Thursday, 24 July 2014

Beyond the census - Woodhead lead mines, Carsphairn

It’s difficult, sometimes, to look at places today and imagine how they used to be. It’s particularly poignant to see only ruins of places where whole communities once lived and thrived. Moss grows on old stones, and people forget small histories.

In the parish of Carsphairn, up in the hills, we find the long-abandoned Woodhead lead mines. It is peaceful – no echoes remain of the heavy sounds of industry that were once heard here. Although ruinous, we can still see the foundations of the manager’s home, the terraced houses of the miners, the schoolhouse and the smelt mill. The mine shafts themselves were blocked up with rubbish when the mine was closed – unassailed by the elements they remain in good condition.

Mining in Woodhead was started in 1838 by the proprietor Colonel MacAdam Cathcart. After discovering that greywacke on the surface was rich in lead, he led an excavation 20 feet deep which confirmed his hopes. There was a great deal of money to be made in lead at the time, and the Colonel was swift to construct not only a mine but an entire village surrounding the works. An 1856 publication described the process thus:

By degrees miners were collected, cottages reared, furnaces, smelting-houses, and other necessary accommodations followed; and where not a solitary shieling appeared before, rows, or streets of cottages now adorn heights eclipsing in size the village of Lagwyne [Carsphairn] below, to say nothing of public works and their gradual extension, which, in the course of little more than three years, have drawn together a body of artisans who have raised the population of the parish from 500 in 1831, to 790 souls in 1841.

The construction of entire model villages around mines was not unusual at the time, with many industrialists providing housing and community amenities for their workers. The village at Woodhead included a library and a school for workers’ children. Our census records for the schoolhouse read thus:  


James  Irvine

Teacher of English
Roxburgh, Ancrum

Ann Irvine

Roxburgh, Jedburgh

James and Ann Irvine would have taught the children until only about twelve years of age. Boys from the age of eight were employed in the washing and dressing of the lead ore and would have attended school only during the winter, when the conditions became too harsh to work. Girls from around the same age would have assumed a number of household duties. Childhood was short, and practically prepared children for their future roles.

Lead mining continued at Woodhead until 1873, producing at its peak around 900 tons of lead a year.  Hundreds made their homes in this remote village in Scotland. Now, only ruins and passed-down memories can recall the mining community which once brought life to these hills. 

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Tale from a Shetland cemetery

It may seem odd to have a favourite graveyard – I’m not entirely sure. Genealogists certainly spend an above average amount of time in such places (second only to gravediggers and groundskeepers). Some graveyards are grand, with marbled angels standing mute and magnificent over the graves of past illustrious personages. Others are small and tucked away, grey headstones recording the patient lives of ordinary people - a name and two dates providing a starting point for research.

One short dash between the dates on a gravestone may be the only indicator of a whole lifetime. Sometimes, however, the gravestones yield more insights into the deceased’s life – or death. One small graveyard in a corner of the Shetland mainland has it all – the scenery, the stones and the story.

Eshaness cemetery © Nicholas Davidson

Eshaness cemetery is tiny – perhaps fifteen hundred square metres, walled off from the surrounding fields. It’s set on a long green slope leading up to the lighthouse and the famous Eshaness cliffs. The land is salted with sheep and lambs, the occasional wild bird startles the scene. It’s difficult to imagine a more peaceful place. Yet in this spot 166 years ago a gravestone was laid by a bereaved friend seething with grief and rage, now immortalised in stone and memory.

Donald Robertson, born 14th January 1785, died 4th June 1848, aged 63 years.
He was a peaceable, quiet man and to all appearance a sincere Christian.
His death was much regretted, which was caused by the stupidity of Laurence Tulloch in Clothister (Sullom) who sold him nitre instead of Epsom salts by which he was killed in the space of 5 hours after taking a dose of it.

