19. William Robertson: Little Boy Lost

In every family tree, I believe themes can begin to appear. Many a time it is with names being passed from one generation to the next, sometimes it is jobs, perhaps an involvement in the armed forces. All of these are true for my tree. My tree is full of James Russell’s who were named after their fathers and John Brown’s after their grandfathers. Heck, half of Daddy Weddell’s children named their own children after their siblings, leaving me with an entire generation of Frederick’s, John’s and George’s. Just for the record, I absolutely appreciate the sentiment behind naming your child after a parent or your sibling, but for a genealogist it can be very confusing determining between different children when their parents share the same name, especially when there’s 20 of them!

One theme that my tree has is adoption. I know that one of Daddy Weddell’s sons adopted 2 young brothers into his family. I will tell their story another time. Going the opposite way, there is Samuel Carruthers, who we have met already, and 2 children on the Weddell line. One whose story shook me was William Robertson.

William’s mother was Agnes, my granny’s older sister. She was married with 4 children when her husband went into action during WWII. My granny, a young girl at the time, recalls that Agnes wasn’t always happy, perhaps struggling with her husbands absence. While her husband was away, she met and fell for a Greek soldier who was based nearby. Granny remembers the soldier fondly. He was a nice man who treated Agnes and her family well. By the time the soldier was due to return to Greece, she was pregnant. He begged her to go with him but she couldn’t go. She was still married and besides, she had 4 other children to consider. Unable to stay, the Greek soldier returned home. I don’t know at what point Agnes’s husband returned but he was understandably furious when he learned of William’s existence. Agnes had given him her married surname with the hope that her husband would agree to raise him or allow him to be raised as one of his own but it was not to be. He demanded the child was gone. When William was around a year old, he was taken from the house for the last time. My granny, a very young girl, vividly remembers the day. Agnes was utterly distraught, crying for her son. Although Agnes and her husband did have another daughter after that, her lost son was never forgotten.

When I learned about William, I found myself having a moral struggle. On one hand, I can understand her husband’s anger and upset. Even if the boy had his name, he wasn’t his child. On the other hand, Agnes faced an impossible decision. While I can’t condone her behaviour in her husband’s absence, I cannot imagine the struggle she must have gone through. How was she to choose? At the side of his birth record entry is the correction that I hoped I’d never see: adopted. Of all the things somebody wants to find in their family, discovering a person who was not allowed to stay in the family is not one of them.

Dear William, I sincerely hope that you went on to live a happy, healthy life with a family that adored you just as much as your mother did. Your mother really did try to make the best of her situation but her love wasn’t enough to keep you with her and your siblings. As heartbroken as I am learning your story, your mother’s heartbreak must’ve been immeasurably more. Please know that even though you became part of another family, you are still very much part of our family tree. Love, your cousin.

A Little Reflection

I am constantly reminded that when researching something, anything at all, it is always worth pausing every once in a while to check your notes, review your work and take a breath. So here I am, taking a breath.

I have always considered my family to be quite small. Well, that at least this generation of relatives is small. What would perhaps be a more accurate description is my family isn’t always very close. Being relationally or geographically far away has always made me feel that I have a small family. By comparison, my friend sees every member of her family at least weekly and always has done. As a result, her family is close in both senses so she always feel surrounded by family. I started this whole project (is it a project?) knowing what I thought was a handful of people. My dad, my mum, his brother, her 3 siblings, their spouses, their kids, my grannies, each of my granny’s brothers…that was kind of it. I knew few stories, I knew little of the generations before me, I knew not where my own roots lay. While I still haven’t decided where my roots are geographically, I definitely feel more rooted in my family, more connected. My looking at the family tree has sparked lots of conversations, stirred many memories and reminded me that I am very much part of my family tree. My little leaf matters no more and no less than every other leaf on the ever-growing tree.

