Hardy folk, part two: lives and deaths of my male ancestors

david leslie with craig leslie 1964

David Leslie; with grandson c. 1964. Photo: Leslie family archive.

A while ago, I was inspired to look at my family’s mortality (as you do). I began by looking at my female ancestors, and though it’s taken a while I have now repeated the exercise for the men in my tree — to my 3x great grandfathers. Beyond them I have only scant and less reliable information.

On my father’s side

My paternal grandfather

My paternal grandfather David Leslie (1899-1964) died when I was very young, but he lived with my family for a time before his final illness so I have very strong memories of being the focus of his attention, and feeling much- loved and very special. He died of lung cancer, complicated by bronchitis, on Boxing Day 1964.

Great grandfathers

My dad’s paternal grandfather, David Leslie (1877-1940), died aged 73 of arteriosclerosis and cerebral thrombosis. He had spent his working life as a kilnsman in the potteries of Kirkcaldy, Fife.

Dad’s maternal grandfather Thomas Elder (1874-1929), died aged 54, of colon cancer which had metastasised to his liver. He had been an ironmonger most of his working life, and there is a family rumour – which I haven’t been able to verify – that he suffered gas poisoning in World War I.

2x great grandfathers

George Leslie (1822-1902), is one of the mysteries in my family tree; a man whose early life (probably spent in the counties of Banff and Morayshire) is largely un-documented. With the introduction of statutory records to Scotland in 1855, I am able to trace his later life with more certainty. He died at his home in Kirkcaldy, with 79 given as his age on the death certificate.  Cause of death was recorded as senile decay and acute bronchitis. He had worked as a carter and labourer.

Rankine Gourlay (1845- 1903) lived a relatively short but interesting (for a family historian) life. He joined the Merchant Navy as a fourteen year old, and I know from maritime records that he sailed on several occasions to Sydney, Australia, and Valparaiso in Chile. He contracted syphilis during this time and was admitted to the Fife and Kinross Lunatic Asylum in July 1889, after threatening behaviour towards his wife and one of his daughters. He was discharged to the Kirkcaldy Combination Poorhouse in October 1891, where he remained until his death, aged 57, in July 1903. Cause of death was recorded as general paralysis and syphilis.

William Elder (1844 – 1933) was born Dysart, Fife. In the 1861 census, his occupation was listed as pottery labourer. Three years later when he married Elizabeth Penman in Dunfermline, Fife, he was listed as a colliery engine driver. This is the occupation he seems to have maintained until the 1891 census, when he was listed as Colporteur – or a travelling salesman of books, particularly bibles and religious tracts. He seems to have maintained this line of work for the rest of his life, being described as a travelling salesman on his wife’s death record in 1920 and a commission agent on his own death certificate in 1933. He was 89, and his cause of death was given as bronchitis, fracture of femur and cardiac failure.

Andrew Nicholson (1838-1894) also lived most of his life in Dysart, except for a period during the early 1860s when he and his wife Susan Forbes moved to Glasgow. Andrew’s occupation on the 1861 census was given as Engine Smith. After the family returned to Fife (prior to the 1871 census) he seems to have begun working in his wife’s father’s grocery business.  His death certificate records him as a “retired grocer and engineer” and shows cardiac disease as the cause of death. He was 56.

3x great grandfathers

John Leslie (dates unknown). The only records I have that mention John Leslie relate to his son George.

George was baptised twice; the first time on 3 August 1822 in Portsoy, Banff and the second time in New Spynie, Moray on 31 August 1822. The first baptism was in an Episcopalian church; the second church of Scotland. John is named as his natural father on both records. The Episcopalian baptism refers to him as a “farm servant to Captain Cameron in Banff” and this is the only clue I have to his identity.

When George Leslie married in 1857, John is named and shown as living. He doesn’t appear to have married George’s mother Elizabeth Robertson, and without more information, I haven’t been able to trace him through census, church or statutory records.

William Trail (1789-1867) was born in Perthshire but lived most of his adult life in Auchtermuchty, Fife. He worked as a handloom weaver and died a pauper aged 67. His death certificate lists cause of death as “general debility from ?? life”. I’m unclear what the missing word is, but it could be widowed?

traill william death certificate

Death certificate, William Trail. Cause of death “general debility from ….” Record accessed from Scotland’s People.