Much regretted © Nicholas Davidson

37-year-old Laurence Tulloch was brought to trial in Lerwick on August 19th 1848 where he was charged with ‘culpable homicide and the reckless and negligent sale of Saltpetre instead of Epsom Salts’. The case was heard by sheriff Charles Neaves and a jury of fifteen men, who pronounced Tulloch guilty yet asked for leniency due to his good character. Nonetheless, the knowledge of what he had done and the ostracism by the community led Tulloch and his family to leave the isles not long after, never to return.

Remote © Ceris Aston
If you’re as fascinated by the story as we were, check out the local HEARD website for more on both the deceased and the man responsible for his death.

In the meantime, why not tell us about your own favourite graveyards?

Happy #throwbackthursday!

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Into the archives - McVitie's

One of the exciting things about a trip to the National Records of Scotland is that you never quite know what you’ll discover. The other day we were delving into court records from the mid-1800s, many of which exist as small brittle bundles of notes and relevant documents tied up with string. One such bundle, pertaining to a case of land ownership, yielded a few pages from an old newspaper – the relevant information outlined in pen.

General Register House © Ceris Aston

Our eyes were drawn, however, to the advertisements – one Mrs Carstairs, Fruiterer and Florist, announcing her upcoming move to ‘those Central and Commodious Premises in the ROYAL EMPORIUM’. Another: James Carstairs, Poulterer & Game Dealer, respectfully intimating that his new premises open ‘THIS DAY… with a complete Stock of the very best POULTRY, GAME, &c.’

We delighted in the formality and archaic language of the adverts – even in the capitalisation of the nouns. These 19th-century shopkeepers were savvy though, with Mrs Carstairs being quick to address the announcement to ‘her numerous Customers’, and James Carmichael invoking loyalty and respect for tradition as the ‘Grandson and Successor to the late Mrs Janet Young’. Modern advertising still uses some of the same techniques – just not in quite such a polite manner!

Delving into the records © Maxwell Ancestry
Then we glimpsed a familiar name.

begs gratefully to acknowledge the very flattering amount of patronage which he has received since he entered the above Premises; and at the same time respectfully intimates, that having had his accommodation increased, he has commenced the CONFECTIONARY in connection with his LOAF-BREAD BUSINESS, and assures his Friends and Patrons that they may rely on everything produced being of the very best quality. (North British Advertiser, Jan. 1st, 1853).

We looked it up – how could we not? And it was he. One Mr Robert McVitie, born 1809, taking his first steps towards a future which would give the world the McVitie’s digestive biscuit. The baking dynasty which he founded still flourishes today and digestives are arguably the nation’s favourite biscuit. As we sit with a cuppa and a nice dunkable digestive, we reflect that McVitie’s 1853 decision to expand into confectionary was, all things considered, a good move.

It’s fascinating to find records of such moments, especially when we are familiar with the stories or legacies from long ago events. We’re looking forward to our next find – see you next #throwbackthursday!

Sunday, 15 June 2014

The archives of the National Trust for Scotland

I was privileged to hear a most interesting talk at the Galloway Family History Fair yesterday, it was regarding the archives of the National Trust for Scotland (NTS).

Ian Riches, the Trust’s archivist, began the talk by outlining the history of the NTS. He quoted Sir John Stirling Maxwell, a founder member of the NTS, who said; “The National Trust for Scotland serves the nation as a cabinet into which it can put some of its valuable things, where they will be perfectly safe for all time, and where they are open to be seen and enjoyed by everyone.”

This has certainly proved true, the NTS has large estates, stately homes, castles, large gardens, small gardens, tenement houses, paintings, furniture and, of interest to all of us, archives!

A large component of the NTS archive are the papers relating to properties whilst they have been in the care of the NTS, the business of the Trust if you like. It takes 400 boxes to contain the minutes of the NTS! These will certainly be of great interest to anybody researching the history of a property in the care of the NTS.

Haddo House

As well as paperwork relating to the organisation they also have estate papers for some properties. Ian told us about how 18th and 19th century estate papers were found in a coal bunker at Haddo House! If your ancestor worked on the estate these could be really useful. Thanks to the work of the Trust these have been preserved for the benefit of everybody who needs to access them. Note however that not every property has an archive, the papers may still be with the family or they could have been deposited at the National Records of Scotland.