In my family research, I have met ancestors past and relatives living. I recently made contact with another great-granddaughter of Daddy Weddell. Even in the few emails we have exchanged, I can see that we could fill in some gaps for each other’s family stories. I have seen photographs I never knew of and had previously not imagined would actually exist. I have learned of various struggles. I have met more soldiers than I thought existed in my family. I have discovered a few musicians. That made me pretty pleased! Neither of my parents are particularly musical, neither play any instruments or anything, so to find a few musicians made me feel like I had company. Apparently when Doreen gave me a little keyboard as a gift, I would work out how to play tunes properly, unlike most children who are happy to just bash keys in any random order. That desire to play led to lessons which led to a lifelong skill I couldn’t be more grateful to have. My great-grandmother was also a pianist but couldn’t read music. She just sat down and played. I really love that.

In the last 20 months or so, I have added around 350 new names to my family tree. I have found their birth, marriage and death records, I have seen their lives in snapshots on every census. I have found war records and learned what those brave men looked like. I have learned of all of their fates and cried. I have learned that nobody moved far from their parents! On both side of my tree, children seemed to stay within a mile or so of their parents. On mum’s side, Daddy Weddell’s grown children stayed in the same square and raised their own families alongside their younger siblings. In the last 150 years, the current generation is the furthest geographically that my family have been from each other. I suppose that’s also a sign of the times. These days, travel is easy, universities are everywhere and technology allows people to stay in constant contact. For me, the most exciting find is the photographs. I can follow each line back some way and learn where I get my physical features. All have fair hair (nobody’s hair can be described as darker than mousy brown with exception of my mum), the Rae’s in particular have very rosy cheeks, nobody seemed to be very tall so that would all explain why with all the good will and vegetables in the world, I was never going to be big and strong when I grew up. I’m 5’3 (ish) with mousy blond hair and rosy cheeks which seem to deceive all bar tenders into thinking that I’m under 21 years of age.

In this pause for breath, I can appreciate all the new leaves on my tree, but I can appreciate my own little leaf. I have followed my own path, as many before me have, and am pretty happy with where it has led me so far. Each leaf tells a different story and I have my own story. Some leaves tell stories of loss, some of bravery, some of adoption, some of family heartbreak but they all tell the story of my family. It would so easy to be overwhelmed with the amount of people in my tree and say “I’m just a tiny leaf here, what do I matter?” but I am certain that I matter. I am a tiny leaf but so is everybody else. My leaves make up my tree and I am proud to be a part of mine.

18. Agnes Katrine Hardie: A Brilliant Baker

You may remember I wrote recently about a family reunion for Carruthers family. Everybody who attended is a descendant of Samuel Carruthers and his wife, Agnes.

Agnes was born in Canonbie in 1888 to David Hardie and Margaret Linton. Her maiden name of Hardie is still present in today’s generations of the family, both in first names and middle names. Censuses suggest that she was the eldest of four sisters. I know that at some point she lived in England, although I’m not sure if she went alone or with her family. I only know she was there because she met and married Samuel there. I can only assume she was closest with her youngest sister as she named her first daughter, my great-grandmother Henrietta, after her. Samuel and Agnes moved their family back to Kirkcudbrightshire about 1921 where they remained until each of their deaths.

Until this year’s family reunion, I had seen a grand total of one photograph of Agnes. This one, in fact:

Rae 4 generations

It’s not often you get the opportunity to have four generations of the same family in one place. I have no idea who took this picture but I’m incredibly glad they did. My dad, the goofy kid in the front, remembered this picture being taken and is proud to have it in his possession. His mother Doreen sits on the left, Doreen’s mother Henrietta is on the right and sat in the armchair is Henrietta’s mother Agnes. At the reunion, my granny’s cousin produced a very old photo album. When I say old, I mean OLD. The album had a label stating its’ owner as William Linton (Agnes’ uncle) and he compiled the album 12th September 1883. And this original album survived and is still in our family! I was delighted to see more pictures of Agnes but also see Samuel for the first time.

