Q is for quixotic

Quixotic – “preoccupied with an unrealistically optimistic or chivalrous approach to life; impractically idealistic” – a fair word to describe William M Groundwater, my great great uncle?

Photo of Don Quixote statue - he is source of "quixotic"quixotic d

Don Quixote -source of the adjective ‘quixotic’

William Moncrieff Groundwater was born on 11 March 1849 in Orphir, Orkney, first child of John Groundwater and Williamina Moncrieff, and died on 16 October 1936 at Cruan Cottage, Firth, Orkney. That seems quite ordinary, but it’s some of his actions and claims that make me want to describe him as “quixotic”.

Quixotic or not?

I’m still researching him but here are a few examples that may justify my description:

  • Horace Ossian Ritch Groundwater – the name of his first son, born in 1876 in Salford, Lancashire. Ritch was his mother’s maiden name, an Orkney surname, so not unusual for me. But Horace Ossian?? Poor lad died at Spion Kop, 1900, in the Boer War.
  • “Tailor’s shopman, Freethought lect[ure]r, L.L.D (W.S.)” – his occupation in the 1881 census (Greengate, Salford, Lancashire. ED 1 p 14). LL.D is usually a Doctor of Laws; WS a writer to the signet, a Scottish legal office. Combined, they were postnominals for top lawyers, not our man. In later censuses he was a rather more ordinary music seller (1891), tailor’s shop assistant (1901), master tailor (1911).
  • ‘one of the original Glasgow Rangers footballers’ (Portsmouth Evening News 11 March 1929). He was recorded in Glasgow in the 1871 census, Glasgow Rangers started in 1872, however William married Eliza Ritch in Salford in the second half of 1875. I’m working on this.
  • ‘Britain’s oldest working tailor’ – the headline from the People’s Jourmal, 15 March 1930, when William claimed to be 101! He was in Pendlebury, Manchester then. Variants on this claim to be over 100 appeared in various newspapers over the next years. In 1932 he retired reputedly aged 103 (Aberdeen Press & Journal, 20 July 1932). Family dismissed this however: “Och, that wisna right. He wis only aboot 90″, said my great grandmother, his sister. Newspapers picked up on that too. ‘Death after a walk, man who claimed to be 107” (Gloucestershire Echo, 17 October 1936) “it is thought locally that his age was about ninety”.

The verdict

Did he even believe all the hype about his age?

newspaper clipping about quixotic man's age

The Scotsman, 12 March 1935 (British Newspapers, www.findmypast.co.uk)





Maybe a sad rather than quixotic man by the end of his life as his wife and their three children, Horace, Eliza and William, all died before him.



M is for master mariner

Just been updating my wee list of master mariners from North Walls and Brims. You may know this occupation better by the term sea captain. They were in charge of ships in the commercial fleet rather than the Royal Navy, some sailing around the world, others in coastal waters only. You can find the Walls and Brims group by following this link. Not a bad list for a rather impoverished part of Orkney.

I’m only working on those who became captains and were listed in the 1861 census in Walls (or their parents were). There were far more from the parish who went to sea as 1st or 2nd mate, able seaman and so on.

The National Archives at Kew have information on researching officers in the merchant navy


Alexander Moncrieff, schoolmaster, and the Houton estate

Moncrieff is one of the more unusual surnames in my family tree. Unusual for Orkney that is. The name links to Houton, formerly a small estate in the parish of Orphir, Orkney. Map (name spelled Houston)

Moncrieff origins

I’d never investigated where the Moncrieffs came from but last year I had a client whose ancestry contained a schoolmaster in Orkney. This jogged a memory that I too had a forebear who was a teacher, in the parish of Harray, Orkney. Initial research showed that Alexander Moncrieff, my x6 great grandfather was the first SSPCK (Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge) schoolmaster in Harray, working there from 1712 until 1727. One source suggests he may have been of the Culfargie line in Perthshire but, as it does not mention at all that he was a schoolmaster, this may well not be reliable.

