Written in Tablets of Stone
It was whilst reading a letter written by 3 x great Uncle George Smith that I was reminded of ‘that’ monumental headstone in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh. Containing the names of 23 persons with little or no information on how they are related. Scouring one or two websites namely http://www.gravestonephotos.com/ from which many of the photographs used in this post originate, I noticed this picture had been viewed in excess of 1,400 times. Reading the comments which had been left claiming them to be ancestors I had a look at a few online family trees. Oh dear! not one of the trees I viewed contained the correct information. Although I cannot claim a drop of Wilson, Scott or Chalmers blood myself, I hope that this post will help clarify the various family groups and connections.
Whilst the earlier sections of this post might be a little ‘dry’ for those not immediately related, I have included some information on the symbolism that appears on this and other connected family memorials, which may be of interest. Of course no feature of mine would be complete without a touch of humour, so I have included extracts from George’s letter and links to the family’s personal stories later in the piece.
This memorial features some interesting religious symbology. At the top of the stone under the Chalmers armorials is a winged head, representing the soul, or the Holy Spirit. Beneath this is a leonine looking ‘Green Man’, a pagan symbol signifying the earth and rebirth. The lion symbol was used to protect against evil, or to reflect the strength of the characters who had died. Towards the base of the monument is a skull above an hourglass, expressive of the passage of time and a reminder of our own mortality. To the left again, may be Calla Lillies representing the return to innocence through death. These are both supported by winged angels, guardians of the dead, assisting the soul on its passage to heaven. The drapery is significant as it reflects the funerary process and is used to frame the main characters. I am sure there are others too, if you spot them do let me know, as this is not my specialist subject.
The inscription remains crisp and legible and I have numbered the entries for ease of reference:
In his will James names his three living sons:
Alexander birth not found. A Medical Doctor died 1714 survived by a son named Alexander a merchant in Edinburgh and daughter Margaret (1694 Poll Tax).
Robert son of Jane Sibit bapt 23 June 1669, the same day his mother was buried. Died in 1710 survived by only child, a daughter Margaret the wife of James Gordon.
To this end I have written to Greyfriars in the hope they may have records relating to the revision made by William Wilson in 1834. Surely he would have needed, a) permission, and b) proof of lineage to prevent the stone being merely hijacked by someone with social aspirations. If the Scottish naming pattern was adhered to then it would appear this branch descended from Thomas’s son, Alexander. However until this is proven as fact, it should be regarded as speculative.
The first family group to appear on the headstone are:
William Chalmers d 1761 (4)
His wife Agnes Chalmers (nee Pillans) d 1797 (9)
and their children
Alexander d 1800 (5)
Andrew d 1804 (6) and his wife Marion Chalmers (nee Wilson) d.1809 (15)
Ann Chalmers the wife of Thomas Law d.1824 (13)
Another daughter Helen died before 1775, was the first wife of William Scott. They do not appear on the monument, but from whom descends the next generation. The Scotts were plumbers in Edinburgh with a financial interest in the famous Carron Ironworks.
Sarah Scott daughter of the above William and Helen d 1846 (17) and her husband John Wilson d.1833 (8) and their children
Helen Wilson d 1814 (12)
Marion Wilson d. 1806 (11)
Sarah Wilson d. 1837 (14)
Isobel Wilson d 1805 (10)
William Wilson d 1873 (3) and his wife Christian Smith d. 1894 (21) from whom the next generation.
George Smith was staying with his sister Christian recently married to William Wilson JP at Gateside, Linlithgow in 1837 when he wrote his letter. George and Christian are two are children of George Smith snr of Loanend and Christian Trotter his wife. George jnr is having a wonderful time amongst these moneyed farmers and mercantile families and being wined and dined at their expense:
No doubt in the hope of catching a well-heeled wife! However from his comments, I think his eye has already been caught by the recently widowed Grace Ann Young (nee White) who he subsequently married. The ladies he meets are either ‘in want of animation’ or of ‘too much starch to make a man happy’. He closes his letter by remarking on an upcoming gathering where he will be one of the party when he will have the opportunity ‘of witnessing a display of the West Lothian beauties, of course all the beauty of the west can have little effect on me who is already so unalterably attached to the fair maidens of the Tweed.’