Agnes and Hardie Carruthers

Another gem I discovered was that Agnes was a keen baker. It had occurred to me recently that I knew of no family recipes. You know that way when some people cook or bake they add an extra ingredient or know of little tips or baking hints because that’s the way their granny used to do it? Well, I didn’t have that. I asked if anybody knew of any family recipes or even favourite foods. “I’m sure there’s something written somewhere. I’ll have a look and get back to you.” Bless her socks, my granny’s cousin not only looked, she sent me original recipe cards from Agnes’ recipe box. Knowing how into the genealogy process I am, she knew I’d appreciate seeing the original copies. The handwriting is beautiful and I was indeed thrilled to have them. I have copied them and am sending them back to her, as I like the idea of keeping the cards altogether. My friend helped me bake some of the recipes last week. The everyday cake was more loaf-like than I had expected though certainly was delicious, but my favourite was her shortbread recipe. I had no idea that three ingredients could make something so tasty! I will proudly use her recipe from now on.

17. Archibald Russell: A Kind Comic

Born in 1927, Archibald Russell was the youngest child of James Cameron Russell and Jane Bell Johnston. Remember I said my family just don’t move very far? Archie grew up in the Gorgie area of Edinburgh – less than a mile from where I live now – until he married Irene Weddell in 1953. The newlyweds moved to the Fountainbridge area – about 500 yards from where I live now. Archie and Irene had four children in all, including my mum. Archie died in 1988 after a period of ill health.

I was still a toddler when Archie died but I remember his smile. His comfy armchair sat in the corner of the living room and when my cousin and I visited he would pull it away from the wall slightly so we could run in circles around it. The pictures that were displayed around the house of Archie all showed him with his trademark smile and wild curls. I easily identified him in his childhood pictures by his unruly ginger curls, especially against his brother’s neatly flattened hair. Past those pictures, I felt I really didn’t know Archie at all so I recently began to ask people what he was like.

I learned that Archie was too young to serve in World War II but was among of the first to be called for service after the war had ended. Another military background that I knew nothing about. He served in many places abroad, including France and Egypt. Archie became very close friends with many of his fellow comrades and my granny was able to show me many, many photos of his time with them, both at home and while serving abroad. While serving in Ismailia, he adopted a stray dog that had found itself in their base. He took care of it and loved it so much that he planned to somehow bring it home with him at the end of his tour. His superior officer had other ideas and shot the poor thing while Archie was off base one day. He was heartbroken when he learned of his companion’s fate.

Archie's dog

I asked my aunt what she could tell me about her dad and she told me that he used to cause great embarrassment, mostly with his fashion choices. This made me laugh a lot, but then I wasn’t his daughter so I suppose it would. Apparently he wore his kilt all the time. Like, all the time. Around the house, to work on his daughter’s car, all the time. (The kilt, by the way, is still worn by my cousin on special occasions which I’m sure Archie would be pleased about.) When he wasn’t wearing the kilt, he wore gardening trousers. I imagine they were ill-fitting only because she also said he tied them at the waist with string. Said trousers would be worn to do the shopping, therefore causing his children further public embarrassment. She also mentioned a furry winter hat, like the kind you often see in Russia, which begs the question: what did he wear the hat with – the kilt or the gardening trousers?!

Archie liked going to the pub with the boys but at home he drank whisky. It must have been good whisky as he kept it in a crystal decanter. I quite like my whisky too but mine stays in the bottle! Anyway, this whisky was certainly not for sharing. When his own brother came to visit he would hide the good whisky and put cheap stuff in the decanter. Who knows if his brother enjoyed whisky enough to know the difference, but I kind of love the sentiment! It would be like hiding the really good biscuits when you had visitors round and serving plain digestives instead. Here, that’s not a bad idea…

I really wish I could have known Archie for longer. He sounds like a cheeky chap with a wicked sense of humour, and I would have loved to have enjoyed a whisky with him. The good whisky, mind you.

 

16. Samuel Harding Carruthers: The Common Link

A few years ago, my paternal line lost several much loved members within a short space of time. My granny’s cousin stated at the third funeral that the family had seen more of each other that year than they had in some time but was heartbroken that it had taken a tragedy to get us all together. That in mind, she arranged the first annual get-together for that line of the family, a tradition which will be continued this weekend. The common ancestor for this particular line of ancestry is Samuel Carruthers.

