Friday flip through the archives

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Originally posted as part of my 100 Days project. Kirkyard at Kirkmichael, Perthshire, Scotland. Resting place of James Wallace and Ann Cunnison. Image: Su Leslie, 2013

Reading Amy’s account of visiting her Seligman family members’ burial place in Santa Fe, (My Ancestral Town, Santa Fe, New Mexico in Brotmanblog: A Family Journey) made me think about a wet and cold afternoon I spent in a tiny churchyard in rural Perthshire, Scotland, looking for the resting place of my 3x great grandparents James Wallace and Ann Cunnison.

I originally wrote about this in a post called On Stilled Voices and Visualising Silence.

Yesterday my 100 days project word was ‘silence’ — and I have to say it was possibly the most challenging to date.

Partly that might be because I’m away from home, without access to my normal work tools and archives and reliant on my iPad. Partly it’s just because silence is something I find difficult to visually convey.

Eventually I realised that the most profound silence is not an absence of sound, but an absence of communication. Last year, on my trip to Scotland, I visited a number of cemeteries and kirkyards, looking for the headstones of ancestors. I found more than I’d expected and will always treasure those moments with those tangible symbols of my lineage.

But alone in those bleak, quiet places, I also felt the profound loss of lives stilled. I come from ordinary folk who don’t in general leave traces of themselves in recorded history. Once those who knew them stop sharing stories, their lives are silenced.

If I learned anything from my kirkyard visits, it is to speak to family members now; record their stories and share them with the next generations.

Once upon a time, I wouldn’t have seen the point in visiting places just because my ancestors had lived there. But as I have become more and more interested in my family history, I’ve realised the power of any tangible reminder (photographs, objects, places) of those long gone. I’ve learned to listen to those echoes of past lives, and to hear traces of my own voice there too.

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Chipping away at the wall: Jane Morrison – another elusive ancestor

The overgrown lawn can't compete with a day spent looking for ancestors. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015.

The lawn — no matter how overgrown and in need of mowing — can’t compete with a day spent looking for ancestors. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015.

The dry spell finally broke and yesterday was wet and very windy. A perfect day to stay inside (sorry lawn-mower, our date is off) and work on the enormous pile of family history puzzles, brick walls and apparent dead ends.

Jane Morrison, a 3x great grandmother, has been in my “more questions than answers” pile for too long, so seemed a good candidate for a bit more research.

Jane Morrison belongs to my Cruden family. Alexander Cruden, my mother’s maternal grandfather, was Jane’s grandson – the eldest son of her daughter Isabella Wallace.

I began my family history project by looking into the Cruden line, largely because my mother was very close to her granddad, and I really enjoy being able to share my findings with her. Writing about the family has also introduced me to new cousins on this side, and to reconnect with others I’ve been out of touch with for many years.

Jane is a fascinating character; twice married, twice widowed. Mother of eleven children – two of whom died in early childhood. Born in Scotland, she emigrated to the United States in her sixties and died in Detroit. Her name has been carried down the generations in granddaughters and great granddaughters on both sides of the Atlantic.

I know a lot about her life from 1861 – the year she married my 3x grandfather, Donald Wallace, through to 1901 – the last Scottish census in which she appears. I also have some records relating to her emigration to the United States, and recently found her death record. But Jane’s early life has consistently eluded me. And that’s the puzzle I set myself for the day.

Death record for Jane Morrison, 1914.

Death record for Jane Morrison, 1914.

Jane Morrison’s 1861 marriage record shows her age as 22, and her parent’s as Peter Morrison and Betsy Philips (both deceased).

As birth dates in old records are frequently unreliable (because people deliberately gave a different age, genuinely didn’t know, or through clerical errors), I cross-checked against census returns and the record of her second marriage, in 1875, to John Balsillie.

At her second marriage, Jane gave her age as 30 – about six years younger than she would have been if the first marriage record was accurate.

Given that Jane was a widow with four young children at the time of her second marriage, it wouldn’t be surprising if she shaved a few years off her age. Her first husband had been a farm labourer, and when he died in January 1872, Jane and the children lost not only a husband and father, but the tied cottage that was their home as well. Jane moved the family to Dundee (where census records show she had been born) sometime soon afterwards. I know the family was living in Dundee by February 1873 because Jane’s son James Wallace died then, and his death is recorded as occurring in Dundee.

Subsequent records, including her death certificate in 1914, show fairly consistent “ageing” from what was recorded on her second marriage.

Although in 19th century Scotland, the minimum age for marriage for girls was 12, it seems to have been quite uncommon for very young women of the working class and rural poor to marry until their twenties; usually after a period in which they had been “in service.”

What all of this means really, is that Jane Balsillie was probably born sometime between 1836 and 1846.

In the past, I’ve searched without success in both FamilySearch and Scotland’s People for births of people named Jane Morrison. I’d tried broadening the time-span, searching the whole county of which Dundee is part, allowing broad variation in her surname (and searched on her mother’s maiden name). I even broadened the search to include all of Scotland, and strange as it may seem, I could not find a birth record for any child born in the right time period to Peter Morrison and Betsy/Elizabeth Philips/Morrison – let alone one called Jane. I tried removing the parents’ first names from the search and still had no real success.

Ridiculously, I had never before checked the records of Catholic churches in Scotland. My family seems to have been staunch Presbyterians for so long that it simply hadn’t occurred to me that I might have Catholic ancestors (yes, the noise you hear is my palm slapping my forehead).

You know where this is heading, right?

