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!

10 & 11. Agnes and Margaret Rae: The Missing Twins

I feel as though I am cheating by writing about two people in one post but I am struggling to see how I could write about these two girls any other way since they share a story.

Born in 1923, Agnes and Margaret were the third and fourth children of Robert and Margaret Rae, making them my grandfather’s sisters. Agnes died just 16 days later, with her death certificate listing her cause of death as premature birth. According to my great-aunt, her mother said she’d gone into labour only 6 months into her pregnancy. Margaret survived a little longer before she died aged 4 months of ‘marasmus’. Marasmus is the term given for severe undernourishment, which really upset me. However, knowing that the twins were premature and thinking about the medical care available for premature babies back then, it makes sense. I believe it would now be called failure to thrive.

The mystery with the twins is where they are buried. With their parents still living when they died, they couldn’t go in their plot. The only person we can think they might be with is their grandfather James McCoskry. I have a list of all the memorial inscriptions in the cemetery we think he is buried in but there is no stone for him. It is possible he doesn’t have a stone.

My dad and I went to visit my great-aunt yesterday to see if she could shed any light. She was certain that Agnes, Margaret and James were buried together but she couldn’t understand why there wasn’t a stone. We would now like to see if their church would hold the lair records so we could find them. I might be in for a long and complicated search but I would like to give them all closure.

9. Margaret Barclay: Feisty and Fearless

My great-grandfather John Weddell married three times. His third wife, Margaret Barclay, is my great-grandmother and a direct ancestor.

Margaret Barclay was the eldest child of John Barclay and Annie Russell. At the time of her birth, her parents were not married making her and the 3 brothers that came after her illegitimate. John and Annie did not marry before then as she had not divorced her previous husband. His death in 1912, however, allowed them to legally marry which they did in the December. Just 9 months later, their youngest son John completed their family.

I don’t know much about Margaret before her own married life. I don’t even know how long she had known my great-grandfather before she married him. Almost exactly one year after the death of his second wife, John and Margaret married. John was 50 years old by this time and Margaret was 23 years old. After that, Margaret assumed the role of mother to those of John’s children who hadn’t already flown the nest. John and Margaret had four children of their own, losing one just a few days after he was born. Margaret named him Dennis, after one of her brothers. After her husband’s death in 1937, Margaret continued to raise their large brood. Some of the older children, from my understanding, still visited their siblings and their step-mother. Some only lived a few down down so some of the young aunts and uncles grew up at the same time as their young nieces and nephews.

I wrote last time about my Granny Rae and her amazing relationship with her brother. Margaret had a similar relationship with her youngest brother Johnny. The stories I have heard about them all describe their relationship as a strong bond, somewhat protective of each other. The photos I have seen certainly show them looking like they genuinely enjoyed each other’s company.

I must say that Margaret is not what I expected. For whatever reason, I expected some sweet housewife type with an apron permanently tied around her waist. My granny was quick to set me straight. Margaret, I learned, was a very small woman. Very slim and barely 4’10” tall. She was certainly lovely but boy, could she be feisty! Granny  told two brilliant stories which I’d like to share. George, one of John’s eldest sons, was a soldier and stayed with Margaret and his younger siblings when he was on leave. He liked to joke around and often teased Margaret, playfully of course. One day he was pinching her waist while she was cooking. Despite warnings, he continued until little Margaret snapped. She grabbed the nearest implement, a broom, and chased George around the house with it. When she didn’t know where he’d disappeared to she realised he had taken refuge under the big bed. She turned the broom around and prodded under the bed firmly with the broom handle. The soldier hiding under the bed yelped as the broom jabbed him hard and cried for mercy. Margaret continued until her anger had gone and George had learned his lesson.

The other story my granny told with great delight happened during the war. An enemy plane had bombed an area nearby and the vibrations of the bomb hitting the ground had shattered one of the windows in the house. Being active wartime, the chances of it being repaired were small due to materials and workers being prioritised for war, so the window was covered in newspapers and sheets as a temporary measure. Some time later, the window was eventually replaced to Margaret’s delight. Her delight was short-lived as the very same day another enemy plane flew very close to their home and dropped another bomb. The newly-fitted window shattered instantly. Margaret was furious. My granny, a young girl, followed her mother from their house to Holyrood Park (a short distance away) as Margaret marched towards the planes. The German soldiers were climbing out of their landed plane and Margaret marched straight towards them. Not phased by the guns the German soldiers were carrying, she began beating the soldiers with her trusty broom. “You broke my window! Again! It’s just been put in!” (I am under no illusion that slightly more colourful language may have been used but I was told the PG version.) Margaret, consumed with rage against the men who broke her new window, continued to beat the soldiers with the broom as they tried to cower away from her. Apparently, by the time local soldiers (or police, my granny didn’t know which) arrived to arrest the German soldiers, they surrendered quite freely as they sought an escape from thi tiny woman with her broom.

