Tombstone Tuesday: Lance Corporal Thomas Boswell Bisset, 1st/6th Bn. Black Watch

Aubigny Communal Cemetery Extension, Pas de Calais, France. Final resting place of Thomas Boswell Bisset (9 November 1890- 2 April 1917). Photo credit: Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

For last week’s Tombstone Tuesday I posted a photo of great great grandmother, Margaret Bisset‘s, headstone.

The photo piqued my interest, and in trying to find out more about this branch of the family, I stumbled upon a reference to Lance Corporal Thomas Boswell Bisset.

Thomas Bisset, Scoonie Parish War Memorial. Photo courtesy of The Scottish War Memorials Project (

Thomas was Margaret’s nephew; the eldest son of her brother William Reekie Bisset and his wife Susan Miller Thomson. This makes him my first cousin, three times removed.

From the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, I discovered that Thomas served with the Black Watch, and died on 2 April 1917. He is buried in Aubigny, Pas de Calais, France.

Assuming that Thomas was buried in Aubigny because he was killed nearby, I Googled the date and location to see what military action was taking place at the time of his death.

What I found was the Battle of Arras; a major offensive involving British, Canadian and ANZAC troops which took place between 9 April and 17 May. Thomas’s death is recorded as occurring a week before the battle began, but it seems that prior to the offensive itself there were significant casualties on both sides as each army prepared for the battle both knew was coming. It is estimated that the six week offensive cost 160,000 allied troops their lives – as well as those of a similar number of German soldiers.

Thomas Bisset is the second member of the family we’ve found who is buried in a War Cemetery in the Pas de Calais region. The Big T has a great uncle who was killed in March 1918 at the 3rd Battle of the Somme. Private Eric Andrew Gray was a member of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, and served in the Canterbury Regiment. From Archives New Zealand, we were able to get a copy of his war record which told us a little about a man the Big T had grown up hearing about. The records didn’t tell us anything about Eric’s death – except the date –  but we did manage to piece together some understanding of his final days from the Regimental War Dairy which is available online through the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection – an initiative of Victoria University of Wellington Library.

I have been to the Black Watch Museum website to see if they hold something similar, but no joy, so I will have to try and piece together the movements of Thomas Bisset’s Battalion through other sources, and with luck I will be able to find his war record on Ancestry.

A week ago, I knew nothing of the Bisset family. But by becoming interested in a picture of a headstone, I have climbed a branch of my family tree that has so far produced a war casualty, a man with at least two surnames (and three different “fathers”) and a connection to a 1920s tourist attraction. Watch this space!

On trying to put flesh on the ancestors bones

I’ve blogged in the past about the invisibility of my largely working class ancestors, and researching my great grandfather – Alexander Cruden – has shown me that even in recent times, ordinary working folk don’t leave behind them a long paper trail.

Great grandad was a much loved and definitely larger-than-life figure in my early years.

My christening; with my great grandparents, Alexander and Catherine Cruden.

My christening; with my great grandparents, Alexander and Catherine Cruden.

He had an artificial leg, wore a hearing aid that he tended to turn off quite a lot so he couldn’t hear my great grandmother, and had a huge bulbous nose, which my mother always said was because he had run a pub when he was younger. One of my brothers was named after him, and my son too carries his name.

My baby brother and I with our Mum, grandmother and great grandparents

My baby brother and I with our Mum, grandmother and great grandparents

What I remember most about great grandad was that he always had a bag of peppermints tucked down the side of his chair, and being given one of those was a huge treat. Even now, the taste of peppermint takes me back to him.

Great granddad died when I was nine. My family had emigrated to New Zealand several years before, and my mother wasn’t able to go to the funeral of her favourite grandparent. I think that was the first time she had ever really felt the distance we had put between us and the rest of her family.

From my mum’s stories, I always felt that I knew a lot about Alexander Cruden, yet when I came to try and document his life, I found that actually, I didn’t. What I had were rich, emotionally powerful memories of him, but very few facts.

One of the really distinctive things about my great granddad was that he had only one leg. I was told that he’d lost the other one “in the war.” I now know that was World War One, but when I asked my mum recently about her grandad’s military service, all she knew for sure was that he had spent time afterwards in a hospital in Musselburgh, near Edinburgh. She remembered visiting him there in the 1940’s which suggests that his injury continued to trouble him for many years after he sustained it.

Patients at Edenhall Hospital, probably in the 1920's.

Patients at Edenhall Hospital, probably in the 1920’s.

I’ve learned that the hospital was called Edenhall East of Scotland Limbless Hospital, and that there don’t appear to be any surviving records going back to World War One.

What I don’t know of course, is how he ended up there. I have no idea when and where he served. My mum thought he might have been in the Gordon Highlanders, but there doesn’t appear to be a service record that matches him. This of course isn’t surprising given that only around 40 percent of service records survive for servicemen in WWI.

A couple of years ago I researched my husband’s grandfather and great uncle who both served in WWI as part of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. We knew that Tony’s uncle Eric had been killed, but no more than that. From Archives New Zealand I was able to get copies of their service records and by putting the information in those records together with a history of his regiment  that was available through the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection (part of the Victoria University of Wellington Library), we ended up feeling that we understood quite a lot about this young man whom none of us had ever met. Elated by this find, I even used the example in a video I made for a university assignment.

Of course, from statuatory records I have learned a lot about Alexander Cruden. I know he was born in 1890 in Dundee, the second of seven children and the eldest son. I know that his eldest sister disappears from the Scottish records after the 1901 census, and probably (if I have the right person) reappears in Middlesburgh in 1924 when she seemed to marry a man called Cecil Leach.

I know that great grandad’s youngest sister died aged 19 of eclampsia in the Royal Maternity Hospital in Edinburgh, and that his only brother Stewart died aboard HMT Shera in the Arctic Sea in 1942; part of the Arctic Convoy which carried supplies to Russia in World War II.

My grandmother, Margaret Cruden and her brother Stewart. Studio portrait probably from around 1914.

My grandmother, Margaret Cruden and her brother Stewart. Studio portrait probably from around 1914.

I know too that Alexander Cruden married Catherine Simpson Bissett Black on 27 March 1908, six weeks before their child (my grandmother Margaret Cruden) was born.

Alexander was 17; my great grandmother 18.

They were married for 62 years and raised five children. During the 1930’s and 1940’s he was the publican of the Fife Arms in Milton of Balgonie, Fife and by the 1960’s he was living in Dysart, Fife.

Alexander Cruden died in 1970, aged 80.

I know the bones of his life from BMD and census records, but little to put flesh on those bones. It seems that his military records – both of service and his subsequent disability – no longer exist, so I will probably never know how he came to suffer an injury that required the amputation of a leg; an injury which seems to have given him sufficient on-going pain that he continued to spend periods of time in hospital for years afterwards.

While I’m sad that there is so much I will never know about my  great grandad, I feel lucky to have memories of him and stories that I can share with my son. And this particular search has made me all the more grateful for every shred of documentary evidence I do find about my ancestors; for every piece of information that puts flesh on the skeletons of the past.

The importance of archives to family history: a video “elevator pitch”



A couple of years ago, as part of my Masters in Information Studies, I did a paper in Archives Management. One of the assignments was to give an “elevator pitch” about the importance of archives.

I videoed mine and this is it. I think I’d be more articulate now, but the sentiments would certainly be the same. .