I found a record in the Catholic Parish Registers for a child called Jane Morrison, born in 1842 to Michael Morrison and Elizabeth Philips. Jane appears to be the second child of this couple. They had a daughter, Catherine, born in Dundee in 1838, while in 1844 a third child, Patrick, was born, but this time in Perth.

As this is the closest I have so far come to finding any likely candidates for Jane’s family, I decided to investigate a bit further.

The 1841 census shows Michael, Elizabeth and Catharine Morrison living at Milnes East Wynd, Dundee, alongside 11 other people. I found this record on Scotland’s People, but also looked it up on the wonderful site FreeCen. While Scotland’s People provides original records, FreeCen is transcribed data – which is particularly useful when the handwriting on original documents is difficult to read. With FreeCen, it’s also possible to easily look at the records for adjacent properties. This gives both a flavour of the area and can often reveal extended families living close together. And of course, best of all, FreeCen is free.

The property where Michael and Elizabeth were living seems to be adjacent to a jute mill, where Michael – a weaver – almost certainly worked. Jute weaving was one of the principal industries in Dundee during the period, which is why many Irish migrants arrived in the city. Both this record and those of adjacent households show a large proportion of residents born in Ireland – including Michael and Elizabeth.

Morrison family, 1841 census. Screenshot from the wonderful FreeCen site.

Morrison family, 1841 census. Screenshot from the wonderful FreeCen site.

Sadly, here the trail goes cold. I cannot find Michael Morrison, Elizabeth/Betsy Morrison/Philips, Catherine, Jane or Patrick Morrison in the 1951 census. In the 1861 census I can only find Jane, and she was living in a farm household in rural Perthshire, working as a servant. Her soon-to-be husband, Donald Wallace is also listed in that household as a farm servant – so I guess I know how they met!

I have found a death record for a man called Michael Morrison in 1851. The record shows him as a weaver, born in Sligo, Ireland and his place of death is shown as Millars Pend, Scouring Burn – virtually the same address as that shown for the Morrison family in the 1841 census. While these suggest it might be the same Michael Morrison shown in the 1841 census, the age of the dead man is given as 51 – a discrepancy of 10 years, and the burial record is in a Presbyterian OPR – not a Catholic one.

I’ve gone around in circles with this one and I think it is yet another mystery that I’ll have to park until more records come online, or I find someone else who is approaching the problem from a different angle who might have information I don’t.

Frustrating yes; but a lot more fun than mowing the lawn.

Suffer the children … seeing the consequences of disease

Image: Su Leslie, 2014

Image: Su Leslie, 2014

 Helen Ramsay 1852-1857

While I was trying to decipher the cause of death recorded on the copy of Helen’s Ramsay’s death record, I found myself looking at the other entries on the page to see if they provided any clues to interpreting the handwriting.

What I discovered was really sad, and quite shocking.

There were three entries on the page and all for children who died of ‘Scarlatina’ – or scarlet fever.

The three were:

Christian Robertson aged 1 ¾; died 23 April 1857 at Abernethy. Daughter of David Robertson, salmon fisher and Margaret Robertson (nee Fotheringham).

James Anderson aged 10 ½ years; died 30 April 1857 at Pitcurran. Son of James Anderson, farm servant and Mary Roger.

Helen Ramsay aged 5; died 3 May 1857 at Glenfoot. Daughter of David Ramsay, corn merchant, and Helen Ramsay (nee Low).

Record of the death of Helen Ramsay, aged 5. 3 May 1857. Source: Scotland's People.

Record of the death of Helen Ramsay, aged 5. 3 May 1857. Source: Scotland’s People.

Abernethy, Glenfoot and Pitcurran are all within a few miles of each other and it seemed that there must have been an outbreak of the disease at the time. Naively, I assumed this would be newsworthy (as outbreaks of disease are now), and searched the British Newspaper Archive for more information. Nothing came up, so I rather lazily went back to Google and typed ‘scarlet fever perthshire 1857’.

Glenfoot, Abernethy, Pitcurran - just a few miles apart. Source: Google Maps

Glenfoot, Abernethy, Pitcurran – just a few miles apart. Source: Google Maps

The first hit was a thread in the RootsChat forum. It didn’t initially look interesting, but when I scrolled down I found Christian Robertson mentioned. It seems that baby Christian was not the only child in her family to succumb. Her five year old brother Hugh and sister Mary, aged 3, also died of Scarlet Fever in 1857.

I was already feeling sad to think of my ancestors’ mourning a child and wondering whether my 2x great grandfather John Ramsay – who would have been just three at the time his older sister died – had been ill and recovered or had managed to avoid the infection altogether. Realising that at least four other children had died around the same time – three from one family – has really brought home to me just how precarious life can be.

On stilled voices and visualising silence

Yesterday my 100 days project word was ‘silence’ — and I have to say it was possibly the most challenging to date.

Partly that might be because I’m away from home, without access to my normal work tools and archives and reliant on my iPad. Partly it’s just because silence is something I find difficult to visually convey.

Eventually I realised that the most profound silence is not an absence of sound, but an absence of communication. Last year, on my trip to Scotland, I visited a number of cemeteries and kirkyards, looking for the headstones of ancestors. I found more than I’d expected and will always treasure those moments with those tangible symbols of my lineage.

But alone in those bleak, quiet places, I also felt the profound loss of lives stilled. I come from ordinary folk who don’t in general leave traces of themselves in recorded history. Once those who knew them stop sharing stories, their lives are silenced.

If I learned anything from my kirkyard visits, it is to speak to family members now; record their stories and share them with the next generations.

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