Light Keepers recorded at home

Muckle Flugga Lighthouse

Muckle Flugga from the seaward side
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Mike

The North Unst Lighthouse, or as it is now known, Muckle Flugga Lighthouse, was one of the few lighthouses in Scotland which had a separate shore station that served as accommodation for the lighthouse keepers when they were off duty. Three Light Keepers would be on duty at any one time, and the others would be on shore leave.

Lighthouse Shore Station

The Shore Station, Burrafirth
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Mike

In the census returns for Unst, you can see the Light Keepers recorded in the census at the Lighthouse, and their families recorded in the shore station.

1871 Census

ROAD, STREET, &c., and
No. or NAME of HOUSE.
NAME and Surname of each
to Head of
Rank, Profession, or OCCUPATION
Males Females
Light House Robert Burnett Head Mar 44 Principal Light Keeper
William Anderson Assistant Mar 37 Principal Assistant Keeper
Peter Anderson Assistant Mar 34 Assistant Light Keeper

1871 Census

ROAD, STREET, &c., and
No. or NAME of HOUSE.
NAME and Surname of each
to Head of
Rank, Profession, or OCCUPATION
Males Females
Light House Shore Station Elizabeth Anderson Head Mar 37 Light Keeper’s Wife
Laurence     Do Son 15 Scholar
Grace         Do Daur 11 Scholar
Catherine     Do Daur 5     Do

Except that is for 1861.

In 1861, the Light Keepers are all recorded as living with their families in the shore station, and there is no record of anyone at the Lighthouse. Now 1861 is some 134 years before the Lighthouse was automated in 1995, so there were definitely Light Keepers on site. Perhaps instead the problem was that this was the first census since the Lighthouse was built. It was first lit on 1 January 1858, so perhaps the enumerator simply wasn’t familiar with how he was supposed to record the keepers.

At the bottom of Page 25, of the 1861 census for Unst, Enumeration District 2, there is the following note:-

15 May 1862. Messrs Stevenson Engineers state 3 Lightkeepers were on the Lighthouse which is on the Island of Muckle Flugga. The ??????? with wives & famililes on Unst.

I’m not quite able to decipher all the words in the last sentence so an image is shown below if any of you can decipher it. However, you get the gist of it. They weren’t where the enumerator said they were!

Light Keepers Census Note

Light Keepers Census Note



Christmas in my childhood

I recently got asked to come to the local nursery and talk to the pre-schoolers about what Christmas was like when I was a child.

Did that make me feel old? Well yes it did!

Anyway, I thought about what I could tell them.

I tried to get them to imagine a small croft house, small rooms, no heating apart from the living room with its Raeburn cooker.

I took in an old oil lamp and asked them to imagine –

No electricity, no lights, no TV, no computers, no I pads etc.

Then Christmas itself, no room for a Christmas tree in the small living room that had to hold a table where we ate Christmas lunch.

No fairy lights of course.

We decorated with Christmas cards and paper chains.

I can remember when we started to get those fold out bells.

decorations 1970s

My older brother liked to try and find the hidden presents (under the bed) but I liked a surprise.

Presents were inexpensive items and some made by my Dad – a cradle for a doll, a basic doll’s house that we could go on to decorate and furnish from scraps of wallpaper and furniture made from matchboxes etc.

I remember some very snowy weather in the run up to Christmas, and the fear that the big parcel from friends in London would not be able to get through to us.

That parcel was such a delight, with lots of small items.

Spices and other items for our Mum who used to be a cook in London, and missed all sorts of items to use in her cooking, which obviously were not to be found in Unst.

Pomegranates I remember used to come in the box.

One year I got a plastic hen, and when pushed down she laid an egg.

That has remained in my memory all these years so obviously I really liked it!

Christmas lunch was a hen from the flock that had to be killed and cooked skilfully by our mother, otherwise it would surely have been a tough old bird.

All the trimmings to go with the bird and make the feast go further

then Christmas pudding, Christmas cake etc.

No TV in those early days, so radio perhaps and lots of board games, as well as the new toys to play with.  A pleasant time was had by all, and we didn’t have or need to spend vast amounts of money to achieve that enjoyment.

