Tag Archives: family research

The first reason I am going to Shetland


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In a couple of months I will be making a long-anticipated trip to Shetland. I have three main reasons for wanting to go, none of them immediately relating to DI Jimmy Perez as portrayed in the recent television dramas based on Ann Cleves’ novels.

Shetland seems such a long way when you look at an atlas, exactly how far is left rather vague since mapmakers have tended to tuck it into a box which they float somewhere in the Moray Firth. Now I find that it is only just over an hour by plane, or will be, but my mind is back in the first decades of the 1800s, before steam ships, before planes, before phones, before the internet. Almost back in the days of here be dragons, or at least sea monsters, and certainly of the likelihood of rather rough water… However I decided to skip any attempt at replication. I will fly.

My first reason is curiosity about the life of one of my maternal ancestors who spent a brief and ultimately  unhappy time there. Ann Wyse went as a bride and returned about eighteen months later as a widow with infant twin daughters. These infants do not appear in the family tree copied out on shelf paper by my grandfather:

  • What happened to the twins? (early death I imagined, aware of infant mortality at the time).
  • What can it have been like for a young woman raised in 1820s Glasgow to find herself living so far from family in a part of Scotland so remote?
  • How did she get there?
  • and how might she have got back to central Scotland where some ten years later she married my Edinburgh-based ancestor and produced the further progeny from one of whom I am derived?

Nothing like a quest!

I have prowled through family documents, summoned up information from the internet and visited archives. Now I am now booked up to go. And what better time to find my jottings and begin pulling the past together.

Find a marriage

Nineteenth century novels often end with a marriage. Ancestral quests can start from one. Ann Wyse’s marriages took place before registration began in 1855 so off to the newspapers, or at least to British Newspapers Online. There she is, her second marriage reported in the Caledonian Mercury, Edinburgh, Thursday June 23rd 1842.

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“At 25 Gayfield Square, on the 21st current, Robert Chisholm, Esq. jeweller, Edinburgh, to Ann Wyse, relict of the late Rev. Colin Bogle, Walls.”

I am rather intrigued by the Georgette Heyerish union which appears below of ‘the Hon and Reverend Edward Harbottle Grimstone, second son of the Earl and Countess of Verulam, to Frances Horatia, eldest daughter of John Morier, Esq’ – was she born in 1805? but I must not be distracted.


25 Gayfield Square: a staging post in my family history

25 Gayfield Square is not as grand as its neighbours, no fanlight above the doorway which appears to lead to a stair. It is on the east side of Gayfield Square, standing 4 stories at the front and six at the rear (owing to Edinburgh’s rolling hillsides).

She was married at No 25, so who lived at there?

Nine names are given in the 1842/43 Edinburgh Post Office Directory, including Mrs Browning who kept lodgings, and a hatter and: Edwin Millidge, jeweller. A connection there. It turns out that Edwin had married Sarah, Ann’s elder sister, in Edinburgh in 1820.

The description of the bride as “relict of the late Rev Colin Bogle, Walls” took me straight to the Fasti.

Ah, the groom was a Minister of the Kirk

Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae: the succession of ministers in the Church of Scotland from the Reformation is an invaluable tool for those, such as I, who are fortunate to have been blessed with a minister ancestor. There, in volume seven, they and the twins were.

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Not quite accurate, Ann and Robert were married on 21st June 1842 (once again she had an older groom, tho probably not as old as the Rev Colin, Robert being born in 1799). I haven’t established Colin’s date of birth but if he was licenced in 1810, almost a year before Ann was born on 14 May 1811, he must have been at least twenty years older than she was. There is a long gap before he obtained his church. A stickit minister.


