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.

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.

Two steps forward … trying to know more about a Morrison ancestor

A few days ago I got a message from a very distant relative by marriage.

It seems that this man’s great uncle was married to Henrietta Balsillie, the half-sister of my 2x great grandmother, Isabella Wallace.

Isabella and Henrietta were both children of Jane Morrison.

Jane Morrison has, to date, been a shadowy figure in my family tree. I know she married my 3x great grandfather Donald Wallace in 1861, had five children and was widowed in 1872. She married John Balsillie in 1873 and went on to have another five children – Henrietta being the youngest.

Elizabeth Cruden (nee Brown), Alexander Cruden, David Ramsay, Margaret Ramsay (nee Cruden), Isabella Cruden (nee Wallace).

L-R:  unknown, but probably Elizabeth Cruden (nee Brown), Alexander Cruden, David Ramsay, Margaret Ramsay (nee Cruden), Isabella Cruden (nee Wallace).

My correspondent asked me about the photo above which I’ve written about here – speculating about the identity of an old lady in the picture. Jane Morrison was one of the possible candidates. My conclusion was that the old lady in my photo WASN’T Jane, but only on the basis of the plausibility of one family story over another. I didn’t have any real evidence.

So, feeling rather pleased with myself recently for finding a research technique that seems to work for me and produce good results (see recent posts about the Ramsay family), I decided to don metaphorical Inverness cape and Deerstalker hat and throw myself, Sherlock-like, into the life of Jane Morrison.

One of the best lessons I’ve learned recently is to start at the end – with the most recent information available. For Scottish records (and all my ancestors are Scots), this means birth records that are at least 100 years old, marriage records 75+ years old, and death records that are 50+ years old.

What I already know

Jane Morrison married in 1861 and gave her age on the record as 22. That means her death record should be available (assuming she died in Scotland). However, despite trying various spellings of Balsillie; wildcard searches, and using her maiden and first married names to search on, I haven’t been able to find a death record for Jane Morrison / Wallace / Balsillie.

This could mean she died outside of Scotland, changed her surname (perhaps a third marriage), or that the person indexing the records transcribed her name in such a way that the Scotland’s People algorithm doesn’t recognise it as being a possible match for Balsillie.

Census records

So I tried census records. There is no record of an appropriately aged Jane Morrison / Wallace / Balsillie in the 1911 census of Scotland – but in the 1901 census I found Jane living at 2 Lawrence Street, Dundee. She was a widow, aged 57 and the head of her household which included four adult daughters:

Bessie aged 26, a jute weaver

Bella, 25, (actual name Helen, not my 2x great grandmother Isabella) occupation confectioner “on own account”, which I presume means self-employed or a business owner

Mary, 20, a jute weaver

Henrietta, 18, also a confectioner on own account

Also in the household were two boarders, Peter Young, 22, a telegrapher; and Andrew Balsillie, 22, a railway worker.

Were Bella and Henrietta makers of Scottish tablet? photo credit: Andy H McDowall via photopin cc

Were Bella and Henrietta makers of Scottish tablet? Photo credit: Andy H McDowall via photopin cc

Going back 10 years to the 1891 census, I found Jane’s second husband, John Balsillie, still alive and head of the household at 5 Stewart Street, Dundee. The family consisted of:

John Balsillie, 66, a grain weigher and contractor

Jane Balsillie, 47

Christina Wallace, step-daughter (Jane’s youngest child by Donald Wallace), 16, a jute warper

Betsy Balsillie, 16, jute weaver

Helen Balsillie, 15, jute weaver

Mary Balsillie, 13, scholar

John Balsillie, 11, scholar

Henrietta Balsillie, 8, scholar

Mill, Dundee. The Wallace and Balsillie sisters would have worked in mills like this. Photo credit: BBC

The 1881 census shows the household living at 5 Pitfour Street, Dundee. It consisted of:

John Balsillie, aged 53, shore labourer

Jane Balsillie, 37

Ann Wallace, 18, sheeting weaver

Maggie Wallace, 16, cop winder

Isabella Wallace, 14, sheeting weaver

Christina Wallace, 9, scholar

Betsy Balsillie, 6

Helen Balsillie, 5

Mary Balsillie, 3

John Balsillie, 1 month

1871 census

In 1871 Jane Morrison was living with her first husband, Donald Wallace at Woodside, St. Madoes, a village in Perthshire. The couple had four children, Ann, aged 8; Margaret, 6; Isabella, 4; and James, 2. A fifth; Christina was born on December 23 1871.

