…when Father received your kind and welcome letter wrote Matthew McLean to his cousin, Ann McLean in 1873.
That letter, and another written in 1875, were kept by Ann’s nephew and my grandfather, Hugh McLean Mulcahy, and when I took possession of them, they were indeed like a voice from the dead. With their help much of the lives of Matthew and Ann’s aunts and uncles has been pieced together and some interstate and international connections have been made along the way. What has resulted is a typical story of 19th century Scotland, of a family whose members spread across the globe looking for new opportunities and better lives.
Only parts of each letter remain in existence and these parts do not include the writer’s name or signature so even working out who the writer must have been was a puzzle. My clues were:
- that he or she lived in Laggan, Glengarry (this is in Inverness-shire in Scotland),
- that he or she had one brother,
- he/she appeared to live with his/her parents and did not mention a spouse or children of his/her own.
My suspicion from the style was that the writer was male. After piecing the clues together, I eventually settled on the writer’s identity as Matthew McLean (1842-?), son of Neil McLean and Isabella Ross.
Here is an extract from the 1873 letter which gives news of the extended family:
Dear Cousin, in the first you did not expect that old Grandmother was in life. Neither she is. She departed this life nine years ago about the good old age of eighty years. Concerning your friends in the different parts of the world, Uncle Finlay is in Canada West for the last 20 years. I had a letter from him not long ago. They were all well then but two years ago his oldest son and another of his boys died. He has six sons and one daughter in life and he is a farmer for the last 20 years.
About Uncle William he lived in South Shields (in the) North of England but two years ago he lost his life by an accident. While on duty he was crossing the railway line of the work that belonged to his employer. An engine and five wagons passed over his body. He only lived for fifteen minutes after the accident. His oldest son is an engineer to trade and is always going to sea. He is married and resides in the city of London. His second oldest son is a ship carpenter to trade and goes to sea. His youngest son is a cartwright. One of his daughters married in South Shields.
About Uncle Alexander, he is in Australia but we get no account whatever of him. He never writes to us. Three years ago I fell in with a man of the name of Cameron, a native of Lochaber. He was newly home from Australia. He frequently met Uncle in the market town there. Likewise he has done well. This Cameron knew Uncle before ever any of them went to Australia. Uncle’s good father is in life and keeps the Glengarry post office. Two of his good sisters are at home and the rest of the family are scattered here and there. They are Rosses to name.
Dear Cousin, my parents are in life and strong yet only Mother is greatly troubled with headache….I have one brother. He is joiner to trade and works in the city of Glasgow for the last two years and unmarried.
Such was the isolation of our early Australian settlers that news of a grandparent’s death took nine years to be received and Ann would have had no idea exactly how many cousins she actually had. It’s hard to imagine why Ann or her parents hadn’t made contact with their extended family for so long but maybe they were so consumed with the daily struggle for survival that faraway relatives didn’t enter their thoughts very often. By 1873, Ann’s family was living near the Tooloom gold diggings in northern New South Wales and subsistence-farming which was a hard life.
I thought from the letter that I was dealing with the Ross side of the family because of the mention of Uncle Alexander’s family being Rosses, although the generations didn’t add up. If Alexander was an uncle of Ann, then he should have been a son of the grandmother who was mentioned. So how could Alexander’s father then be keeping the Glengarry post office? Why didn’t the writer refer to the postman as Grandfather?
This was the first red herring because Uncle Alexander Ross married Margaret Ross and the “good father” referred to in the letter was actually Alexander’s father-in-law. I now know that “good father” is a Scottish term for father-in-law but I didn’t know that then. These mysteries were solved when I came into contact with a lady in Victoria who was a descendant of Alexander and who had done considerable work on the Ross family including visits to repositories in Scotland. Jan was able to fill in many gaps for me and we have been partners in Ross research since then. Alexander settled near Caramut in Victoria and had a large family, although reports of him having “done well” were exaggerated. By all accounts he was always fairly poor.
Uncle William was not too hard to track down. I ordered a death certificate for a William Ross who was the right age and whose death was registered in South Shields at the right time and he had indeed died after being run over by a train. I was also able with the assistance of a local researcher to find a small mention of the accident in the “Shields Gazette”.
Uncle Finlay was the hardest uncle to find. I was able to find fairly easily in the Canadian census of 1871 a Finlay Ross who was born in Scotland, was a farmer in Canada West (roughly equivalent to what is now the southern part of Ontario) and had a family of six sons and one daughter alive.
That Finlay’s 1904 obituary stated that he was from Inverness-shire but no other Canadian records mention his parents’ names or his birthplace; nor does there appear to be any record of the deaths of those two sons who died around 1871. They must have been dead before the time of the 1871 census and possibly even before civil registration began there in 1869. While Matthew McLean’s memory of the timing of events is fairly accurate, he is sometimes “out” by a year or so.
