Janet Trail, 2x great grandmother

Having come to a dead end with both my surname line, and my search for Alexander Cruden‘s war story, I thought I’d try and find out more about the elusive George Leslie’s wife, Janet (Jessie) Trail (or Traill).

Like many of my mainly working-class ancestors, Janet Trail left a very light trace on recorded history and I know her only through statutory BDM and census records.

From available records, I believe she was born between 1832 and 1835 (1), and most likely in Auchtermuchty, Fife, Scotland (2). Although parish registers exist for Auchtermuchty for that time period, I have been unable to find any record of Janet’s birth (3).

Parents and siblings

Both Janet’s marriage and death records list her parents as William Trail and Christian Birrell.

I cannot find a marriage record for William and Christian, although it appears that William married a woman named Catharine Imrie in 1814. The OPR marriage record shows that William, a weaver, married Catharine “daughter to the deceased David Imrie late Wright in Auchtermuchty” in Perth, in November 1814.

traill william marriage 1814 perth to catharine imrie

OPR record of marriage between William Trail and Catharine Imrie, November 1814. Source: Scotland’s People

Old parish records tend to be very sparse in the information they provide, but the entry above is a useful exception. Knowing that Catharine Imrie’s father was from Auchtermuchty provides a viable explanation as to how Perth-born William came to live and raise a family there.

William and Catharine’s marriage produced two children, Mary Trail b. 1815 in Perth, and John Trail b. 1817 in Auchtermuchty.

I have been unable to find a death record for Catharine Imrie, so it is possible that she and William parted and that his subsequent relationship with Christian Birrell was a common law marriage. But equally, there seems to be a general paucity of old parish records in Auchtermuchty for this period.

The first Scottish census for which records survive was taken in 1841, when Janet Trail would have been aged 6-9 years old. I can’t find any record of Janet, William or Christian in that census, though Janet appears in each subsequent census until her death.

The 1851 census shows her aged 18, living in Crosshill, Auchtermuchty with parents William Trail and Christian Birrell, and older siblings Mary (aged 34), Ebenezer (25), Christian (22) and David (age 20). All members of the family, with the exception of the elder Christian, worked as hand loom weavers of linen.

trail janet family 1851 census crosshills auchtermuchty

Trail family, 1851 census. Source: Scotland’s People

I cannot not find birth records for Ebenezer, Christian jr or David. I also don’t know if William and Christian had other children; none appear in the records.

Children and marriage

In October 1856 Janet Trail gave birth to a daughter Christina / Christian Trail, born out of wedlock in Auchtermuchty. The birth record does not name her father, but I’ve recently learned that I may be able to obtain this information from Kirk Session records, via the website Old Scottish Genealogy and Family History, so I’ve sent off a request for this.

In August 1857, Janet married George Leslie in Auchtermuchty. The record shows George’s age as 30; Janet’s as 23. Both Janet’s parents, and George’s (John Leslie and Elizabeth Robertson), are recorded as being alive at the time of the marriage.

leslie george m janet trail 1857

Marriage record, Janet Trail and George Leslie, August 1857. Source: Scotland’s People.

Janet and George both gave their address at the time of marriage as Dundee, a town about 20 miles away in the county of Angus.

If Janet was living in Dundee at the time of her marriage, she must have moved there sometime after her daughter’s birth the previous year. Janet came from a family of linen weavers, and it’s likely that the move to Dundee was in search of work.

Weaving had become an important industry in Dundee as early as the 17th century, when Master Spinners and Weavers from Flanders were brought to the town to “teach the natives.” The intention was to prevent Scottish wool being exported to Flanders and then re-imported as finished cloth.

By the 19th century, jute had replaced wool as the most important fibre in the Dundee weaving industry; just as large mills with mechanised spinning and weaving looms had largely replaced the cottage industry of hand-weaving.

I found this account of the Dundee weaving industry:

(In the 19th century) over 50,000 of Dundee’s inhabitants were working in over 100 jute mills, with more working in mills for linen.

This booming business in Victorian made many rich jute barons as they were known. But these were the few profiteers of the industry, and the conditions were dire for the vast majority of workers. As many as three-quarters of the workers were women and children, who could be employed for cheaper rates than men. The wages were low, and the risks were high … injuries, accidents and occupational hazards were commonplace. It’s difficult to imagine the working conditions, dust would be everywhere getting in the eyes, noses and mouth. Constant noise from the machines was deafening, and in fact many workers went deaf after spending too much time inside the mill. The machinery also produced lots of heat, grease and oil fumes which led to a condition which was known as ‘Mill fever’. Bronchitis and other breathing problems were also common.

