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.

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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.

Tall tale? Or true?

fort hare gordon memorial

Memorial to John Gordon (1808-1850), a brave man who died trying to save a comrade. Probably not my 4x great grandfather though. Many thanks to Anne at Something Over Tea, who took this photo and included it in her post ‘The University of Fort Hare.’

When I last posted about Thomas Boswell Bisset, my over-riding question was “why did he begin using the surname Bisset part way through his life?”

I am confident that my 3x great grandfather, who was buried in 1902 as Thomas Boswell Bisset is the same man who:

  • Was baptised Thomas Gordon in the parish of Weymss, Fife, in May 1831
  • Is recorded under the name Thomas Gordon in the 1841 census living in West Gallatown, Dysart, Fife in the household of Bossel (Boswell) Gordon, 65, agricultural labourer; along with Boswell’s wife, Hellen Gordon (nee Drummond); and Robert Gordon, 23 (Boswell’s son by his first wife Helen Moyes).
  • Is recorded in the 1851 census under the name Thomas Gordon living in Pathhead, Dysart, Fife in the household of Henry Wright, railway labourer, his wife Elizabeth and their children William, Jessie and Ratchel.
  • Married Helen Laing Simpson in 1851 in Dysart, Fife using the name Thomas Boswell Bisset
  • Is recorded in the 1871 and 1881 census returns as Thomas Gordon, living with Helen Gordon and their children in Henderson Street, Leven, Fife.
  • Is recorded in the 1891 and 1901 census returns as Thomas Boswell Bisset, living with his wife Helen Bisset and several of their children in Henderson Street, Leven, Fife.

The above are the only official records I have for Thomas, but between them, there is enough consistency to give me confidence that I am looking at the same person.

But why the change of surname?

Of the three official records relating to Thomas Bisset in which his parents are named, the only one actually completed by Thomas himself was his marriage record. It reads:

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

The record is dated 31 May 1851; and is in the Dysart Parish Church register in Fife, Scotland. This is also the first instance of Thomas using the surname Bisset.

If this young man, who had presumably been known to his community – not to mention his fiancée – as Thomas Gordon, was prepared to stand up in church and name himself Thomas Bisset, son of Archibald Bisset, he must have believed it to be true.

Since I wrote the original blog post about this (A Tangled Web) I’ve pondered, hypothesised and done more research. I had reached some tentative conclusions, and then a few weeks ago I was contacted by a descendent of Boswell Gordon who added some new information to the story and offered his theory – which is essentially matches mine. With the extra confidence that comes from someone else looking at the same data and reaching the same conclusions, I put forward our theory for your consideration and scrutiny.

A story (which may or may not be true)

In the autumn on 1830, a young woman called Elizabeth Grieve becomes pregnant. The father of her child, Archibald Bisset, is a farmer in Carnbee, Fife. He is married, and possibly her employer.

When the time comes for her to give birth, she does so in the parish of Wemyss, Fife, and names John Gordon as the natural father of her child. John Gordon is a son of Elizabeth’s step-father, Boswell Gordon, and is a sergeant in the British Army (91st Argyllshire Highlanders).

Eight years later, Elizabeth marries Henry Wright in the parish of Balingry, Fife, and the couple have four children.

It isn’t clear where Thomas spends his childhood, but in 1841, he’s recorded as living in the household of Boswell Gordon and his wife Helen Drummond in the parish of Dysart.

Helen Drummond is Elizabeth Grieve’s mother.

In 1845 Boswell Bisset dies; Helen Drummond follows three years later in 1848.

In December 1850, John Gordon, by now a Lieutenant, is killed in action in South Africa. News of this is reported in Fife newspapers in March 1851.

By March 1851, Thomas is living with his mother Elizabeth, step-father Henry Wright, and their children in Dysart. He has met Helen Laing Simpson, also of Dysart, and they marry on May 31st 1851.

With her mother, step-father and Thomas’s declared father all dead, Elizabeth decides to tell her son the truth about his parentage.

Whatever his reaction to her news, on his marriage in 1851, Thomas adopts his biological father’s surname and his (now) step-grandfather’s Christian name and calls himself Thomas Boswell Bisset.

The evidence behind the story

The mother

Although there are considerable gaps in my knowledge of Elizabeth Grieve, I do have her death certificate, several census returns, and birth records for her children with Henry Wright.

Elizabeth died in 1867, at a reported age of 57.  That would have made her around 20 years old when Thomas was conceived. Her parents were named as Thomas Grieve, gardener, deceased and Helen Drummond, deceased.

I have not been able to find a birth record for Elizabeth, but do have a marriage record for a Thomas Grieve and a Helen Drummond. This took place in April 1806 at Canongate, Edinburgh. The record says:

Thomas Grieve weaver and Helen Drummond daughter Alex. Drummond Farmer at Orwell gave up their names for marriage. Josiah Moir and James Carstairs (witnesses?)

