Tag Archives: social history

A coal miner’s will in 1896

John Strachan, a coal miner who lived in Crosshouse near Kilmarnock, was the only Strachan in Ayrshire to have written a will prior to 1900. What he detailed gives a lovely picture of the possessions of a coal miner at the turn of century, as he died in 1896. How I wish I knew if that Family Bible survived!

John would have lived in a two roomed miner’s cottage – the room and the kitchen are mentioned in the will- which seems to have been furnished with quite a few tables and chairs. He had earned enough to buy gold jewellery and a clock. He left his estate to a Trust, which was authorised to ensure his wife, if she survived him, had enough to support her, and then after her death to leave his children the following:

“(First) to give my daughter Mary the chest of drawers and looking glass in room and low chair in kitchen and one plain ring and brooch, (Second) to give to my son Robert my gold chain and the large chair and five small chairs and the small table in the kitchen, (Third) to give to my son John the eight day clock and large kitchen table and gold scarf pin belonging to me, (Fourth) to give to my daughter Elizabeth the dresser and large standard table in kitchen and the mirror in bedrooms and two stoned rings, and (Fifth) to give my son Alexander six chairs, small standard table, bed and blankets and mat in room and gold chain belonging to my wife and the Family Bible.”

John’s wife did survive him, by 5 years.

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Ayrshire “flowerers”

Ayrshire became famous for its embroidered muslin, and many of the girls and women on my family tree are described, in the census, as muslin sewers or flowerers. It was a form of “whitework”, being embroidery hand sewn onto white muslin and incorporating cutwork, and was very popular for cuffs, collars and christening gowns.

Each sewer tended to specialise in a particular pattern, so that the completed piece could be produced by several girls. The work, including the printed paper patterns, was distributed by agents and the girls worked at home, although sewing schools were also set up to teach the girls and sometimes the girls worked there. However, the piece rate pay was low and the work caused eye problems due to doing such intricate work for long hours in dim light. Work was commissioned by large firms who sold it to fashion houses all over Europe and even to the USA. The christening robe worked by Queen Victoria’s eldest son was made by the Rowat family of Dundonald.

The industry was killed off in the late 1800s when machine embroidery such as broderie anglaise meant such work could be mass produced.

Examples of Ayrshire whitework can be seen here – http://www.futuremuseum.co.uk/collections/arts-crafts/crafts/ayrshire-needlework.aspx
An article explaining how the industry was organised can be found here – http://www.electricscotland.com/History/industrial/industry13.htm

Ancestor not a big fan of Bonnie Prince Charlie

I’ve always wondered whether my Scottish ancestors were Jacobites and on the side of Charles Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) during the 1745 uprising. By no means all Scots were. My Strachan ancestors were lowlanders so were unlikely to have supported the Jacobite cause. My Aberdeenshire ancestors, however, lived close to Peterhead, where Charles Stuart’s ship landed in 1745 after sailing from France – but they were also Protestants, and one of the reasons for not supporting the Jacobites was the fear they’d turn Britain into a Roman Catholic country again.

However, many people possibly weren’t too bothered about politics and simply did their best to get on with their day to day life. Ian Macdonald’s lovely book about the Alexanders from Bourtie gives this wonderful insight. In the section about William Alexander, born 1714 and my gggggg grandfather, Ian writes:

‘He (William) gets a mention in a book by Dr William Alexander, which says that in 1745, during the second Jacobite uprising, there was a skirmish called the battle of Inverurie, during which “the tenant of Westerhouses, having in pursuit of his lawful business, got sufficiently near the scene of conflict to hear the balls fired off whizzing past in uncomfortable proximity to him, deemed it wise to make his way across the burgh muir homeward without needless delay”. Otherwise the Kirk Session simply complained about the inconvenience of the unsettled conditions.’

So life went on as best it could for many Scots!

Interesting statistics: average age of death

I’ve been playing with the statistics feature of the software I use for my family tree, and it comes up with some fascinating stuff.

For my Strachan tree, the average age of death is 47. Hardly anyone died at that age, though: the average age is low because so many died within the first three years of life. In fact, around 13.5% of the deaths happened before the age of 3 and 20% had died by the time they were 10 years old.

At the other end of the scale, 3.5% of them made it into their 90s, 9.2% signed off in their 80s, and 15% popped their clogs during their 70s. That makes 27.7% reaching what we could call old age.