Samuel was born in Aspatria, Cumberland in 1885 to Jane Carruthers. The next document Samuel can be found on is the 1891 England census where Samuel is listed as ‘adopted son’, age 5, and living with an Isaac and Mary McVittie and their 10 year old daughter in another Cumberland village. Samuel married Scottish-born Agnes Hardie in 1909 and the pair began to grow their family starting with my great-grandmother Henrietta. Three more children joined the family before they moved over the border to an area near Gretna, where one more was born. I’m not sure why they moved but I do know that Samuel worked in a munitions factory in the township where they lived during WWI. That period aside, Samuel spent his life as a gamekeeper. Samuel died in 1950 aged 65. His youngest son Hardie, my great-great uncle is 92 years old and will be joining the traditional annual Carruthers gathering this weekend.

While I know bits and pieces and Samuel, I still feel that I don’t really know him at all. Even his birth isn’t exactly clear. No father is listed on his birth certificate, however I am convinced that his middle name of Harding was his mother’s way of getting his father’s name in their somewhere. Next up is that census. I’m pleased to see that Samuel is living in a household but I want to know where Jane is. English birth records don’t tend to give away much information so I don’t know where to start looking for Jane. How old was she when Samuel was born? What happened to her after Samuel was born? Did Samuel always live with the McVittie’s? Was he officially adopted or was it more of an informal arrangement? I sort of wonder if I will ever know but that will not stop me from trying to find out.

15. John Brown: The Picture of a Family Man

Yes, another John Brown. This John Brown is the father of the last one I wrote about and by no means the last John Brown that features in my family tree. Just for reference, there were five John Brown’s in my tree at last count.

This John Brown was born in 1852 to Thomas Brown and Marion Denniston. I think he was the eldest son of what would eventually be 12 children. John married Jessie Kirkpatrick in 1876 with their first son Andrew (my great-great grandfather) arriving just a few months later. For most of his working life, John worked for the Railway Company as a porter.

John Brown and family

Jessie and John (front centre) with their children Back L-R: Walter, John, Andrew, David, Thomas, James Front L-R: Mary, Marion, Jenny Margaret

I feel very lucky that I have a photograph of John and his family. I’m not sure exactly when the picture was taken but I can guess at maybe just before World War I, given the apparent ages of the children. Perhaps it was taken because of World War I given that at least two of the sons went to war. Either way, I am incredibly pleased that this picture not only exists but that copies have reached as far as my generation of the family. I was recently in touch with Thomas’ granddaughter and she also had a copy of this picture. Ah, the wonders of modern photography and technology! Nowadays we take photos with such ease and with very little printing cost. Back then I’m sure it would have cost the family a fair sum to have their photograph taken at a professional studio. I already know what happened to Andrew, young John and Thomas (thanks to his granddaughter) and I would quite like to find out what became of the rest of the children. Whatever John’s reasons for having this photograph taken, it gives us future generations a rare gift: seeing an entire family in one picture.

100 Years On: Their Name Liveth

Exactly 100 years ago, Britain declared its involvement in World War I. Today across Britain and many other parts of the world, people’s attention is being drawn to the anniversary. Not to celebrate, far from it. We are reminded that our ancestors fought on our behalf 100 years ago, millions of them losing their lives in the process, to protect their country.

I lived the first 27 years of my life thinking that nobody in my family had any military involvement, whether it was part of one of the World Wars or otherwise. The more ancestors I meet, the more soldiers come out of the woodwork. On my maternal side of the tree, there is a whole line of military men that nobody knew about. Breaking from my normal format, today I want to remember those who served, fought and died in The Great War. I decided after I discovered my first family soldier that any soldier I found in the future should be researched and remembered properly, whether they were a direct ancestor or not. I feel an odd connection to them. I did not know these men personally, yet I feel a duty to ensure their bravery is not forgotten.

 

Pte Alexander Lennie Russell

Died 10th October 1915. I have not managed to find records for his service as yet, suggesting that they were possibly among those lost in a fire in WWII. What I do know is that Alexander was James’ (below) elder brother. Alexander was killed in action in France.

