21 & 22. Campbell and James Wotherspoon: More Missing Twins

Another pair of missing babies. Some ancestral patterns are cruel and totally heartbreaking.

My great-aunt Ethel was very young when she met Robert Wotherspoon. Aged 18, she and Robert welcomed their first child together, a little girl. Over the next few years, they got married and welcomed another daughter, although I’m not sure whether wedding or baby came first. Many years later, I n 1964, Ethel and Robert prepared for the arrival of more little feet into their family, this time twins. At around 6 months pregnant, Ethel went into labour and Campbell and James were born in July 1964 in Dumfries. My great-aunt, Ethel’s sister, told me the boys weighed just 1lb 2oz and 1lb 10oz at birth. With today’s medicine, the boys may have had a fair chance at surviving their first few weeks of life with the wonderful medical care that modern neonatal specialists are able to provide. Back then, babies born so prematurely had it much harder and the boys chances were very slim. Robert, aware of his sons’ likely fate, chose not to visit his sons’ in their hospital cots. He decided that he did not want to learn and remember their tiny faces if they were not going to survive. James died just a day old. Campbell followed him a week later, aged 8 days. Prematurity was listed as a factor in both of their deaths, their little lungs just not developed enough to survive outside of their mother’s body on their own.

Now adults, the boys’ eldest sister is particularly keen to find them. Ethel, my great-aunt suggested, had arranged for her sons to be buried together in the same coffin, which I though was heartbreaking but also incredibly fitting for them. That said, she also suggested that nobody attended a funeral. As such, nobody living know where the boys final resting place was, not even their sisters.

History repeats itself sometimes, in this case just one generation later. While it pains me to visit gravesides, I feel blessed every time I do because I have something to physically visit. The headstones are a stark reminder of the loved ones I’ve lost but they also mark where my loved ones chose to finally rest. I hope to help in the search for these two tiny boys to allow their sisters to grieve properly for them and hopefully offer them some closure and some connection to their lost little brothers.


Robert John Rae: Revisited

In a LittleKnownLeaves first, I am actively revisiting an ancestor I have already learned and blogged about. Fear not, I have very good reason to! This coming week, I am visiting my great-aunt so have been reviewing my tree and searching for any missing clues on Ancestry that I can pass on to her. In particular, I looked at Robert John Rae as he was my great-aunt’s father.

Robert, like his father before him, was a ploughman. When World War in broke out in 1914, he was around 18 years old. His age meant he was required to sign up to the army to aid British war efforts, however his job was one of the few that meant he could apply to stay at home to continue working since farming the land was still necessary to provide food for those who remained at home. Robert, for whatever reason, decided not to apply for exemption and signed up. This was all the information I learned from his daughter, my great-aunt, earlier this year. Having previously searched Ancestry for any war records for him, I accepted that was all I may ever really know. I already knew from the fact that I am here today he came home, married, had a family, and continued in a job he apparently enjoyed. Really, what more could I ask for? I thought I’d have another cheeky look on Ancestry just to double-check what I had and ta-da – a little dancing leaf! (On Ancestry, a little leaf appears beside a relative’s name when Ancestry has a hint for users to review. The hint may be a record or link to another family tree to add to your own tree.) There it was – Robert’s war enlistment record, along with several pages of notes about where he served, furlough granted and other relevant notes regarding his service. It made for some very interesting and some very proud reading.

Robert enlisted in November 1915, a month shy of his 20th birthday and just a week before eldest brother died, as a driver for what appears to be his local artillery regiment. Already it is clear that Robert was facing a difficult time. Just over a year after enlisting, Robert was promoted. He would be promoted twice more during his military service. He was posted within the UK and France and in 1918, the final year of the war, he joined his comrades in Dunkirk for the final push for victory. While in Dunkirk, his younger brother, William, died from wounds sustained during war. With no furlough noted, I can assume he was unable to return home to mourn his brother’s passing with his family. Finally, Robert was in Germany for a short time before being fully demobilised in May 1919, almost 4 years after he first signed up.

