my theorising makes sense to others as well.

        • Really interesting Duncan. In 1841 the ages were often rounded up or down so it might have been that was the case with Helen Drummond’s details on that census. Can’t remember off the top of my head whether the other household members ages seem to be rounded up/down too.

        • Hi Alex – of course, at that time in Scotland, it was legal for girls to marry at 12 without parental consent, so the age may be right.

          Su – I’m new to your blog, so not sure if my reply to an email notification of your comment actually got to you. It was a rather long, more detailed response, which I wasn’t sure if you’d want posted here.

        • Su, I’ll pop it in an email.

          For the benefit of Alex – short version is that everything points to Archibald Bisset (farmer at Carnbee,45) getting Elisabeth Grieves (probable farm servant, 20), pregnant. Crunch info is the March 1851 census return for the household of Elisabeth and Henry Wright, where Thomas Gordon’s birthplace is given as Carnbee. “But Mother, I was born in Kirklands”. “Ah, well, son, actually………” – which would explain why two months later at his wedding, Thomas has changed his name to Bisset and claiming Archibald Bisset as his father.

        • Thanks Duncan. I’m away for the weekend, but will answer your email when I get home. It’s nice to realise that much with the same information we’ve formed the same theories. It’s a pity we’ll probably never find the corroborating evidence we need to confirm them.

        • Oh the bizarre interconnectedness of things and the smallness of worlds.

          Whilst considering the roots of Thomas Bisset/Gordon, who features in my paternal grandfather’s family history, I had, in the back of my mind, the fact that my paternal grandmother’s aunt, Josephine McCormack, was married to a Bisset.

          I’ve just gone back and reviewed this Bisset’s history, based on a tree put together by their descendant, one of my distant cousins.

          According to that tree (if it’s correct), my great/great Aunt’s husband, Thomas Bisset from Cameron in Fife, was the grand son of Archibald Bisset’s brother John (1775-1853).

          I think I’ll step away from the family history research for a few days to let my brain cool down.

        • Fabulous. I love when things like that appear. I’m surprised and a bit disappointed that although I’ve done years of research and found that most of my ancestors lived in Fife, I haven’t found any relationships linking different parts of my family like that.

        • Yes – 12 was the legal age for a long period of time although it was actually quite rare to marry that young, but 15/16 is more likely if marrying young. 🙂

        • I think the youngest I ever came across was a 13 year old girl marrying a man who was in his 40s. They married in India in 1811 if I remember rightly. He died in 1825 leaving her a widow with 5 children and she married again but died about 6 months after. Then the next youngest would be 15 – again in India, husband was about 25 I think at the time, first wife died, then he married again – second wife was 17 years old when he was 31 and she died and his third wife was 15/16 when he was 37. I think it seemed more commonplace in India – and this is not marrying native women – this is marrying white / anglo indian women. It makes my skin crawl though to think of an older man marrying such a young girl.

        • It makes me a bit ill too. A horrible reminder of just how much women (and girls) have always been traded like goods and economically dependent on men.

  2. Hmm, my initial reaction was that one of those men was Thomas’ biological father, the other the stepfather, and his son had them confused. My son-in-law, for example, only knew his stepgrandfather as his grandfather died long before he was born. So he named my grandson for the stepgrandfather, not his biological grandfather. Someday my grandson will likely think that “Jack” was his biological great-grandfather and screw up some family tree.

    So glad to see a Shaking the Tree post and to know that somehow between photography, cooking, and gardening, you are still doing genealogy!

  3. I typed Thomas Bisset Simpson into google and turned up here. He was my great uncle or great great uncle? My family is full of Bissets and Simpsons so perhaps we are related. Mine were in Dunbartonshire though.

    • Hi. The irony of the Bisset name in my family is that it appears suddenly when Thomas Gordon decided to call himself Thomas Bisset when he married Helen Simpson. I have no evidence that anyone called Bisset was actually Thomas’s father, and two other, different, men are named in records as his father. He is my “man of mystery”.

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