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

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

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

In response to a recent post about Helen Low, Olwen, of Tall Tales and True suggested to me that the address shown on Helen Low’s birth record may have been Welltree, as in …

James Low wright in Welltree

Olwen said:

“Welltree … is marked on old maps but on Google Maps seems to be just a junction where the A914 meets Freuchie Mill Road. There are some references to Welltree by Freuchie/Fruchie in old directories.”

I had been feeling that I’d hit a dead end with Helen Low, but Olwen’s comments inspired me to try again – and as it turns out – may have given me THE crucial bit of information I needed.

Building the case

I had found an OR (Old Parish Register) marriage record for James Low and Elspet Robertson, from 1811 in the parish of Kettle. The Fife Family History Society has online a parochial directory for Kettle (1861) which contains information about the various settlements and villages within the parish. Welltree isn’t mentioned in the text, but within the directory itself, one of the first entries is for a blacksmith named William Birrell — in ‘Welltree, by Freuchie’.

I also looked for Joiners and Wrights (James Low’s stated occupations on Helen’s birth and death records). At the time of the directory, there was a Joiner/Wright in Welltree. Not James Low (he would have been at least 70 by then), but with Welltree seeming the most likely address on Helen’s birth record, this was another little piece of information against which to cross-check records.

Knowing that James Low and Elspet Robertson married in 1811 meant that I could start to put some parameters on their likely ages and birthdates.

Assuming they were at least 16 when they got married (over 20 actually seems to be much more common for the time), I could put their births at before 1795. I also knew that Elspet Robertson bore a child in 1825, and although I’ve found quite a few records of births to women in their 40s amongst my ancestors, I decided that it was unlikely she was born before 1780. James, of course, may have been much older – that was an unknown.

Having some parameters, I decided to look for James and Elspet in the 1841 census. There are two James Low’s – but neither seemed a likely match for my ancestor. Both seemed too young, were heads of households that didn’t contain any names I recognised as family members, and indeed one “Low” was probably a misspelling of “Law.”

Old Parish Records – deaths in Kettle

I then searched death records for James. I began with the OPR records from 1824 (prior to the birth of their last known child, but after conception would have taken place) to 1854 – when statutory records began. I decided to try deaths in Kettle Parish first and got two matches, one in 1833 and one in 1840. Neither showed the age of the deceased so I decided to try both records.

The first was for:

Feb 22 1833 Low James in Well-Tree, age 54

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

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

The other record, in 1840, showed the deceased’s age as 17 years, so it seemed most likely that if either of the records was for “my” James Low – it would be the first.

Of course, I can’t guarantee that “my” James Low died in 1833 (he may have moved from Kettle Parish and died somewhere else), but based on the age and location, I decided to see if I could find anything else that might support or refute the hypothesis that this was a record for the correct person.

Circumstantial evidence — Scottish naming pattern

I’ve talked quite a lot in the past about the Scottish naming pattern – whereby children were named after family members according to quite clear “rules.” Eldest sons were named after their father’s father; eldest daughters after their mother’s mother; second sons after the mother’s father, etc. Third children were often given their parent’s name and middle names were given if children were named after someone with a different surname.

This was of course just a pattern and naturally not everyone adhered to it. But most branches of my family seem to have done so, and it’s been a really useful tool for hypothesizing grandparents’ names based on knowledge of what the grandchildren are called.

In the case of James Low and Elspeth Robertson, I had records of seven children born to them: Michael, Helen, Alexander, Rachel, Elizabeth, James and William.

If the Scottish naming pattern had been adhered to, James Low’s father should have been called Michael and his mother Rachel. Similarly, Elspet’s parents would have been called Helen and Alexander.

The only James Low I could find born in Scotland between 1760-1795 with parents called Michael and Rachel was born in Kettle, on 19 July 1779 – which would have made him 54 in 1833 (the ages shown on the death record I found above).

Taking away the parents’ names filter – I found records for 14 children called James Low born in Fife between 1760-1795 and around 30 born in the neighbouring county of Perthshire. None of those other James Lows had parents called Michael or Rachel.

Uncommon names

Normally I take the naming pattern with a grain of salt, but Michael and Rachel were unusual names in 18th and 19th century Scotland.

For example, in FamilySearch, children born with the first name Michael between 1760 and 1850 returned 2579 hits, compared with 257,973 Williams, 292,902 James’s and 155,268 Alexanders.

