Category Archives: History

Ministers’ Wives, a doitering rumination

In the shower this morning I found myself contemplating my obsession with the wives of ministers. This continued a line of thought which I had been exploring, aided by my iPad, before deciding to toss back the covers and broach the day. The ministers’ wives I had been thinking about became published writers in the early years of the 19th century: Anne Grant of Laggan, Mary Brunton (both well known in their life times and making a modest comeback today), and, Beatrice Grant, little known then, almost forgotten now but into whose life I have been poking for some years.

However my sensitivity towards ministers’ wives goes way back beyond my acquaintance with these ladies. At one point I even aspired to be a minister’s wife. I was not an especially religious child despite having a fine collection of those bible-related scraps which were awarded for attendance at Sunday school. And despite having spent a year at Esdaile, an Edinburgh school established to provide education for the daughters of ministers and missionaries. My father was not a minister but the small local rural school had a teacher deemed unsatisfactory by my parents. Schooling in Edinburgh meant that I could be close to my mother’s father and sisters. And the school curriculum included cookery…

I wanted to be a minister’s wife so that I could run sales of work…

43ba73b2adebacbd1b8aa9b2eb80dbb2     My mother, ignoring my greater preference for reading and history, unfortunately latched on to my ability to knit, crochet and embroider lazy daisy petals onto dressing-table mats (alternative pass-times for a nine-year-old were few up a highland glen). She later suggested I consider the domestic science college in Edinburgh as an appropriate future destination. I suspect it was at this point, as I entered my teenage years, that I abandoned the ‘managing sales of work’ notion. Or it may have been that I realised that being a minister’s wife carried with it the drawback of a minister. A baby-sitting engagement had revealed that our local one forbad his wife to take in women’s magazines, so no Woman’s Own romances or problem pages to lighten the evening in the pre-television era. I suspected also that there might be a requirement To Set an Example, a burden of which I was all too aware as an eldest daughter.

However, sensitivity to the plight of such women, socially constrained even more than most females, by the bonds of matrimony has remained with me. I notice them when they come to my attention. I am haunted by them as well as by how lives were lived in the past. In the 18th and 19th centuries they existed in the fluid middle ground between, when those things mattered, the gentry and trade, with the lower orders beneath. In my mental landscape stands sensible Charlotte Lucas who opted for a home of her own to run; and the sad figures of Mrs Bates and Mrs Norris, cast into limbo, neither fish nor fowl, following the deaths of their husbands.

The family connection

One of my ancestors was a minister (from you surmise correctly that one was a minister’s wife). On the evidence of a small diary this man cannot have been a joy to live with. At the time of the diary he was a minister in Dalkeith, and a worrier. He agonised about money, about how badly his brother-in-law treated him, about his spiritual health and about his physical health to the extent that he stayed home rather than go visiting the sick lest he catch an infection (would Marmee and Beth Marsh had done). What would then happen to his wife and children? The ministerial strand in that branch of my family tree ceased with his death in April 1779, all but one of his children turning to trade as an occupation for themselves or for a spouse.

One other Scottish minister, or rather his wife, played a key part in my genesis. The Reverend Colin Bogle married in 1831 Ann Wyse, a young lady from just outside Glasgow, and took her north to his very rural parish in Shetland. Just after Christmas 1832 she gave birth to twin daughters in the manse at Walls. Two weeks into January her husband died. How on earth did she manage travelling back south with two infants? Not easy even today. But she did. And a year later both babies died. And some years after that Ann Wyse, then Bogle, married Robert Chisholm, goldsmith and jeweler in Edinburgh, and they begat… who begat… etc.

But back to those early 19th century writing wives

Anne Grant, nee MacVicar, Beatrice Grant, nee Campbell and Mary Brunton, nee Balfour. The university system in Scotland was geared to the production of ministers to such an extent that there were at times gluts of them. Stickit ministers, they were called, men who might fill in the waiting time as a tutor or a parochial schoolmaster. Mary Balfour eloped from Orkney, it is said, choosing, despite maternal disapproval, the man who had been her brother’s tutor. Marrying a minister in the late 18th/ early 19th century might well have appealed to clever, not especially well-off Scottish women who did not fancy becoming merely a childbearing social adjunct. As educated men, minister husbands might provide congenial companionship. The Reverend Brunton, who encouraged his wife in her studies and writing, seems to have lived up to that ideal.

