06 December 2014

Boleskine and Stratherrick Frasers: One Study

Herewith a study that demonstrates the underlying shortcomings of Scottish highland research. It's John Fraser again, my Argenteuil, Quebec, farmer. The long-term research goal has had multiple parts:
▪ find John's first marriage in Scotland to Ann (possibly Nancy) Fraser;
▪ find the baptisms of his two oldest children (Alexander, James) born to such a couple;
▪ find John's own baptism (range 1768-1776) and the names of his parents.

Research parameters included assumptions (assumptions can be dangerous, we know; but sometimes they are the only potential clues we have):
▪ that the local history saying John was a native of Inverness-shire is fairly accurate;
▪ that he was born ca.1776 (age at second marriage) OR ca.1768 (age on 1851/2 census);
▪ that his father was called Alexander or James (name of John's first and second sons);
that his mother was called Elisabeth, Ann, or Mary (names of his daughters).

From Scotland's parish registers (OPRs): utter fail in anything resembling solid information, mainly because sad excuse Scottish OPRs for so many highland parishes are missing erratic years of baptisms and marriages. Great periodic chunks of nothing. The serving minister in the 1790s parish account of Boleskine and Abertarf, states:
 For what reason we cannot assign, but we do not find that there has been any regular baptismal register, kept in this parish, for many years past.”[1]

Also, kirk session minutes often only survive from the nineteenth century when we need eighteenth century and earlier! Potentially helpful are monumental inscriptions (MIs) and the Old Statistical Accounts and sometimes local histories, but other sources such as estate papers, sheriff courts, tax lists, militia rolls, and so on, are usually available only in distant regional or private collections.
Boleskine Burial Ground; photo: WJ Millar, geograph,org.uk
Enter an unsourced reference to Boleskine, shire of Inverness, from an online "tree" (that unfortunately conflated three or four JohnFrasers of Quebec into one man). It was worth deeper investigation.

Combing the published Inverness-shire MIs produced any number of family possibilities that may ultimately be irrelevant. Parts of the surviving old stones are frequently illegible. In my case, each mention of an Alexander or a James on a stone had to be examined to see if my John Fraser would fit in their families. Example from Boleskine burial ground:
Flat Stone, erected by James Fraser, tacksman, Glindomore, died _[illegible]_, wife Elisabeth Fraser died 12 September 1789 age 67 years, son Hugh Fraser died 18 June 1797 age 22 years [2]

What analysis can I make of this, as applying to my John the farmer?

Names: The forenames are relevant although imperfect Highland custom, since James was the name of my John's second son, and Elizabeth was the name of his first daughter. Hugh is a compatible name as a possible brother for our John who used that name for his fifth son. All three names recur in John's descendants. If this was my John's family, the loss of parents and a brother may have influenced his decision to emigrate.

Place: Glindomore or Glendomore, sometimes Glendomere, has all but disappeared as a place name, but would have been a farm within the Lovat Fraser estates (one of which comprised the entire parish of Boleskine/Abertarff). The geographic location along the southeast area of Loch Ness is also known as Stratherrick.
From A Country Called Stratherrick
Status: In general, tacksman meant James was in charge of Glendomore land, beholden to Lord Lovat, with very likely an intermediary principal tacksman or wadsetter to whom he paid rent. In turn, a tacksman would have sub-tenants renting smaller holdings. Rent in former days largely involved agricultural produce and loyalty as a clan soldier. The complaisant system deteriorated when the English enforced draconian tax and proscription measures after “the ’45.”

James was the tacksman at Glendomore when he had the stone made ― one would guess when his wife was buried. We don’t know the year he died; there would have been a succession of tacksmen after him. The significance of "erected by" does not necessarily imply James was living when his son Hugh died in 1797. Perhaps his death shortly followed that of his wife and someone else added the inscription for Hugh. I can’t glean anything useful from neighbouring stones (the SGS publications provide a diagram of each burial ground).