Similarly there were 6544 Rachels in the time period compared with 216,306 Elizabeths, 423,262 Janes, and 130,318 Isabellas.

For that reason I’m inclined to believe that the birth record I found is that of my James Low.

The birth record says

19 July 1779 Low was born James son to Mihil (Michael) in Orkie Cotton and Rachel Stones his wife and was baptised 25th of same and witnessed the congregation.

A Fife Family History Society publication listing village and hamlet names in 1838 records both an Orkie (in Freuchie) and an Orkimill (in Kettle).

An acceptable conclusion?

If I were a lawyer building (or trying to refute) a case, I would have to say that most of my evidence is circumstantial. But, frankly, that’s probably the best I’m going to get, so for the time being I am working on the hypothesis that my 4x great grandfather, James Low was born to Michael Low and Rachel Stones on July 19, 1779, became a Wright/Joiner in Weltree, married Elspet Robertson in 1811, fathered (at least) seven children – including my 3x great grandmother Helen Low, and died in Weltree in 1833. If that is the case, he probably lived his entire live within an area of around 2 sq miles. Sitting here, half a world away from the place of my birth, and of James’s, I find myself wondering about the nature of place and identity. But that’s for another day.



When things aren’t quite what they seem … the pauper daughter of a colonial administrator?

Helen Low (5 December, 1814 – 7 May, 1887)

About three months ago I received a comment on this blog, suggesting information about my Ramsay and Low ancestors. It came from a man who is researching the Governors of Penang, Malaysia, and who pointed me to a family tree that showed Helen Low – my 3x great grandmother – to be a daughter of a Captain James Low, who had quite a distinguished career in the British Army in South East Asia.

Naturally, I Googled James Low and discovered quite a lot about him. He was a career soldier who spent much of his life on the Malay Peninsula. He was Acting Governor of Penang Island (then called Prince of Wales Island) in 1838, wrote a book called The British Settlement of Penang in 1836, and was the subject of another book Low’s mission to Southern Siam, 1824 (2007) edited by Anthony Farrington. He died in Portobello, Edinburgh in 1852.

Low, James. 'The British Settlement of Penang', 1972 ed. Photo credit:

Low, James. ‘The British Settlement of Penang’, 1972 ed. Photo credit:

The family tree I was sent was quite comprehensive, although inaccurate as regards members of my more immediate family.

Part of me wanted to say “hey, cool; I have an ancestor who has left a real trace in the historical record, let’s get researching”, but I was also slightly dubious. My doubt was caused mainly by the fact that I knew Helen Low died in the Poorhouse, and that didn’t seem quite right for the daughter of a high ranking military man. It turns out I was right to have doubts. While the family tree information I was given is more or less correct for Helen Low’s marriage and children,  and as it turns out, the names of her parents – it seems that the James Low who was my 4x great grandfather wasn’t the same man who lived in Malaysia.

Here’s why I think that

I’m learning that one of the best ways to trace a life is by starting with death – at least deaths that occurred after the introduction of statutory record-keeping. In Scotland, this was in 1855.

Helen Low’s death record (in her married name of Ramsay) tells me:

  • She was the widow of David Skinner Ramsay, a carter.
  • She died on 7 May 1887 at the Dysart Combination Poorhouse, in Markinch, Fife, aged 71.
  • Her cause of death was paralysis and senile debility
  • Her death was reported by David Campbell, Governor of the Poorhouse.
  • Importantly, it also tells me that Helen’s parents’ names were James Low and Elspeth Robertson, and that both were deceased at the time of her death. James’ occupation on the form was given as Joiner.

From this it would seem that Helen Low was born in 1816 (or thereabouts – for ages are notoriously inaccurate on 19th century records).

Given Helen’s age it seemed likely that her marriage to David Ramsay had taken place before statutory records. OPR (old parish records) provide a lot less information than the later statutory records, and I couldn’t be sure where the couple had married, so I used census records to build up a picture of Helen’s life.

 1881: 298 Rosslyn Street, Gallatown, Fife. Household consisted of Helen, 67, outside worker, two unmarried adult children; Elizabeth, 40, factory worker and Peter, 20, carter, as well as two grandchildren; James, 15, labourer linoleum factory, and Robina, 8, scholar. Helen’s place of birth was given as Kettle, Fife.

1871: Kirky Road, Dysart, Fife. Household consisted of David Ramsay, aged 53 a carter, born Dysart; Helen, aged 56, born Kettle, Fife; daughter Elizabeth, aged 30, unmarried, an outdoor worker born Strathmiglo, Fife; son Peter, 10, scholar, born Dysart; and James, aged 5, a grandson born Dysart.

