Tag Archives: Aberdeenshire

Was my ancestor wounded at Waterloo?

There is no doubt that a William Fraser from Cruden was wounded at Waterloo. What I can’t prove is that he was my ancestor, although there’s good circumstantial evidence.

I have long suspected that my GGG Grandfather, William Fraser, is the one baptised in Cruden in 1805 – the OPR reads “27 May 1805 John Sangster in Burnthill presented a child to baptism begot in fornication by William Fraser (as the mother Janet Sangster affirms). The child was baptised and named William. Witnesses John Davidson and William Sangster.” William went on to marry in 1828 in the parish of Longside, which borders Cruden to the north-west, and by 1841 was settled at Mosside Croft, close to the parish border between Cruden and Longside, not far from Burnthill (also known as Brunthill). On his death certificate his father is given as William Fraser.

The question has been – who was the William Fraser reputed to be his father? When William born 1805 died in 1877, his son James was the informant for the registration and knew his grandfather was William Fraser but wasn’t able to name his grandmother. So he seems to have known something about the father William but nothing about the mother Janet. This summer I am going up to Aberdeenshire and intend to study the Kirk Session Minutes and Poor Law Records in case they provide any more clues.

However, I have long wondered if the father William was William Frazer baptised 3 January 1778 Cruden, father Donald Frazer. It’s the only one in the OPR that is at all close, though it’s quite possible that the one I’m after isn’t in the OPR. But a William born in Cruden in 1778 puts him in the right age group and the right place.

So yesterday, I revisited this and looked to see whether a William Fraser born in 1778 was still in the area in later years. And he was. He’s in the 1841, 1851 and 1861 census living with relatives at Brick Works, Peterhead. The brickworks were at Invernettie, south of the town of Peterhead and up the main road from Cruden parish. In 1861 William Fraser age 79 is described as a Chelsea Pensioner, which means he was in the army and receiving a pension.

The Chelsea Pensioner records are online, and I found: “92nd Regiment of Highlands: William Fraser Private Soldier in Capn. Angus Fraser’s company, born in the Parish of Cruden, was enlisted at the age of 24 and has served in said regiment for 10 years … in consequence of gun shot wound received in the left hip joint, right thigh and left arm, while in action with the enemy at Waterloo on the 16th & 18th June 1815 is rendered unfit for further service, and is hereby discharged … said William Fraser is about 33 years of age, 5ft 8ins, fair hair, grey eyes and fresh complexion, and by trade is a labourer. Statement of service: 92nd Foot 25 July 1806 to 24 July 1816 and served at Waterloo 2 years.”

His age is a bit out, which wasn’t uncommon for someone who couldn’t read and didn’t have written evidence of birth. He was baptised in 1778, so if he joined up in 1806 he was actually 28 and not 24.That he joined up just a year after the birth of illegitimate William Fraser means he could well have been doing his labouring – as an agricultural labourer most likely – in the Cruden area at the time of William’s conception.

I then downloaded Chelsea Pensioner William’s 1864 death certificate and discovered his parents were Donald Fraser soldier and Margaret Sharp. So he is the William I’ve had my eye on from the OPR baptisms.

Donald Fraser was also in the 92nd Regiment and received a pension. His record reads “Donald Fraser age 51, labourer, born in Scotland, served with 92 Regiment as Sgt., was discharged 1795 after 24 years with ??th Foot and 2 years with 92nd. Discharged due to being old and long in the service, and the regiment being ordered to be reduced, and having been before a pensioner.”

Although Donald was in the army for 25 years up to 1795, it wasn’t continuous service as he’d previously received a pension. It looks as if he was in the army, then settled in Cruden where he married and had children, then enlisted again in the early 1790s when the 92nd Regiment (which became the Gordon Highlanders) was raised due to the war with France.

So although not proven, there’s a possibility that my Fraser ancestors were Gordon Highlanders at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. There’s a nice link to later time, as my grandfather James Fraser fought with the Gordon Highlanders in WW1 and was discharged wounded after being shot at the Battle of the Somme.

When the illegitimate William Fraser born 1805 died in 1877, his son knew who his father was. Was there still a connection? Did army pensioner William Fraser know about his illegitimate son William? Did the family tell the story of his army exploits and wounding at Waterloo? These are unanswerable questions but it makes for a great story!