Thomas Gourlay (1809-1867) lived his entire life in Abbotshall, Fife. He was a master tailor, probably learning his trade from his father George. Thomas died aged 58; his death certificate lists cause of death as “accidental death by falling into a well.” The local newspaper report described the incident as taking place very late in the evening as Thomas was visiting a neighbour. In the dark he apparently fell into the neighbour’s well, and although rescued, died shortly afterwards.

gourlay thomas newspaper report of death

Fifeshire Journal, 31 October 1867. Report of the death of Thomas Gourlay. Image: British Newspaper Archive

Alexander Gerrard (1803-1883) died aged 80 of bronchitis. He had worked in his early years as a handloom weaver, but by his forties had become a gardener/labourer. This was shown as his occupation on his death certificate.

Thomas Elder (1809-1894) died aged 85 of senile decay. He had lived his entire life in Fife, most of it in Dysart. He was a weaver, working first of all on a handloom – probably from home with other members of his family, then later in a linen mill. The 1871 census records him as still working – aged 71.

Robert Penman (1816-1872) died of smallpox, aged 56. He was born in Dalgety, Fife and died in nearby Dunfermline. The occupation – from census records and his death certificate was coal miner.

Alexander Nicholson (-1848) Alexander achieved a considerable rise in wealth and status in what seems to have been a relatively short life.  When he married Mary Tod in 1827 his occupation was shown as weaver. By 1835 he appears on the Register of Voters as a Land Surveyor and land owner.  At the time of his death – of typhus — he had accumulated a considerable portfolio of real estate and held the positions of Inspector of the Poor and Baron Baillie in the parish of Dysart. I am not certain of his birth year, but the 1841 census gives his age as 35 (which means between 35 and 40) and his obituary suggests that he was a relatively young man.

David Forbes (1807-1861). Like his daughter’s father in law (and apparently his friend) Alexander Nicholson, David Forbes also died relatively young (age 54). His cause of death was liver disease, which may have been related to his occupation as a publican and spirit merchant.

My mother’s male ancestors

My maternal grandfather

Mum’s dad, David Skinner Ramsay (1901-1973), was a diabetic, who lost both lower legs to gangrene. My strongest memory of him is of vying with my cousins to sit in his lap while he propelled his wheelchair around. I don’t have a death certificate for him, but I believe that his death was related to his diabetes.

Great grandfathers

David Skinner Ramsay (1877-1948), was a coal miner who died aged 71 of a spinal tumour. I know very little about him, but in the photographs I have he was always smiling.

ramsay great grandparents at their wedding anniversary small

David Skinner Ramsay and Mary Fisher; their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Image: Ramsay-Leslie family archive

Alexander Cruden (1890-1970). Because he died in 1970, I haven’t yet been able to access my great grandfather’s death certificate. I know that as a very young man he worked as a coal miner, and that he was seriously wounded in WWI. He had one leg amputated above the knee and spent many years as an occasional in-patient at the Edenhall Hospital for Limbless Soldiers and Sailors. During the 1930s and 1940s he ran the Fife Arms pub in Milton of Balgonie.

2x great grandfathers

Stewart Cameron Cruden (1863-1934) Stewart worked as a factory hand and labourer, moving his family from Dundee, through various addresses in Fife until they settled for a time in Dysart where he became a coal miner. Sometime in the 1920s Stewart, his wife Isabella Wallace and their youngest son (also Stewart), emigrated to the United States, where they lived in Bayonne, New Jersey. The family had returned to Scotland by 1934 when Stewart died of a cerebral haemorrhage and cardiac failure, aged 70.

Alexander Black (1856-1926) died at the age of 69 in Dysart, Fife. He was born in nearby Kinglassie and had spent most of his working life as a coal miner. He was a widowed at the age of 43 and did not remarry. He died of chronic hepatitis.

John Ramsay (1854-1905) died aged 51 in the Fife & Kinross Asylum, Cupar. His cause of death is recorded as general paralysis and acute congestion of brain. Both incarceration in the asylum and the cause of death are reminiscent of Rankine Gourlay (above), who was hospitalised in the same asylum with a diagnosis of syphilis. It seems possible that John Ramsay was similarly infected.

George Fisher (1858-1934) died aged 76, suffering from colon cancer. He had been widowed twice, and had spent his working life employed in the linen factories of Kirkcaldy, where he lived his entire life.

3x great fathers

David Skinner Ramsay (1817-1871) died aged 54, of typhoid fever.  Compared to many of my ancestors, his life was more varied – both geographically and in terms of his work. He seems to have progressed from agricultural labourer as a young man, to a Master Miller with his own mill by his mid-thirties. This career was short-lived and he was bankrupt by the age of forty. He subsequently worked as a grain agent, but by the time of his early death, he was a Carter

The father of 2x great grandmother, Isabella Westwater is unknown.