Now the Finlay Ross who ended up in Ontario did not go directly from Scotland to Canada. He spent a few years in the Channel Islands which is where he met and married his wife, Marguerite Le Cocq (Marie) Houguez. A record exists in the Priaulx Library in Guernsey of the baptism of Donald Lawrence Ross, a son of Marguerite and Finlay, son of Donald of Kilmarnock. Kilmarnock is a long way from Inverness-shire so if Finlay was really from Kilmarnock, then he is not the Finlay I’m looking for. However Kilmarnock doesn’t tie in with his obituary’s mention of Inverness-shire and I suspect that the priest in Alderney accidentally wrote Kilmarnock instead of Kilmonivaig, which is the name of the parish which includes the town of Laggan. This is probably the eldest son who died around 1870 because none of Finlay’s descendants had any knowledge of him.
Admittedly the evidence which links the Finlay Ross who was a brother to my great-great-grandmother, and the Finlay Ross who died in Huron County, Ontario in 1904 is circumstantial but I think it’s the best I’m going to get, so I have decided to claim the Finlay Ross from Huron as our Finlay.
The fact that Matthew and Ann were both McLeans was another red herring. They were cousins because their mothers, Isabella Ross and Catherine Ross respectively, were sisters – sisters who coincidentally married McLeans. Isabella was “found” because her husband, Neil McLean of Laggan Locks, was the informant listed on his mother-in-law’s death certificate. Isabella’s baptism has not been found but census records show that she was born in England. Donald Ross, the father of this family, was for at least a short period a member of the Berwickshire Militia so perhaps the Militia was posted in England at the time of Isabella’s birth. Neil McLean was the Lock-keeper on the Caledonian Canal at Laggan as was his father before him and his son, Matthew, after him.
All the family members mentioned in the letters are now accounted for except for Finlay’s other son who died around 1870. Research also turned up another aunt, Ann, baptised in Kilmonivaig in 1821. She disappears from the records after the 1851 census and the fact that she isn’t mentioned in the 1873 letters leads me to suspect that she had died some time ago and that fact was known to her extended family. However I could be wrong and I would be delighted to be contacted by one of her descendants. If Scottish naming patterns are considered, there really should have also been an uncle named Donald but we have found no trace of one and was it just coincidence that Catherine and Finlay both had sons named David? By all rights Catherine’s firstborn son should have been named Donald, John or Finlay after his father or a grandfather, not David.
Of course, I already knew what had happened to Catherine, my great-great-grandmother. I knew that she had a son by Donald McLean before they were married, that they married when that son was about two and immediately set sail for Australia. They arrived in 1837 on the Midlothian, lived and worked in the Hunter Valley for some years before settling in the Tooloom area of northern New South Wales and eventually had a family of ten children. Catherine died on November 6, 1873, probably as the letter from her nephew was en route.
Jan, the descendant of Alexander mentioned above, had found the record of the Kilmonivaig Kirk Session where Catherine appeared before the minister and the elders to explain how she came to have an illegitimate child. She had gone to Drynoch on the Isle of Skye as a servant to a shepherd. In Drynoch she met Donald McLean and their son, David, was conceived. The result of the Kirk Session was that the parish in which Drynoch was situated (Bracadale) was to be informed of David’s existence. It obviously took some time but eventually Catherine and Donald were persuaded or decided to marry.
So when Ann Matheson, the Grandmother mentioned in the letters, died in 1863, only one of her children was living in the same country as her. As another part of the Laggan letters says, It’s a great country for emigration now, thousands leaving the British shores every day. The story of the Ross family is a perfect example of this. A story passed down by a Canadian relative said that Finlay had warned a brother who was thinking of emigrating to Canada that the farming life there was very hard and he would be better to try Australia. Alexander, the presumed recipient of that advice, may not have found a much easier life in Australia but he and his sister, Catherine, both founded large Australian families who contributed to the building of Australia.
This article first appeared in “Australian Family Tree Connections” (November 2012)
With thanks to Jan Lier and Aileen Fisher for invaluable mutual research support.
Entry of Death 1870 (General Register Office, England)
Shields Gazette and Daily Telegraph 25 June1870 (South Shields Public Library)
Canadian Census 1871 (ancestry.com)
Obituary (Huron Expositor 26 Dec 1904)
Transcript (Priaulx Library, Guernsey)
1863 Ross, Ann Statutory Death (www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk)
1851 – 1881 Scottish censuses (ancestry.com.au)
Kilmonivaig Kirk Sessions, 27 Sep 1836 (National Archives of Scotland)