Rhoda Wibbie Pat

Adding context to census addresses

I’m currently going through an exercise to normalise the spelling of all the place names in my Unst Family Tree – every census seems to invent a different spelling for the same house! At the same time I’m adding a ‘district’ to each house as I’m aware of a number of house names that are not unique within the island of Unst; “Garden” is a house in Colvadale and a house in Snarravoe for example (as I’ve previously written).

The absolute need to do this was illustrated to me when I found this particular couple.

Andrew Smith (b. 1836) m. Jane Winwick (b.1835)
1881: Middleton Ancestry Icon 1881: Middleton Ancestry Icon
1891: Middletown Ancestry Icon
1901: Middletown Ancestry Icon

Above is what you would discover about the couple (from 1881 onwards) using just Ancestry transcriptions. You would be forgiven for thinking that they live in the same house before and after the marriage (spelling variations being what they are), AND that they lived in the same house as each other before they married.

If, however, you look at the census pages with the neighbouring houses in context, your understanding of this couples residence would be as follows.

Andrew Smith (b. 1836) m. Jane Winwick (b.1835)
1881: Middleton, Muness 1881: Middleton, Colvadale
1891: Middletown, Muness
1901: Middletown, Muness

So they lived several miles apart before they married, and after being married they lived in the house where Andrew lived, in Muness. The spellings of both houses use both spellings throughout the census returns over the decades.

If you then follow this up with the marriage record for this couple, from Scotland’s People, it pulls it altogether, giving their addresses at the time of marriage.

Andrew Smith (b. 1836) m. Jane Winwick (b.1835)
1881: Middleton, Muness 1881: Middleton, Colvadale
1883: Muness 1883: Colvadale
1 Mar 1883
Middleton, Colvadale Scotlands People icon
1891: Middletown, Muness
1901: Middletown, Muness

I can’t stress enough how important taking all records in their full context and understanding the local area where you are researching.

Chain of Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness

I have a profile on the Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness (RAOGK) website (actually I have two, that one and one for my Unst work). I was recently contacted by a gentleman who was trying to track down the child of a couple and had no luck and wondered if there was anything I could do from within NZ as he had exhausted the online databases.

The couple were Mabel Meredith Maitland (b.16 Jun 1869, NZ) and John Arthur Mason (b. 1864, Woodford, Essex, England). They were married on 8 Jul 1891 in St Matthews Church, Dunedin, Otago, NZ, and their marriage can be found in the local paper, the Otago Witness.

MASON-MAITLAND.-On the 8th July, at St. Matthew’s Church, Dunedin, by the Right Rev. Bishop Nevill, assisted by the Rev. R. T. Howell, John Arthur, eldest son of Thos. Mason of Merleswood, Woodford, Essex, to Mabel Meredith, younger daughter of the late W. G. Maitland, Moylneux, Otago.

There was also a report on the fashion and social attendance of the wedding in this newspaper report.

Also in the papers was their divorce, an extract of which is shown below. It was this report that showed that there was a child from this union, but that child was no where to be found in any of the online genealogy databases.

In the Divorce Court yesterday the Chief Justice heard the undefended suit Mason v. Mason, a wife’s petition for dissolution of the marriage.
Mabel Meredieth Mason, the petitioner, said she was married to John Arthur Mason in Denedin on the 8th July, 1891. There was one child as issue of the marriage.

I tracked down the divorce record which was found to be held in Wellington. It was free to go along to the Wellington Reading Room to view the document. However, I am not in Wellington, so it was not free to me. So I went back on the RAOGK website and found a Wellington based volunteer, and she was very happy to go along to the reading room and see what this document contained. It was a stack of about 15 documents, each with numerous pages, in a bundle and tied with a pink ribbon. They were folded legal docs and the pile stood about 3 inches high. She was so relieved when all the pertinent genealogical information was found on the first page!

