Thomas Strachan, my earliest known Strachan ancestor
The earliest evidence for a proven Strachan ancestor is the marriage of Thomas Strachan (recorded as Straghen) and Susannah Alexander on the 15th of July 1771 in the Old Parish Register (OPR) for Irvine. The same OPR contains the baptisms of their eldest children: the entry for their sixth child in 1784 describes Thomas as a collier, and that of their seventh in 1786 as a coalhewer. So Thomas Strachan was working as a coal miner in the 1780s and most probably would have been working down the mines since quite a young age.
The port at Irvine was used to ship coal to Ireland. The 1781 Statistical Account of Scotland says the parish of Irvine was home to about 150 coal hewers, and the coals mined there were “excellent quality, make a very quick and cheerful fire and … bring the highest prices in Ireland.”
C A Whatley in his book The Finest Place for a Lasting Colliery: Coal Mining Enterprise in Ayrshire c.1600-1840, tells of how the Ayrshire coal mines of the 1700s were close to harbours: “in 1744 … 97% of Scottish coal sent to Ireland originated in Ayrshire”. In 1761 there was a sharp rise in the price of coal which, combined with a high rate of population growth in Dublin, saw new mines being sunk along the Ayrshire coast, and “in 1762 Irvine Town Council set down two shafts on the common green”. Could Thomas Strachan have been working at these Irvine mines?
However, the 1781 Statistical Account also describes the bordering Parish of Dundonald as having an “abundance of coal. … At Shewalton a seeing coal is wrought both for use of the people in the town and neighbourhood of Irvine, and for exportation.” (A seeing coal is one which burns with a flame.) Maps of the 1800s show several coal pits surrounding the town of Irvine, south of the town by the border of Dundonald parish, including at Shewalton, and west of Irvine in the Dreghorn parish. So Thomas may have worked at one of the collieries just outside the Irvine parish borders.
Thomas is likely to have had family working in the same mines as he worked, due to coal mining being an occupation that very much ran in families. However, the OPRs do not record anyone in the area who can be proven to be a relative of Thomas Strachan or his wife Susannah Alexander.
The early spelling of the surname Strachan
Surnames are a relatively recent convention in Scotland, with many not using a handed down surname until the 1600s and even early 1700s. A consistent way of spelling Strachan did not become common until well into the 1800s. There are also two pronunciations. ‘Strawn’ or ‘Stra-han’ with the silent ch is dervied from the gaelic pronunciation (both Scottish and Irish gaelic), whereas ‘Stracken’ with the gutteral ch comes from the Scots language pronunciation. The present day village of Strachan is pronounced ‘Strawn’ but the majority of Strachans living today in Scotland call themselves ‘Stracken’. (“Stracken” is how I pronounce my surname.)
The OPRs for Ayrshire show a wide range of spellings for what became standardised as Strachan. There are very few surviving OPR entries for the 1600s but those that remain contain Strathern (used in Kilmarnock), Strahan, Strahorn and Streorn (used at various times in Ayr), Strathern (used in Mauchline and Ochiltree), and Strehorn (used in Ochiltree). There are a lot more entries for the name in the Ayrshire OPRs of the 1700s but there were also over thirty different spellings in use for what was probably Strachan.
Such a wide variation in spelling was due to Kirk Ministers and Parish Clerks simply writing down what they heard, as widespread illiteracy meant most people did not know how to write their name. If a surname was rare within a parish, then the keeper of the Parish Register was unlikely to be familiar with it and would invent his own phonetic approximation. Standardised spelling evolved during the 1800s and developed rapidly once levels of literacy began to improve, but what may have started off as the same surname sometimes evolved into several surname varients.
Spelling variations for Strachan can be found in the Ayrshire OPRs throughout the early to mid 1800s, and also in the certificates issued from 1855 when Statutory Registration of births, marriages and death become compulsory. By the time of the 1881 census, however, most of the variations had disappeared and 290 people in Ayrshire had the surname Strachan. The only variants to be found in 1881 were:
Strahan: only 4 in Ayrshire but 145 throughout the UK mainly in Lancashire, Surrey and London. There is an Irish surname Strahan that could well be related to Strachan.
Strawhorn: 24 in the UK with 13 of them in Ayrshire. This is now a surname in its own right and originates with the spelling used in the OPRs for the Tarbolton, Ochiltree and Old Cumnock areas of Ayrshire. It probably has the same origin as the surname Strachan, and gives an indication of how Strachan was pronounced back in the 1700s.
Strahorn: 3 in the UK, all in the same family in Hurlford, Ayrshire. This could be a misspelling by a census enumerator or an early variation that family chose to stick with.
Where are the Strachans of Ayrshire from?
Look up a surnames dictionary and it will say Strachan originates from the place named Strachan in Kincardineshire. That area probably acquired its name from the Gaelic ‘strath’ meaning broad valley and ‘awen’ for a small river. The first recorded use of the name to describe a person was in 1153 and it was written as Strateyhan: this is unlikely to have been a surname but rather a descriptor used to differentiate someone by where they were from.