James Cameron Russell

James lived with his wife in Edinburgh when war broke out. I am lucky that his records have survived so I was able to find some personal information on him, including his profession, his address and notes of a tattoo he had on his arm. James signed up for the Royal Army Medical Corps. Not long after enlisting, his infant son died. Six months later, James’ brother Alexander was killed in action. I cannot imagine going through such a huge period of personal loss and then still going out to fight. Wherever he served, he survived and thank goodness he did. As his direct ancestor, I simply wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t come home safely.

Pte John Brown

John was married with children when the war began. He had to leave his family behind as he fought in France, where he ultimately lost his life. There is some confusion as to where he is buried, however I do know that his name is listed on a  memorial plaque in a war cemetery in France.

Pte William McCoskry Rae

Died 14th December 1918 of war wounds. I’ve written about William before as I hold a special place for him. I don’t know when he was injured, therefore how long he suffered before succumbing to his injuries. I don’t even know if he fought abroad or fought at home. I do know that William died in a Military Hospital in England where he was presumable being cared for.

Robert John Rae

The more I learn about Robert, the more pride I feel for him. We already know that Robert survived the war as he went on to marry, have several children (including my grandfather) and become a well-loved member of the community. What I didn’t realise until his daughter recently told me was that he had also fought in the war. Being a ploughman, Robert’s job was deemed important enough for him to be allowed to stay to continue work, should he wish to apply for exemption. Robert did not want to work it would seem as he did not apply for exemption, opting to enlist instead. Here was a man with the opportunity to work the land so he could provide food for his nation and he chose to protect his nation instead. In his country’s moment of real need, he stood forward to be counted. Robert returned home and lived a long and happy life with his family, which is nothing less than any soldier deserves.

 

The quote that is being repeated over and over today is by Sir Edward Grey, who was the Foreign Secretary at the time. When Britain confirmed their involvement in the War, he said “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” For three of my five soldiers that was sadly true. I read this article today and felt more determined than ever that my soldiers would not be forgotten. So I join in with many others in remembrance. My home is dark, no lamp is lit. The only light is  a single candle flame that burns for all those who fought, all who died, all who endured, all who saw sights and felt fear like no person ever should in order to protect their country, and especially for my brave soldiers. One hundred years on and their names indeed liveth.

14. Robert John Rae: A Prize-winning Ploughman

Today was a truly privileged day which was all about getting to know my great-grandfather, Robert John Rae.

Robert was the fourth child of Robert Rae and his wife, Margaret McCoskry. Robert grew up in Castle Douglas and attended nearby Kelton Church with his family. He married another faithful church-goer, Margaret McKechnie, in 1920. Robert followed in his father’s footsteps and became a ploughman. He was such a good ploughman that he won many medals in ploughing competitions. No, I had no idea that such competitions existed either, but Robert apparently excelled in them and my great-aunt has his medals to prove it. Robert and Margaret had nine children in all, including my grandpa James and the little twins who sadly died in infancy. Robert worked for around 18 years on the Threave Estate, which was owned by Major Gordon and later by National Trust Scotland.

This morning a very kind lady opened up Kelton Church for me and helped me look through their baptism and birth records, the communion book and the marriage banns proclamations book to find him and his family. It thrills the amateur genealogist in me that I was able to see original records with my family’s names in them. I was able to see that Robert, Margaret and several of their children regularly attended church and took part in communion. After lunch, my mum and I were treated to a private tour of the beautiful house on the Threave Gardens estate where Robert worked. As a ploughman, he would almost certainly never have been allowed into the main house. Perhaps in the servants rooms downstairs but upstairs among all the fine furniture and well-groomed rich folk? Goodness, no! However, I was given special permission to take an original ledger book off display and look through it to find Robert’s name along with his wages and allowances. We were then taken to the cottage where the family stayed throughout his career at the estate. While we were unable to go inside (the estate still owns it but it is occupied by another family), I loved seeing the cottage. Its’ walls are painted crisp white, it has glorious views across the estate and nearby farms, and it is placed right beside the land that Robert would have worked on, come rain or shine.