Under “The Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act 1867”

THE 26th day of November 1897.
THE Petition of Mabel Meredith Mason of the City of Wellington sheweth.
1. THAT your Petitioner was on the 8th day of July 1891 lawfully married to John Arthur Mason at St.Matthew’s Church Dunedin by the Reverend Bishop Neville.
2. THAT after her said marriage your Petitioner lived and co-habited with her said husband at Tapanui in Otago, New Zealand, Melbourne in Victoria Australia and at Plymouth in England and that your Petitioner and her said husband had issue of their said marriage one child to wit John Clifford Stuart Mason aged 1year and 10 months.

I have to assume that the quoted age of the child is at the time of the document, since we know the child still lives as Mabel is granted custody of the child, according to the newspaper article on the divorce.

His Honor said he though a divorce should be granted, He gave the petitioner the custody of the child, leaving power to the respondent to apply under the Children’s Custody Act, of he desired to do so afterwards.

This would mean that John Clifford Stuart Mason would have been born around Jan or Feb 1896. From the newspaper report on the divorce we know a little of their travels around that time.

About five years ago they left New Zealand. They arrived in England in January, 1895. Whilst they were in England there was a quarrel between her husband and herself, and she returned to New Zealand with her mother in February 1896. She left her husband three or four months before that.

So would she have traveled when heavily pregnant and had John in New Zealand, or perhaps on board the ship? Or is the three or four months wait between leaving her husband and traveling to New Zealand because she waited and had the baby before traveling? This would mean that John was born in the UK.

Mabel actually married three times. She has a helpfully unique combination of names and so searching Papers Past found her several times. After her divorce from John Arthur Mason she then married Frederick Stuart Des Barres on 1 Sep 1900 in the Registry Office, Napier, Hawkes’ Bay, New Zealand. This marriage also ended in divorce on 14 Mar 1912, as per another newspaper report. Then she married a third time, in 1913, to James Ambrose Eivers and shows up in the papers again trying to get back the jewelry that her second husband used as security on an overdraft.

Helpfully, Mabel’s son John also has a seemingly unique combination of names, so I searched for his names. Nothing came up to start with, so I dropped the surname, and up popped a war record in the Auckland Museum Online Cenotaph for a John Clifford Stuart Des Barres. Des Barres was his mother Mable’s second married name. Could this be him? Reading through the record, in the listing of his company:-

Reg. No. Rank. Name. Occupation. Name and Address of Next-of-kin.
10747 Corporal Des Barres, Clifford Stuart Picture-show Manager Mrs. M. Eivers (mother), Opotiki.

John Clifford Stuart Mason/Des Barres

John Clifford Stuart Mason/Des Barres
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 31-B53

He died on 30 Sep 1916, by which time his mother had married a third time and was now Mrs. Eivers. It is definitely him! And there’s even a photo of him! It seems he had dropped the John and was more commonly known as Clifford Stuart.

Knowing how he was referred to, I was then able to find a report of his death in Papers Past, in the New Zealand Herald.

Roll of HONOUR.
DES BARRES.-On September 30, 1916, killed in action in France, Corporal Clifford Stuart des Barres, eldest son of Mrs. J. A. Eivers, Te Telo, Whakatane; aged 19 years.

I stopped briefly when I saw the mother’s name here, wondering if I’d mixed up two different people. But then I realised Mabel Meredith was also Mrs James Ambrose Eivers.

According to his war record he was born in Ireland, so I guess Mabel did wait until after he was born before traveling back to New Zealand with her new-born, and it’s no wonder we couldn’t find his birth in England or New Zealand.

It seems rather fitting that this chain of Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness should find this man, who died serving his country in WWI on the eve of ANZAC day.

31 Days of Family History Fitness – Week 4

I only came across the blog post 31 Days of Family History Fitness at the very end of January so I decided to do it in February instead. I’ll update you with my progress on a weekly basis.

Day 25: Set up a research log to help you keep track of your research. You can find sample logs on our website. Be sure to include when and what you researched, plus what you found and where you found it. If you already have a research log, make sure it’s up to date and backed up.

I’m really not sure about this one. I can understand the need for a research log when you are working on behalf of someone else, and to some extent that’s how the referenced sample log looks as well. So I don’t really know what to do here. I wouldn’t use the data in the log, so why keep it? Perhaps some of you that do keep research logs can tell me what the point of it is?