John Fisher ( – 1888). John’s birth and early life are a bit of a mystery. The first record I have of him is the OPR record of his marriage in 1848 to Margaret Lindsay. From that, I know he was a flax-dresser, of Dysart parish. His death certificate shows his age as 62, and cause of death as bronchitis. His occupation was still flaxdresser.

Peter Westwood (1824-1893) was born in Glasgow, but seems to have settled in Fife by his mid-twenties. He remained there until his death aged 70. Cause of death is recorded as liver disease. He had worked as a shoemaker.

Alexander Cruden (1839-1896) was baptised in Moneydie, Perthshire and seems to have lived most of his life between Perthshire and Dundee. Census records show he progressed from working as a weaver, to a lathe operator, eventually becoming a cabinet maker. He was married three times and died aged 56, of heart disease.

Donald Wallace (1830-1872) was a farm labourer, born in Kirkmichael Perthshire. He died of pneumonia aged only 41, leaving behind a wife and five small children. The youngest was born only weeks before his death.

James Black (1820-1897) worked as an agricultural labourer around the rural area of Kinglassie, Fife. He died aged 77 of chronic bronchitis, his death certificate shows that he was still working.

Thomas Boswell Bisset (1831-1902) about whom I’ve written a great deal, died aged 70 of catarrh and pneumonia. He worked as a carter.

Some reflections and conclusions

Doing this exercise made me incredibly grateful for excellent Scottish record-keeping – in particular statutory records, which began in 1856.

When I looked at the age-at-death data for my female ancestors, I was struck by how many lived very long lives. Two made it into their 90s while five of the 27 I have information about lived into their 80s.

Perhaps more surprisingly, four of those five were born in the first half of the 19th century (1812, 1824, 1832 and 1839), a period during which average life expectancy for Scottish women was less than 50 years.

For my male ancestors, such longevity was a little less frequent. None made it into their nineties, although (appropriately) two of my Elder ancestors came close. Thomas Elder (3x great grandfather) made it to 89, while his son William Elder died aged 85. Sadly, their descendants — my great grandfather Thomas Elder and his daughter, my grandmother Susan Elder – both died relatively young; at 54 and 50 respectively.

The average age at death across the four generations of men I looked at was 66 years (72.5 for the women), and the median age 69.5 (73 for the women).

Causes of death ranged from accidents to “old age”, with bronchial conditions proving to be the most frequent cause, closely followed by cancers, heart and liver disease and strokes/cerebral hemorrhage.

With few exceptions, these men were born into poor, working class, landless families. Most were engaged in manual labour of some kind, though a few were skilled craftsmen and several ran businesses. Only four were listed on their death certificates as retired.

Of the twenty five I have birth data for, all were born in Scotland and 18 were born in Fife. Of the remaining seven, five were born in the neighbouring counties of Angus or Perthshire. Only Peter Westwood and George Leslie seem to have arrived in Fife from further afield; Lanarkshire, and Banff in the northeast of Scotland respectively.

I have place of death data for twenty eight out of thirty. Of these, twenty six died in Fife – twenty one in and around the town of Kirkcaldy. Only two died out of the county; one each in Angus and Perthshire.

Almost without exception, these men lived their entire lives within about a 40km radius of Kirkcaldy. As far as I know, only five ever left Scotland for any time, and for three them, it was to fight in World War I.

In many ways, there is nothing extraordinary about my assorted grandfathers. They lived fairly typical lives for their time, leaving only faint traces of themselves in written records. But however ordinary, they deserve to be acknowledged and remembered. This post is a very small contribution towards that end.

28 thoughts on “Hardy folk, part two: lives and deaths of my male ancestors

  1. Oh Su, what great history here.
    I am glad I was online when this post came through (I mostly follow your other blog).
    and cheers to one of the best sentiments I have read in a while:

    however ordinary, they deserve to be acknowledged and remembered.

    well said

    • Thank you so much. I don’t post to my family history blog much these days, but I plod always at the research and am blown away sometimes by the characters from the past that I “meet.” I hope you are safe and well x

      • And the blog will be a precious resource to have for other family members!
        And years ago – I was sharing about one of my distant family members with a parent of a student I taught.
        Someone on my mother’s side of the family helped build this special bridge in Virginia
        And this parent was like “so his company had the bridge built?”
        No – he just worked for the company that built it
        “Was he a foreman?”
        Just a bridge builder –