My Strachan tree dates back to the 1700s with most of the people on it living during the 1800s. Given that nearly all the men were coal miners and many of the women gave birth to an awful lot of children, and considering the crowded and unsanitary conditions in which they must have lived, my Strachans appear to have been a pretty tough lot.

Random thoughts sparked over the last few days

A couple of things had me thinking about family history over the last few days. I watched, on television, a repeat of the Olympics Opening Ceremony from last summer and was struck by how Danny Boyle’s “from rural serenity to industrial chaos” spectacular so very much summed up my family history.

In Yorkshire, my Green ancestors came from the small village of Worsbrough which, before the railways, the coal mines and the sprawl of Barnsley took their toll, must have been absolutely beautiful. They were innkeepers and, before the advent of the railway, that meant coaching inns where horses were kept and changed, coach travellers ate and refreshed themselves and sometimes stayed overnight. Today’s equivalent is probably a motorway services area.

Up in Ayrshire my ancestors entered the industrial age early, as they were coal miners from at least 1770. But the enormous growth in coal mining that resulted from industrialisation, with coal used to power railways, steam ships and factories, as the fuel burnt to smelt iron and eventually to create electricity, meant they were never unemployed, although they did move from mine to mine as pits closed and new ones opened. It was incredibly hard, physical labour, though, and the landscape of Ayrshire was irrevocably changed.

In Aberdeenshire, my ancestors clung on to a rural, almost peasant way of life as long as they could, and much of where they lived remains agricultural. But following the various branches, it becomes obvious that working as a farm servant and eventually getting a lease on a croft had ceased to be the young men’s dream before the First World War. And I don’t suppose any of my ancestors, when they walked along the beach at Cruden Bay, ever thought the north sea oil pipeline would run underneath it.

Then I met up with a friend who’s also a keen family historian, and we were swapping stories about the traumas and tragedies that can be found on both our family trees. It occurred to me that we often focus on such events because they are out of the ordinary, and they tell a story. A series of census entries and births for a happy family leading a blameless life doesn’t add up to a stand-out life story, unfortunately. So it becomes all too easy to know all about the joyless aspects of your ancestors’ lives and not much at all about their joyful moments. They must have had them, and they do seem to have been focussed on family and neighbours, many of whom were also work colleagues.

But have we lost the sense of community that was once so strong? I remember when I found an electoral roll list for the street my mother lived on when she was young, and copied it out to show her. Instead of looking at it, she went into her memory and managed to name, and give details about, nearly all the families who lived on the same street as she did when she was 10 years old. I know four of my neighbours by name and have regular conversations with two of them – that’s all. Most of the others I simply nod at in passing, and wave to if we happen to be putting the bins out at the same time. We may be far better off than our ancestors in monetary terms, but I suspect they may have had a richness to their lives we now lack.

My trip to Scotland

Day one took me through Northumberland, with a couple of stops to see Roman sites, and then up into Scotland. On the road heading towards Jedburgh, this is the sight you’re waiting for.

Scotland sign
It’s in a lay-by and viewpoint, so you can park there and admire the undulations of border country.

Then it was off to Jedburgh, where there’s an abbey next to the river.

Jedburgh
In the car park I met Donald, a dale pony cross having a bit of break during a journey in a horsebox.

The next day I spent in Edinburgh at the records centre, trawling through the Longside kirk session minutes. This took all day, by the end of which my eyes felt as if they were on stalks. But the Longside minutes proved very useful as it was obviously a parish that took chasing up couples who’d “sinned” before marriage very seriously indeed. Made notes of lots of names that might belong on my tree, then struck gold: my gggg grandparents, who married in 1800, were fined 10 shillings each for indulging in pre-marital fornication. More about this is another post.

After Edinburgh it was up into the Cairngorms, through Braemar. Absolutely stunning scenery and the weather was glorious – warm and sunny. It is magnificent up there, though odd to drive past ski lifts when there’s no snow around. Difficult to take photos of distant views as they never come out as it looks in real life. But it is jaw-droppingly beautiful.

Highland view
Typical Highland view

Next day went to Balmoral, which was better than I was expecting. They’ve made it into a very good visitor attraction, and I’m not surprised the Royals love it there.

Balmoral
The castle itself is not huge, for a castle, and the grounds are mainly natural, but with a very interesting kitchen garden.

Queen's kitchen garden
This is the Queen’s veggie plot!

A walk along the River Dee was blissful.