Walls is on the west coast of the mainland of Shetland. I am looking forward to seeing how it looks today. It is not my impression that the parish of Walls was a well-doing place during the time Ann Wyse lived there. I hope at least that the Rev Colin Bogle managed to get his manse fixed up before he brought his bride home. On the 17th of November 1830, that is less than a year before he married, he ‘represented [to the Lerwick Presbytery] that the repairs which the Presbytery had ordered on his Manse in April last had not been executed with the diligence which the Presbytery had enjoined – that in consequence of there not being even one habitable room in the house, he had been obliged to remove to lodgings at a distance from the manse…’ [CH2/1071/8/10]

By the time of the events of December 1832 and January 1833 the family were living in the manse. Birth and death reported in the same issue of the Aberdeen Journal on Wednesday 6th February 1833:

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There appears to be neither note of burial nor gravestone for the Rev Colin Bogle. Nor is there any record of a baptism for the twins Colina and Jessie. Surely it would have been possible for some colleague to have travelled the twenty odd miles from Lerwick and officiated?

Ann was married (in Glasgow) on 18th August 1831, age 20

She gave birth to twins (in Shetland) on 29 December 1832

Her husband died (in Shetland) on 16 January 1833.

She returned south for she appeared in Edinburgh in relation to her husband’s will  in September 1833.

There is a sad postscript…

Colina and Jessie were  buried together in Edinburgh on 30 December 1833, their interments shown in St Cuthbert’s Parish Register, the head of family given as the late Rev Colin Bogle of Walls, Shetland. Both died of Hooping Cough, Colina on 24th December and Jessie on the 29th, one just before and one after her first birthday.

So now I know what happened to the twins. My lost great-great-aunts if I have counted aright. Perhaps the archives in Lerwick will enable me to get some feeling for conditions in Shetland in the 1830s and some idea of the roads and packet boats which carried my great-great-grandmother to and from the islands.

I hope Ann had some sunny days before all these terrible events. I’m glad she at least survived to settle in more comfortable surroundings. I found a bit more detail of that second wedding in the OPRs:

Untitled copy-1 (dragged)

More of what happened next anon (though some of the outcomes can be found in my ‘Walking back into the past’ posting last year).

And I hope for sunshine, fair winds and no demons for myself when I survey Ultima Thule.


I should like to put on record my gratitude to all those  who transcribe and organise and share records, whether as part of the job, for the benefit of family and friends, or just for the fun of it. Doing history now is a great collaborative enterprise, thank you all.







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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…


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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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What is it about graveyards?

There is something about standing where your ancestors have been. As a child I was wary of graveyards, especially those with human-sized stone chests or with slabs balanced on shadowy bases. After years of foraging for names and dates I am now used to wandering hopefully across roughly cut grass.

The Reverend David Plenderleath (my n times great grandfather whose diary started my quest)  lies in Greyfriars Churchyard in Edinburgh. According to the daughter responsible for starting his diary on its journey to me, he was ‘ordained in Ormiston in 1832, transported to Dalkeith 1756, transported to Edinburgh 1765, died 1779’. The more usual term for the movement of ministers of the Church of Scotland from one parish to another is being ‘called’ rather than ‘transported’. No elaborate gravestone but a simple marker for Mr Plenderleath

Unlike the stone for a well-known inhabitant of Edinburgh which is near by

Greyfriars Bobby

Even where I am sure no ancestors are around, I cannot resist a graveyard. Today it was in West Linton where several stones date from a time when the skills of the stone mason were called on not only to record names and dates but also to provide images that remind the living of what end awaits.

Skull, cross-bones and a floating head, and clearly the work of a less skilled craftsman than the one who created the impressive figure below

Memento mori. Tak’ tent o’ time ere time be tint. We who are still living salute you!

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A voice from the past

I’ve always been aware of my mother’s family tree. There it was inked out meticulously on shelf lining paper by my grandfather and stretching back, selectively (very), to the 1560s. What else, apart from my father’s background, was there to know. Then my mother, visiting, handed over a small leather bound note-book and went on talking to my daughter about everyday things.

Inside the cover was written ‘My Father’s Diary, 1756′. 1756? Just ten years after Culloden and the end of the ’45?

The past opened up like an unexplored ocean…

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