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.



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”


Captain’s log: July 1867 “… I judged that they were the worse for liquor…”

Extract of Captain's Log, 11 July 1867.

Extract from the Captain’s Log; the ship Cherokee, 11 July 1867, Valparaiso, Chile.

Alcohol seems to have played a part in several branches of my family history. My mum’s grandfather ran a pub, while my father had great grandparents who were spirit merchants and a great, great grandfather who owned a brewery.

So far, they all seem to be fairly upstanding people; I certainly haven’t found any evidence to the contrary. However, I have recently found one ancestor whose relationship with alcohol was definitely less professional.

My great, great grandfather Rankine Gourlay was born in 1845; the seventh child of Thomas Gourlay – master tailor according to the 1851 census and Elizabeth Rankine. Elizabeth died in 1850, and within a year Thomas had married Agnes Berry, with whom he had another five children.

I know from the extract of his marriage to Mary Gerrard in 1866 that Rankine had joined the Merchant Navy – although I haven’t yet discovered when. I cannot find him in either the Scottish or English census records between 1851 and 1891, so I’m working on the assumption that he was at sea for most of those years (although he did father at least five children during those years).

On 11 July 1867, Rankine was aboard the Cherokee at Valparaiso Bay, in Chile, when the following report was made in the Ship’s Master’s log:

I was awoke with an unusual noise above my head on the deck as if someone stumbling. I got up to ascertain the cause, called the Anchor Watchman several times, but received no reply. I went forward to the Forecastle and judged by the speech of Rankine Gourlay and Joseph White that they were the worse for liquor. I then went aft and called the first and second officers and captain. I asked the mate if he had taken in any spirits as cago. He replied yes, 6 cases of brandy and 25 cases of wine. Sent them into the hold to see if any had been opened but they did not think the cargo had been disturbed. The first and second mates went forward to the forecastle bulkhead and heard Rankine Gourlay, David Sharp, Thomas Harper, John Jones, George Thomson and Joseph White all speaking some of them trying to keep the others quiet. Rankine Gourlay unable to turn to his work next morning through drink. And at 1pm Joseph White and Daniel Brown were fighting both by the worse for drink.

 The following day the Log carries on:

I sent the Second Mate into the hold to make a thorough search and to count the cases of wine and brandy which had been taken on at Valparaiso. He found one case of brandy broken open and one case of olive oil, and one case of the brandy we could not find.

A one thirty pm called all hands aft and asked them if any of them knew anything about the cases that were broken open the case of olive oil then laying on the skylight? with the lid loose on it. Rankine Gourlay then replied that he knew nothing about liquor, but I had not spoken about the contents of the cases and several of the crew said they had nothing to do with it. The remainder said nothing.

Friday August 9th 1867 at Paquica (also Chile).

Landed the last of our cargo this day but the case of brandy above alluded to has not turned up. Therefore it must have been taken by the ship’s crew as no other persons were employed in loading or discharging ships.

Robert Torrance, Master. A. Gilling, Mate; Allan Campbell, Second Mate.

It seems this was not an isolated incident. I have found a similar report from 1868, but have not managed to get a copy of it yet.

Crew list, Carleton. Sydney, 1885.

Crew list, Carleton. Sydney, 1885. Source: NSW Govt. Mariners’ Records http://mariners.records.nsw.gov.au/1885/08/021car.htm

I haven’t been able to find any documents relating to Rankine Gourlay for the years 1868-1885, when he seems to have become a ship’s cook. His name appears in the Manifest of the Carleton, on two voyages to Sydney, Australia – the first in April 1885, the second a year later.

I don’t know much about 19th century maritime history, but suspect that I will be learning a bit more in the coming months. I’d like to know what sort of ships the Cherokee and Carleton were and if possible, track some of Rankine’s voyages.

Crew list, Carleton. Sydney, 1886. Source: NSW Govt. Mariners' Records. http://mariners.records.nsw.gov.au/1886/08/016car.htm

Crew list, Carleton. Sydney, 1886. Source: NSW Govt. Mariners’ Records. http://mariners.records.nsw.gov.au/1886/08/016car.htm

I’m particularly interested in his trips to Australia and wonder if he ever made it as far as New Zealand.

The last years of Rankine Gourlay’s life are quite well documented. He appears in the 1891 census as an patient of the Fife and Kinross Lunatic Asylum, and in the 1901 census as an inmate of the Kirkcaldy CombinedPoorhouse – where he died on 23 July 1903.

The Fife Council Archive has the patient register from the Asylum which relates to Rankine Gourlay, and I believe that the Kirkcaldy Library has Minute Books for the Poorhouse. These two repositories are high on my list of places to go when I’m in the UK next month. I’m hoping not only to have more information to share, but also – by seeing hand-written, contemporary accounts of my ancestor’s life – to understand and know him a little better.

Catalogue listing: Fife Archives.

Catalogue listing: Fife Archives.