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A wedding anniversary and a tragic family

Today, 14 May 2015, is the 153rd wedding anniversary of my paternal great great grandparents, George Flett and Mary Leask. In fact their marriage lasted less than ten years for Mary died of tuberculosis, aged 32, on 27 February 1872, in Orphir, Orkney. I have yet to research this line in depth but the little I know points to a very hard life.

There were six children from the marriage; that alone made great demands on Mary. One daughter, Jemima, died in March 1871 aged six months, cause of death unknown (no medical attendant). A second Jemima was born on 13 January 1872, about six weeks before her mother’s death, and died on 2 July 1872, cause of death “gradual decay”. The tragedy continued with the death of Thomas, aged six, in March 1873, cause of death unknown (no medical attendant). Perhaps the poor little boy just lost the will to live.

Both Mary and George’s mothers were dead by the time of their marriage so another source of help was wiped out. Going by the 1871 census, George, a farm servant, and Mary had some assistance from Mary’s sister, yet another Jemima, which may have continued. But a motherless six-week old and four other children under ten would be a major challenge for anyone. Like many men in a similar situation, George remarried in May 1874. There were four children from that marriage and George died in 1919.*

I have often wondered what my great grandmother, Ann, aged around eight when her father remarried, made of it all.

Photo of Ann Flett

Ann Flett (1866-1944)

Compared to my other lines at the same period, her family had a very hard time. Ann herself lived to be 78 but effectively lost another brother, John, when his letters from Australia simply ceased. Any descendants of a John Flett in Australia please get in contact – I do not even know where he settled. Ann’s older sister, Mary, outlived them all and died in 1954 aged 89. A happy ending of sorts I suppose.

*George Flett’s youngest son from this second marriage was the father of my maternal uncle’s wife which makes their children both my first cousins and also my half second cousins once removed!

My father’s favourite cousin

Sandy Barnett died on 5 April 1941 as a result of an air attack on the SS Rattray Head, eight miles ENE of Aberdeen. The Rattray Head was a 496 ton steam cargo ship on a voyage from Leith, her home port, to Stromness, Orkney.  “Young Sandy”, so called to distinguish him from his father, was a lamp trimmer, that is a member of the deck crew responsible for navigation and other lights. He was 33 and the only son of Sandy and the late Jemima Barnett.

My father had a prodigious memory and knew all about the sinking of the Rattray Head, which would have happened about four months before he was called up. How I wish I could remember all he said.  It seems that as the crew made for their lifeboat the German plane returned and strafed the ship with machine gun fire. Sandy may have gone back to the bridge for something, possibly a knife to cut the lifeboat’s ropes, but at that point he was fatally wounded. Quite unusually for an Orcadian seaman, he was a strong swimmer so could have stood a reasonable chance of survival but for the shooting.

His body washed ashore at Crail, Fife, some way down the east coast of Scotland, and that is where he is buried (scroll down the link page to see his gravestone). He is also named on his parents’ gravestone in Osmondwall Kirkyard, Longhope, Orkney. When my parents visited Crail in the 1950s they met by chance someone who had been at the service when Sandy’s body was buried. Quite a poignant meeting as Sandy was my father’s favourite cousin, though about 14 years older than him.

Sandy Barnett and his sister Ellen

Sandy Barnett and his sister Ellen

I guess it was probably that kind of liking you have for older cousins who are kind and very tolerant despite your youth. I have only been able to find one photo of him, with his sister Ellen whom I remember very well. Unfortunately it is a fairly poor photo.

The captain of SS Rattray Head, a Shetland man, Matthew Leask from Bressay, and the fireman, Charles V Tookey, were also lost. They are among almost 24,000 merchant seamen and fishermen from WW2 who have no grave but are commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial in London.  It seems that only those three were lost but I have yet to establish how many other crew there were as I write this, almost 74 years to the day after the event.

For more information on the ship itself and the wreck, see www.wrecksite.eu

Battleships-cruisers.co.uk lists merchant ships and fishing boats lost as a result of enemy action in WW2, three on 5 April 1941 alone.


Neptune’s baptism

A few weeks ago I came across a very unusual baptism record,  dated 12 April 1750, in the parish of Kirkwall, Orkney.  It was the baptism of “a Negroe usually called Neptune”.

Baptism of Negro called Neptune, Kirkwall, Orkney 12 April 1750. Snip from record.

Baptisms (OPR). Kirkwall, Orkney. Parish no. 21. Vol. 2. 12 April 1750.

He was “in the service of Mr Fraser Officer in the Military” and, the record continues, “after having Resided several months in this Burgh [Kirkwall] being desirous to be instructed in the Christian Religion in order to Baptism was accordingly taught a Competent measure of Christian Knowledge & Baptized by the name of Edward by Mr John Yule one of the Ministers after having made a profession of the Christian Faith & come under Baptismal Engagement before Wittnesses Doc[to]r Sutherland Baillie Sutherland Andrew Liddel & William Maneson Elders of the Session with the said Mr Fraser.”

This is an interesting baptism on several counts. Firstly the designation Negroe almost certainly means he was or had been a slave; in the service of skirts the issue. His original name, Neptune, is typical of the way slaves were often given classical names, the god of the sea in this case. What is much less typical is his location, Orkney. Estimates of the number of slaves in 18th century Scotland vary but one source estimates a figure of at least 90-100, with Ross-shire the northern limit. This sighting in Orkney considerably extends that.  How did he end up in Orkney? It seems that most slaves came to Scotland with masters who had been in the West Indies, the American colonies, or in the slave trade itself. This was presumably the case for Mr Fraser, the military officer, too.

Why baptism? Christian baptism was considered by some to make a significant difference to the case for freedom, though the case for and against was strongly argued in Court in the 18th century.  We can’t tell if this was Edward’s motivation but, without baptism and a Christian name, slaves were seen as no more than property.  Whatever the case, the witnesses to the baptism included some of the great and good of Kirkwall.

Slavery was abolished in Scotland in 1778 as a result of the case of Joseph Knight, a black slave in Dundee.

And Edward’s  new surname? Kirkwall of course. I’d love to know what became of him but that is research for another day.

Sources and further reading:

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