Widowed with five children

Donald Wallace died on January 23 1872, aged 40. He was a farm servant, and his death record gives the place of death as Castle Huntly, Longforgan – about 10 miles from St. Maddoes. Castle Huntly is now a prison, but in the nineteenth century, the area was part of an estate owned by the Patterson family. It is likely that the Wallace family would have been living in a cottage tied to Donald’s job, and if so, his death left Jane and her five children – including one month old Christina – not only without a husband, father and breadwinner, but also without a home.

I know that Jane Morrison married John Balsillie on 21 March, 1873 in Dundee – fourteen months after the death of her first husband. John was 49 and a widower. Suspecting that Jane would have become homeless (and almost certainly penniless) after Donald’s death, I wasn’t surprised she remarried so quickly. What I did wonder was why she had moved her family to Dundee.

Work? And perhaps a place to stay

In the nineteenth century, Dundee was one of the most important industrial centres in Scotland. The textile industry was central to the city, with both linen and jute weaving.

It seemed possible that Jane moved there after her husband’s death in order to look for work (for herself and her older daughters) in the jute mills. Checking the census records, I also found that Jane had been born in Dundee, so even more likely, she was returning to a place where she may have had family members who could help support her, if not financially, at least emotionally.

Jane’s early life

Jane’s marriage records gave her parents’ names as Peter Morrison and Betsy Philips. Peter’s occupation was shown as ‘weaver’, and both parents were deceased at the time of her first marriage in 1861. Whether she had siblings, and other family members in Dundee, I didn’t know.

I searched Scotland’s People for a birth record for Jane Morrison. When she married Donald Wallace, her age was given as 22 which would have meant she was born around 1839-40. The ages she gave on later census returns would have put her birth around 1844, so I searched the records for the years 1835-1845. I also searched the whole county of which Dundee is part, and allowed for quite broad variation in her surname (even searching on her mother’s maiden name) – but with no success, so I broadened the search to include all of Scotland. Strange as it may seem, I have yet to find a birth record for a child born in the right time period to Peter Morrison and Betsy/Elizabeth Philips/Morrison – let alone one called Jane.

Returning to census records, I found that in 1861 Jane was living as a domestic servant for the Lion family in Moneydie, Perthshire. Her place of birth is (as on other census returns) shown as Dundee. Donald Wallace is also listed on the same census record as a ploughman at the Lion farm. Jane’s age was given then as 20; Donald’s as 28. Moneydie is a village in Perthshire; about 30 miles from Dundee, and also about 30 miles from Donald’s birthplace of Kirkmichael, Perth.

I’ve tried to find Jane in the 1951 census, but this is proving difficult because I don’t know where she might have been living. If she was around 20 in 1861, it is reasonable to assume she was a child in 1851 and living with family. However, I have found no records for a family comprising Peter Morrison, Betsy Philips and Jane Morrison – or even one of the parents and Jane.

It is of course possible that Jane’s parents died before 1851 and she was living elsewhere, but with the information I currently have, there is no way to really know that.

I could search death records for people called Peter Morrison and Betsy Philips/Morrison, but according to Scotland’s People, there are 19 OPR (Old Parish Register) death records for men called Peter Morrison (exact spelling) between 1835 (my earliest guesstimate of Jane’s birth) and 1854 (when statutory records were introduced); plus a further 34 Peter Morrisons in the statutory records for 1855-1861 (when Jane married).

On the other hand, for the same period, there are no OPR (Old Parish Register) death records for women called Betsy Philips, but five for women called Elizabeth Philips, 43 for Elizabeth or Betsy Morrison and 106 statutory records for Elizabeths and Betsys Morrisons or Philips.

And that’s without allowing for any misspelling or variation on the names.

With so many possible matches, I’d need to spend a fortune on Scotland’s People credits even trying to identify my ancestors.

