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.