Family or lineage? (Happy Birthday Great Grandad)

I hadn’t thought about it too much until recently, but I am definitely a family historian rather than a genealogist. While I’m interested in tracing and recording my lineage, I’m much more interested in understanding the lives my ancestors led and the societies that shaped them.

This realisation has come about in part because of a conversation I had with my dad a couple of days ago. It’s a major source of disappointment to him that, to date, none of his grandchildren have his surname. Although I’m not married – so still use the “family” name – my partner and I chose to give our son his surname rather than mine.

uncle toms back garden001

A rare Leslie family photo. My dad is on the left holding my brother. I’m seated on Uncle Tom’s knee. My favourite uncle ever, Tom Leslie was my grandfather David Leslie’s younger brother.

I also have two brothers. One of them changed his middle and surnames years ago so his three children don’t meet with Dad’s approval either. My other brother has recently adopted a child and my father was jubilant because he finally has a grandchild with the “right” name.

My relationship with my dad is prickly at the best of times, and I have to admit to feeling quite pissed off with him. He probably didn’t mean it, but it really sounded like his biological grandkids were somehow second-best because they won’t carry on “the name.” Our conversation reminded me that when I first talked to him after my son’s birth, he was decidedly sulky  over the naming of my baby.

I was wondering if that’s maybe why I haven’t made much of an effort to trace the Leslie branch of my family, so I went back to my family tree and noticed that it is 146 years today since the birth of my great grandfather David Leslie.

David Leslie was born on July 23td 1867 in Auchtermuchty, Fife, to George Leslie and Janet Trail (who sometimes appears in the records as Jessie, and with her surname sometimes shown as Traill or Jrail).

Birth extract: David Leslie (my great grandfather), 23 July 1867)

Birth extract: David Leslie (my great grandfather), 23 July 1867)

David appears to have been the fifth of seven children born to George and Jessie, although it seems that Jessie also bore a daughter, Christina Trail, the year before her marriage to George.

The 1871 census shows the family living in Auchtermuchty, with Jessie as the head of the household.

I found this record a while ago, and had assumed that George must have died. Since then however, I’ve found his death certificate – dated 1902. George also appears alongside Jessie in all the subsequent census records up until his death.

A search on Scotland’s People shows sixteen people called George Leslie in the 1871 census, and given what I know about George, six of these are possible matches. At the moment, I’m not keen to use up credits trying to find him, so until I can get to the library and use Ancestry, his whereabouts on census night will have to remain a mystery.

By the 1881 census, the family had moved to Kirkcaldy. The family consisted of George and Jessie, plus Jessie’s daughter Christina, George jr. William, Elizabeth, Isabella, David, John and Jessie jr. The three younger children were all at school, though it’s likely that my great grandfather would have left at fourteen to go to work. George seems to have spent his working life as a labourer.

By the 1891 census, David was working in one of Kirkcaldy’s potteries as a kilnsman. This is the occupation also shown on the extract of his marriage certificate in 1892, when he married Isabella Gourlay. David’s mother Jessie was one of the witnesses to the marriage, along with Isabella’s brother Thomas Gourlay. I know that Isabella’s father Rankine Gourlay would not have been at the wedding, as he was a patient at the Fife and Kinross Lunatic Asylum at the time.

David and Isabella had six children; my grandfather David being the fourth.

David Leslie sr. died in 1940 when my father was eight years old. My great grandmother Isabella died in February 1961, just months before I was born.

As always, the more information I have about ancestors, the more I want to know. But I can’t say that I am any more interested in the Leslie family than any other branch of my tree. I do want to know why George wasn’t at home on census night 1871, and I’d like to know when he made the move from Elgin to Dundee. I’m curious about whether he had siblings and who his parents were, but I’m not driven by any need to prove some sort of lineage. My research will, I think, always be guided by how interesting I think characters are and how much I can learn about their stories.

I can’t help thinking my dad would probably disapprove of this too.

Stretching back into the 18th century – ancestors who would remember Culloden.

Seems I've had family living in Dysart, Scotland since at least the mid 18th century.

Eight generations: seems I’ve had family living in Dysart, Scotland since at least the mid 18th century.

My hunt for Nicholson ancestors has made significant progress since I found Mary Todd, wife of Alexander Nicholson and my 3x great grandmother – in the 1851 census.

Between the 1841 and 1851 censuses Mary gave birth to five more children, including twin girls. who both died in their first three years. She also buried her mother Margaret, in October 1846 and her husband of twenty years, in November 1848. On a happier note, her eldest living daughter, Ann, married Alexander Campbell, a Railway Overseer, in April 1848.

At the 1851 census Mary Todd was living at “Country Road, East Side, Dysart”. Her household included her children Joanna, 18; Jemima, 15; Alexander, 16; William, 14; Andrew, 12; Isabella, 10; Jean, 9; Christian, 6; and Mary’s father James Todd – a retired Carter aged 74 (according to the census).

There was also a lodger called Robert Greig, who went on to marry Jemima Nicholson in July 1854.