Day 26: Find genealogy blogs or Facebook groups that cover your ancestry. In addition to having resources for various ethnic groups and research roadblocks, these groups will also allow you to collaborate with like-minded genealogists. Check out Family Tree Magazine’s list of blogs or the Geneabloggers’ Blog Roll.

Back when I first started this blog, I took an online blogging course run by WordPress, and one piece of advice from that course was to find other blogs that interested you and follow them too. I found a number of the blogs I follow now back then, and have added to it gradually as I find others through various social media posts. I created a blog roll (which you can see on the right hand area of my blog if you are reading this post online) back then, but I haven’t updated it since. So, prompted by the task for today, I have updated my blog roll.

Day 27: Review your privacy settings, and lock down your data as appropriate. Most online family trees will make any people who don’t have death dates private, but make sure that you know who can see what of your family’s information. Consider editing privacy settings to be more restrictive, using encryption to lock down your data, or changing your password to prevent hacking or unauthorized access to your account.

My tree on ancestry is completely private, so for now I don’t have concerns. When I complete my work to the point where I choose to put it online, then I will have to ensure living people’s data is protected. Helpfully this comes built into TNG which is the model I intend to use to get it all on line.

Day 28: Search the free Social Security Death Index on Check for any 20th-century US relatives who lack death dates.

There doesn’t seem to be an equivalent collection for the UK. I expect to find the death dates I need from the statutory records.

Day 29: Pick a problem that you’re having in your research (tracing slave ancestors, finding ancestors before birth records began, etc.) and search the web or your local library for potential solutions. Resources like the FamilySearch Wiki or books or downloads from may be able to help.

My biggest problem at the moment is not having enough hours in the day to process all the data I already have. Once I get through all that then I will step back and look for incomplete people that I will then focus on.

Day 30: Perform a quick Google search for the hometown of one of your ancestors. Learning about the places your ancestors lived (as well as how those communities have changed over time) can give you insight into your ancestors’ lives in ways other records can’t. Be sure to check out city directories and other place-specific resources to learn more.

I know Unst fairly well, although, as I noted in the post about Old Maps, I am still discovering where some house names are on the maps. Going through the census page by page helps hugely with that because the houses are recorded by district and area, and in a fairly logical progression, i.e. if you come across an unknown house, it is likely somewhere close to the previous and next houses on the census. There are a number of areas that crop up again and again where Unst people moved to, such as Leith in Edinburgh, and Toxteth Park in Liverpool. Both are areas with docks which no doubt would be attractive to men who had grown up with fishing as a livelihood. These two areas are good candidates for me to dig into further.

Day 31: Now that you’ve got your research in order, find some ways to share it! Look for project ideas on Pinterest, and other websites to get started.

I’ve enjoyed quite a few of these prompts that got me doing things that I knew I should be doing but wasn’t. While some aspects of my research was already in good shape, now other aspects are in better shape too. However, it is by no means finished, and so I’m not yet at a point where I’ll be putting it up online yet. That’s something I am looking forward to in the future though.

31 Days of Family History Fitness – Week 3

I only came across the blog post 31 Days of Family History Fitness at the very end of January so I decided to do it in February instead. I’ll update you with my progress on a weekly basis.

Day 17: Make a timeline for one of your ancestors. Be sure to include major life events (birth, baptism, marriage, birth of children, death, burial, etc.) as well as information that’s come from year-specific directories and federal or state censuses. Visually mapping your ancestor’s life will help you identify gaps in your research as well as aid you in evaluating new information you might discover.

Since I’ve just started to use TNG (privately for now) to look at my Unst tree, it produces a timeline for each person. Here’s one for the person I’d like to interview (see Day 18).

John Hughson b.1837 Timeline

Timeline for my Great great grandfather, John Hughson

I also have him located on all the census returns from 1841 through 1901, and his occupation recorded from various marriage records of his children which is not shown on this timeline that TNG produces (perhaps I can update it a bit once I learn more about how to modify TNG).