Robert died very suddenly in 1958 after falling ill while cutting hedges on the estate. Two regional newspapers described his death as “a sad occurrence” with one adding that Robert was “a well-known figure in the district”. By all accounts, it appears that Robert was a loved and loyal member of the local community.

There is still plenty that I don’t know about Robert so while I still search for more stories, by immersing myself in his surroundings today I feel like I know him a little better than I did this morning.

13. Margaret Porter McKechnie: A Rosy Rae

A couple of weeks ago, I met my great-aunt for the first time. I went with my dad and the entire visit was wonderful, not least of all because she is my grandpa’s last surviving sibling. I loved hearing the tales she had to tell over lunch at her favourite local restaurant and was thrilled to be shown family photographs when we went back to her house for afternoon tea. It was an opportunity I certainly didn’t take for granted. Sitting neatly on a side table was this photograph:

Meet Margaret Rae (neé McKechnie) and her family. Margaret is the woman in white, the children are hers and the woman in the other chair is her mother, Christina, my great-great-grandmother. In one photograph are three generations. Amazing. Among other things, the photo lets me see what physical family traits have survived through the generations. You’ll notice Margaret has very rosy cheeks? Yeah, I’ve got those though a little less pronounced as hers. Glasses seem to be a common occurrence on both sides of my family, particularly with the women. I wore glasses for 10 years when I was younger. I was quite pleased to see they were wearing glasses to be honest, because this was in the days before the National Health Service. This means that they not only needed glasses, they could afford to wear glasses. They also have reasonably fair hair. I was very blonde as a child before it grew slightly darker as my teenage years came to an end.

I might have been born several generations later but it would be safe to say that this apple is definitely related to this family tree.

12. James Cameron Russell: A Very Local Ancestor

I very quickly realised in my family research that my ancestors did not move very far. I’d like to illustrate my point and introduce my great-great grandfather James Cameron Russell.

James was born to Archibald and Helen Russell in 1861 and grew up around the Gorgie area of Edinburgh. He married Margaret Lennie and had 7 children, including a son named after himself who is my great-grandfather. As it stood on Sunday, that was just about all I knew about James.

For a while I have been attending (albeit quite intermittently) a local church around half a mile from where I live. It should probably be noted that my brain is not good at piecing information together, as you are about to discover. On Sunday just past, I visited said church’s evening service which they hold in their local café. They happened to be serving communion that evening so had out the traditional goblets and plates. It took me a good while to realise what the engraving on the goblet in front of me said. “Tynecastle Parish 1901″. (Tynecastle is in the Gorgie area). In 1901, I was almost certain that my Russell ancestors lived in the area so almost certainly would have been part of Tynecastle’s congregation. I asked somebody how the current church was related to Tynecastle Parish, which I knew did not exist anymore. In the late 1970’s, Tynecastle Parish merged with Cairns Memorial Church along the road, was renamed and continued to meet in the old Cairns Church building. Without even knowing it, this was the very church I had been visiting all this time. The lady I spoke with mentioned there was a book with details about Tynecastle church and that the new church housed the original war memorials from Tynecastle Parish. A quick Google search confirmed that James son is one of the fallen soldiers named in the memorial. The book apparently mentions an elder called James Russell. I’m yet to confirm if it is my James Russell but boy, wouldn’t that be simply amazing if it was! Either way, I was absolutely astounded that I had been in the right place at the right time to be literally faced with goblets my ancestors would have used over 100 years ago.

So you know how I said my ancestors didn’t ever move very far? Just over 100 years later, I live less than one mile away from where my ancestor lived, died and potentially held a prominent place in his church. If ever there was a situation that warranted the phrase ‘mind blown’, this might well be it.

 

Update: I saw the book that the church’s Elders sign when they are sworn in. There was indeed a James Russell on the very first page but the details didn’t add up so we have ruled him out as my ancestor for the moment. However, James’ grandson also called James Cameron Russell was in the book! That James is my great-uncle, my grandfather’s brother, and he was an Elder at the church for around seven years before he moved away from Edinburgh with his family. What’s that saying, ‘where one door closes another opens’? That is absolutely true, just a few pages on in fact!