The presence of Mary’s father James Todd in her household at that time gave me my first ancestor I could firmly place in the 18th century, and told me that he was born in Dysart. Mary’s birth and death records also tell me her mother’s name was  Margaret Sinclair (death record)/ St. Clair (birth record).

OPR burial: "1846 October 24th Margaret Sinclair spouse to James Todd, Carter in Gallatown was interred in the middle grave of Alex Nicholson's stone."

OPR burial: “1846 October 24th Margaret Sinclair spouse to James Todd, Carter in Gallatown was interred in the middle grave of Alex Nicholson’s stone.”

I also have James Todd’s death record from Scotland’s People. It shows his parents as James Tod and Margaret Stewart. This is a wee bit at odds with the birth record I found (the only James Tod born at around about the right time), which show his parents as James Tod and Helen Stuart. The different spelling of Stuart/Stewart is to be expected, but the first name difference bothers me a bit.

I’m sure the death extract from Scotland’s People is for the correct James Todd – because his occupation and address are consistent with other information I have, and because the informant of the death is given as his grandson Andrew Nicholson (my 2x great grandfather). I’m guessing that Andrew (who was unlikely to have even been born when his grandfather’s parents were alive, may have mistakenly given the wrong name – his grandmother’s rather than his great-grandmother’s?

There is a wee bit of evidence for this hypothesis of a mistake in the reporting. James Todd and Margaret St Clair had three children together – Helen in January 1798, Jean in February 1802 and Mary (my 3x great grandmother) in June 1803.  If James’ mother’s name had been Margaret, I would have expected to find a daughter with that name.

James Tod senior and Helen Stuart were married on 21 November 1767 in Dysart. I don’t yet know how old they were at the time, but assuming they were at least 18, that means they were alive  – albeit children – at the time of the Battle of Culloden. It’s also possible that their parents were born before the Act of Union of 1707 and thus were born citizens of Scotland, not the United Kingdom.

Progress … but not quite what I was looking for

After a day spent in the public library trying to trace my namesakes back beyond my 2 x great grandmother Susan Forbes, I can report only mixed success.

The only Scottish records available through Ancestry and FindMyPast (both of which are available free at the library) are transcripts of census and voter records which are only really useful for the period 1841 – 1901. I had hoped to find Susan Forbes’ grandparents – John Forbes and Susan Foulis, at least in the 1841 census as I figured they would probably  have been in their 50’s or 60’s and might still have been alive. But no luck!

Some of the census records include individuals’ ages – which, although the accuracy is debatable, at least provide some parameters for further searching . Voter registration records also include the person’s qualification to vote, which, between the first Reform Act of 1832, and the second in 1867, was “men who occupied property with an annual value of £10.”

Both census and voter lists did prove to be useful in learning more about John and Susan’s son David Forbes (my 3 x great grandfather).  Continue reading

Fearless Females – Names and Naming Patterns

Fearless Females – Names and Naming Patterns

With thanks to Lisa Alzo, author of The Accidental Genealogist blog for her wonderful idea to “celebrate and honor ‘fearless females’ in our family trees”. This post is inspired by her ‘Names and Naming Patterns’ suggestion.

As a very small child I used to get confused by my family. Both my granddads were called David, I had three uncles called David, a couple of Uncle Sandy’s and more than a few Uncles Bill. I also had an Aunt Sandra, a cousin Sandra, two cousins called Robert and two called Elaine.

Partly these came about through marriage, but mainly it’s because my family seemed to adhere to a very Scottish pattern of naming children. I won’t try to explain it here since Judy Strachan at Judy’s Family History has done such a good job of it already. In fact, it’s since I read Judy’s post on the subject that I’ve been able to add a few more people to my tree. These have tended to be children who were born and died between censuses. I’ve found them because I knew they probably “had to” exist – based on the names I had for family members who did appear in the records.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m named after my paternal grandmother, Susan Elder. What I only discovered recently (see above) was that she was named after her (maternal) grandmother, Susan Forbes. Actually, in writing this, I realise that my parents weren’t really adhering to the pattern, or I would have been called have been Margaret; and that would have made three – no four living related Margaret’s for me to be confused about.

I’ve already posted about my grandmother Susan, so here’s what I know about my earlier namesake. Continue reading

First time in the 18th century

Dysart Harbour

Dysart Harbour

Finally found my first ancestor from the 18th century. The 1851 census record from Scotland’s People shows that my 4x great grandfather, James Todd, was living in Country Road, Dysart, Fife with his widowed daughter, Mary Todd (my 3x great grandmother), along with eight of the nine children Mary bore to husband Alexander Nicholson.

It looks like James Todd was born in 1777 in Dysart. That means that I’ve had family living continuously in the same place for over 230 years.

Alexander Nicholson was also born in Dysart, so it will be interesting to see how firmly I am rooted in that place.

On chasing ghosts

Increasingly in my research, I’m stumbling across ancestors I didn’t know existed – a great uncle born out of wedlock, children who appear on one census only to disappear by the next. In these cases I’ve been looking at records (like the census returns) and found “extra” names. But yesterday something different happened. I went looking for someone purely on the basis that they should exist.