A generation earlier, Anne MacVicar and Beatrice Campbell had also married ministers. They owed their husbands to the aftermath of the 1745 Jacobite rising. Each, blessed with military fathers, had had unsettled early years. They met each other, and their husbands to be, at Fort Augustus, one of a trio of forts established to provide a base for government forces should there be another rising. Beatrice Campbell’s aunt, to whom she was close, married the governor of Fort Augustus. Beatrice and her husband, formerly a missionary at Fort William, were married in Fort Augustus in 1784. Anne MacVicar’s father was barrack-master at Fort Augustus. Her husband was the chaplain there.

  Did these marriages prove meetings of minds? Who knows – but Anne Grant, at least, provided her husband with a fulsome headstone.

Anne and Beatrice were clever, feisty young women, Anne probably the better educated and was certainly the more stylish writer. Throughout her childhood wandering years (Glasgow – America – Glasgow again) Anne had acquired friends whom she entertained with letters and poems. These, and her early experiences in ‘exotic’ America and the only slightly less exotic Highlands of Scotland, stood her in good stead when she needed income after her husband’s death. She took to publication with relish and success, at first anonymously.

Beatrice’s confidence probably came from a strong personality backed by the experience and status of being the eldest of four sisters, orphaned at age 8. At 11 she found herself with a stepmother barely ten years older who immediately started having babies. Ten years or so into marriage, according to her own account, she regarded herself as well equipped to provide advice to inexperienced mothers and submitted articles to a magazine. Rejected at the time, she revised them to form the basis of her first book, published three years after her husband’s death. No anonymity for her, on the title-page she proclaimed herself to be ‘Mrs Grant, late of Duthel’.

Both were successful ministers’ wives, or rather widows… Neither lady was so lacking in proper behaviour as to write directly about her marriage but Anne Grant did address being a minister’s wife. She wrote, addressing herself to the other Mrs Grant, and her voice ripples…

Screen Shot 2018-01-29 at 11.10.25

Beatrice Grant’s many, and rather more sober, publications in newspapers, magazines and books are providing me with a fascinating paper trail, new places to explore and new contacts. Who could have guessed that a childhood fancy would develop into something so rewarding.


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Filed under family, family history, History, long 18th century, Scottish Highlands

Another place I have yet to get to: the Falls of Foyers

32972The Falls of Foyers near by Loch Ness was a popular tourist destination in the late eighteenth century. It had romantic grandeur, the splendours of nature, it was remote from cities with their expanding smoke and industries. Ah! the romance of nature. Oh Caledonia stern and wild!

Samuel Johnson clambered over rugged crags to see the waterfall in 1773 but due a spell of dry weather, found only a disappointingly small trickle of water. He and Boswell then continued on to Fort Augustus where he was welcomed by the long-serving governor of the fort, Alexander Trapaud.
Robert Burns visited the falls in 1787 on his tour of the Highlands and indeed reached for paper and pencil to compose a poem ‘Written with a Pencil, standing by the Fall of Fyers, near Loch Ness’. The University of Glasgow has put an interactive map of Burns’ highland tour online as part of its Editing Burns for the 21st Century project ( This will also help to envisage the jolly summer daytrip described below.
It would seem that Johnson and Burns reached the falls by land. However I first came across an early account of them in a letter, written roughly ten years after Burns’ visit, by the daughter of one of the officers serving at Fort Augustus. On 1 July 1778, Anne MacVicar wrote to her friend Miss Jane Ewing describing a ‘grand party of pleasure’ up Loch Ness.