It amuses me greatly that both of these stories show the strength of this tiny woman. Both stories involve soldiers who wronged her and literally felt the consequences. In later life, Margaret rarely ventured outside her house. I recently showed my mum a picture of Margaret in her own garden. My mum was surprised such a picture even existed as she couldn’t remember a time when Margaret would have left her front door.

Margaret died in 1982 in Edinburgh. I would have loved to have known her. She sounds like a great character. I certainly don’t know of anybody else who could put the fear into grown military men!

8. Doreen Hardie Brown: My Golden Oldie

Today marks what would have been my paternal grandmother’s 81st birthday. My Granny Rae was my favourite person in the whole world, my very own living legend, so please forgive me as I write a very personal account of her life.

Doreen Brown was born in 1933 to John and Henrietta Brown in Castle Douglas. A few years later, younger brothers Douglas and Ian would arrive. As a child, Doreen was very active and competed locally in running competitions, earning her the nickname ‘Bomber Brown’. At her dad’s request, she shelved her plans of becoming a nurse and became a book-keeper instead. This trade would come in handy as she later helped her husband James keep the books of his business in order. Although she re-married several years after James died, let there be no doubt that James was the love of her life. Her retirement years were spent with her grandchildren, holidaying abroad, caravanning and faithfully serving her local parish church.

I could write an endless list to describe all the reasons I admired and still admire Doreen. Firstly, she and her younger brother Douglas (and his wife) were genuinely best friends. They were so alike, sharing the same kind nature and silly sense of humour. I feel so lucky he is still around. He’s a wonderful man and I find his likeness to Doreen a great comfort. I admire the strong bond they shared and hope that my own brother and I can one day enjoy a similar friendship.

Doreen was strong-willed. Not stubborn (although I believe my dad would argue to the contrary), but very strong-willed. When she was diagnosed with cancer the first time, she was told to slow down while she went through treatment. Doreen was simply not the kind of person who did as she was told. She would not slow down, she would not stop attending church coffee mornings, she would not be told to feel ill when she did not. Several bouts of cancer later, Doreen still lived life to its fullest until her body finally gave in. Until the last time I saw her just days before she died, I never saw her look ill or worn out. She was still the spritely, funny, strong-willed woman I adored.

Doreen was well-known in the town, so well-known in fact that you couldn’t go down the street without bumping into somebody she knew. It was not unknown for me to leave her chatting to whoever we bumped into, fetch the bread from Corsons bakery on the high street, and find her still chatting to them on my way back up the road. Not long after I started college, I visited granny to tell her how I was getting on. She was so proud of me, so supportive, and for some reason her approval meant more to me than anybody else’s. Anyways, we wandered through the town and bumped into my younger cousin and his friends on the high street. They would have been around 15 or so at the time and had known my granny all their lives. My cousins had a standing Thursday night dinner date with her but would also drop in randomly after school with their friends to say hello and get fed. This particular day, I had a brief catch up with my cousin and his friend jokingly said “here, come on with me, Dode. Let’s leave this pair to it.” Unfazed, she linked her arm with his and off they tottered down the road, before they turned around and laughed at my reaction. My cousins’ friends loved Dode (as she was often called and she called herself) so much, they would appear at her door without my cousins and she would insist on them coming in for a wee chat and their dinner. They loved her and she loved them for visiting her.

My dad delivered Doreen’s eulogy and he told how Doreen lived life to the three F’s: friends, family and faith. All three were incredibly important to her and she couldn’t have lived so happily without any of them. Friends and family you could not separate as she treated them with the same love and respect. Her very best friend she had known literally from cradle to grave and my brother continued to visit her after our granny had died. She often told stories of family members, particularly her Granny Brown and Granny Carruthers. She was a faithful attendee of the local church services, often helping out at their coffee mornings and encouraging the children in their Sunday School activities. She was so proud to be a part of it all and had an unfaltering faith, even in what many would deem life’s hardest times.

Doreen died in August 2009, leaving me heartbroken. I would never hear her voice again, hear her infectious laugh, bake with her or just take a wander through the town wondering who we’d bump into that day. Since her death, I have baked a Victoria Sponge cake every year on Doreen’s birthday. I love baking and it’s the first thing I remember baking with her. Today, I baked a Victoria Sponge with the help of my young charges. I didn’t set the family’s oven correctly, the cake came out slightly uneven, the table ended up covered in icing sugar but it was ok because I know that’s exactly how Doreen would have done it. I will forever miss her and look forward to the day I can tell my own children about my wonderful Doreen, just as she told me stories of her grannies.

To my favourite storyteller, baker and my hero: Happy Birthday.

Doreen Hardie Brown

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.