One of their great archives is on the Scottish island of Canna where, amongst other things, they hold sound recordings dating from the 1930’s that were collected by John Lorne Campbell. Thanks to the work of the NTS you can hear these recording online. If your ancestors lived on Canna or a neighbouring island you may be privileged to find a recording made by them, but even if this is not the case, still take time to listen to the voices of the past and imagine the lives your ancestors led.

To round off this fascinating talk, Ian showed us some true treasures from the NTS archive. One was a journal written by John Ross, a supply teacher on St. Kilda, and the other was a diary kept by Alice MacLachlan, a school teacher on St. Kilda and the wife of Peter MacLachlan, the minister there in 1909. These firsthand accounts were fascinating to read and we were delighted to hear that the trust plans to digitise these treasures and make them available online in the near future. You can see a wee glimpse into the diary contained on the first page of this PDF from the NTS.

Perhaps reading this you think it would be useful to your research to investigate what theTrust holds which could help you. Work is underway to create an online catalogue, a mammoth task! In the meantime contact Ian Riches and he will do what he can to help you

Friday, 23 May 2014

The National Records of Scotland - How Many Images are in the Virtual Volumes?

When you think of the National Records of Scotland (NRS), you may conjure up an image of ancient and dusty documents tied up with ribbon. Of course, that is not entirely incorrect, as there is indeed plenty of that to be found! Increasingly though, modern technology is coming to the rescue of these precious documents and the landscape now looks quite different!

When you now enter the Historical Search room you will see on your left a bank of computers, ten in total. These are the computers you use to access the NRS’ Virtual Volumes system.

The Historical Search Room
By kind permission of the National Records of Scotland

For a considerable time now, the NRS have been digitally imaging a wide variety of documents from their holdings. This means that rather than producing the original documents, which can be so easily damaged, you can view full-colour images of them on a computer terminal in the search room. I have noticed that on a number of occasions recently almost every computer desk has been occupied. On glancing towards the busy searchers at the computer desks the other day a question popped into my mind: just how many images are now available on the Virtual Volumes system? Being a curious soul (I think it comes with the job description) I had to ask. Thanks to one of the NRS archivists, Dr Stefanie Metze, I can tell you there are currently the staggering total of 59,324,163 images accessible on Virtual Volumes!

What documents and books are included in these 59,324,163 images, and why have the NRS gone to all this bother?

Stairs to the Historical Search Room
By kind permission of the National Records of Scotland
This figure includes some of the images of some of the documents which are available on, such as the Valuation Rolls, Wills and Testaments. It also includes some of the images available on, including historical tax records such as the Hearth Tax and Farm Horse Tax. It does not, though, include the images of birth, marriages, deaths, OPRs or census records; to view these on site you will need go downstairs to the Scotland’s People Centre and pay an entrance fee to view those images on the Scotland’s People system. The Historical Search room of the NRS is free to use for historical and genealogical searches.

Some of the most popular records which are available on the Virtual Volumes system are the Kirk Session records. The Register of Sasines is also a frequently viewed source (sasines generally record the transfer of heritable property between people) and are therefore a fundamental tool for genealogists. They often name relationships and give other useful information which might be difficult to find anywhere else, especially in early periods where fewer sources may be available. House historians and others with an interest in local history will also utilise these records to find out more about particular pieces of land. Fortunately, there is an index to most sasines which exists from 1780 onwards. Prior to 1780 most of the sasines are available as digital images on the Virtual Volumes system, but the existing indexes are still available in paper form. The archivists will show you where these indexes are and how to use them.

Entrance to the National Records of Scotland
By kind permission of the National Records of Scotland
Other records which have been digitally imaged include some of the Register of Deeds, which is again a fundamental research tool, and also the records of non-Church of Scotland Kirk Sessions, which contain substantial numbers registers of births, marriages and deaths.

By imaging records which are regularly consulted the originals can be better preserved. Another advantage is that you can view documents very quickly, as there is no need to order them and wait for them to be brought to your desk.

