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.

Tombstone Tuesday: war dead remembered

The Royal Naval Patrol Service Memorial in Lowestoft, to members of the service who have no known resting place - including my great grand uncle, Stewart Cameron Cruden. Died 9 March 1942 in the sinking of HMT Shera in the Barents Sea.

The Royal Naval Patrol Service Memorial in Lowestoft. To members of the service who have no known resting place,  including my great grand uncle, Stewart Cameron Cruden. Died 9 March 1942 in the sinking of HMT Shera in the Barents Sea. Photo credit: Royal Naval Patrol Service http://www.rnps.lowestoft.org.uk/memorial/panels/panel_8.htm

The Royal Naval Patrol Service Memorial commemorates the 2385 servicemen and women from the RNPS who lost their lives 1939-46 and who have no known grave. Most of these, like my great grand uncle Stewart Cruden, died at sea.

Kirkcaldy War Memorial; Stewart Cruden's name appears here.

Kirkcaldy War Memorial; Stewart Cruden’s name appears here. Photo: Su Leslie 2013.

Stewart Cruden is also remembered on the Kirkcaldy War Memorial.

Tombstone Tuesday: my Ramsay great grandparents

My mother's paternal grandparents; David Ramsay and Mary Fisher.

My mother’s paternal grandparents; David Ramsay and Mary Fisher.

Against the wall in Dysart Cemetery, is the grave of my great grandparents David Ramsay and Mary Fisher, along with their daughter Jean. They are the only Ramsay relatives I could find in Dysart, and although the grave wasn’t overgrown, it doesn’t look as though it’s regularly tended.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the family, probably because I don’t know very much about them. My great grandparents died before I was born, and even my grandad died when I was eleven. I have no memories of meeting any of his siblings, though my mum assures me I did.

My grandfather David Ramsay (top right) with his parents and siblings.

My grandfather David Ramsay (top right) with his parents and siblings.

Looking at the photos of the Ramsays my mum gave me, they mostly looked happy – especially my great grandfather.

David Skinner Ramsay and Mary Fisher; their fiftieth wedding anniversary.

David Skinner Ramsay and Mary Fisher; their fiftieth wedding anniversary.

I really like the simplicity of my great grandparents’ headstone – and particularly the line “worthy of remembrance.”

I don’t think you could really say anything better about someone.

Tombstone Tuesday: Dysart Cemetery

Dysart Cemetery, Windmill Road, Dysart, Fife, Scotland.

Dysart Cemetery, Windmill Road, Dysart, Fife, Scotland. Remains of old windmill tower in the background.

For as many generations as I’ve been able to trace back, branches of my family have lived and died in Dysart. Many are buried in Dysart Cemetery – including my paternal grandparents, two sets of great-grandparents, some great, great grandparents, various great uncles and aunts, and my older brother who was stillborn.

It’s a relatively new cemetery – nineteenth century – and is still in use. I been there twice recently, specifically to visit the graves of relatives I knew were there but found myself wandering between the rows of graves “just in case.” My searching was rewarded and although the headstones didn’t tell me much I didn’t already know, I’m really pleased to know that so many members of my family are all together in one place.

Daft, yeah. But it still makes me happy.

Tombstone Tuesday: another Nicholson in Dysart

Thomas Elder and Annie Nicholson, Dysart Cemetery. Photo: Su Leslie, 2013.

Thomas Elder and Anne Nicholson, Dysart Cemetery. Photo: Su Leslie, 2013

In loving memory of Thomas Elder

Died 12th February 1929

Anne Nicholson his wife

Died 27th May 1946

A simple inscription, and no indication of who placed it there. I know that my great grandmother, Anne Nicholson lived with her son William for a time after Thomas’s death, and was nursed in her own final days by her daughters Elizabeth and my grandmother, Susan. I can only assume that the headstone was put there by the children.



On growing old together

When, last week, I posted a photo of my great grandparents at their 55th wedding anniversary, both Pacific Paratrooper and theamateurcamera commented on the longevity of their marriage.

Fifty five years married; my great grandparents, Alexander Cruden and Catherine Black.

Fifty fifth wedding anniversary; my great grandparents, Alexander Cruden and Catherine Black.

This reminded me that Alexander Cruden and Catherine Black were actually married for 62 years – until my great grandad died in 1970.

These great grandparents are particularly special to me; mainly perhaps because I knew them and have very fond memories of their presence in my life. When I was little and living in Kirkcaldy, they lived near by. My mother was especially close to her grandad, so I think we spent quite a lot of time with them. My memories are very much a child’s; the smell of the peppermints that great grandad kept a bag of tucked down the side of his chair; the slight buzz of his hearing aid, and the tortoiseshell Alice band my great grandmother wore to keep her wispy white hair off her face.

