O is for Obituaries and old age
Two days ago, I wrote about death (in the guise of mortcloths), and yesterday's blog was about newspapers. So I thought I'd continue with a morbid approach to blogging by writing about obituaries. Obituaries have a long tradition, and most newspapers have at the very least carried what is often jocularly referred to as Hatches, matches and dispatches (Births, marriages and deaths).
In historic Scottish newspapers, these notices are usually fairly brief, and generally only mention the great and the good - either national figures, or prominent local figures. Ordinary people usually didn't get a look in. One instance in which ordinary people would be mentioned was if they lived to a ripe old age. Even today, centenarians are relatively uncommon, but in the 19th century, they were sufficiently rare as to be reported in newspapers often far removed from where they lived.
Our first centenarian is Isobel Taylor or Alice/Ellis, whose death was reported in 1818:
Died in Old Assembly Close on 23d ult, Mrs Isobel Taylor, aged 105. She was born in the parish of Crieff, county of Perth, on the 4th of March 1713, in the reign of Queen Anne. Her memory remained nearly unimpaired, and she would converse on the events of 100 years since, with surprising correctness. Her hearing and sight were good to the last day of her life, and her recollection continued till within an hour of her death.
Old Widow Ellis was a well-known figure in Edinburgh, sufficiently so that the celebrated caricaturist John Kay (about whom we've written before) produced a caricature of her:
Old Widow Ellis
Our next centenarian, Thomas Adamson, was a weaver from Pittenweem. Unsurprisingly, his death was reported in the Fife newspapers:
Pittenweem. Longevity. Thomas Adamson, weaver in Pittenweem, died on Saturday week at the advanced age of one hundred years, five months, and two days; having been born on the 1st of May 1746. Throughout the whole course of his lengthened pilgrimage, Thomas was never peculiarly distinguished as an instrument by whom the simple denizens of earth were excited to wonder or admiration. In the literary world, he was only characterised by the “noiseless tenor of his way”. In the commercial world, by means of his industrial apparatus, he made as much noise as any other wabster of the last century. In the political world, he was merely a silent observer of the election hubbubs, for which his burgh was so eminently distinguished in days of yore, having never been invested with the franchise, either under the old or new system. In the religious department of society, he created considerable stir and noise, having for many long years occupied the precentor’s desk in the Old Kirk, where he conducted the sacred music, and gave the people line upon line according to the fashion of the good old time. In this he always aided the devotion of the sincere, and sometimes supplied fuel to the fire of waggery that through all ages has been found smouldering even in the kirk itself. Through all the vissicitudes [sic] of the commercial horizon to which this nation has been subjected, Thomas managed to rear a numerous family, and keep himself beyond the pale of starvation by tossing the shuttle, harmonising the kirk, and polishing the cheeks and chins of his fellow mortals who could not perform that duty for themselves. Being a member of a respectable society in Pittenweem, called the Trades’ Box, he in his latter years derived much benefit from the funds thereof, when the infirmities of age began to cramp his energies. We are not aware, now that Thomas has departed from the stage of time, that he has left his equal in age on this coast.
His death was also reported further afield in Dundee:
Death of Thomas Adamson, the patriarch of Pittenweem - This event took place on Saturday morning last, October 3, at ten o'clock. He was born on the 1st of May, 1746, and on the 1st of May last, had completed the extraordinary long life of one hundred years. Mr Adamson was a weaver, and continued to ply the shuttle until within a very few years back. He was what most long livers are, an early riser; six o'clock scarcely ever found him in bed; he was generally up and at work by five. He had a strong clear voice, and was for many years precentor in the parish church. He had a perfect recollection of seeing Paul Jones sail past Pittenweem, on his way to Leith, about 70 years ago, and of the tempest which providentially arose and drove the pirate out of the Firth. He never was what may be called really sick, and never complained of a head-ache. For the last six months he was confined to bed, but felt no pain or sickness. He retained his senses to nearly the last day of his life, and during harvest he was every day inquiring about how far the different farmers had got in their crops. The failure in the potato crop gave him much uneasiness. During the whole of his long life, he was only three weeks absent from Pittenweem. His fortune was not chequered with ups and downs; he always continued to plod away at work. Perhaps the most remarkable event in his whole life was the meeting which was held in the Town Hall on the 1st of May last, in commemoration of his having on that day completed his hundredth year. His body was laid in Pittenweem Church-yard on Wednesday last, and the attendance at his funeral was numerous and respectable.
The Dundee obituary adds a few more details, such as his recollection of seeing John Paul Jones and his flotilla in the Firth of Forth (this would have been in August 1779), and the fact that he'd only spent three weeks out of Pittenweem in his entire life. This obituary - possibly reprinted from one of the other Fife papers - was reproduced more or less verbatim in M F Conolly's Supplement to his Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Men of Fife some twenty years later.
