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.

Hardy folk: researching the lives (and deaths) of my female ancestors

christening four women001

Four generations: My christening, with my mother Elizabeth Ramsay, her mother Margaret Cruden and Margaret’s mother Catherine Black. Image: Leslie family archive.

Luanne at The Family Kalamazoo recently wrote two really interesting posts about the deaths of her grandmothers and great grandmothers (1).

In the first, she said:

I wanted to put all my grandmothers together in one post and thought by sharing their deaths it would shed some light on their lives, at least at the end. I also have a ghoulish fascination with looking them over for the variety of ways I might die myself. After all, their deaths could be a form of inheritance.

It got me thinking about the women in my family and that part of my own genetic inheritance, so I’ve done the same. And the results have surprised me – not least because I was able to find death records for most of my grandmothers and great grandmothers, but also for all eight of my 2x great grandmothers and 13 of my 16 3x great grandmothers.

Grandmothers

I only knew one of my grandmothers – my mother’s mum, Margaret Simpson Bisset Cruden.

Gran died in on May 1, 2006, 10 days short of her 98th birthday. I can’t lay my hands on her death certificate (embarrassed admission), but my mother thinks it was basically written up as “old age.” I’ve described my gran as a Force of Nature – and I suspect that in the end, she just got tired of an increasingly constrained life after a significant deterioration in her eyesight forced her into residential care.

tom with great gran small

One of the last photos I have of my gran; meeting her 25th great grandchild (my son) for the first and only time. Image: Leslie family archive.

By contrast, my paternal grandmother, Susan Forbes Nicholson Elder, died on 11 March, 1950 at the age of 50. The cause of death given in the statutory register was arteriosclerosis and cerebral haemorrhage. I never met the woman I was named after; my dad was only seventeen when his mother died and I know how painful her loss was to him.

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Susan Forbes Nicholson Elder. Kirkcaldy High Street. circa 1940s.

elder susan with siblings c edit1915

Susan Elder (centre) with siblings Elizabeth and William. c. 1914. Image: Leslie family archive.

Great grandmothers

Catherine Simpson Bisset Black — my maternal grandmother’s mother – died in 1971. Like her daughter (Margaret Cruden above), she lived a long life; being 82 when she passed away a year after her husband of 62 years,  Alexander Cruden.  I don’t have her death certificate either so am not sure about cause of death.

Image-1

Sixtieth wedding anniversary: Alexander Cruden and Catherine Black, 1968. Photo: Ramsay family archive.

My mother’s other gran, Mary Fisher, died in September 1952 of a carcinoma of the gall bladder. She was 73.

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

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Mary Fisher with husband and children c. 1919. Image: Ramsay family archive.

On my father’s side of the family, his maternal grandmother — Anne Kinnell Nicholson — died in May 1946, aged 76. Her cause of death was recorded as cardio-vascular degeneration.

nicholson annie portrait c 1937

Ann Kinnell Nicholson c. 1937. Image: Leslie family archive.

Dad’s paternal grandmother Isabella Gourlay was 91 when she died in February 1961. The cause of death was recorded as congestive cardiac failure.

2x great grandmothers – maternal

Margaret Simpson Bisset (19 April 1856- 2 April 1900), died of uterine haemorrhage probably as a result of childbirth, aged 43.

Isabella Simpson Wallace (3 May 1866 – 9 June 1944), died of abdominal carcinoma, aged 78

Jane Williamson Westwood (10 February 1858 – 27 September 1905), died of carcinoma pylorus aged 47

Isabella Westwater (  – 7 December 1924), died of chronic bronchitis. The death certificate states she was 71, but I have not been able to find a birth record for her.

2x great grandmothers – paternal

Susan Forbes (23 August 1839 – 19 April 1912), died of cerebral thrombosis, aged 72.

Elizabeth Penman (12 August 1839 – 8 August 1920), aged 80. Cause of death: diabetes.

Mary Gerard (c. 1835- 7 May 1907). Her age at death was recorded as 72 and the cause of death as enteritis and haemorrhage.

Janet Trail (c. 1835 – 4 March 1913). Her age at death was recorded as 78, and cause of death bronchitis.

3x great grandmothers – maternal

Helen Lang Simpson (14 February 1832 – 25 September 1914), Died aged 82, of arteriosclerosis and senile decay.

Caroline Goodall (c. 1833 – 16 May 1901). Her age at death was recorded as 68, and the cause of death carcinoma uterine.

Jane Morrison (c.1839 – 1914). Her age at death was recorded as 75. I am a bit unsure of the cause because I can’t clearly read the handwriting on the record. It looks like “chronic infestation of parasites.”

Jane Allison (c. 1835 – 2 September 1876). Her age at death was recorded as 41, and cause of death typhoid fever.

Mary Webster (c. 1824 – 16 March 1907). Her age at death was recorded as 83. Cause of death: cardiac arrest, senility.

Margaret Lindsay (27 May 1827 – 1 January 1906). She died aged 78 of ovarian tumours.

Helen Low (5 December 1814 – 7 May 1887). Died aged 72 in the Dysart Combination Poorhouse. Cause of death: paralysis, senile debility.

