7. William Harper Rae: The Crown’s Captain

Tinker, tailor, soldier… I wrote about them the other day. Today is the turn of my sailor, William Harper Rae.

I say ‘sailor’, though William was actually a Captain. William was born in 1858 in the tiny Kirkcudbrightshire village of Dundrennan. He was the eldest child of David and Margaret Rae. It seems that William always felt a calling for sea life. His full-column obituary in a local newspaper details a story of  William as a young teenager taking command of a small boat he and his friends had ‘borrowed’ from a nearby dock. The boys took it to sea and were gone near enough all day. The boys eventually returned unharmed feeling rather proud of their adventure, although I suspect the search party on shore felt slightly differently about their little expedition. It was William’s leading role in this story that earned him the nickname ‘the Captain’. Following his school years, William worked for a drapers company. He decided three years later that the job was not for him and returned to his first love: the sea.

I have his maritime certificates (thank you, Ancestry!) which describe his early career path. His detailed obituary also provides me with extra details of his time at sea. In 1883, William moved to Liverpool and applied to become a Second Mate on a square-rigged boat. He passed the exam first time and so his sea-faring days began. Over the next five years, he quickly climbed the ranks and travelled the world, from London and France to the Americas and Australia. It is not lost on me that despite living in the late 1800s, William had travelled and seen more of the world than I have now at the same age! He did visit home in between some voyages and it was on one of these home stays in 1886 that he married Mary Haugh. There are no records suggesting they ever had any children. I believe he set off on a last set of voyages shortly after they married, during which he was promoted finally to Captain of the ship. From a childhood nickname to an official role and title. William was finally able to fully realise a childhood ambition.

Upon retiring from sea life in 1900, he returned to Dundrennan to live with his wife and her parents. Together they owned and ran The Crown and Anchor Hotel in the village. He became a popular figure in the small community, and was widely known and respected. William died at home aged 52 after a short but difficult illness, having been cared for by his wife and the village doctor. William is buried with his wife and her family in the same graveyard as William’s grandparents.

I feel a great sense of pride for William. Everybody in his family, both before and after his time, did the expected things in life. They got an education of whatever length before going to work as farm servants, house servants or general labourers. That part of the country was very much farm country so people spent their lives doing outdoor work. William tried a different path when he worked for the drapers. By the sounds of it, he was never going to be content going down someone else’s path. When he felt the path he had chosen was not the right one for him, he tried again with something he was almost certain to like and be good at. He not only chose it, he committed to it and succeeded. That’s something I’d like to be able to say at the end of my days.


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