Fort Augustus: note the galley at top right

“There was the Governor [this was still the Alexander Trapaud who had welcomed Johnson] and his new espoused love, who, by the bye is very well considering, frank and cheerful, and so forth; and there were the two Misses Campbell, Duntroon, blithe bonny lasses; and there was the noble Admiral of the lake, and his fair sister; and the Doctor, and another beau, whom you have not had the honour to know. We went on board our galley, which is a fine little vessel, with a commodious and elegant cabin.
“The day was charming, the scene around was in itself sublime and cheerful, enlivened by sunshine and the music of the birds, that answered each other loudly from the woody mountains on either side of the Loch. On leaving the fort we fired out swivels, and displayed our colours. On our arrival opposite Glenmoriston, we repeated this ceremony, and sent out our boat for as many of the family as chose to come on board. The Laird himself, his beautiful daughter, and her admirer, obeyed the summons: they dined with us, and then we proceeded to the celebrated fall of Fyres.
“I had seen this wonder before, but never to such advantage. Strangers generally come from the high road, and look down upon it; but the true sublime and beautiful is to be attained by going from the lake by Fyers house, as we did, to look up to it. We landed at the river’s mouth, and had to walk up near a mile, through picturesque openings, in a grove of weeping birch, so fresh with the spray of the fall, that its odours exhale constantly. At the foot of the rock over which the river falls, is a small circular bottom, in which rises, as it were, a little verdant hillock of a triangular form, which one might imagine an altar erected to the impetuous Naiad of this overwhelming stream: this rustic shrine, and the verdant sanctuary in which it stands, are adorned by the hand of nature with a rich profusion of beautiful flowers and luxuriant hernage…”

Miss MacVicar’s account goes on to mix reference to … this sacred solitude … the showery prism bending its splendid arch … with a matter of fact explanation of how the torrent in winter probably brought down rocks and sediment on which the plants have grown. Then she comes back to the river being tamed: from thundering and raging above, ‘rolling rapidly over steep rocks, like steps of stairs, till at last it winds quietly through the sweet peaceful scene at Fyres House, and loses itself in Loch Ness.”
She ends by asking, ‘Now to what purpose have I taken up my own time and yours with this tedious descrition?’ And readers might ask the same of me. What I like about this letter is the account of the ‘pleasure’ party as a whole. Admiring the splendour of the waterfall, Burns’ ‘roaring Fyers’ pouring his mossy floods, was the sublime highpoint of the outing. It descended into farce as the party returned home.

“When we returned on board, our spirits, being by this time exhausted with walking and wonder, and talking and thunder, and so forth, began to flag. One lady, always delicate and nervous, was seized with a fit, a hysterical one, that frightened us all. I cut her laces, suppressed her struggles, and supported her in my arms during the paroxysm, which lasted near two hours. What you must allow to be very generous in the company, not one of them seemed to envy my place, or made the smallest effort to supplant me. We drank tea most sociably, however; landed our Glenmoriston friends, and tried to proceed homeward, but adverse fate had determined we should sup there too, and so arrested us with a dead calm four miles from home. Now midnight approached, and with it gloomy discontent and drowsy insipidity. Our chief took a fit of the fidgets, and began to cry Poh, Poh! his lady took a fit of yawning; his little grandson took a fit of anger; the Doctor took a fit of snoring; even the good-natured Admiral took a fit of fretting, because the sailors had taken a fit of drinking. All of a sudden the Misses C. took a fit of singing, to the great annoyance of the unharmonious groupe; when I went to the deck, fell into a fit of meditation, and began to say, ‘How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank.’ Indeed nothing could be more inspiring; now silvery calmness slumbered on the deep, the moonbeams quivered on the surface of the water, and shed a mild radiance on the trees; the sky was unclouded, and the sound of the distant waterfall alone disturbed the universal stillness. But the general ill humour disturbed my rising rapture, for it was now two o’clock, and nobody cared for poetry or moonlight but myself. Well, we saw the wind would not rise, and so we put out the boat, some growling, other vapid, and the rest half asleep. The gentlemen, however, rowed us home, and left the galley to the drunken sailors. You may judge how gaily we arrived.”

I have known happy days gone sour but nothing like this. How much more hysterical the participants would have been had they known of Nessie. And good for Anne MacVicar Grant for making such a lively tale so that these people of the past return from the shades. Her friends must have looked forward to hearing from her.

[Grant, Anne] Letters from The Mountains; being the real Correspondence of a lady, between the years 1773 and 1807. Vol 1. 5th edition. London: Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, & Orme, Paternoster-row; Letter 27: To Miss Ewing, Glasgow; Fort Augustus, June 5th, 1778, pp210-216. Online via Hathi Trust Digital Library

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February 12, 2017 · 4:34 pm

Crazed visions…


See below…

On Sunday 12 June 2011 I seem to have created a blog on a site I never revisited. I hadn’t remembered doing it but the evidence is up and out there in the ether, rediscovered when I chanced to trip a link while tidying up my computer desktop. I called that blog, ‘Crazed visions’, subtitle: ‘thoughts and words as they occur’. It consisted of a list in which I jotted down what came to my mind about my great-aunt. I may never get round to writing more about her, but this may trigger memories in members of the family (if so, please send them to me). For other readers it may stimulate thoughts and feelings (inherited or not) about the people who existed on the fringes of the family nucleus.