Maggie? (or Isabella?) Westwater. I know nothing about this woman beyond what is recorded on her daughter Isabella’s marriage and death records. When Isabella married John Ramsay in 1875, her mother was named as Isabella Westwater, deceased. On Isabella’s 1924 death certificate, her mother is named as Maggie Westwater, deceased.

3x great grandmothers – paternal

Ann Kinnell (15 July 1806 – 28 February 1858), died aged 51. The cause of death was recorded as carcinoma, enlarged liver

Mary Tod (7 June 1803 – 1 February 1883), died aged 79. Her cause of death was recorded as old age.

Catharine Cook (c. 1813 – 16 May 1879). Her age at death was recorded as 66, and the cause of death old age.

Janet Mackie (c. 1811 – 25 December 1897). Her age at death was recorded as 86, and the cause of death senile decay

Isabella Lambert (25 March 1804 – 25 December 1851), aged 47. The only record I have relating to her death is an (OPR) Old Parish Register entry relating to her burial. It does not show cause of death.

Elizabeth Rankine (c. 1805 – 10 December 1850). The OPR record of her burial shows her age as 45, but gives no cause of death.

Christian Birrell. I believe that Janet Trail’s mother was born around 1787, but I can find no record of her baptism, marriage or death.  The last census in which she appears is 1851.

Elizabeth Robertson gave birth to George Leslie, my 2x great grandfather, in 1822. Besides his baptism records and an entry in the 1841 census, I have been unable to find any records relating to Elizabeth’s life and death.

Some reflections and conclusions

Doing this exercise made me incredibly grateful for excellent Scottish record-keeping – in particular statutory records, which began in 1856. Because of this, I only had to rely on parish records for information on the deaths of two of the 3x great grandmothers about whom I know.

Three others remain completely elusive; being little more than names on their children’s birth, death or marriage records. I’ve done quite a lot of work on Elizabeth Robertson and Christian Birrell particularly, but they remain brick walls.

When I looked at the age-at-death data, one thing that really struck me was how many of my female ancestors lived very long lives. Two made it into their 90s – one from each side of my family – 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.

Of my grannies who died at or below 50 (six in total), two were born in the first decade of the 19th century, two in the 1830s, one in the 1850s, and one — my paternal grandmother — in 1899. So although I think of them as having died young, in most cases, it would not have seemed so at the time.

Within my family the average age at death across the four generations I looked at was 72.5 years, and the median age 73.

Causes of death ranged from typhoid fever to “old age” – with the largest number of deaths being attributed to advanced age. The second most frequent cause of death was cancer, followed by heart disease; both major killers these days too.

Cause of death Frequency (2) Years deaths occurred

 

Arteriosclerosis 2 1914,  1950
Bronchitis 2 1913, 1924
Cancers 6 1858, 1901, 1905, 1914, 1944, 1952
Cardiac decay/disease 3 1907, 1946, 1961
Diabetes 2 1920, 1971
Haemorrhage (not cerebral) 2 1900, 1907
Old age/senile debility 8 1832, 1879, 1883, 1887, 1897, 1907, 1913, 2006
Parasites 1 1914
Stroke 2 1912, 1950
Typhoid 1 1876
Unknown 2 1850, 1851

With few exceptions, these women were born into poor, working class, landless families. Where statutory marriage records exist for them, I can see that prior to their marriages they were in employment – as flax weavers, pottery workers, domestic servants.

They all bore children, usually large numbers of them, and often well into their forties. More than a few also raised the grandchildren born to widowed or unmarried daughters

They ran households dependent on the weekly wages (or not) of husbands working as miners, carters, agricultural labourers, factory workers, and tradesmen – and of adolescent and adult offspring following their parents into the same sorts of jobs.

Most would have had to move house regularly; some from one tenement to another in the same town, others making the move from Scotland’s rural hinterland to the industrial towns of Dundee and Kirkcaldy.

An extraordinary number – twenty out of the twenty seven I have data for — died in Kirkcaldy/Dysart, an area of around 15 square miles.  Three died in other Fife towns, one never left rural Blairgowrie in Perthshire and another died “across the Bridge” in Edinburgh infirmary. Only one died outside of Scotland – in Detroit.

In many ways, there is nothing extraordinary about my assorted grannies. They lived fairly typical (though long) 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 goal.


 

  1. Deaths in the Family: Women’s History Edition, and More Deaths in the Family: Women’s History Edition
  2. Many of the women had two (or more) medical conditions listed in cause of death. This is reflected in the frequency column.

 

A force of nature

The boy-child holding court with his great grandmother.

The boy-child holding court with his great grandmother.

Yesterday would have been my gran’s 107th birthday. There was a time when I could almost have believed she would live to 107; she seemed for so long to have such energy and strength. But she died a few days short of her 98th birthday — having moved from her own house into a care home a year or so before.

Margaret Simpson Bissett Cruden (11 May 1908 – 1 May 2006) was the eldest child and only daughter of Alexander Cruden and Catherine Simpson Bisset Black. My great grandparents were very young when she was born; Great Gran was 18, Great Grandad still 17. Margaret had four younger brothers; Stewart, Alexander, James and George, the youngest of whom was born just a few months before my gran herself became a mother.