As well as the terrible conditions in the mills, the huge increase in population from 1840 to more than triple within 60 years was not met by an increase in house building. Overcrowding became a huge problem with entire families living in a single room. These conditions remained with 70% of people living in just one or two rooms in 1911.

Wages in Dundee were one of the lowest in Scotland during this time, whereas the cost of living was the highest. Low wages meant little money for food, medicine or other items necessary for a good quality of life.

Dark Dundee: Dundee Landmarks, Workers of the Mills

I can only imagine what it must have been like for Janet to leave her rural home in Auchtermuchty –almost certainly leaving behind her baby daughter too – and work 12 hour days under such conditions.

Sometime within the first year of their marriage, Janet and George returned to Auchtermuchty to live – in the same street as Janet’s parents. Their first child, son George Leslie, was born there in September 1858.

By October 1860, when son William Leslie was born, the couple had returned to Dundee. The address given on William’s birth certificate was South Road, Lochee. Six months later, when the 1861 census was taken, the family was still on South Road (described on the form as “nearby the railway line, prob South Road”). The household consisted of George, Janet, Christine, George, William and two Irish lodgers.

Lochee was known in the 19th century as “Little Tipperary” because of the large number of Irish immigrants who settled there to work in the jute mills.

Certain areas such as … Lochee were especially overcrowded due to the common practice of people living close to their workplaces. … Overcrowding inevitably led to poor sanitary conditions. Diseases including cholera, typhus and smallpox thrived in the city, and together with accidents and other infections and fevers contributed to Dundee having one of the highest death rates in Scotland, and the highest infant mortality rate.

Dark Dundee: Dundee Landmarks, Workers of the Mills

The growing Leslie family did not stay long in Lochee. In July 1862, when Janet gave birth to her second daughter, Elizabeth Leslie, they were living in the small rural village of Inver, in the parish of Little Dunkeld, Perthshire. This is around 28 miles from Auchtermuchty, and a similar distance from Lochee.

George’s occupation on the birth record is ‘Carter.’ I guess the modern-day equivalent of this is “delivery driver.” I have no idea if George owned the horse and cart he drove, or whether he was employed by someone else.

According to the 1868 National Gazetteer’s description of the Parish of Little Dunkeld, “The chief wealth of the parish consists in its oak woods.” Perhaps George worked for a sawmill or landowner, carrying logs or finished timber?

By 1865, the family had returned to Auchtermuchty. The birth records for Isabella Paterson Leslie (b. 1865), David Leslie (my gg grandfather, b. 1867)) and John Robertson Leslie (b. 1871) all show the family’s address as Pitmedden Wynd, off Crosshills, where Janet’s family lived.

George seems to have continued working as a carter, at least for a couple of years after his return to Auchtermuchty. But in 1867, when my great grandfather David was born, George’s occupation is given as  Labourer. The same is recorded on the 1871 record of John’s birth.

George Leslie is missing from the 1871 census record for the rest of his family. The form records Janet (Jessie) Leslie is head of household. His absence must have been temporary, as he is recorded as the informant on his son John’s birth record a month later.

In February 1877, Janet Trail, aged between 42 and 45, gave birth to her last child, Janet Leslie. By this time, the family had moved to Mill Street in Abbotshall, which now part of Kirkcaldy. George’s occupation is listed as Mason’s Labourer, and he seems to have continued to work in a similar capacity until his death, aged 70, in 1902 (4).

Janet outlived her husband by 11 years. She continued to live in Kirkcaldy, with three of her adult children, William, John and Jessie – none of whom had married. The 1911 census shows them at 120 Links Street, Kirkcaldy. William, aged 50 was a labourer in the linoleum works; John aged 40, a pottery kilnsman, and Janet jr. aged 33, a weaver in a linen factory.

Janet Trail died two years later, aged 78, on 4 March 1913.  Her cause of death was recorded as senile decay and bronchitis, and the death was reported by her eldest son, George Leslie.

trail janet d 1913

Death record, Janet Trail, 1913. Image source: Scotland’s People

As with so many of my ancestors, it seems that no matter how much research I do, I cannot really know them. I have no photographs of Janet Trail, her husband, siblings or children; no personal documents or memorabilia. I know from historical accounts something of the life that she and her family led – as craft workers in an industry revolutionized by mechanisation, as factory workers in 19th century Scotland, as permanent tenants, never secure in their homes. The rest, I must imagine.