Dedae (1886-1975)

What do I know about Dedae?

  1. She was my great-aunt, unmarried youngest sister of my mother’s father William Gibb Chisholm.
  1. Her full name was Agnes Edith Chisholm (Agnes was her mother’s name, no idea where Edith came from).
  1. She made my mother a doll’s house out of orange boxes during WW1; it has a stair case and I still have it. A detached house with a balcony, nothing like the house she lived in.
  1. In her last years she lived in Belgrave Crescent, as did her unmarried slightly older doctor (gynaecologist) brother Uncle Ernie.
  1. It was a ground and basement flat with a hideous and large painting of St Sebastian in the hall (presumably this was a family possession? is there an inventory for AWC in 1921, or AHC in 1936?)
  1. Otherwise the front room is all I can remember, facing on to the communal garden over the street (that would be south), a heavy feeling of Victorian clutter, oil paintings and plants.
  1. I last remember meeting her at my grandfather’s cremation at Warriston the year I married (1966). She asked me whether I would like a practical or useful wedding gift. I said useful (which I have always thought was the wrong answer) and she gave me a set of pyrex casseroles decorated with flowers.
  1. I don’t think she liked my mother much (probably mutual) and she did not mention her in her will.
  1. Her executor was mother’s cousin Ralph Darling (son of her elder sister Annie) who disposed of many of the family artifacts, which meant little to him, without consulting his cousins.
  1. Ralph, who came back from South Africa after an unsuccessful marriage to live with his aunt, had to conceal his long-term partner Diana from her. Diana was banned from the house. (After Ralph’s death, years later, Diana would meet my mother for coffee, having travelled across England to hand over small items of silver which she said must go back to the family).
  1. Mother said Dedae was a snob who would refer to people as not being out of the top drawer.
  1. Dedae was the unmarried daughter who lived at home taking care of her parents.
  1. Somewhere there is a photo of her in perhaps a VAD uniform during WW1.
  1. She would have been one of the generation whose hope of marriage went with The Great War.
  1. There are a couple of photos of her as a teenager but none later (she would have inherited the family possessions, did she destroy them?)
  1. She was very involved with the Clan Chisholm Society.
  1. She commissioned a researcher to examine her ancestory (I have the report).
  1. In her later years she would take elderly people out for runs in her car round Warriston. She was not a good driver and disliked the introduction of traffic lights.
  1. There are questions: how and where was she educated? Is there an inventory of her estate which presumably included the Robert Scott Lauder family picture of his sister?
  1. Born 1886, died 1975.
  1. Her mother (Agnes Helen Gibb) died in 1936, her father (Alexander Wyse Chisholm) in 1921.
  1. Despite living in Edinburgh she was not a person we saw or visited much; not a warm relationship…



Once she was a gawky girl balancing frothy puff-balls of white lace.

What was life like for her?


Filed under Edinburgh, family history, History, relations

And did those feet…

I don’t have a thing about shoes, either for or against.  There are lots at the bottom of the wardrobe, most differing only in wear, and, yes, most are Ecco lace-ups, nothing to get excited about. I don’t know which ancestor donated me broad feet with a high instep but I’m not grateful.

It was therefore a surprise to me when on my recent visit to the Naples Museum I became obsessed with footwear. Part of this interest was pragmatic. I had already explored the upper galleries and marvelled at the mosaics brought in from Pompeii and Herculaneum. I had looked with wonder, and tried to snap through their glass cases, small figurines, silver beakers and glass portraits. I had strolled round the Secret Rooms with their dangling phalluses and faint, faintly erotic paintings. I had established that the room with the frescos I really wanted to see was closed. I had had coffee. Done the shop. There was over an hour until it was time to get back to the bus. Daunted by the thought of the marble staircase once again, the ground floor was where I decided to be.

This floor was predominately statues of Roman and Greek chaps and deities. Many sported togas, though one, the embodiment of an old head on young shoulders, wore only a cloth on his left arm and seemed to be enquiring, who, by Jove, had nicked his gear from the pool locker. Most had bare feet. I set out to look for those who did not.