Gran was born and raised in Dysart, Scotland and lived all her life in Dysart and Kirkcaldy. She married my grandad (David Skinner Ramsay) in 1927, when Grandad was 25 and she was 18. They raised six children; a son David, and five daughters – Catherine, May, Margaret, Elizabeth (my mum) and Sandra.

Ramsay family portrait. Standing (l-r): Elizabeth, Sandra, Margaret, May, David, Cathy. Seated Margaret Cruden and David Ramsay. Photo: Ramsay Leslie family archive.

Ramsay family portrait. Standing (l-r): Elizabeth, Sandra, Margaret, May, David and Cathy. Seated Margaret Cruden and David Ramsay. Photo: Ramsay Leslie family archive.

Grandad was a coal miner, who, in later life, suffered from diabetes. Because of that he had both legs amputated at the knee after small wounds turned gangrenous. My gran was relatively young when she found herself nursing an invalid husband; a role she took on without hesitation and carried out with great love and care until my grandad’s death in 1973.

my maternal grandparents; Margaret Cruden and David Ramsay, Dunnikier Park Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland. Photo: Ramsay family archive.

Margaret Cruden and David Ramsay, Dunnikier Park Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland. Photo: Ramsay family archive.

After his death, my grandmother left the UK for the first (but not the last) time. She travelled to New Zealand to visit my family and to Australia to stay with her brother Alexander and his family. During the next thirty years she travelled again to Australia, to Zimbabwe while it was still Rhodesia and in the midst of civil war, and to Switzerland to visit one of my cousins. She also traveled extensively around the UK visiting family.

Margaret and Alexander Cruden, Australia c. 1974. Photo: Ramsay family archive.

Siblings, Margaret and Alexander Cruden, Australia c. 1974. Photo: Ramsay family archive.

I only really got to know my gran in my late twenties and thirties while I was living in the UK. We spent hours together drinking tea, eating meringues (her favourite sweet) and gossiping. She was a lovely little barrel of a woman; about 4′ 10″ (1.47 metres), and solid (I definitely take after her). She was quick-witted,  a good story teller and could be very funny, although she also possessed a very sharp tongue — as anyone on the receiving end of it would tell you.

Four generations: My christening, with my mother Elizabeth Ramsay, her mother Margaret Cruden and Margaret's mother Catherine Black, with

Four generations: My christening, with my mother Elizabeth Ramsay, grandmother Margaret Cruden and great grandmother Catherine Black. c. 1961. Photo: Ramsay Leslie family archive.

She really was a force of nature; a matriarch who spend almost 80 years looking after her family. She is remembered with great love by a global tribe consisting of not only myself, my siblings and cousins, but our children and the children and grandchildren of Gran’s brothers — who still speak fondly of their “Auntie Maggie.” She had 17 grandchildren, 28 great grandchildren and was great, great grandmother to two newborns by the time she died.

David Ramsay and Margaret Cruden with grandchildren Margaret Ladyka (back), Ian and Sandra Ladyka (front left and centre) and Robert Guthrie. The baby is me. c. 1961. Photo: Ramsay Leslie family archive.

David Ramsay and Margaret Cruden with grandchildren Margaret Ladyka (back), Ian and Sandra Ladyka (front left and centre) and Robert Guthrie. The baby is me. c. 1961. Photo: Ramsay Leslie family archive.

My son only got to meet his great gran once; he was very young, but claims to remember her (she told him off, so I’m not surprised it stayed in his mind).  I’m sad that she died two months before we were due to go back to the UK for a visit. My son was eight by then and would  have enjoyed another encounter with that feisty, four foot ten force of nature.

This week’s Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge theme is forces of nature.  I think my gran qualifies. You can find out more and see other bloggers’ interpretation of the theme here.

Wordless Wednesday: the boy-child and his grandmother

My son with his grandmother, 1998. Photo: Su Leslie.

My son with his grandmother, 1998. Photo: Su Leslie.

It’s been a few years since the boy-child spent time with my mother, who now lives in the UK. Mum played a huge part in my son’s early life and both she and the boy are excited about our trip to England in a few weeks.

Wordless Wednesday: my dad the photographer; my mum, his muse

The boy-child and I were  talking about his passion for photography, and it reminded my that my father in his youth was an enthusiastic and talented photographer. I've always loved this shot of my mother. Photo: Leslie family archive.

The boy-child and I were talking about his passion for photography, and it reminded my that my father in his youth was an enthusiastic and talented photographer. I’ve always loved this shot of my mother. Photo: Leslie family archive.

Wordless Wednesday is a blogging prompt from Geneabloggers.

Help from the blogging whanau takes me a step further back (which in genealogy is a good thing)

James Low was a wright, or joiner. photo credit: Alan Cleaver via photopin cc

James Low was a wright, or joiner. photo credit: Alan Cleaver via photopin cc

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

Olwen said:

“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

Death record for James Low, Welltree. Source: Scotland's People.

Death record for James Low, Welltree. Source: Scotland’s People.

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.

Uncommon names

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.