Let me explain. I was tidying up some details relating to my paternal grandfather, David Leslie, who was born in 1899. I knew that his parents had married in 1892, and that my great uncle Rankine was born in 1895. I knew too there had been a daughter, Mary, in 1897.

My grandfather, David Leslie

My grandfather, David Leslie

Me, age 5, with my great uncle Tom Leslie; the coolest, most fun uncle and greatly loved.

I’ve done enough research into my largely working class family to know that during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, where couples had children at all, they tended to start coming very early in the marriage (within weeks in many cases). I also know that mostly my family observed Scottish naming conventions, whereby one’s parents’ names are given to offspring – and done so in a particular order, with the first-born son usually named after the paternal grandfather.

On that basis, it seemed odd to me that my great-grandfather David Leslie and his wife Isabella Gourlay should have been married three years before having a child, and that their apparently first-born son was named Rankine – a Gourlay family name.

One of the first things I realised when I started using Scotland’s People is that the most efficient way to trace ancestors’ siblings is though census records. Unless you know someone’s Christian name, it’s difficult (not to mention expensive) to find birth records based only on a surname and a rough date range, especially as women might easily have been bearing children across a 20 or more year period as some of my ancestors were. I knew from the 1901 and 1911 censuses the names of the Leslie children, so it seemed that if there had been a child (or children) before Rankine, it was likely that they had died. And sadly, that’s the case.

Because I was searching  a very limited time period (1892-1895) and knew that the Leslie’s lived at the same address in Abbotshall in Fife for many years, it was possible – and economically viable – to look for a child who may not even have existed. I was fortunate; I only got five hits, including George Leslie. As George was my Leslie great, great grandfather’s name, I paid my five credits and found that I had the right child.

I’ve worked as a researcher for most of my life and pride myself on professional detachment. Sod that! This is family I’m talking about and researching them is an unbelievably emotional journey. So my excitement at “a find” and my pride in being clever enough to think to go looking were tempered by the certainty that my next search would be for a child’s death certificate. So …

George Leslie 1893-1901

First-born child of David and Isabella, big brother of Rankine, Mary and my granddad David (and who would, if he’d lived, also been brother to Thomas and William). Died 2 February 1901, aged seven, of meningitis.

I’m still processing this. Part of me is trying to be practical and remember that child mortality was higher in those days and that families probably expected to lose a child, but the other part of me is a mother and I think I’ll go and give my son a hug.

On finding missing uncles and caring about their lives

I wrote a few weeks ago I posted a photo of my great grandmother, Annie Elder (nee Nicholson). Actually it’s the only photo of her I have and I love it because she looks like such a strong capable woman.

My great grandmother, Annie

I know that she was a teacher in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, but haven’t been able to find out at which school she taught. She married in 1898 and would almost certainly have had to resign on her marriage, so I have clues about the timing of her employment, but not the location. A second cousin recently told me that she remembers a teacher in her youth who’d worked with my great grandmother, but so far the name in the school minute or record book has eluded me.

What my cousin also told me is that Annie Nicholson had a son before her marriage to my great grandfather. His name was Andrew, and he was born in 1894. As was the practice at the time, his birth certificate labels him “illegitimate” – and has only a blank where “father’s name” would appear.

My family history is full of marriages that took place just weeks before births were recorded, but illegitimacies are so far rare, and so much more interesting because of it. Why did those particular men not “do the right thing” and marry my pregnant fore-mothers? Were they already married? Did they die? Get cold feet? I would love to know.

My cousin says that she remembers Uncle Andrew and his wife in the 1950s, visiting from the US, where he had emigrated to. She had always assumed that Andrew lived with his mother and my great grandfather, as her mother had spoken of her older brother frequently and fondly. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to have been the case. In the 1901 census, Andrew was recorded as living with his grandmother and uncle, a few streets away from where his mother lived with her husband and their child – my one year old grandmother. By the 1911 census, Andrew would have been 16 so it’s  not entirely surprising that I can’t find a record of him. I have a suspicion that he may have joined the merchant navy, and this is my next project.

I don’t know if he was in the merchant navy during World War I, or if he served in the military. I know he married in 1918 and emigrated to the US in 1923. He appears in the 1930 and 1940 censuses in Dearborn, Michigan, so was probably an auto-worker. I know he had no children and died in 1973, when I was 12 years old.

Two weeks ago I had never heard of Andrew Scott Nicholson, son of Annie Kinnell Nicholson and big brother to my grandmother (and namesake) Susan Forbes Nicholson Elder. I still don’t know him – only fragments of his life from official records and (thankfully) my cousin’s recollections. But I care about him. I want him to have had a good life, fulfilling work, a strong marriage, fun and friendship. I desperately want him to have overcome the fact that his father wouldn’t or couldn’t acknowledge his birth (at least legally) and that his mother’s husband didn’t seem to want him.

I want him to have been happy.