Still trapped in the error that life was pretty basic in ancient times, I had assumed that shoes or sandals were a base of leather lashed together with thongs. Well yes, and no.

A statue labelled Apollo (seated with a lyre in porphory 2nd century AD) though I have my doubts (perhaps he’s in drag for a party?) ran little risk of corns, and I admired the sculpted sole.


I made a note on my handy little hotel-supplied pad to revisit Greek and Roman myths when I got home. I was particularly concerned about a statue  of goatish Pan, of whom one could believe anything, dallying with a well-set-up young man, allegedly ‘Daphne’. I had always taken Daphne to be female…

Asclepius, on the left below, (late 2nd AD of Greek original of beginning of 4th BC) had sensible sandals with plenty of room for the toes.

Dionysius (1st BC), as you might expect, was decked out in elaborate party boots.


A kneeling and abject barbarian had opted for trainers. Not at all the thing…

On the other hand, the military, as evidenced by the statues which caught my eye, knew what was needed. They hoped to take on the properties of the lion (“I am Sir Bryan, bold as a lion…”). A lion’s head topped the boots, even if on dress occasions flowers and twiddly bits were permitted.



At the entrance to a side room there’s a pair of statues which make a poignant statement of attitudes.

On the right as you enter a warrior whoops, brandishing his sword, he is a winner no doubt about it. By the opposite wall an Amazon, of the race of warrior women, is tumbling, breast exposed, from her horse. Both warriors have lion-head tops to their boots but each of hers seems decorated also with a heart.

 Admired as a warrior but perhaps just a bit girly?

But enough of footwear and so finally to my favourite of all the statues. An old woman, Agrippina (1st century, school of Phidias) sits with her ankles crossed, waiting.

PS why all these tumtumtetumtums? These are my best at present way of getting images approximately where I want them.

PPS I wish I could have sandals like these; and I salute their creators, those workers in leather, yes, but most of all those artists and craftsmen who envisaged and formed them from stone for me to wonder at.

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Filed under History

Just do it!

When it comes to doing family history I prefer the thrill of the chase.

I am not good at getting round to collating and filing bits of information, especially if they come in various formats such as computer files, photos, certificates, notes and thoughts on the backs of envelopes. Paper can be tucked into a file (if big enough) but how to integrate this with what’s on the computer? Scan all the paper and concentrate on identifying and bringing together all this electronic mass (and buy a big screen on which to view it)? Or, print out all the stuff on the computer and commandeer the sitting room floor? But even this is a way of avoiding getting down to making sense of the material and thinking about what might be missing, about the things unsaid, unrecorded.

Photo of section of a very large OS map

For the past few months I’ve been attending a writing workshop entitled ‘Blood Lines: Creative Memoir’. It’s been an experience I have approached with caution. Having poor recall of past events I am keen to hang on to what I do have and am reluctant to create false memories. Dredging our memories for matter to write about is also a trifle unsettling for all participants in that it stirs up feelings, not all, indeed it would appear very few, happy.

One of the premises of the course is that ‘each family has its fund of tales’  which further implies that these are passed on, often by grandparents, and that the recipients listen. Would this were so.

I have no memory of one grandmother who lived in another part of the country and who died when I was six. Fortunately the grandfather on that side was part of a female-dominated line who hung on to scraps of paper which enable some reconstruction of the family’s history. He was also interested in family trees. My mother, moreover, did a sterling job, collecting information and writing about her relations once she realised that not only were there years of family life and background of which her own children were ignorant but that her younger sisters were also strangers to much of it. Among the things she discovered was that one of her grandfathers had abandoned his children after the death of his wife and later died in a poorhouse. The children were rescued from threat of the orphanage by an uncle, brother of the absconding parent, who took them in. Mother had not known any of this before the researcher located death and census records; her own mother had never mentioned it. Nor were the younger sisters happy that my mother made public family information.