But who were these Wilsons? It appears that in addition to heritages in Dechmont they were also an old Berwickshire family from Earlston. John Wilson, husband of Sarah Scott and his brother, although born in Earlston were bakers in Nicholson Street, Edinburgh. From scouring various wills it is apparent the family owe much of their good fortune to an Uncle also named William Wilson who died in 1824. He bequeathed heritable lands at Dechmont and Earlston, to his siblings and to his nephew William Wilson junior, and his niece Marion Scott (nee Purves). Marion was married to John Scott, plumber, the brother to Sarah Scott wife of John Wilson (17), but alas narrowly predeceased him, in childbirth in 1823. A condition of the inheritance was they took the designation ‘Wilson of Dechmont’. It is through his will that it is possible to fill in the remaining people on the headstone in Greyfriars.
John Wilson died 1833 (3) wife Sarah Scott died 1846 (17)
Brother James Wilson died 1810 (7)
Sister Hilson Wilson died 1843 (16)
Sister Marion Wilson died 1809 (15) wife of Andrew Chalmers (6)
This William, was also a Monument builder and in 1819 erected a memorial to his family at Earlston, that was worthy of note by James Hewat Craw, for the Berwick Naturalists in 1896. I have not included a transcript of the inscription meticulously recorded by Craw, and now badly damaged, as it would confuse rather than clarify the subject of this post. I have however added them to the family tree so if anyone is interested in a copy please let me know.
The symbols that appear on this stone and the much smaller stone immediate to its left, although containing some ‘Memento Mori’ are more occupational in nature. The four panels beneath the urn feature a plough, a sheaf of corn, a horse and a thistle, demonstrating the family’s connection with farming and Scotland. The symbols to the reverse of the smaller stone are less obvious to interpret namely an open book with a plough leaning against it, a set of scales with a small shovel below. Ideas on the interpretation of these would be most welcome. The winged Cherubs head to the top has largely been eroded, but is still faintly visible.
It was seemingly not unusual for families to have a base in the Borders as well as in the Lothians. The Trotter family farmed at Kerchesters near Sprouston as well as in Linlithgow. Furthermore the Scott family mentioned above also owned land at Fernieside, Boat House Lane, Norham, and I feel sure the Thomsons at Hangingside have Berwickshire connections too! I do feel that this information rather reinforces George Aynsley-Smith’s opinion that marriage into the Trotter family somewhat elevated the rather more lowly social status of the Smiths of Norham, and is well founded.
Before signing off it is worth noting that the family charts featured in this post are incomplete. They have been cropped to illustrate the familial relationships of the names that appear on the Greyfriars monument. Many other members of the Wilson family and their descendants feature in a previous blog:
ttp://www.bordersancestry.co.uk/blog/three-christians-a-reverend-cake-manure-toys-the-need-for-speed-nessie-the-crusader A colourful lot to say the least.
‘He served the greatest part of the American war with the late veteran Admiral (then Captain) McBride, and was present at several engagements particularly that off the Dogger Bank and in the battle off Cape St Vincent…He was surgeon of the Tremendous on the glorious 1st June under Lord Howe, and had practiced in Berwick upon Tweed since the year 1796'.
The majority of the information used to compile the above information was gleaned from wills available to view through the Scotland’s People website. Many of the earlier examples are written in a secretary hand that can be difficult to decipher. This is where acquiring palaeography skills is an essential aid to research and unlocking the mysteries of the past. There are many courses available, taught or otherwise, and some County Archives run free taster sessions or short courses for their volunteers. Why not give it a go!
A link to several sites containing information about the Chalmers family.
A link to a page containing many old Scottish Records
More about the Wilson family descendents featured in this post.