So I am left knowing only a little more about Jane Morrison than I did at the beginning. My next step is to follow the trail of her children to see if this can shed any light or provide clues.

A postscript

One of the first things I noticed looking at the 1871 and 1881 census records was that James Wallace, age 2 in 1871 did not appear on the 1881 census alongside his sisters.

James Wallace died in Dundee on 5 February 1873 – barely a year after his father’s death. He was aged 4 years one month. The cause of death was croup – a respiratory infection.

Another postscript, of sorts

I began this post by describing Jane Morrison as a shadowy figure, and I end it feeling much the same. I don’t know when or where she was born, or when and where she died. I do know that she was orphaned before she married – possibly when she was still a child. She buried a husband and son within 13 months, during which time she also probably became homeless and moved with her children to Dundee. She married an older man, bore another five children and was widowed for a second time in her 50s.

To us, living in the early 21st century, remarrying so soon after a spouse’s death may seem somewhat heartless, but for Jane Morrison, there may have been few other choices. I wonder then if her second marriage was a happy one? Was John Balsillie a good step-father to her children? Did the couple care for, and perhaps love one another?

I can never know these things.

I do however know that my 2x great grandmother Isabella Wallace – who was seven when her mother married John Balsillie – gave two of her daughters Balsillie as a middle name. Whether that was a mark of some respect for her step-father I don’t know, but I’d like to think so.

Treasures from the past

Some of my treasured family photos; a few are definitely the worse for wear. Photo: Su Leslie, 2014

Some of my treasured family photos; a few are definitely the worse for wear. Photo: Su Leslie, 2014

If my house was on fire and I knew the Big T, the boy-child and the cats were safe, I think the only thing I’d try to rescue is my much-treasured collection of family photos.

In these faces live my history – and perhaps wisps of my future. I see my nose and cheekbones, my son’s hair, eyes and his half-smile (one of those omg moments). I also see our temper, stubbornness and our shared sense of humour. These are the men and women whose genes – and experiences – helped shape the woman that I am, and the man my son is becoming.

These photos are also one of the main reasons I began this journey to research and document my family history. More precisely, this is the photo that began it all.

Elizabeth Cruden (nee Brown), Alexander Cruden, David Ramsay, Margaret Ramsay (nee Cruden), Isabella Cruden (nee Wallace).

Elizabeth Brown, Alexander Cruden, David Ramsay, Margaret Cruden and Isabella Wallace. Photo taken around 1933-34

My mother gave me this quite a few years ago and it sat in a box with other “bits and pieces.” It was only when the Big T and I renovated our house and finally had the wall we’d always wanted for a “family photo gallery” that this one was dug out and framed. That’s when I realised I could only identify three of the people in the photo; my grandmother, Margaret Cruden, her son David Ramsay, and her father Alexander Cruden.

Looking up to the ancestors. Photo: Su Leslie, 2013

Looking up to the ancestors. Photo: Su Leslie, 2013

A quick phone call to my mum told me that the other two – older – women were Alexander Cruden’s mother and grandmother. It was an odd moment.  I knew that my grandmother was born in 1908, so I figured that her grandmother had to be at least 40 years older than her, and that the very old lady in the photo was probably at least 20 years older again. Suddenly, I was catapulted back in to the middle of the nineteenth century and I wanted to know about these people.

I’ve written quite a lot before about my grandmother (Fearless Females: Margaret Crudenand Not a kiss, but another celebration of marriage) and great grandfather (On Growing Old Together, On trying to put flesh on the ancestors’ bones) but next to nothing about the other women in that treasured image.

So here is what I know

The woman on the far right is Isabella Simpson Wallace. She was born on 2 May 1866 in St Madoes, Perthshire, the third child of Donald Wallace and Jane Morrison. Donald was an agricultural labourer, originally from Kirkmichael, Perthshire (Fade to black (and white)). Jane had been born in Dundee, but at the time of her marriage she was a domestic servant to the Lion family of Herverd Farm, Moneydie, Perthshire – where Donald Wallace was also employed.

In 1869, a fourth child, James was born and in 1872, Donald Wallace died – aged only 42 leaving his widow pregnant with a fifth child, Christina.

It seems that Jane took her children back to Dundee, and in 1873 married John Balsillie and bore him five children.