        And we left it at that
        But later I was thinking about that man’s view.
        He seemed so hard to accept that I could be so proud of a regular employee – and as he drove off in his sports car – with his kids in this private shook and the whole rat race we see so often – he sure had a different outlook.
        So this post reminded me of that with again – cheers to the everyday people and it’s okay to be average and happy

        • I think it is really sad when people get disappointed in their ancestors because they weren’t rich or famous — and I see it a lot. The only advantage I’ve found in having “notable” ancestors is that they left a bigger mark in public records and so it’s easier to find out about their lives. But the reality is that most of us are going to be descended from farmers and labourers and domestic servants and ordinary working people. And if the virus has taught us anything it is that those ordinary, poorly paid workers are the ones who keep our world running — the ones we can’t do without!!

        • oh well said.
          and on a side note- in the Christian community (which I mostly detest – even though that it my faith – I have never fit in with most of the American organized religious groups) anyhow, in so many of these Christian circles people do get caught in the same fame trap – we honor certain folks for this achievement or that accomplishment – when maybe they did not honor others getting there – or they ignored self-care – or they aggressively hustled – and then we honor them
          when in reality – we should honor the one who maybe put their family firts.
          The one who chose more down days for a little prayer time or to feel God’s presence (again, this might not be your thing – but I think you know what I mean) – they lift certain ones on pedestals when they did not even live a Godly life to get there. tsk tsk tsk.

  2. What a fascinating (and somewhat sad) way to present all your direct male ancestors. I was struck by their relatively short lives also, although seeing your averages makes it seem not that strange for their times. I didn’t notice any particular patterns in the causes of death. And how lucky you are that even those older Scottish death records reveal cause of death. How I wish German death records disclosed that information.

    Always good to see a Shaking the Tree post!

    • Thanks Amy. For working men of the time, they did quite well (those who avoided smallpox and falling down wells!) I do value Scottish records; from 1856 when statutory records began there is an amazing wealth of information in them. The parish records are a bit random, but even they produce some gems!!

    • Amy, whilst the post-1856 hatches/matches/dispatches records in Scotland are extremely helpful in building a fuller picture of one’s family history, there is the caveat that what you find may not be what you wanted/expected to find and may reveal long buried family secrets.

      Last year, whilst helping my aunt (the family archivist), I found the death record of one of my maternal great-great-grandfathers who died in 1935, (five years before my mother was born).

      When I showed it to my aunt, she replied “oh dear, we were told he drowned in the Bughole”.

      The fact that my mother and her siblings (who were raised during the war years by their mother and grandmother) were never told the truth by malicious neighbours or their offspring, gives testament to how the villagers felt about my great-grandmother. For it was she who had found her father’s body in the woodshed following his suicide. According to the death record, he had been suffering from arteriosclerosis for many years: perhaps the pain had finally gotten too much for him.

      No doubt the drowning story was put about to stop any youngsters swimming in the BugHole (a confluence of two fast flowing rivers and the tide) close to the village.

      On a lighter note, thanks to the post-1856 records, I find that I have two generations of dry-stone dykers in my ancestry – so that’s where I get it from, and my elder brother has obviously inherited his train driving and love of steam engines from our paternal great-grandfather, who, according to family lore, had to walk across the Forth Bridge or he would have missed his own wedding.

        • Amy,
          you are correct that Duncan is a Scottish name, and, like Malcolm (my brother’s name) the name of Scottish kings (as featured in the story of MacBeth): my allusion to Irish origins is that in my case it may have come into the family via one of my Irish (Ulster) ancestors.

          My father had an maternal uncle called Duncan Alexander, and I was named for him.

          And Duncan was probably named after his father (my paternal great-grandfather) Thomas Duncan Alexander from near Linlithgow in Scotland

          And then my family search turned up the fact that Thomas Duncan Alexander’s aunt married a man called John Duncan (also from Linlithgowshire)

          And I theorised that was where Duncan came into the family, as there are no other Duncan’s in the earlier Alexander families.


          Thomas Duncan Alexander’s maternal grandfather was called, according to various census records, Dennis McGowan, from Ballintoy, Co Antrim. And that is the name given on the marriage records of 2 of his 6 children (including Thomas D Alexander’s parents’ marriage), and on the death record of his wife who predeceased him.

          However, in the marriage record of 3 of his children he is listed as Duncan (although on the death record of one of these three he is later listed as Dennis). The final child’s marriage has him listed as Daniel!