Robert John Rae WW1

Robert volunteered to serve. I have to remind myself that he showed incredible bravery and actively volunteered to serve his country. One year after returning home, Robert married my great-grandmother Margaret. Less than a year later, their first child, a son, was born. They named him William, after Robert’s fallen brother. It is only when I see all the little pieces of his life together I realise how amazing Robert must have been. His hard work translated into ploughing medals and multiple military promotions. When rewarded after war with his family, he honoured the brother he lost so close to the end of war. Looking past numbers and records is exactly why I began this blogging project. I want to know my ancestors stories and understanding Robert’s story makes me incredibly proud to be part of his family tree.

Adolf Kuechel: A Grateful Artist

Over the last few years I have heard Adolf mentioned. Today I took the time to ask about him properly and I am so glad I did. It is worth noting here that Adolf is not a relative of mine, however our families share a rather beautiful moment in their stories which I would like to share. Adolf Kuechel was held as a Prisoner of War in Kirkcudbrightshire during WWII. My dad described Adolf’s army service as ‘conscription’, meaning he had no choice but to enrol. Knowing he was not on the ‘good’ side, Adolf decided to stay in Scotland after his release rather than return to his home in Germany. Some time later, his wife and young son joined him as they tried to start afresh in Scotland. To put Adolf’s decision in perspective, my dad described the only two games boys of his generation played: Cowboys and Indians, and Brits versus Gerries. Almost 20 years after the end of the conflict, Dad vividly remembers nobody wanted to be a Gerry (a German), such was the stigma even all those years later. As a German in post-war Britain, Adolf did not find work particularly easily. I mentioned before my grandfather James was a plumber. In a town as small as Castle Douglas, workies stuck together. Although I am unsure of the exact events, I do know that Jim offered a hand of friendship to Adolf by helping him find work. Where Jim was working a job that required a painter and decorator, he would invite Adolf to do the job. Adolf was so grateful for Jim’s kindness and provision that he asked Jim if he could paint him and Doreen a mural to say thank you. The oil mural was painted directly onto the hallway wall and depicted a beautiful lakeside view looking to some mountains in the distance. I don’t know whether he painted a scene from a memory or from his imagination. Either way, it is a beautiful scene and a very unique gift. To our knowledge, Adolf painted murals in only two other houses, both as gifts of gratitude. To this day, the mural remains in tact in Jim and Doreen’s old home. Many years ago, my dad was able to contact his Adolf’s son. He had apparently been unaware of his father’s mural so he and his then-elderly mother made the journey back to Castle Douglas to see the mural and to be reunited with Jim’s widow Doreen, an original recipient of Adolf’s beautiful gift. A few years later, my dad was invited to speak at church as part of their Remembrance Sunday service. In a moment of serendipity, the minister spoke of making peace with our enemies after times of war without knowing that my dad was to follow him by telling Adolf and Jim’s story. While I have seen photos of it, I would like to see Adolf’s mural for myself one day. It’s pretty amazing that it still greets people as they enter that house over 50 years after it was first painted. I believe the mural remains as testament to the amazing story that saw its creation, which in itself is incredibly special.

Update: last month I visited Castle Douglas so went with my dad to the Rae’s old home. The current homeowners graciously invited me in to admire the mural. No records could ever have told me of its existence or the story behind how it came to be. That in itself is a pretty amazing gift for my family’s story and for that, I am incredibly grateful.

Adolf's gift to the Rae's

Adolf’s gift to the Rae’s

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.

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.

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.

5. James Rae: The Popular Plumber

I never had the good fortune of meeting my Grandpa Rae as he died a few years before I was born, but I’m pleased he was always talked about as I was growing up. It helped me relate to him as real person.