I have nothing that positively confirms this marriage is that of my 4x great grandparents, but it is worth noting that Orwell (the home parish listed for Alexander Drummond) is in Kinross-shire, the county Elizabeth Grieve listed as her place of birth in the 1851 and 1861 census returns. Kinross-shire is Scotland’s smallest county, and I haven’t been able to find matching records for any other women called Elizabeth Grieve

Frustratingly, I can’t find a definitive death record for Thomas Grieve. I have assumed that he died before 1819 when Helen Drummond married Boswell Gordon, but this may not be the case.

It is clear that in 1819, Boswell Gordon, a widower, married Helen Drummond in Burntisland, Fife. They appear to have had no children together, although Boswell was father to eight children by his first wife Helen Moyes, who died in 1815.

If Elizabeth was born around 1810, this would have meant she was about nine years old when her mother married Boswell Gordon, making eleven year old John Gordon her step-brother.

The named father

John Gordon was born in 1808, the fifth child of Boswell Gordon and Helen Moyes. He enlisted in the 91st Regiment Argyllshire Highlanders in December 1825, at the age of 17. His occupation at the time was listed as shoemaker.

I have found some regimental records which suggest that John may have been posted to either Canada or Jamaica from December 1829 until June 1831, which makes it highly unlikely he was Thomas’s biological father.

So, when Elizabeth found out that she was pregnant, was the absent John enlisted (knowingly or unknowingly) as her baby’s “father” to partially shield her from the censure of the Kirk?

At that time, it was usual for parishioners who transgressed in any way (fornication was a common transgression) were called before the Kirk Session and made to account for their sins. Thomas’s birth was recorded in Wemyss parish, and the Kirk Session Minutes for that parish still exist. These could help clarify the details of Thomas’s birth and parentage, but they are held at the National Archives of Scotland, and paying a genealogist to search them for me is a little outside my current budget.

Throughout his life, Thomas cited Wemyss (specifically Kirkland within the parish) as his birthplace Kirkland. The exception is the 1851 census which was completed while he was living with his mother – who likely provided the information. In that record his place of birth is listed as Carnbee, Fife,

Enter Archibald Bisset, farmer of Carnbee

Luckily for my research, Archibald Bisset is a relatively uncommon name, so I had no trouble finding a likely candidate for Thomas’s potential father.

Born in Carnbee in 1784 Archibald Bisset lived his life in that community, as a farmer in Wester Keltie. He married Mary Grieg in 1822 and had two (legitimate) daughters, Mary, b. 1824 and Elizabeth b. 1827.

As a farmer, he would have employed labourers. The 1851 census shows that he farmed 131 acres and had four labourers, including three living in his household. It is entirely possible that Elizabeth Grieve could have been one of those labourers.

So, tall tale? Or true?

It is incredibly frustrating to have so many missing pieces in this story.

Without Elizabeth Grieve’s birth record, I have only her death certificate and circumstantial evidence to say that she was Helen Drummond’s daughter.

Without the Kirk Session Records, I don’t know how the Elders reacted to Elizabeth’s claim that John Gordon was her child’s father.

The regimental records for the 91st are incomplete (literally, a missing page), and I can’t be absolutely 100% sure John Gordon was overseas, however likely is seems.

With census records only starting in 1841 I can’t know if Elizabeth Grieve actually was a farm labourer, let alone employed by Archibald Bisset.

So my story is logical, but whether it is entirely factual? Perhaps I’ll never know.

A tangled web

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Tangled webs. Image: Su Leslie 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surely Thomas’s birth record would clear things up

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

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

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

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

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

One of those weird light-bulb moments

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

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

Et voila!

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

Why Gordon?

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

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

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

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

The right Wright?

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

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

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

At this point I have so many questions.

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

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

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

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

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

margaret simpson bissett headstone 1900 small

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

 


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

Friday flip through the archives

David (left) and Ron Leslie, at David’s wedding to Elizabeth Saunders in Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland November 1956.

My photographer son had a little time on his hands recently and restored some family photos for me. He’s also experimenting with colouring images, including this of his grandfather and great uncle David.

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

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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.

ramsay great grandparents at their wedding anniversary small

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

ramsay family c1920 small

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.

 

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.

On breakthroughs and more bricks: Alexander Cruden’s war

alexander cruden catherine black 60th anniversary photo 1968

60th wedding anniversary, Catherine Black and Alexander Cruden, March 1968. Image: Leslie family archive.

As I child I remember being told that my mother’s maternal grandfather, Alexander Cruden (1890-1970), had served in WWI and had a leg amputated. I’m not sure if I was also told he’d served in France, or if I just assumed that to be the case.

Like so much family history research; this story starts with just that one nugget of information.

Mum thought he may have served in the Gordon Highlanders, and she knew for sure he’d spent time after the war at Edenhall Hospital in Musselborough. She gave me photos of him and other ex-servicemen from Edenhall, possibly taken in the early 1920s.

Patients at Edenhall Hospital for Limbless Soldiers and Sailors. Alex Cruden is seated 3rd from left. Image: Leslie family archive

Patients at Edenhall Hospital for Limbless Soldiers and Sailors. Alex Cruden is seated, third from the left. Image: Leslie family archive.

But that was all she knew.

