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
“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
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.
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.
Having exhausted the current research options for Helen Low, I thought I’d try to learn more about her husband, David Skinner Ramsay.
David was my 3x great grandfather, and also the namesake of my maternal grandfather of whom I have incredibly fond childhood memories.
As with Helen, I’ve begun at the end of David Ramsay’s life – on the basis that the more recent information is, the more comprehensive and often reliable it tends to be.
David Ramsay’s death record tells me:
- He died on 12 December 1881 at Gallatown, Dysart, aged 54
- He was married to Helen Low
- His cause of death was typhoid fever
- Her death was reported by his daughter Elizabeth Ramsay
- His parents’ names were James Ramsay, linen weaver, deceased; and Jean Skinner, also deceased
From the census records I found for Helen Low (When things aren’t quite what they seem … the pauper daughter of a colonial administrator?) , I know that David Ramsay was born in Dysart, Fife. On his marriage to Helen in 1836 he was recorded as living in Collessie Parish –also in Fife. The 1841 census recorded his occupation as agricultural labourer, so it is not unreasonable to assume that he left Dysart in search of work.
Collessie is about 15 miles north of Dysart. It is also only a few miles from Kettle – where it seems David’s mother Jean Skinner was born (this will be the subject of a separate post).
By 1841, David Ramsay and Helen Low had three children and were living in Strathmiglo. The transcription of that census puts the address as Pityomie, but looking at the original document and a parochial directory transcribed by the Fife Family History Society, I’m inclined to think that actual address is Pitgornie or Pitgorno – especially as the parochial directory lists a farmer called James Christie Esq as living at Pittgorno, and an entry in the Farm Horse Tax Rolls for 1797-98 for the Parish of Strathmiglo shows James Christie of Pitgornie paying 6s/9d in tax for three liable horses.
Between 1841 and 1851, it seems that David Ramsey’s fortunes took a major turn for the better.
The 1851 census recorded him as being a Master Miller, living at Fargs Mill, Abernethy, Perth.
Fargs Mill (which has been called Ayton Farm since the late nineteenth century) appears on Ordnance Survey maps from the late eighteenth century. An archaeological survey commissioned in 2011 as a condition of developing the land, says that the mill was one of several on the river Farg, but does not make clear what was being milled – suggesting that there were flour and corn mills on the river, as well as a sawmill.
The census return also shows that David’s move from agricultural labourer to Master Miller brought with in an increase in wealth – the household in 1851 included two servants, one male (who may have worked in the mill) and one female, who may have been a housemaid.
Between the 1841 and 1851 censuses, David and Helen’s family had also grown by two more children – daughter Jean Skinner Ramsay (born 1843) and son William Ramsay (born 1846). Both children are recorded as having been born in Strathmiglo – suggesting that in 1851, David Ramsay had been working at Fargs mill for no more than 3-4 years.
In January 1852, David and Helen had another child – Helen, whose place of birth was recorded as Abernethy. Helen died on 1 May, 1857, aged five. Her cause of death was shown as scarlatina, or Scarlet Fever. The death record shows that David was no longer working as a Miller but as a Corn Merchant, and the family were living in Glenfoot – – a settlement to the east of Fargs Mill, towards Abernethy.
As Glenfoot was the family’s address in the 1861 census, I wondered when – and why – they had moved. The reason seems to be financial. On 9 April 1856 David Ramsay applied for a form of bankruptcy called cessio bonorum. I’d never heard of this, but it is a principle of Roman law that was adopted in Scotland:
Cessio bonorum (Latin for a surrender of goods), in Roman law, is a voluntary surrender of goods by a debtor to his creditors. It did not amount to a discharge unless the property ceded was sufficient for the purpose, but it secured the debtor from personal arrest. The creditors sold the goods as partial restoration of their claims. The procedure of Cessio Bonorum avoided infamy, and the debtor, though his after-acquired property might be proceeded against, could not be deprived of the bare necessaries of life. The main features of the Roman law of Cessio Bonorum were adopted in Scots law, and also in the French legal system.
A month later a notice appeared in the Dundee Perth and Cupar Advertiser letting Fargs Mill, cottage and surrounding land. Although the Ramsay family did not own Fargs Mill, they lost their home with David’s bankruptcy.
The 1861 census shows David’s occupation as Grain Agent. The family had grown with the birth of two more children; John (my 2x great grandfather), born in 1854 and Peter, born in 1860. This census return shows no servants living with the family, and also shows that the three oldest sons, James, David and William had left the family home. However, as they would have been aged 24, 22 and 14 respectively, this is not surprising. The family’s two remaining daughters – 20 year old Elizabeth and 17 year old Jean (shown as Jane) were living with their parents and working as agricultural labourers.
The 1871 census shows the Ramsay family had moved back to David’s birthplace – Dysart in Fife. The census return for that year shows the family living at Kirky Road, Dysart; the household consisting of David aged 53 – whose occupation was given as carter; Helen; daughter Elizabeth (30) unmarried and an outdoor worker; son Peter (10) a scholar; and James Ramsay, aged 5, a grandson born in Dysart.
James was the illegitimate son of Elizabeth. He was born on 5 June 1865 in Dysart – which suggests that the family had moved from Glenfoot back to Dysart in the early-mid 1860s.
David Skinner Ramsay died of typhoid fever on 12 December 1871, aged 54. I’ve learned a surprising amount about his life; been able to see photos and maps of places he and his family once lived and seen his name in print – albeit in the somewhat tragic circumstances of his bankruptcy. As always, records can provide an indication of “what” – but not “how” or “why”. How did David go from farm labourer to Maser Miller? How did he come to be bankrupt? Why did the family move to Dysart? These are things I won’t ever know, so I’m content to have learned as much as I did because even this makes me feel closer to these people whose lives were so different to mine, but whose genes and life circumstances contributed in some way to the person that I am.
I’m on a roll with the Ramsay family research, and today managed to decipher an odd address on an 1841 census return. I’m now fairly sure my 3x great grandparents lived in a cottage on this farm, and would have known the outside of “the big hoose” if not the interior.