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.



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


Somme 100 – Private Victor Sclater 7th Seaforths

Private William Victor Linklater Sclater, S/12854, 6th Platoon, B Company, 7th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders, died at the Somme 100 years ago today, 12 October 1916. A name and a number among many who fell that day. He has no known grave, only his name on the Thiepval Memorial. To his family, he was a much loved son and brother.


Picture of Victor Sclater, died at the Somme 100 years ago

Victor, as he was known, was born at Kebro, Orphir, Orkney, on 1 December 1894. He was the fourth son and seventh child of James S Sclater, farmer, and his wife, Jessie Linklater. James owned Kebro but also rented the farm of Groundwater, a mile or so down the valley, overlooking the Kirbister Loch. The older offspring farmed and lived there. Among the hard work, they had a lot of fun! The 1911 census shows the 16 year old Victor at Groundwater with five older siblings including my grandmother, Jessie, aged 24. She never got over the loss of her brother.


Victor was conscripted in spring 1916 (probably May) and trained at Cromarty before going to France.

Picture of Robert Miller, Barbara Sclater, Victor Sclater

Robert Miller (also Orphir), Barbara Sclater, Victor Sclater

In his letters from Cromarty he spoke of a visit home, they would see him, he said, “come swinging over Jennyval in my kilt”. (Jennyval is a hill above Kebro.) Due to disease in the camp, that visit never happened. By 12 September 1916 he was in France.

His last letter home, to his sister Barbara, was written on 1 October 1916. He noted that “the weather is still fine and warm but it is getting cold in the mornings”.  He had been on a bathing parade that day which involved a three mile walk.

“It did not look very like Sunday as we were going along the road for some of them were ploughing and a crowd of women were taking up potatoes. They were digging them up with spades and they have a steam-mill that goes from house to house threshing the crop and it was working away also.”

In this strange world, where even the quiet of Sunday had gone, perhaps the familiar sights of farm life brought something to which he could relate.

Extract from letter of 1 October 1916

From Victor’s last letter


The diary of the 7th Battalion Seaforths for 12 October 1916 makes harrowing reading. They were at  Eaucourt l’Abbaye attempting to take the Butte de Warlencourt. Things went very badly. There were hundreds of casualties in the 7th battalion alone with the trenches so full of bodies and wounded men that movement was very difficult. A family friend, who survived the war, offered to help the wounded Victor but he replied “I think I’ll just lie here for a while”. Possibly he knew he would never see home again.

Victor was one of ten Orcadians from the 7th Seaforths who died that day at the Somme 100 years ago; two others died of their wounds within days (see Orcadian casualities in the Battle of the Somme)(pdf). His name is on the war memorial in Orphir, Orkney. Gone but never forgotten by his family.

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