It can be useful to know before you go to the Historic Search Room which of the documents you wish to consult are available on Virtual Volumes, and which are not. Check the NRS catalogue: a yellow dot is usually present if the document has been digitally imaged. Click into the item details and look under  ‘Access conditions’, if it has been digitally imaged it will tell you there.

One final thing, once you find what you are looking for, hit the print button and for just 50 pence you will be given an A3 full colour copy of the document!

Thursday, 22 May 2014


Three-day event coming to Scotland for the first time this summer!
Genealogy enthusiasts can now get their hands on tickets for the first ever Who Do You Think You Are? Live Scotland event taking place at the SECC in Glasgow from 29-31 August.
Who Do You Think You Are? Live Scotland, which is supported by Homecoming Scotland, will help family historians of all levels to unravel their roots and build a picture of their ancestors’ lives. The three-day show will be home to leading experts, informative workshops, archives and museums, major online subscription sites and one of largest gatherings of family history organisations.
Scheduled to tie in with the Scottish ‘Year of Homecoming’, which celebrates the ancestry theme, Who Do You Think You Are? Live Scotland will complement the hundred-plus ancestral, clan and family events that feature in a year-long programme of celebrations of Scotland’s unique culture and identity.
Who Do You Think You Are? Live Scotland will follow the format of the established event that has been held in London’s Olympia since 2006, bringing some of the most popular features to Glasgow’s SECC. Highlights will include:

  • Ask the Experts – Bought to you by the Society of Genealogists, the Ask the Experts area will provide an opportunity to get free one-to-one guidance on your family history research. Whether you are stuck finding an elusive ancestor or just need help to get started, this will be the perfect chance to pose specific questions to an expert who can provide invaluable advice. 
  • Society of Genealogists’ Workshops – An extensive programme of free workshops by leading genealogists will run over the course of the three-day show. Full details and a timetable will be released shortly.
  • Photography Gallery – A free, unticketed service dedicated to the photos of our past, with experts on hand to investigate visitors’ valuable family photos and artefacts.
Andy Healy, Show Director, commented: “Who Do You Think You Are? Live Scotland will be a must-attend event for anyone with an interest in family history. Whether you’re a seasoned researcher or just starting out, don’t miss this exciting opportunity to take your genealogy journey further.”
Tourism Minister Fergus Ewing said: “I am delighted that Who Do You Think You Are? Live is coming to Glasgow and is one of over 800 events included in the Homecoming Scotland 2014 programme. With Scotland’s rich and enviable culture and heritage, ancestral tourism is hugely important to Scotland’s economy and events like this help to raise the profile and reach an even wider audience.” 

The event is based on the popular television programme, produced by Wall to Wall (a Shed Media Group company), which will celebrate its 100th episode later this year. To date, the series has seen the likes of Alan Cumming, Annie Lennox, David Tennant, Fiona Bruce, David Mitchell and Alistair McGowan trace their family trees to reveal the surprising, extraordinary and often moving stories of their ancestors.
Tickets for Who Do You Think You Are? Live Scotland are available now online at or by calling 0844 873 7330. Advanced single tickets are priced £14 for adults, £24 for a two-day ticket and £30 for a three-day ticket, while children under 16 go free.

With thanks to Carolyn Wray, Immediate Media

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Love in the Archives

Regular readers of my blog may remember that I wrote about the ‘Notices of Admissions by the Superintendent of the Mental Institutions’ a while ago. They are very interesting documents held by the National Records of Scotland under the reference MC2.

These records can help with genealogy and add to your personal family story. More than that though, they are of national importance as they document a period when doctors and others were trying to get to grips with mental health problems. Each record includes the reports of two doctors, both on what they have observed and on what has been reported.

Yesterday I came across a record that described a poor young chap this way:

‘Falling in Love with many Ladies at the same time...’

It seems from these records that the poor lad also thought he was going to be poisoned and seems to have turned to drink. I’ll try and find out what happened to him, I hope it all turned out well!

It just shows the value of searching records beyond the obvious Birth, Marriage, Death and Census records. To properly research your family tree you need to get to know what is available both in the National Records of Scotland and local archives.

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