Alexander and the SSPCK

As the SSPCK was formed in 1709, he was one of their first teachers so, by good fortune, there is quite a lot about him in a recent Ph.D on the early years of the organisation. When he first applied to work with the Society his arithmetic was not good enough it seems but he put that right. He was a Gaelic speaker and, due to his language skills, the Society wanted to move him to Gairloch in 1714 but he made the case for remaining in Harray. Nonetheless, the Society still gave him the salary supplement for those in Gaelic parishes. An attempt to poach him for a new school in South Ronaldsay was also unsuccessful. From other sources, it appears that he had been to university, possibly St Andrews though this theory needs further research.

Marriage and the link to Houton

On 30 June 1715 Alexander married Katharin Spence in the parish of Birsay but she must have died for on 28 August 1718 he married Christian Halcro of Houton. Christian’s father Robert was dead by this time and her brother Robert, cautioner or guarantor for her marriage, died around 1725 when the estate passed to her.

Houth, home of the Moncrieffs of Houton

Houth, home of the Moncrieffs of Houton

She died in 1729 leaving Alexander with five children. One son, Robert, became laird of Houton though he was never served heir; a Thomas Moncrieff, described as factor of the Houton estate in the baptism record of  Alexander (Orphir, 1757) may be another son. There are no baptism records for Harray before 1766 and though those of Orphir start in 1708, I have not found the other three children so far.

After Harray

In 1733 Alexander moved to Raining’s School, Inverness and remained there until 1748. From a 1733 list of SSPCK schools and schoolmasters, he had an assistant there so it the appointment would have been a promotion of sorts. One of my questions is what happened to his children? Did they remain in Orkney? If so, with whom?

So far, apart from OPRs and estate records, I’ve used secondary sources (see below). My next steps are to explore some of the SSPCK records for myself, check Orkney sasines and retours for information on the Halcro to Moncrieff succession, see what else can be found on Alexander’s life before Harray and after Inverness. If he was a teacher by 1712, he is likely to have been born no later than the mid 1690s. His entry in AS Cowper’s very useful book (see below) states that he was “superannuated” so his death would be 1748 or later.

What of Houton?

There’s a very persistent family story that a young woman from the Moncrieff line was tricked into signing away “our” rights to Houton. I’ve not so far established the truth of this. Williamina Moncrieff (Mrs John Groundwater) my great great grandmother brought up her large family at Scorridale, with one of the finest views in Orkney and some of the poorest land on the estate. In the late 1880s and 1890s, and probably earlier, though there are no estate records, she received an annual payment of £12 from the Houton estate. Meantime her husband was often in arrears with the rent. Her descendants sigh over what might have been.

Isabella Hiddleston, née Sands, bequeathed the estate to the Indigent Gentlewomen’s Society when she died in 1889. She was the widow of Hector, great grandson of Alexander, and later of Robert Hiddleston, minister of Orphir, 1846-1875. Isabella had no children though Hector had two illegitimate daughters, both of whom received allowances from the Houton estate.


  • Factory accounts of Estate of Houton, Orphir 1889-1900. Macrae & Robertson Solicitors, Kirkwall. D34/V/51. Orkney Archive, Kirkwall.
  • Orkney OPRs
  • Cowper, AS (1997) SSPCK schoolmasters 1709-1872. Edinburgh: Scottish Record Society
  • Decennial indexes to the Services of heirs in Scotland (1999). Edinburgh: Scottish Genealogy Society
  • Clouston, J Storer (1914 ) Records of the Earldom of Orkney. Edinburgh: Scottish History Society
  • Gray, Nathan P (2011) ‘A publick benefite to the nation’: the charitable and religious origins of the SSPCK, 1690 -1715. University of Glasgow: Ph.D thesis
  • Seton, George (1890) House of Moncrieff  Edinburgh: Private publication


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