Day 18: Identify a relative (living or dead) who you’d like to interview about your family’s history, and prepare a handful of questions you’d like to ask. You can use our list of interview questions as a starting point.
Auld Erne John Hughson

My Great great grandfather, the sea eagle ‘Auld Erne’, John Hughson

The relative I’d like to interview is my great great grandfather ‘Auld Erne’ (the sea eagle) John Hughson, who lived in Colvadale and was skipper of a sixereen.

  1. What was it like living in Colvadale?
  2. How does everyone fit into such small croft houses?
  3. Did you go to school?
  4. How did you meet your wife, Jemima?
  5. Tell me about your wedding day.
  6. Do you get tired of eating potatoes and kale?
  7. Is it scary fishing the far haaf in a storm?
Day 19: Set up a time to interview a relative, and use your questions from yesterday’s prompt. You never know what kind of family history information even a distant family member might have!

Since I chose a relative that is no longer alive, I’m skipping this one.

Day 20: Download the Surname Variants Chart worksheet from and record all the variations you can think of for three surnames you’re currently working on. Do any previously unconsidered spellings pop up? Revisit online databases and search for any variants you haven’t tried before.

There are quite a number of varied spellings for surnames that I have come across in my tree. Some are fairly repetitive and predictable, like, Johnston vs Johnson, and Jamieson vs Jameson, but some are a bit more interesting.

Surname Cluness Matthewson Thomson
Variations Clunass, Clunes Matheson, Mathewson, Mathieson Thomason, Thompson
Day 21: Find an ancestor in a federal census record and examine the other names on that ancestor’s census return page and on the page before and after it. Do you see any familiar names? Relatives often lived close together, and your ancestor may have been friends with (or even eventually married) a neighbor from down the street.

Since I’m doing a family tree for the whole area of Unst, I do this as a matter of course. You do find people recorded on census with their neighbours, or siblings, and so on.

Day 22: Preserve your own information for future genealogists. Write down the major events from your lifetime (your birth, graduation(s), marriage(s), major moves, military service, etc.) and store them in a safe place. Your descendants will be glad that you did!

My birth and marriage were already in the tree, but I’ve now added schooling, university graduation, the two main “Starting Work” events, and my emigration to New Zealand.

Day 23: Learn the basics of your immigrant ancestor’s language. You can consult word lists like the ones curated by FamilySearch. Focus on the names of family members (father, mother, child, brother, sister, son, daughter, etc.) and words likely to be used in records (birth/born, bride/groom, marriage/married, death/died, buried, etc.).

Shetland DictionaryMy own ancestry, and that of the island I am studying, all comes from Unst in Shetland. I was brought up speaking the Shetland dialect, which does vary from place to place in Shetland.

There is also a Shetland Dictionary, both in book form (I have one in the bookcase) and more recently online.

Day 24: Organize your desk. Clean, structured workplaces will help you be at your best and prevent you from distractions. Also be sure to organize your computer desktop or the apps on your tablet or smartphone.

My desk isn’t too bad at the moment. There are definitely times when it has been a lot worse (Ahem!)

Facebook post when I re-found a book from my sister

My sister tried to help me de-clutter

Here’s a before and after picture.

Adding place names on Ancestry

I have a fairly big tree now (see Complete Unst Tree – How’s it going?) and I’ve recently been having problems with the Ancrestry website when I add fact to someone with a area rather than a specific place name. For example when I add their occupation, I tend to just record it as “Unst, Shetland, Scotland” even though they lived in “Little Ham, Muness, Unst, Shetland, Scotland”, because I don’t really know the exact location of their work.

Ancestry Location entry field

Ancestry shows you all the locations which CONTAIN the letters you type into the location field

Recently Ancestry’s interface changed so that if you put in the first few letters of the place name you wanted to insert, say “Unst, S” instead of popping up a list with all the places you have previously used that BEGIN with those letters, it’s shows all the places you have previously used that CONTAIN those letters. For me this is a VERY long list, with the one I want at the bottom of the list! It also appears that this list is not scroll-able past the point it disappears off the bottom of your browser window. This was a pain.

Well totally by accident today, I discovered a way round this. If you put 2 spaces in front of the characters you type in, the list only seems to show you things that start with the letters you want, rather than all those which contain them. I’m not quite sure why, but I’ll take it!!