A new fourth cousin…

A very overdue update on my last post where I talked about a big discovery thanks to Ancestry’s ‘shaky leaves’ hints.  Well I checked out the records cited, the research seemed correct and I made contact with the owner of the tree on Ancestry. He is my fourth cousin, a descendant of Jean, sister of my great great grandmother, Barbara Sinclair. Jean immigrated to Australia with her father, Thomas Sinclair, step-mother and half siblings in the 1850s. She and Barbara wrote to each other and swapped photographs over many years it seems. The photographs and letters have not survived house clearances in Orkney sadly. But my newly-discovered fourth cousin in Australia has shared some wonderful photographs as well as a lot of information. (What’s a fourth cousin? Check foot of page)


This is my favourite photo. ItPhoto of x2 great grandparents and 2 youngest daughters shows my great great grandmother, Barbara Millar Sinclair (1826-1914), my great great grandfather, Nicol Slater (1820-1875) and their two youngest daughters, Catherine, Mrs Andrew Robertson, (1865-1945) and Barbara, Mrs Thomas Clouston, (1869-1961).  It is the first photo of Nicol I have ever seen, so I am thrilled. I have a photo of Barbara, his wife, as an old woman, but what stuns me about this one is that my uncle is so like her. We have always thought that “he takes after his father’s side”. There is no copy in Orkney as far as I know yet the photo sent to Barbara’s sister Jean thousands of miles away in Australia back in the 1870s has been preserved. And it seems there may be another in the USA, probably sent to Nicol Slater’s cousin William Slater who also  immigrated.

So, yes, Ancestry shaky leaf hints can be very worthwhile so long as you and your contact have both done your research well. I’ve been sending photos and other information to Australia too for these things should never be one-way. I am reluctant to share much with people who give little or nothing in return. Generally, I’ve found third, and now, fourth, cousins to be great contacts.

Fourth cousin: we share great great great grandparents – Thomas Sinclair is our mutual x3 great grandfather. First cousins share grandparents, second cousins share great grandparents, third cousins share great great grandparents)

The effectiveness of public rebuke?

The Kirk Session of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland played a major role in policing the behaviour of parishioners in past times. Fornicators, adulterers, drunkards, sabbath-breakers, quarrelsome characters and the like (see  Walls Kirk Session records for examples) could be called to account for their behaviour, fined and eventually readmitted to communion. Public rebuke, chiefly for fornicators and adulterers, meant standing outside the kirk door in penitence for several Sundays as the congregation arrived or sitting on the ‘stool of repentance’ during public worship as an object of shame. The Black Stool (also known as Presbyterian Penance)  a painting by David Allen (1744-1796) illustrates this.

Did it work? In 1791 James Scott, minister of Benholm, Kincardineshire, considered that “the rebuking of persons guilty of fornication in public was not only hurtful to the feelings of many of the Hearers; but in his opinion had often been the occasion of child murder and had a tendency to root out the remains of shame in the culprit rather than to deter others from the like fault”.1 The Kirk Session agreed with him and it was decided that “persons guilty of fornication should in future be rebuked only before the Session & pay twenty shillings of penalty… for behalf of the Poor of the Parish”. (Scott also stated that the practice was falling into disuse; I’d be interested in examples from other parishes.) Robert Burns’ poem, The Fornicator, provides anecdotal evidence that public shaming was ineffective in amending behaviour.

But the fear of public shaming could lead not only to child murder, as James Scott claimed, but also to suicide. That may be part of the background to Betty Corrigall’s lonely grave, a well-known landmark on the island of Hoy, Orkney.