The other, Irish, side of my ancestry, is The Challenge. My father’s knowledge of his ancestors seemed to stop

Helpful Blackrock taxi driver tries but fails to find an ancestral site via a snip of a 19th century OS map

with his grandparents, and of them he chiefly recounted that his grandfather, Zeno Sloan, had introduced the tonic sol-fa into Ireland and that his grandmother ran a school and continued to do so with the assistance of her daughters until retirement age. Father and all his brothers bar one moved away from Ireland, seas and oceans then separating us grandchildren from grandparents who might have told us that fund of tales. Our visits were brief and not occasions for bonding or story-telling. I have spent the last couple of years trying to track down members of the family to see if I could get further back but even our combined memories and delvings into archives have not got very far, or gone very far… Photos and emails on the computer. Letters and photocopies in a file. Maps? Clippings? Must make a start on bringing some of it together.

This is not a new thought.Once of the reasons I signed up to the Creative Blood Lines course was to force myself to write regularly. Write what? Well anything, at least anything readable.  Same reason I started these blogs and it is evident from how few I have published that solo creation is not one of my strengths.

Also in the pursuit of, or let’s face it as a diversion from, my first novel I have put in time reading lists of tips provided by various authors. This was not the result of googling ‘top tips’. I do google the names of authors whose work I enjoy. Sneaking up on Rose Tremain online produced the first of these lists.

I have also been reading my way through Muriel Spark, first her short stories and then the novels, most recently The Abbess of Crewe, in the hope that some of her vivid style will rub off on me. And because her books are a joy to read as she is a brilliantly inventive writer with a lashing acerbic wit.

One of these lists produced from Muriel Spark the following advice:

“For concentration you need a cat…And the tranquility of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give you back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence is enough.” 

I have made a start on improving my concentration. He looks like this (but if he steps across in front of me, where his eyes are pointing, he becomes a writer’s block):

The Aide-Memoire waiting for food


Filed under History, Uncategorized

Eyeballing the ancestors

In the course of digging into family history you find yourself examining many documents but nothing can compare with gazing into the eyes of the past. Old photographs of people are fascinating. It’s not just the clothes. Faces confront you full on since in the 19th century most commercial photographers and their clients were concerned more with likeness than with art.

The people in the photo alongside are Catherine and Zeno Sloan, one set of my Irish great-grandparents and seven of their nine children (the youngest, Annie and James, were yet to be born). My grandmother – Katie to the adults of the family, and whom I remember as a small elderly woman with grey hairy sausages trapped in a hairnet ­– is the little girl smiling and wriggling in the front row.

My father provided the key to the picture, and the date, 1880, and thus the first of my questions:

• how did he know who was who and when the picture was taken?

When I was young my father showed little interest in his family history but in his last years, inspired or perhaps driven by my mother’s researches and writings around her own family, he unearthed his teenage sketches (he had a great gift for drawing, as indeed for music) and began to frisk his remaining relatives for memories. Of course, as most of us do, he came to this too late. His grandparents and parents’ generations had gone (even his aunt who had lived to be 113 though he had, fortunately, taped a chat with her in her late 90s).

By the time we children, living in the Highlands of Scotland, met our Irish grandparents they were living in Belfast. Very occasionally they visited us. Our equally infrequent visits to them involved a cramped car trip down across Scotland to Stranraer, luggage roped to the roof, anti-sickness chain dangling, and then a carrot-munching sea journey over to Larne. Otherwise, we knew that long-dead Great-grandfather Zeno ‘had introduced the tonic sol-fa into Ireland’ and that they all seemed to be teachers. His name intrigued.

Back to the photograph:

• how did my father know it was taken in 1880? I don’t know, perhaps he extrapolated from the apparent ages of the children. I would also very much like to know why it was taken. A family group. There is another family group taken at about the same time which marks the silver wedding of my Edinburgh-based Chisholm great-grandparents. Why was the 1880 photo taken? It does not look celebratory, was it perhaps to send to other members of the family? If so, why and to whom…. where…

What became of those solemn children laced so tightly into their boots? I am gradually learning more since their descendants are people whom I sporadically email as I try to dig back further back. Electronically, we put our heads together and share our frustrations, small triumphs and speculations. I/we need to find out more about Zeno and in particular about Catherine, the mother in the picture, but also, before, then and later, a school-teacher, head mistress of a National School in Dungannon. My father, in the memoir he put together, said nothing about her origins. When I asked one of his cousins she had a vague feeling that her grandmother came from Thurles in Tipperary (and she turned out to be right about County Tipperary at least).

Back to those children, dates as my Father entered them in a family tree in 1991:

William (b 1868) went to America, Chicago, as a young man, the only one of this generation to become part of the diaspora (why Chicago?)