River Dee
Beautiful scenery, lots of bird life and incredibly peaceful.

Then it was a drive towards the coast the next day, stopping to see castles, scenery and visit the Museum of Farming Life at Aden Country Park. There’s an excellent exhibition there, with a very good booklet that I bought telling the story of the transition from the early farmtouns to modern day farming. My ancestors were very much part of this transition so I found it fascinating.

Horseman's cottage
A reconstruction of a farm worker’s living room in the 1930s.

I made friends while there with two very nosy young cattle.
Friendly cattle
There’s also a rebuilt farmer’s cottage on the site, moved stone by stone and decorated as it was in the 1950s.

It was then time to visit ancestral haunts: first on the list was Collieston, where my gg grandfather Alexander Fraser lived and worked at least twice before he took over the family croft.

Collieston
Although not fisherfolk, my Fraser ancestors were familiar with the sea and the little fishing villages dotted along the Aberdeenshire coast.

Next stop was Cruden old Kirk. Last time I was there I took photos of the Fraser gravestone, giving details of my great grandfather, his second wife and two of their children. It was lying on its side then, as it had broken. So huge disappointment this time as it was no longer there – gone due to Health and Safety regulations I expect.

Cruden Old Kirk
There was no-one at the Kirk to ask, but I wonder what happens to stones that are removed for safety reasons.

Off to Mosside Croft next, north-east of Hatton. It was a ruin last time I saw it and it clearly hadn’t been touched since. Sad to think that over 100 years of blood, sweat and toil is now going to waste, but at least it’s still there.

Mosside Croft
I’d love to know when this cottage was built, as it isn’t the one that would have been there in 1841.

A wider view of the croft shows the steadings alongside, where the farm animals lived and machinery was stored. There are two here and the one nearest the cottage is clearly a lot older than the second one.
Mossude and steadings
My mother remembers holidaying here in the 1920s, and the field in front of the cottage was sown to crops, with grazing for the cows behind. My half great grandmother made cheese, they had hens for eggs and meat, and kept a pig for fattening up.

It seems very isolated now, but it wasn’t really: nearby crofts were only a very short walk away and a lot of farming tasks would be co-operative, crofters helping each other with ploughing and harvesting.
Nearby crofts to Mosside
That’s Hardslacks to the right and behind of Mosside croft.

Up towards Peterhead next, as many of my ancestors were quarry workers at Stirlinghill – a quarry that’s still in operation. Next to it is Lendrum Terrace, an address that turns up on the census as my gg aunt Mary Ann Fraser married David Ewan Michael, and they lived at Lendrum Terrace.

Lendrum Terrace and Quarry
In those days the view out to sea, taking in Boddam and Peterhead must have been spectacular. Today it’s somewhat marred by a rather large blot on the landscape.

View from Lendrum Terrace
Yes, it’s a power station!

Power is something Aberdeenshire produces plenty of: there are wind turbines everywhere. I know not everyone is a fan, but personally I think they look much nicer than a power station.

I had thought of perhaps spending a day in Aberdeen in the Local Studies Library but didn’t in the end: the weather was far too good to spend a day inside. So much of the time was spent soaking up the sun and fresh air.

Then it was a long drive back home, and farewell to Scotland – until next time.

So many with the same name

Did a bit more on the “Robert Strachan Story” today, but kept getting in a bit of a tangle due to the same names occurring over and over again. The Scottish naming pattern can be very useful, but it also causes problems. Robert and Margaret had 9 children, and Robert had another 6 with his second wife, with 11 of his offspring having large families of their own. That means 11 boys named Robert after their grandfather, and at least 6 girls called Margaret.

It’s made me wonder how many of the most popular Strachan names are on my tree, so I’ve done a search and count (which thankfully my tree software has made easy). And the prizes go to:

John Strachan – 28
Jean, Jeanie or Jane Strachan – 24 (these 3 names were interchangeable)
Robert Strachan – 23
Agnes Strachan – 21
Margaret Strachan – 20 (also my middle name, so I no longer think it’s boring!)
Mary Strachan – 20
Janet Strachan – 18
Elizabeth Strachan – 17
Susan or Susannah Strachan – 17
Peter Strachan – 14
Henry Strachan – 13
Thomas Strachan – 13
William Strachan – 13
James Strachan – 11
Joseph Strachan – 10

No doubt the numbers will grow as I find more people who belong on my tree.

I must do this for my three other grandparents’ trees as there are clear regional and family differences.