Photo of Betty Corrigall's grave

Betty Corrigall’s grave

Betty was a young woman, aged 17 or 27, from Little Cletts or Greengears (details vary) in the parish of Walls, Orkney, who found herself pregnant and abandoned by the father who had gone off to sea. After a failed first attempt to take her own life by drowning, she hanged herself, so great was her desperation. As a suicide she could not be buried on consecrated ground so her grave is on the border of the parishes of Walls and Hoy. These events are said to have taken place in the late 1770s. There are no extant Kirk Session or burial records from the parish of Walls at this time but the terrible events were clearly deeply etched in community memory. Betty’s coffin was discovered by peat cutters in the 1930s and eventually, in 1976, a fibreglass gravestone erected. The fuller story is told in many places.3

General disapproval may have been as significant as the fear of public rebuke in poor Betty Corrigall’s case of course.

1 Benholm Kirk Session Minutes. 5 March 1791. CH2/33/2. National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh
2 ibid.
3 Three slightly different accounts of Betty Corrigall’s story:  Orkneyjar.com (slightly wrong – Greengears still exists as a ruin) Cantickhead.com and Women of Scotland

The black sheep of the family?

My great great uncle Nicol Slater was the black sheep of the family. He left his young family in Orkney, went off to Canada and never returned. The name Nicol, shared with his father and grandfather, was not used again for two generations.

I’d assumed that he left and never contacted his family again so I was astonished, and very pleased, to see him listed, with his siblings, in a series of sasines (property transactions) from 1920, almost 30 years after he emigrated. And not just his name, but also where he lived: Ceylon, Martin County, Minnesota, USA. So he was still in contact with the family after all. My research antennae were really twitching now and I had to know more.

Born in 1861, Nicol was the seventh child of Nicol and Barbara S(c)later. His grandfather, Nicol, who died in 1875, left him the small farm of Nether Scows, Orphir, as he was his ‘name son’, but Nicol became a carpenter and then farmed at the Glebe, Orphir, before he emigrated. He married Margaret Stevenson in 1885 and by the time he left Glasgow, bound for Winnipeg, Manitoba, on 13 June 1891, she was pregnant with their fourth child. Far from ideal, but was he going to find a better life for them all?

If that was the aim, it is certainly not how it was conveyed to later generations. Margaret, Nicol’s wife, died in 1907. On her death registration ‘phthisis exhaustion’ (TB) was noted as the cause of death; family lore attributed it to a broken heart. Late in 1908, the two sons, aged 17 and 19, set off for New Zealand. Thomas, the older son, was a rifleman in the 3rd New Zealand Rifle Brigade and died at Passchendaele (3rd battle of Ypres) on 12 October 1917. The two sisters, Barbara and Maggie, remained in Orkney.

Nicol himself moved from Canada to the USA in 1892 (1894 or 1900 according to two censuses) and had his own business as a carpenter and contractor in Minnesota as early as 1900. By the 1910 census his status had changed from married to widower, again evidence of contact with family in Orkney. And where was he in both the 1910 and 1920 censuses? Ceylon, Martin County, Minnesota of course. Curiously, in the 1900, 1910 and 1920 censuses, his first name was recorded as Nickolas or Nicklas, but taking all the information I was collecting together, it definitely was him.

In 1921, aged 60, he married Martha Harris (née Fecker), a German widow, at Waterloo, Black Hawk, Iowa. Nicol in 1925 Directory LAThere is an entry for him and Martha in a 1925 directory of the Santa Monica area, California. In the 1930 US census, they were listed in Los Angeles, California, where he died in August 1942.

With greater knowledge of his story, was he really a black sheep? Leaving a young family with one unborn child does not reflect well on him and I also wonder why his sons went to New Zealand rather than joining him in the States. On the other hand, it was not unusual for the husband emigrate first and then come back for his wife and family. Rightly or wrongly, part of me warms to him in the hard, lonely task of establishing himself in a new country. Perhaps there was a restlessness too, farmer’s son, carpenter, farmer, needing more than 1890s Orkney could offer? Did he ever wonder about Robert, the son he’d never known, and the other three children who were so young when he left?

As someone said, there are three sides to any story: what he said, what she said and the truth.

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