Richard (b 1870) became a minister whom I remember carrying out the mass christening of my siblings when my grandmother discovered that all but one (me, the eldest) of her visiting grandchildren were unhallowed

Daisy [Margaret] (b1871) taught alongside her mother, married a shopkeeper, and died in her 40s leaving two small children

Mary (b1873) unlike her sisters, did not become a teacher but before her marriage went to keep house for her minister brother

Isaac (b1875)  died unmarried

Katie (b1877) my grandmother, who had married another teacher, taught throughout raising five sons, addict of ‘nice stories’ and narrator of improving verse (‘She did not say to the sun goodnight/ Tho she saw him there like a ball of light/ For she knew he had God’s time to keep/ All over the world and never could sleep.’)

Frances (b1879) teacher and ardent pianist, married another teacher; she suffered from anaemia and had to eat raw liver (ugh!)

As my father noted, two were as yet unborn:

Annie (b1883) trained as a teacher, was widowed for 70-odd years and lived to be the oldest person in the UK

James (b1881) father of my father’s blond musical cousin who vaguely remembered the connection with Thurles, was a county surveyor who inspired my father to become a civil engineer, and thus to make the journey from Ireland to dam-building in the Scottish Highlands, and thus to me.

More later…


Filed under History

Another Graveyard – but David Plenderleath was here!

I set out last weekend to revisit, this time with my digital camera, one of my favourite graveyards, that of the Parish Church of Pencaitland in East Lothian. I last came here over twenty years ago but with old technology and the photos lie in some poly bag in some box in some cupboard…

This is an attractive small church which shows its history. Unlike some I have visited where a well-meaning or wealthy 19th century ‘benefactor’ obliterated the old with the new, this building shows in its fabric many of the styles of the past, doors become windows, windows with differing shapes of arch, doors are added or bricked up. There is not an overall plan.

It has changed over the centuries since the perhaps 13th century, inside and out (this visit I saw only the outside) but it still sits near the centre of its village community.

Which makes it easier to stand in a corner and try and connect with the past.

Moreover, the church is set in  a well-kept churchyard sprinkled with  gravestones dating back to the 17th century at least. Some, the very oldest, include the symbols of trades, for the farmer, the taylor, the mason. Others have cherubs clutching scrolls. Most frequent of all are the skulls, the bare bones.


Others, no less reminders of memento mori, and sorrows past, rely on words


KA FORBES Anno Domine 1639

Happie in birth match comely feature

And every virtue gracing nature

In nothing cross’d but barren wombe

All that was flesh rests in this tombe


In memory of

Robina, aged 15 months/ Alexander 14 months/ Alexander, 9 months/ George 3 years/ Robert 1 year….


However I am here in Pencaitland because there is a family association. This was the home of the Simson connection of my family tree.

There is a plaque on the side wall of the west tower. An aunt died young in 1716, her mother and two sisters, in their 20s died ‘of a violent feaver’ in 1736

But Helen Simson survived to marry David Plenderleath

At the end of December 1755, in the manse which lies alongside the church, my ancestor David Plenderleath opened up his new leather-bound notebook and began the one volume of his diary which survives. The present manse dates from the early 19th century, some 50 years after the Reverend Mr Plenderleath picked up his quill to set down his reflections and, just a few days early, his New Year’s resolution:


22 Decr


The last book I writt any observations

I thought might be of use for composing

my mind & preserving in memory what

I might wish to ???? ended in the

close of the year 1754. During this

year I have only written on pieces of

paper which fall by & I lose one

great benefit of writing, taking a review

of what is past and therefore have

this day begun to write in this book

& after some general remarks on

occurrences thro this year that were

of some consequence I shall write

down the present state of things as

to me & mine, & then waiting for

divine counsel shall propose what

ought to be henceforth in dependance

on a superior end and be steadily followed

out by me if the Lord sees meet

to lengthen out my life–

What was the reverend gentleman doing here in the closing days of 1755? Visiting the in-laws, or, given the information on the plaque, his father-in-law Matthew Simson, then Minister at Pencaitland. David Plenderleath had been ill and was still feeling under the weather. It is not clear whether he had his wife Helen and young children with him or whether he had left them at home in Dalkeith where he had been Minister for the past ten years.

To be continued.

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