The 1881 census shows the family living at Pitfour Street, Dundee. Isabella, age 14 is working as a sheeting weaver, along with her two older sisters Margaret and Ann.

In 1886 Isabella married Stewart Cameron Cruden in Dundee. Together they had seven children – Jean, Alexander (my great grandfather), Betsy, Elizabeth, Isabella, Mary and Stewart. The family moved about quite a bit – leaving Dundee sometime after the 1891 census for the first of several addresses in Fife. By 1911, they had settled in Wemyss where Stewart snr. worked as a coal miner. I don’t know exactly how long they lived there – but I do know that in the 1920s Stewart, Isabella and their younger son Stewart jr. emigrated to the United States. They appear to have all travelled separately, and I have only been able to find passenger records for Isabella (in December 1924), but all three appear in the 1930 US census living 34/155 West Third Street, Bayonne City, Hudson, NJ. Isabella returned to Scotland in October 1932. Both Stewarts obviously returned to the UK at some point; the elder died in Kirkcaldy, Fife on 9 January 1934, while the younger Stewart was killed during WWII when the ship he was aboard sank in the Barents Sea with the loss of all but three crew (The fate of HMT Shera: “Closed until 1972”)

I know that two of Isabella’s daughters – Elizabeth and Isabella – also emigrated to the United States, and seem to have stayed there. Betsy and my great-grandfather lived out their lives in Fife, while I recently discovered that Mary died in 1921, aged 19, of eclampsia, a few hours after giving birth to an illigitimate child (When the truth contradicts the “family folklore”). I am currently waiting to see if the wonderful people at the Lothian Health Services Archive (Family mystery about to be solved) can gain access to the child’s birth record so that I can find out whether Mary’s baby survived and what happened to him or her.

Last but not least …

My mum had told me that she was named after the old lady in the photo. She says that she remembers visiting her great, great, gran as a child, and that that this women had witnessed the aftermath of the Tay Bridge Disaster which occurred on 28 December 1879.

As I’d been told that the photo above was of “five generations”, I assumed initially that the old lady was Isabella’s mother – Jane Morrison. The problem with this is that my mother’s name is Elizabeth, so my assumption immediately seemed unlikely. I haven’t been able to find any record of Jane Morrison’s death, so it is possible that she actually is the old lady and that my mother is mistaken about it being the woman she was named after. However, it seemed just as likely that the woman might be Isabella’s mother-in-law, so I began looking at the records for Stewart Cruden’s father – Alexander Cruden.

And there I hit pay-dirt. Elizabeth Brown married Alexander Cruden in 1892, when he was fifty two and she was 41. Elizabeth was a spinster and prior to their marriage, was Alexander’s housekeeper.However, while it was Elizabeth’s first marriage, it was Alexander’s third and although the couple had one child together – George Alexander- born in 1894, Elizabeth was the step-, rather than biological mother of Stewart Cruden.

I suppose if I were more interested in lineage than history, this might matter. It might somehow “devalue” my five generations photograph. But of course it doesn’t! Elizabeth Brown joined my family by marriage; her son is my second great, grand uncle, and most importantly, she must have been much loved for my mother to be given her name.

I’ve talked a lot about the concept of whanau  – a Maori term that encompasses all those with whom we feel kinship. I feel kinship with Elizabeth Brown, and I treasure my photo of her.

This post was written for the Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge: treasure. Here are some other bloggers’ treasures:

http://mrscarmichael.wordpress.com/2014/02/16/weekly-photo-challenge-treasure/

http://windagainstcurrent.com/2014/02/18/weekly-photo-challenge-treasure/

http://grahy.fr/2014/02/18/weekly-photo-challenge-treasure/

http://travelswithjaye.com/2014/02/19/weekly-photo-challenge-treasure/

http://priorhouse.wordpress.com/2014/02/19/weekly-photo-challenge-treasure/

http://seediving.wordpress.com/2014/02/19/treasure-in-a-drought/

http://inigobautista.wordpress.com/2014/02/19/weekly-photo-challenge-treasure-2/

http://dswalkerauthor.com/2014/02/18/weekly-photo-challenge-treasure-highly-valued/