Without being sure of great grandad’s regiment, searching for his service records proved difficult. Alexander Cruden is not an uncommon name in Scotland, and about 40 percent of British WWI records were destroyed during the Blitz of WWII.

Recently though, I had a breakthrough.

Silver War Badge (SWB)

I found out about the Silver War Badge (SWB). This was given to WWI military personnel – like my great grandfather – who had been discharged because of wounds or illness. The records of Silver War Badge recipients are available on Ancestry.

These records show only one Alexander (shown on the record as Alex) Cruden as a recipient of the SWB. The age shown is consistent with my great grandfather, and the regiment he served with was the Gordon Highlanders.

The SWB record showed that Alex had served overseas and provided a service number – S/1891.

From the blog Army Service Numbers 1881-1918, I could confirm that S/1891 was an actual service number for the Gordon Highlanders, and that the S/ in front of the number meant it was a wartime enlistment – rather than someone joining the regular force.

I also learned that this number would have been issued in the first weeks of the war, between August and September 1914.

The Fife Free Press

Knowing that local newspapers in New Zealand published lists of those who enlisted to fight, I wondered if Scottish papers did the same thing, and searched the local Kirkcaldy newspaper, The Fife Free Press, for August-September.

Sure enough, on Saturday September 12th 1914, under the headline The Call to Arms  Kirkcaldy Recruits Still Rolling Up, I found my great grandfather’s name amongst the Gordon Highlanders.

Given the Scottish propensity for naming children after grandparents and parents, finding the name doesn’t automatically mean the report referred to my great grandad, and if it had been any other member of my family, I would have known much more research was involved.

But the Cruden family was relatively new to Fife, having come from Dundee when great grandad was a child. I checked the 1911 census (using quite wide search parameters), and found that my great grandfather was the only Alexander Cruden of enlistment age in the county of Fife, and the only Cruden in Kirkcaldy.

Armed with these bits of information, I was able to find Alex Cruden’s medal cards, which told me that S/1891 Cruden, Alexander was a Private in the Gordon Highlanders who was awarded the Silver War Badge, The Victory Medal, the British Medal and the 15 Star (properly known as the 1914-15 Star) [1].

It also confirmed that he served in France, arriving on 10 May 1915.

The Victory Medal record lists him as having served in the 8th Battalion, which I know to have arrived in France on May 10th, as the Regimental Diary notes:

A beautiful crossing was experienced and we arrived in Boulogne at about 1pm.

None of this is absolute proof that S/1891, Cruden, Alexander was my great grandfather, but it seems highly likely.

A short interlude to celebrate

However. My real interest is in finding out about great grandad’s war. When was he wounded? Where? What experiences did he have that he had to carry with him until his death in 1970?

Neither Ancestry nor FindMyPast has a service record for Alex Cruden, so it’s likely to be one of the thousands destroyed in the Blitz. Without that, I have to rely on secondary sources — in particular newspapers which carried casualty reports, and the Regimental Diaries of the 8th Battalion, Gordon Highlanders. The National Archives has digitized these diaries and made them available to download.

The Diaries fall into two parts; the first May 1915-April 1916; the second April 1916-November 1918. This coincides with the amalgamation, in April 1916, of the 8th and 10th Battalions.

I know that Alex Cruden held the rank of Private, so it’s unlikely he would be named in the Diaries (unless he was court-martialled perhaps), but I did hope that by understanding when the Battalion was on active service, it would narrow the time-frames during which he might have been wounded.

When I began reading, I discovered that in the first months of the Battalion’s tour in France, daily casualties were listed in the Diary. For “other ranks” the information included their surname, service number and rank, and whether they were killed or wounded. In some instances, the cause of their wound/death was recorded.

This changed in late September when the Battalion was engaged in the Battle of Loos. For that period, only the total numbers of dead and wounded were included.

For example, the entry for September 27th states:

Sept 27th the total casualties from 25th to 27th September (?) were 17 officers and about 500 men.

I’m almost at the end of the first Diary, March 1916, and I have found no record of Alex Cruden. I’ve also searched both the Fife Free Press and the Scotsman (which published casualty lists for all the Scottish regiments, as well as those of colonial forces, including NZ). Again, I have found no mention of Alex, and the service numbers recorded next to the names of dead and wounded are climbing steadily into five digits.

Did my slightly built, 5′ 2″ great grandad survive almost a year at the Front without being wounded? Have I missed his name on a casualty list? Or did it somehow get left off such a list?

Or more worryingly, have I got it completely wrong and S/1891, Cruden, Alexander is someone else altogether.

I’ll keep looking.

su christening photo

My christening; with my great grandparents, Alexander and Catherine Cruden. Image: Leslie family archive.

 


[1] Both the British War Medal, 1914-18 and the Allied Victory Medal seem to have been awarded to all officers and men of the British and Imperial Forces who either entered a theatre of war or entered service overseas between 5th August 1914 and 11th November 1918.

The 1914-15 Star was awarded specifically to all who served in any theatre of war against Germany between 5th August 1914 and 31st December 1915, except those eligible for the 1914 Star.