Our third centenarian was the daughter of a soldier, apparently born in Edinburgh Castle. Her death was reported in Dumfries, where she'd lived most of her life:
At Maxwelltown, on the night of Sabbath last, Catherine M’Donald or Hutchison, at the extraordinary age of one hundred and four years. She was born in the castle of Edinburgh early in the ’45, a year memorable for the last attempt of the Stuart family to regain the throne which they had so long tilled. Her father, a private soldier, was stationed in the garrison at the time, and being ordered to repair to Dumfries, brought his daughter along with him. Soon after her father obtained his discharge, and with his wife and child settled in the Brig-end, and thus became one of the early colonists of the now thriving burgh of Maxwelltown. Here Catherine, best known as Mattie Hutchison, resided as girl, wife, and widow, for a hundred and three years, during which she lived under seven British Sovereigns. Through her long life she conducted herself with propriety, and showed great respect for the ordinances of religion. She was somewhat eccentric in her manners, and her dress to the last was of the primitive cut, fashionable eighty or ninety years ago. She was a little deaf, but with this exception, retained the full use of her faculties up till the day of her death. She was a widow for thirty years, and had one son, who died a few years before her. Latterly she was partly dependent for her support upon parish aid, but the path of life’s decline was smoothed by the benevolence of several charitable ladies, who were very attentive to the grateful centenarian.
Once again, her age was considered sufficiently newsworthy to be reported further afield, this time in Dundee:
Death of a centenarian - On Sunday night last, Catherine M'Donald or Hutchison, residing in Corbelly Hill, Maxwelltown, departed this life, in the one hundred and fourth year of her age. She was born in Edinburgh Castle in the early part of 1745, when her father, a private soldier, was stationed with his regiment. Part of the force was ordered to Dumfries at the time of its occupation by Prince Charles Stuart in the ill-fated rebellion of the '45. Catherine, then a child at the breast, was brought by her parents to this town, and her father, having obtained his discharge, settled at the Brig-end, in which, now become the burgh of Maxwelltown, she has resided, girl and woman, for fully one hundred and three years. She wore her dress in the same fashion which prevailed when she was a young woman, and indeed, in all things was a thorough Conservative. With the exception of a slight deafness she preserved her faculties unclouded to the very last. Dumfries Herald.
Catherine appears to have had two children with her husband William Hutchison - Martha baptised 8 August 1784, and Thomas baptised 2 July 1787, both in Troqueer parish. The first obituary suggested she had been at least partly dependent on support from the parish. A quick look at the 1841 census for Troqueer shows Catherine living at Corberry Hill aged 100, where she is described as a pauper.
Records of some of the payments from the parish that Catherine received are recorded in the Troqueer Kirk Session Accounts (NRS Reference CH2/1036/20):
Our final centenarian was evidently another local character in Edinburgh. His death was recorded in the Caledonian Mercury:
On the 16th current, in the Old Fleshmarket Close, Canongate, William Wilson, commonly called Mortar Willie, at the advanced age of 106 years. He was taken from the plough in the rebellion of 1745, to serve in the Royal army, where he remained for several years. After being on the Continent he came home to this country, where he has since been employed in the capacity of druggist-man, 40 years of that time in this town. He has left an infirm old widow, aged 73, to whom he has been married 50 years, in very poor circumstances.
Mortar Willie's death was widely reported - in the Scots Magazine, in The Examiner, printed in London, and even in the Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser on August 10. He was also described in Kay's Portraits:
William Wilson, or Mortar Willie
As a genealogist I've long identified with Haley Joel Osment's famous line in the film The Sixth Sense: "I see dead people". To non-genealogists, family historians can sometimes seem obsessed with death. Death comes to us all, in the end, and ultimately much of genealogy involves not seeing but researching dead people. Friends and family have come to accept that I can't pass a graveyard without wanting to pop in for a quick - or not so quick - look around.
Of course, most of our ancestors are dead, and as genealogists we want to know when they met their end. In Scotland there has been a legal requirement since 1855 to register all deaths, and statutory registers of death are excellent sources for family historians. In most cases, they record the name of the deceased, their spouse(s) if any, their parents, the cause of death and so on. Before 1855, however, the records are less helpful.
There are gravestones, tangible reminders of the existence of our ancestors. Many graveyards have been recorded by enthusiasts and their inscriptions published (usually referred to as Monumental Inscriptions or MIs). More recently, the rise of digital photography has made collections of photographs of gravestones popular. But not everybody could afford a gravestone, and not all gravestones survive in a legible condition.
A few years ago, Scotland's People made available the burials recorded in the Old Parish Registers (OPRs). These are a great resource, but they are far from complete. There are some OPR burials for around two-thirds of Church of Scotland parishes, but in some cases there are very few burials recorded - there are only two for Fearn in Angus, and only nine for Galston in Ayr.
So if there is no gravestone, and no OPR burial, does that mean we can't find out when our ancestor died? Not necessarily. There is another type of record that can help: mortcloth accounts.
A mortcloth (from the Latin mors meaning death) was a ceremonial cloth draped over a coffin (or a corpse if the family could not afford a coffin) at a funeral. Most families didn't have their own mortcloths - not unreasonable when you consider that any one person only needs it once! - instead hiring them for the occasion. In burghs, the individual trades might have their own mortcloths which were lent to members for the occasion. But in most cases, mortcloths were available to hire from the Kirk Sessions.
In many cases, the Kirk Sessions owned more than one mortcloth - smaller ones for children, or more elaborate ones for a higher fee. (Even in death, not everyone was equal.) The money raised from renting out the mortcloth was generally used for poor relief, and as a result, the Sessions often kept good records of payments received. While they may not necessarily contain a great amount of detail, mortcloth accounts may be the only way to identify when an ancestor died. (See for instance Aberlady accounts 1826-1846, Forgandenny minutes 1783-1836 and Dalmeny Accounts 1736-1779.) They should however be treated with a degree of caution, as the date recorded for payment may be some time after the death and funeral.
We've extracted some entries from Dalmeny [NRS Reference CH2/86/8 p. 294-295] below.
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