http://followyournose.me/2014/02/18/treasure-two/

http://bmenees.wordpress.com/2014/02/18/weekly-photo-challenge-treasure/

http://lindylecoq.wordpress.com/2014/02/18/first-date-weekly-photo-challenge-treasure/

http://acidfreepulp.com/2014/02/18/weekly-photo-challenge-treasure/

http://hoardercomesclean.wordpress.com/2014/02/18/quilts-that-matter-and-the-weekly-photo-challenge-treasure/

http://jennsmidlifecrisis.wordpress.com/2014/02/18/weekly-photo-challenge-treasure/

http://nelabligh.com/2014/02/18/weekly-photo-challenge-treasure/

http://leeannewalker1.wordpress.com/2014/02/18/weekly-photo-challenge-treasure-not-trash/

http://mightwar.com/2014/02/18/treasure/

http://reservedlove.wordpress.com/2014/02/17/weekly-photo-challenge-treasure/

http://svetlanagrobman.wordpress.com/2014/02/17/weekly-photo-challenge-treasure/

http://maverickmist.wordpress.com/2014/02/17/treasure/

http://graphicrealestate.wordpress.com/2014/02/16/weekly-photo-challenge-treasure/

http://shmamaland.com/2014/02/16/weekly-photo-challenge-treasure/

http://ordibild.com/2014/02/16/wpc-treasure-love/

http://makinglifesparkle.wordpress.com/2014/02/16/weekly-photo-challenge-treasure/

http://photobyjohnbo.wordpress.com/2014/02/16/weekly-photo-challenge-treasure/

http://humptydumptyonawall.wordpress.com/2014/02/16/weekly-photo-challenge-treasure/

Kirkcaldy Museum potteries exhibits: another stop on the UK roadtrip

I’ve been researching my Leslie family roots a bit, and discovered that my great grandfather David Leslie, worked as a kilnsman in one of Kirkcaldy’s potteries.

Bowl made by David Methven & Sons, Kirkcaldy. Photo credit: Scottish Pottery Society

It seems that most of my ancestors were working class – with many being involved in the flax and jute weaving industries, or working in Fife’s coal mines.

I knew vaguely that Kirkcaldy had potteries – my Cruden great grandparents lived in Pottery Street when I was a child (although at the time, I associated the name with pottering around – the way old people do) – but I didn’t realise until yesterday that Kirkcaldy was quite an important centre in the Scottish ceramics industry.

According to an extract from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical* (which has been scanned and is available online), in the 1880s, the potteries employed around 500 workers.  This is a relatively small number, compared to the weaving, coal and iron industries, but the town still sustained four separate potteries.

It’s likely that my great grandfather would have started work in the 1880s, probably when he turned 14. All subsequent records for him (marriage, census, death certificate) give his occupation as Kilnsman.

I don’t know which of the potteries he worked in, although I do know that the family lived around Links Street, at the southern end of town. The largest pottery was David Methven and Sons (Kirkcaldy Pottery) in Links Street, while the other three potteries were located around Dysart and Sinclairtown. It would make sense that he lived close to work (they rented their home so there were fewer barriers to moving), so I’m guessing he probably worked for Methven & Sons..

Aerial photo of Kirkcaldy, including David Methven & Sons pottery Photo from Britain from Above. http://www.britainfromabove.org.uk/image/spw027213

The Kirkcaldy Museum has exhibits relating to the potteries including photographs, so this is definitely somewhere to visit while I’m in the UK!

* Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885.

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

Remembering Emily

Flowers for the grave of Emily Keeling; shot to death in Auckland in 1886..

Flowers for the grave of Emily Keeling; shot to death in Auckland in 1886..

Well, it took me a the best part of a week to get back to Symonds Street Cemetary, but Emily’s grave now has flowers. They’re fabric, rather than “real” because I figured they will last longer (and because it’s impossible to buy fresh flowers in that neighbourhood on a Saturday afternoon), but I noticed that when I was there, a few more graves also had flowers laid on them. The cemetary is being tidied up by  a group serving community service sentences, and it looked a lot less overgrown than on my last visit. The group’s supervisor told me a few people had been in to bring flowers while they were there, so it’s nice to know that those long-dead Aucklanders are not totally forgotten.