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

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

My great grandparents were married on the 27 March, 1908 in Kirkcaldy, Fife. He was seventeen, she was eighteen. Six weeks later, they became parents when my grandmother was born. Two years later they had another child – my great uncle Stewart. Three more children were to follow – all boys – but not until my great grandfather had returned wounded from serving in WWI. Indeed my great grandmother bore her last child George, within months of her only daughter (my grandmother) giving birth for the first time, to my uncle David Ramsay.

Catherine Black and Alexander Cruden with children Stewart and Margaret. Circa 1912.

Catherine Black and Alexander Cruden with children Stewart and Margaret. Circa 1912.

My mum recently gave me several photos of my grandmother and her brother Stewart. These are studio portraits showing the two young children in a variety of costumes. I don’t know much about the cost of photography in those days, but it seems to me that the family must have been quite comfortably off.

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

My grandmother, Margaret Cruden and her brother Stewart. Studio portrait from around 1915 perhaps?

When they married, my great grandfather was a coal miner. Three years later, in the 1911 census, his occupation is shown as carter.

Later in his life he was the publican of the Fife Arms Hotel in Milton of Balgonie, Fife, and the family also owned a dairy, a chip shop and perhaps also an icecream business – although this is something I have to investigate a bit more as my mother’s story about the icecream shop has always sounded a bit mysterious!

I know that my great grandfather served in the British Army in WWI – and that he was wounded, probably in France, and had his lower leg amputated. My mother thinks that he was a Gordon Highlander, but I cannot find any record of his military service. I know that over 50 percent of the personnel records of WWI British servicemen were lost in the Blitz, and can only assume his records were amongst them.

I do know that as a result of his injury, he spent time in Edenhall Hospital for Limbless Soldiers and Sailors. My mother remembers visiting him there in the 1940’s when she was a child, so I assume he continued to go for some sort of respite care.

Patients at Edenhall Hospital for Limbless Soldiers and Sailors, probably in the 1920's.

Patients at Edenhall Hospital for Limbless Soldiers and Sailors, probably in the 1920’s. Alexander Cruden is in the front row, third from the left.

Some records from Edenhall Hospital have been transferred to the Lothian Health Services Archive, but unfortunately, not records relating to the period of time my great grandad would have been there, so that is a dead end also.

It’s frustrating not to know more about my great grandfather’s military service. While he was only one of millions of men worldwide who served and suffered, the impact of his injury must have continued throughout his life. I remember his prosthetic limb – my great grandmother used to hide it when he annoyed her, while he would turn off his hearing aid and ignore whatever she was saying.

Of course it was not only my great grandfather who bore the impact of service. My great grandmother was left with two small children to raise alone, not knowing when – or if – her husband would return.

As a child I found my great gran a bit intimidating, but she was also an amazing woman. Her own mother apparently died when Catherine was a child, although I’ve not been able to find a record of this.

Alexander Cruden and Katherine (nee Black); my great grandparents with my at my christening.

Alexander and Catherine at my christening.

My mum talks about her gran travelling daily from home to work in the chip shop as pillion passenger on a friend’s motorbike, and of being unafraid to deal on the black market during the war to make sure family and friends were provided for.

She sounds like an astute businesswoman and someone who fiercely protected and looked after her family – raising a grandson when the boy’s parent’s marriage broke down, and looking after my mother and her siblings at times as well.

On the face of it, my great grandparents’ marriage sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. Pregnant teenagers – parents before the ink was dry on the marriage license, separated for several years by war, a permanently disabled husband, five children spread over 11 years, the stress of another war in which three of their sons were in military service … any one of these would be considered sufficient for divorce these days. But instead they stuck together for sixty two years – eventually dying within months of each other.

su and tony

I know times were different then – divorce was expensive and difficult to obtain. But I’d like to think that Alec and Cath were happy; that their sixty two years were about more than endurance.

I like to think that not just for their sakes, but because it gives me hope for my own 27 year relationship with the Big T.

Tombstone Tuesday: a Nicholson in Dysart

I’ve spent a lot of time in Dysart cemetary this last week and have now visited the graves of my grandparents, two sets of great-grandparents and my older brother.

I also found this headstone, of my great grand uncle David Nicholson, and his wife Mary Ann Warry.

The inscription is simple:

“In memory of David Nicholson died 16th January 1946 and his wife Mary Ann Clementine Warry died ? November 1934”