Jim, as he was known, was born and bred in Castle Douglas, Kirkcudbrightshire. From all the stories I’ve heard, I get the impression he was an unassuming man who lived by doing the right thing. It seems he could be a bit shy and bashful at times. He met my grandmother Doreen at a dance and instantly liked her. After chatting and dancing, he insisted she was walked home… by his friend. He was apparently to nervous to do it himself! He was obviously confident of keeping her, even then. After they married, they had two sons and relished family life together. The town is quite a small town and even now, there’s a sense of “oh, you’ll need so-and-so then” when a job needs doing. If you needed a plumber, Jim was your man. He always did a good job at a good price, paid his apprentices fairly and was on call all hours if you needed him. Dad told a story once of a neighbour who had called the house in the middle of the night as she’d found her house flooded. There was no thought of charging her double-time because it was the early hours or anything like that. He was just straight in his van to go round and help. That was just his nature. When he was found to have an incurable tumour and therefore a short time left, he made sure his apprentices wages were taken care of so they wouldn’t be without.

My dad always gets quite emotional when speaking about his dad and I can understand why. My dad was barely in his twenties when Jim died in 1980 aged 50. They didn’t have much time together. Jim never met my mum, though he did know about her, and I know my dad found it particularly difficult to deal with his father’s notable absence on his wedding day.

When I visit Castle Douglas, I have a sort of ritual of things I want to do while I’m there, like my trip isn’t complete until I’ve done them all. One of those things is to visit the glorious Irvings Bakery, just as I always did with my granny when I was younger. A good friend and I went together a few years back and I loved telling her about these little rituals but one thing I’d never done was taken a tour of the bakery factory. We asked about it one Saturday morning and Mrs Irving herself showed us around the quiet factory (they don’t operate on a Saturday, instead just open up the shop). As we finished up the tour and chatted, she noted my accent was slightly different to hers and asked where I was visiting from. I told her, explaining that I liked to visit Castle Douglas as it was where my grandparents had lived. “Och, your Jim’s granddaughter!” she exclaimed and started into a short story of how she knew Jim and my granny. I struggled to keep my tears under control. I just loved that over 30 years since his death, people I didn’t even know still remembered him and his kind ways. It’s a very simple legacy but one I’m very proud he has.

My granny lived almost 30 years without Jim, although she did eventually remarry. She always spoke of him often, and kept certain trinkets and things of his around the house. She even wore the engagement ring Jim had given her every day, which I now proudly wear. When she died, I was devastated but knew she would be happy to be with Jim again. She was buried by his side on what would have been Jim’s 80th birthday. Together in life and now together for eternity, exactly how they should be.

4. William McCoskry Rae: Brave Boy Soldier

The deeper I get into my family tree, the more men I find with military backgrounds. There are a few interesting stories but one who grabbed my attention very early on in my genealogy days was William McCoskry Rae.

William McCoskry Rae was the fifth child and youngest son of Robert Rae and Margaret Davies. As a young man, he enlisted in the army to serve in World War 1. My searches have not revealed any marriages or children from him, suggesting he died a single man. Given his young age , this is not unexpected. It would appear he was ill towards the end of the war and around a month after peace was declared, William died at a military hospital in Stockport aged just 19 years. It definitely saddens me that he died away from his family.

William is not a direct ancestor of mine (his older brother Robert John is my great-grandfather) but I feel a great sense of responsibility for him. As a soldier, he fought for his country which I think is a very brave task for such a young man. I ordered his death certificate (a bittersweet moment) which revealed he did not die directly of war wounds but of severe illness caused by his wounds. Following his death, William was buried in the family plot in Castle Douglas, Kirkcudbrightshire. His name and rank are displayed on a war memorial plaque in Rhonehouse and Kelton church.  These plaques offer a permanent memorial for him and his fellow fallen soldiers. While plaques are often overlooked and become part of the furniture of the building, through this process I have learned to appreciate their value. I was fortunate to visit Kelton Parish Church last autumn and was able to see the plaque there myself, which I found unexpectedly moving. With no direct family left behind, I want to make sure that he is remembered properly and with honour. My own grandparents are buried in the same cemetery as him and whenever I visit them, I wander past other family plots in the cemetery. William’s plot is very close to theirs so as I lay flowers, I pick one out and put it at the foot of his family stone. All of my ancestors are important to me, but I hold a special place for his young bravery and sacrifice. He was involved in an important fight, fighting for something that mattered, and that matters a great amount to me.