          And I’m 100% convinced that this is the same man in all cases.

          In Thomas Duncan Alexander’s generation, the name Duncan appears as a middle name only once in the Alexander line yet 4 times in his McGowan cousins. So Dennie McGowan may well have been Duncan McGowan: maybe it was a middle name? Sadly I have been unable to trace Dennis/Dennie/Daniel/David/Duncan’s parentage in Ulster: and I can’t find the record of his death (probably near Torphichen in the 1890s).

          It may be that Thomas Duncan Alexander, (and all subsequent Duncans in the Alexander line ending up with me) was actually named after his grandfather McGowan.

          So whilst my Stewart surname descends from ancestors in Avondale, Lanarkshire in Scotland, my Duncan forename may well come from Ballintoy, Ballycastle, Co Antrim, Ireland.

      • Thanks for sharing these Duncan. I’ve found quite a few records that debunk family myths too and it’s a bit of a tightrope walk in sharing the more recent ones with older relatives.

        • Sue,

          With regard to William Trail’s cause of death, I think the word may be “advanced”, with the tail of the ‘d’ lost in the scan. So, “General Debility from Advanced Life”: in other words, he died of old age. The capitalised first letter appears to be written in the same way as the ‘A’ in ‘Auchtermuchty’.

          I have seen other death records where “Old Age” is listed as cause of death, and one in 1863, also from Fife, listing “Old Age and General Debility”.

          The cause of death information in the Statutory Registers also gives a fascinating (if macabre) record of the toll that working live took on some people’s health. Weavers, miners, masons, for example dying of lung related illnesses.

  3. Well I would say you come from good Scottish stock like myself. My great grandmother fell and broke her hip then died just before her 100th birthday. Apparently she was hanging out to get a telegram from the queen. Poor soul.
    I had never thought of looking at data like this. It makes for fascinating reading. Something I will add to my long list of things to do with my own ancestors!

    • Hi Lynne. Nice to see you back in WP. I’ve yet to find a non-Scottish ancestor in my tree, and I’ve traced some lines back to the eighteenth century.

      Looking at mortality data was an idea of Luanne’s — at The Family Kalamazoo. I suspected I had some long-lived women in my tree and found that was indeed the case. My gran died a few days short of her 98th birthday, and a few weeks before we were due back in the UK to see her. ☹️

      • That’s so sad!
        Yes it is nice to be back. I have been overwhelmed with work the last two years but, with some more time at home with the corona virus around, I have been determined to get back into researching.
        I have gone back quite far too and still in Scotland. I had my DNA done hoping for some exotic ancestry but no – all Scottish and English! My children had theirs done too and it was far more interesting – obviously all on their father’s side!

  4. Hello Su – fascinating blog post – thank you.
    Regarding Alexander Nicholson’s birth date – I have it recorded as 1806 (which would make him around 42 when he died), and the source as “Dysart Church, Barony – Monumental Inscriptions sent from Kirkcaldy Library”. Can I now find that source? No! This must have come along very early on in my research when I wasn’t quite as meticulous, though I did also record a note saying “Dysart Barony Churchyard: Aunt Ann Nicholson d. 24 May 1845 age 81 [1764, seems to have married John Ireland]. Other family members listed also.” Sorry for my bad record-keeping there, I’ll keep trying to find it.
    Thanks again for such an interesting read. I did a similair exercise a few years back to find the average ages of death of my maternal and paternal lines, but I’ve discovered a few more ancestors since then so will need to update.

    • Hi Garen. Lovely to hear from you. Thanks so much for this. I had notes to the same effect, but wasn’t absolutely certain it was our Alexander.
      Thanks too for the information about Ann Nicholson/Ireland. There is an Ann Ireland who appears on the 1841 census living with Alexander and Mary. She is listed as being 77 years old, which fits with your information about her death. I had wondered where she fitted in, and why the Ireland name appears quite often.
      My note-keeping is still pretty woeful, and I’d more or less abandoned my research until recently. I’m not sure I actually have more time under lock-down, but I’m certainly at home more.
      Hope you and your family are all safe and well.

  5. Pingback: Lost Down The Time-Travelling Rabbit Hole With Great Great Aunt Sophia – Tish Farrell

  6. This is fantastic!
    I too have becoming almost obsessed by family history. My middle name is Cruden and Stewart Cameron and Isabella Cameron are my ggg grandparents, parents of your Alexander Cruden (b 1839).
    Feel free to email me…

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