An awful lot of bastards

I doubt if there’s anyone who can claim to have a family tree without any illegitimate births on it, but it’s clear that my north-east Aberdeenshire lot had the production of bastards down to a fine art. Having researched this to see if there’s an explanation for what was going on, I realise it was pretty normal for their place, time and occupation.

A lot of postings I’ve seen on family history forums assume their ancestors would have been ashamed and guilty of an illegitimate birth, and that it would have been deviant and abnormal behaviour. But often this may not have been the case. In particular, the illegitimacy rate was so high among the farming communities of north-east Aberdeenshire that it must have been seen as normal. And from what I’ve been able to extrapolate from baptism, birth and census data, there was no attempt to hide the fact of illegitimacy.

In nearly all cases, the young woman had been working and living on a farm as a resident servant, and not living with her parents. So had the father. Perhaps there was no opportunity to marry and set up home together or perhaps there hadn’t been any intention to marry. But the resulting child would most often live with its maternal grandparents, on the family croft, while the unmarried mother continued working as a farm servant. Such children can be spotted in the census described as grandchildren, usually carrying their father’s surname even though their parents weren’t married and their father probably wasn’t around. The vast majority of the unmarried mothers subsequently married, but not to the father of their illegitimate offspring. Their child or children from previous liaisons would then have a stepfather, in many cases ultimately taking his name, although sometimes the child stayed with its grandparents.

There’s a very good chapter by historian Andrew Blaikie in the book A History of Everyday Life in Scotland 1800 – 1900 that puts this phenomena into perspective. He also wrote the academic book Illegitimacy, Sex and Society: Northeast Scotland 1750 – 1900 which I’m currently re-reading to get a better understanding of what was going on. It’s not a light read but it’s very good.

One thing I’ve learned, through all this ancestor research, is that you have to resist making judgements about your ancestors based on your own, contemporary viewpoint. Ancestors were constructs of their own time, place and society, so trying to understand them means you need to develop an understanding of the political, economic and social history of their times.

Working as an ag lab until at least age 81

I’ve recently been doing online research into a line that links into my Fraser line by marriage. What a joy it was to come across a marriage of two people who were both baptised in the same parish some years earlier, went on to have all their children baptised in the same parish, and lived long enough to be in the 1841, 1851, 1861 and 1871 census, always at the same address.

It makes me wonder what their life together was like. Peter Watt was born in Bourtie, Aberdeenshire in 1779 and his future wife Helen Alexander in the same parish in 1785. They married in Bourtie in 1805, and over the next 17 years had at least 8 children. They made their first appearance in the census in 1841 at age 60 and 55, at a place with the wonderful name of Meikle Wartle. Peter Watt was a good old ag lab and was still an ag lab at 72 in 1851 and at 81 in 1861. By 1891, at 93 years old, he’d finally progressed to being a retired ag lab.

Most conveniently for their future family historians, they both waited until after the 1871 census to say goodbye to life. Helen went first on 1 January 1872 at 86 and Peter soon followed her in May 1872 at 93. On both death certificates the cause of death is given as simply senile debility. Clearly working as an ag ab for 70 years didn’t do Peter any harm, and puts grumbling about raising the pension age to 66 into perspective!

If all my ancestors had lead lives like theirs I’d have a lot more names on my tree than I do (and I have an awful lot). But on the other hand, I enjoy tussling with a problem. As nice as it was to race backwards so quickly, I suspect my research would start to feel a little dull if it was that easy with all of my ancestors.

Having a Sangster day

It’s snowing again, so I have a good excuse to stay in and do some research. I decided it was time to have a really good look at who my GGG Grandfather William Fraser was, and in particular who his parents were. I already knew he was the illegitimate son of Janet Sangster, from Brunthill croft near Hatton, Aberdeenshire, who, from the baptism entry for her son William, was most likely to have been a daughter of John Sangster.

So thanks to FamilySearch, Ancestry and ScotlandsPeople, I’ve narrowed down the possibilities and think I’ve worked it out. But as the records are thin on the ground it can only be the most likely possibility. I can’t say it’s certain. It does all fit, though.

So the bit about GGG Grandfather William Fraser has now been edited on the Fraser page here, and hopefully there will be more to write about the Fraser/Sangster line going back into the 1700s.