Dates: Since his wife was born ca.1722, James’ birth year would be similar or earlier. He could easily have had a son born in 1768 or in 1776, but what about wife Elisabeth? At the age of forty-six (1768, the earlier suggested date for my John's birth) she would definitely be nearing the end of the conventionally accepted fertility span. Bearing a child at the age of fifty-four (1776) is not impossible but unlikely. Which brings us to the dates for their son Hugh, ca.1775–1797. The same questions apply regarding mother Elisabeth. Were dates on the stone carving deciphered accurately? Was Hugh actually a grandson? Birthing two children within two years is not in dispute; it's a matter of the mother's age.

Without access to particular regional or local sources, default to the Internet produced a great find regarding Glendomore: a horse tax list in 1797 for Boleskine/Abertarf parish.[3] It shows four Fraser men at Glendomore in two separate clusters: John and Hugh Fraser (taxed for one horse and two horses respectively); Malcolm and James Fraser (two horses and one horse). Because the two groups are separated by some MacDonalds, they appear to be two different households. We don't know if the groupings are fathers and sons, or brothers, or some other family configuration. Malcolm is a problematic name, not occurring in my family.
1797 Horse Tax List, Boleskine; NAS, E326/10/9/213
 "Date of assessment" is September 1797 which seems to eliminate this Hugh from being the man in the cemetery information unless the list had been compiled over many months. "Masters and Mistresses" seems to imply heads of, or adults, in households. One of these Fraser men would be the Glendomore tacksman because the right generally descended in one family line.[4] It would be merely a guess that John here fills that role simply because he is the first Fraser listed at the location. Could James in the second group be the erstwhile tacksman of the burial ground? Doubtful? — He would be eighty-five years old or more in 1797.

Back to the OPRs. Is there evidence of a James Fraser marriage to an Elisabeth in or near Boleskine parish between 1740 and 1775? ― “No matches” on ScotlandsPeople. A son Hugh born ca.1775 to such a couple? ― Not in the available baptisms. A son John born/baptized to such a couple 1767 to 1779? ― No. I can't even find a Malcolm born in Boleskine 1725-1782.

All I can say is it's possible that John in September 1797 was my ancestor who emigrated ca.1805 or that he belonged to the family of tacksman James. I can't support either hypothesis but I can't reject them altogether. There's simply not enough information or evidence for meaningful correlation. Is it a worthwhile exercise? Yes, but I am no farther ahead. Guesses, possibilities, probabilities; the spreadsheet is growing.

That's just one stone of dozens being examined. Why ever did I say my draft was ready for the big edit??

[1] Sir John Sinclair, digital images, The Statistical Accounts of Scotland (http://stat-acc-scot.edina.ac.uk/link/1791-99/Inverness/Boleskine%20and%20Abertarff/ : accessed 3 October 2014), Vol. 20, County of Inverness (1791-99), Boleskine and Abertarf, p. 37.
[2] Alastair G. Beattie and Margaret H. Beattie, eds., Inverness District East, Monumental Inscriptions pre-1855 (Edinburgh: Scottish Genealogy Society, 1996; "Boleskine Old Churchyard," Boleskine parish, County of Inverness, no. 48, James Fraser et al.
[3] “Historical Tax Rolls,” digital images, ScotlandsPeople (http://www.scotlandsplaces.gov.uk/digital-volumes/historical-tax-rolls/ : accessed 2 October 2014), Farm horse tax rolls 1797-1798, Volume 09 [includes Inverness-shire], sheet 213, September 1797; citing National Records of Scotland, E326/10/9/213.
[4] Sir John Sinclair, Statistical Accounts of Scotland ... Boleskine and Abertarf, pp. 21-22.

© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved. 

2 comments:

Ian Hadden said...

Terrific example of the varied records that can and should be used, and most importantly, the level of analysis needed to avoid jumping to conclusions!

BDM said...

Thanks for taking the time to comment, Ian. I know you are busy with your own blog that I enjoy!