  1. The 1911 census recorded her age as 76 (implied birth year of 1835); the 1901 census as 68 (1833); 1891 as 58 (1833); 1881 as 49 (1832); 1871 as 38 (1883), 1861 as 26 (1835); 1851 as 18 (1833) and her marriage certificate in 1857 as 23 (1834).
  2. In all found records, her birthplace is given as Auchtermuchty, Fife.
  3. I set wide search parameters, tried as many variations on Janet (including Jenet and Jessie) and Trail (also Birrell) as I could think of, looked Church of Scotland, Catholic and non-conformist church records and even tried scanning all the births recorded in Auchtermuchty for a twenty year period.
  4. The 1881 census lists George as a Land Labourer. In 1891 he’s a Carter, 1891 he’s back to being a Labourer, and his death record shows occupation as Labourer.

… 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?




On finding out how deep my Fife roots actually go

place of birth pedigree chart su leslie

Pedigree chart, by ancestor place of birth.

After reading Amberly’s post (at thegenealogygirl) about creating a pedigree chart based on ancestors’ place of birth, I commented that mine would be pretty monochrome. All of the ancestors I’ve traced were born in Scotland, and even if I broke birthplace down by county, I’d still only have four colours; one each for Fife, Perthshire, Angus and Banffshire.

So I’ve gone to village level; back to my 3x great grandparents. And even then twenty four out of the thirty eight ancestors whose birthplaces are known to me were born in what is now Kirkcaldy, Fife. This includes Dysart, Abbotshall, Gallatown, and Kirkcaldy itself — an area of about seven square miles.

Su Leslie Birthplace Pedigree Chart Template (pdf file, in case anyone is interested).

Now I’m off to try and fill in the missing birthplace information. I may have to change my colour scheme though; I’m running out of shades of Fife green.



Wordless Wednesday: thinking of my grandad

David Leslie (23 March 1899 - 26 December 1964), with niece Anne Ford. Date unknown. Photo: Leslie family archive

David Leslie (23 March 1899 – 26 December 1964), with niece Anne Ford. Date unknown. Photo: Leslie family archive


Wordless Wednesday: Hogmanay

Although I'm fairly sure this photo wasn't taken at Hogmanay, this time of year will always be associated with my parents and their wider families. Being Scots, Hogamany is far more important to them than Christmas. In this photo: from top left my dad's uncle Bill, my mum, dad, dad's cousin's wife Jean, my great aunt Bessie (barely visible), Dad's cousin Ann, my uncle David and his wife Pat. Kirkcaldy, Scotland, c. late 1950s.

Although I’m fairly sure the photo wasn’t taken at Hogmanay, this time of year always makes me think of my parents and their families. Being Scots, Hogmanay is far more important to them than Christmas, and they used to have huge parties to celebrate the new year. In this photo: from top left my dad’s uncle Bill, my mum and dad, Dad’s cousin’s wife Jean, my great aunt Bessie (barely visible), Dad’s cousin Ann, his brother David and his wife Pat. Kirkcaldy, Scotland, c. late 1950s.


Six Word Saturday: fifty years since my grandad died

Grandad, with my younger brother Craig. Kirkcaldy, Scotland, c. Mar-Apr 1964. Photo: Leslie family archive.

Grandad, with my younger brother Craig. Kirkcaldy, Scotland, c. Mar-Apr 1964. Photo: Leslie family archive.

On Boxing Day, 1964, my grandfather David Leslie lost his battle with lung cancer. He was part of my life for such a short time, but left me with lots of wonderful memories.


Six word Saturday: whatever happened to these likely lads?

Out on the town; my Dad (far right) and friends, Kirkcaldy, Scotland, c. 1952. Photo: Leslie family archive.

Out on the town; my Dad (far right) and friends, Kirkcaldy, Scotland, c. 1952. Photo: Leslie family archive.

I’ve always loved this photo and was really pleased to find it in an album my dad sent to me recently. He’d written underneath that the man on the far left is his friend Joe Malone, and of course I recognise my dad on the right, but I have no idea who the others are. They’ll all be in their 80s now.