1861: Glenfoot, Abernethy, Perth. Household consisted of David Ramsay aged 43, Grain Agent, born Kirkcaldy, Fife; Helen aged 45 born Kettle, Fife; daughter Elizabeth aged 20 agricultural labourer, born Kettle, Fife; daughter Jane aged 17, agricultural labourer, born Strathmiglo, Fife; son John aged 6, born Abernethy, Perth; and son Peter aged 3 months, born Abernethy, Perth.

1851: Fargs Mill, Abernethy, Perth. Household consisted of David Ramsay, aged 34, Master Miller, one employee, born Dysart, Fife; Helen, 36, born Kettle, Fife; son James, 14, scholar, born Strathmiglo, Fife; daughter Elizabeth, 10, scholar, born Strathmiglo; son David, scholar, born Strathmiglo; daughter Jean, 7, scholar, born Strathmiglo; son William, 4, born Strathmiglo; James Stewart, 17; servant; Helen Matthew, 17; servant.

1841: Pityomie, Strathmiglo, Fife. Household consisted of David (Rumsey in index) agricultural labourer, aged 20; Helen (Ellen in index), 20; James, 4, David, 2, Elizabeth, 3mth.

From this information, I searched for a marriage record in the 1830s in Fife. I found two – both in 1836, both for a Helen Low and David Skinner Ramsay and both in the district of Cupar, Fife. One was for 15 May 1836 in Collessie; the other 30 May 1836 in Strathmiglo.

Parish church in Strathmiglo, Fife. Photo credit: British Listed Buildings

Parish church in Strathmiglo, Fife. Photo credit: British Listed Buildings

Collessie and Strathmiglo are about six miles apart, but because the census records showed David and Helen’s children as born in Strathmiglo, I retrieved that record from Scotland’s People first. The record says:

May 30 David Ramsay in the parish and Helen Low in the parish of Collessie were married.

As it was unlikely there were two David Ramsays marrying two Helen Lows in the same month, I wondered whether the duplicate records meant that the marriage took place in Collessie on 15 May and was simply re-recorded in David’s parish church register two weeks later, or whether the couple had two ceremonies – one in each parish. Curious, I retrieved the Collessie record too – hopeful that if it was in Helen’s parish, it might name her parents. Sadly it didn’t.

The Collessie entry says:

May 15 David Ramsay in the parish of Strathmiglo and Helen Low in this parish were married.

Helen’s birthplace in the majority of census records was given as Kettle – which is about six miles from both Collessie and Strathmiglo.

Putting all the information I had together, I looked for a birth record for Helen Low, in Fife; hypothesizing that it would probably be in one of the villages in the district of Cupar, between about 1815-1822 – parents James Low and Elspeth Robertson.


I found a Helen Low, born in Kettle, Fife on 5 December 1814 to parents James Low and Elspet Robertson.

Old Parish Register birth record; Helen Low, 1814. Source: Scotland's People.

Old Parish Register birth record; Helen Low, 1814. Source: Scotland’s People.

The OPR records says:

December 5th was born Helen lawful daughter of James Low Wright in (I can’t read this, but it looks like Maltree) and of Elspet Robertson his wife and was baptised the 5th January.

As I have only one source (Helen’s death record) which indicates parents’ names, I also looked for other children named Helen Low born in the area around the same time. I wasn’t able to find any others, so I’m fairly confident that this record is for the correct Helen.

Old Parish Register marriage record: James Low and Elspet Robertson, 1811, Kettle, Fife. Source: Scotland's People.

Old Parish Register marriage record: James Low and Elspet Robertson, 1811, Kettle, Fife. Source: Scotland’s People.

James Low and Elspet Robertson seem to have had seven children together between their marriage in 1811 and 1825 – all of them born in Kettle, Fife. Since Captain Low was apparently exploring southern Siam (Thailand) at the time of the last birth, it would seem to rule him out as my ancestor.

My next task is to find death records for James and Elspet, and perhaps census records (if they lived to 1841). These could help me find their birth records – although given that they lived in the late 18th and early 19th century, it is entirely likely that I won’t be able to find any definitive trace of them, at least not within the resources that are available on the internet. Perhaps I’ll have to add them to my long list of ancestors whose lives will either remain shrouded in mystery, or require another trip back to the UK!