It’s possible our distant ancestors came from the Strachan area of Kincardineshire, or they could have served or been serfs to a family with the name Strachan and taken that name when surnames became common. But a more likely place of origin prior to Ayrshire is Ireland.
The Donegal connection
Andrew Barrell, medieval historian at Queen’s University Belfast, has researched the family of Strahan who lived in Donegal, at the northern tip of Ireland. A Strahan ruling family is documented there in 1204, but they may have arrived there from Scotland during the settlement of Ireland by the Normans (and may even have come from the Strachan area of Kincardineshire). There was a Strahan settlement near Carrigart in Donegal, next to a river and a bridge which are both still known as Strahan. The remains of the settlement have been studied, and point to a habitation date of 1550s to 1600s but it was abandoned before 1700, at which point the Strahans disappear from Donegal records. The most likely explanation is they gradually drifted to Ayrshire, which is a short journey by boat. The family could well have been Roman Catholic at that stage.
To quote Andrew Barrell: ‘This was a time when many Irish families were leaving to escape religious persecution. Geography and well established sailing routes would make a ‘best guess’ that some of them went to the West Coast of Scotland, though no hard evidence has been found.’
According to Ivan Strahan, who has done a great deal of research into the Irish Strahans, ‘the origin of the Strahan family (or families) is shrouded in mystery. One possibility is that there were two unrelated families with the name Strahan: one an Irish Strahan family, originating in Donegal and taking their name from the Irish Gaelic word for a small river (Struthan), and another, a Scots Strahan family, originating on the east coast of Scotland and taking their name from the Scots Gaelic for river valley. The other possibility is there was one family, originating in Scotland and splitting into Irish and Scottish families at a very early date. The evidence is inconclusive.’
The Ulster connection
Another possibility is that our early Strachan ancestors went to Northern Ireland during the Plantations. In 1608, King James I confiscated Ulster land and gave it to a number of wealthy British (both English and Scottish) landowners on the condition they transported tenant families from their own estates. By the 1660s, about 8,000 Scottish men plus their families had been settled there but many did not stay, due to the political and religious unrest that frequently lead to violence. The quickest route out of Northern Ireland, and the cheapest, is to Ayrshire. So it is possible that our Strachans came from Kincardineshire, were transplanted to Ulster in the 1600s, and from there migrated back to Scotland where they found work in Ayrshire.
The coal mining connection
Coal mining in Scotland began, as a commercial industry, mainly in the region south of Kincardineshire along the Forth coastline, and was well established there by the mid 1500s. It is possible that one or more of our ancestors may have moved there from the Strachan area in search of work and adopted their surname to denote where they came from. With the later development of coal mining in Ayrshire, one or more Strachans could have been sent there by mining investors, or went of their own accord, to work in the new mines.
In Ayrshire, commercial coal mining dates from the late 1600s when Sir Robert Cunninghame developed the harbour at Saltcoats in order to export coal from his Stevenston pits to take advantage of the growing demand for coal from Ireland. During the 1700s many more Ayrshire coal mines were developed to exploit the rich seams that could be found there.
Strachans in the Ayrshire OPRs for the 1700s
There is a birth for a Thomas Strachan recorded in the OPR for Muirkirk: “1749 Strachan, Thomas. Bastard son of Thomas Strachan and Agnes Patrick was born 23rd June and baptized on the 2nd July in the kirk.” It is tempting to assume this is my Thomas, given that there is a baptism for a Susannah Alexander, the name of his wife, in 1752 in Auchinleck, the next-door parish to Muirkirk. Thomas also named one of his daughters Agnes. However, there is also a Thomas Strarn born and baptised in January 1748 in Kilmarnock, son of Thomas Strarn and Marrion Smith which cannot be discounted.
It has to be born in mind, though, that the surviving OPR records of baptisms and marriages are by no means complete due to so many kirks not keeping accurate records or having records that have survived. Not only did many events not get recorded, but as the General Register of Scotland states, “The Old Parish Registers were deposited with the General Register Office for Scotland under the 1854 Registration Act. However, the condition of the registers varied enormously – some were well looked after and neatly written, while others were incomplete, badly kept, eaten by mice, affected by damp or missing altogether.” In addition, many people didn’t always have their children baptised, especially if they had to pay a fee to the Minister, a practice which did not become unlawful until 1872. An added factor is that in Scotland many couples had an “irregular” marriage ceremony, unblessed by the auspices of the kirk but which was considered legally binding.
As a result, being able to find an entry for a baptism or marriage in the OPRs is never guaranteed, and there were no doubt many Strachans in Ayrshire in the 1700s for whom there is no record. Of the OPR entries that do exist for Strachan, the name can be found in most of the coal mining areas of Ayrshire, and also in some of the coal mining areas of Lanarkshire. Whether I am descended from or related to any of the pre-1800s Strachans who managed to have their baptism or marriage recorded will remain unknown, although it is likely there is a connection to at least some of them.
My proven Strachan story therefore offically starts with the 1771 marriage in Irvine of Thomas Strachan and Susannah Alexander. The story prior to that date can only remain conjecture.