Tracking Martha Johnson

I was contacted through this blog by the great-great-grandson of Martha. He was looking for information on her birth and death details.


We knew from her marriage record to Donald Sutherland on 23 Jan 1840 that her maiden name is Martha Johnson, and that she lived in Ungersta. Interestingly, on her son James’s marriage record she is recorded as Martha Jamieson. Being a little less specific about her surname and searching for Martha J* soon reveals the following record in the Old Parish Records of Births and Baptisms in Unst.

Day of the
Childs Birth
Day of the
Childs Baptism
Baptisms 1816
April 1
April 3
John Jameson in Ungersta a Daur Martha

Seeing this record explains the discrepancy and also the difficulty in finding it. This is a common problem with patronymic surnames, since that record is indexed as Martha Jameson, not Johnson as she was actually known.


Finding her death record was a little more difficult however. From census returns we know she died between 1861 and 1871 since in 1861 she is in Unst with her family, but in 1871 she is nowhere to be found and her husband, who is still living in Skaw, is recorded as Widowed. She didn’t die in Unst though as there is no sign of her in the Unst death records.

So, since I was in Edinburgh at the ScotlandsPeople Centre I had a thorough look at all the Martha’s who died anywhere in Shetland between 1861 and 1871, still no sign. Expanding my search for Martha Sutherland’s in the whole of Scotland I found one possibility, a married woman called Martha Sutherland who died in The Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum in Montrose – a long way from Unst!

No. Name and Surname.
Rank or Profession, and whether
Single, Married, or Widowed.
When and Where Died. Sex. Age. Name, Surname, & Rank or Profession
of Father.
Name, and Maiden Surname of Mother.
Cause of Death, Duration of
Disease, and Medical Attendant
by whom certified.
77 Martha



Lunatic Asylum
Parish of Montrose

F 50

Six Months

as certified by

The informant didn’t know enough about her, or didn’t bother to find out enough, to fill in her husband’s name, which is usually recorded below the word Married, nor her parents names. So, this could be her, but equally it could be anyone.

Upstairs in Register House, above the ScotlandsPeople search rooms, is the Historical Records search room, so I looked for admission records for the Sunnyside hospital in their catalog index. I found them, but they are not digitised, and they are stored in the University of Dundee Archives. I was ready to pop over to Dundee the following day to get a look at them, only to discover that Thursday (the last day of my visit to Scotland this time) was the day their archives are closed! I definitely had a “so near, and yet so far” feeling then.

Sunnyside Hospital

Sunnyside Hospital. Photo courtesy of the Memories of Sunnyside webpage.

So, I emailed the Dundee Archives in the hope that they could look up the Admission records and find the Martha Sutherland who died in the Hospital and see if there was any additional information recorded that would refute or prove that she was the one we were looking for. I wasn’t sure how well indexed such records were, whether looking one person up, even with such a narrow date window (1861 – 1867), would mean literally turning every page.

Well, I was very pleasantly surprised. It was an easy look up for the archivist to do, and by the time I left Register House on Thursday aftenoon (where there is no internet access) and could read my email for the day, I had a response from them with the details from the Hospital Records. It was a woman from Unst, with a husband Donald Sutherland who lived in Skaw. It was our girl! She checked into the Hospital on 9 January 1865, at age 48. It was recorded as her third attack, the first being when she was 36 years of age.

The record also shed some light on why she was there. It records the Supposed Cause as “Death of an infant from being overlaid and death of a child thereafter from burning.”

It just shows that it really is worth following every possible lead, even if you don’t think it’s likely that someone would be so far from home when they died, Unst to Montrose is quite a long way from home.

I’d like to try and find the children who died but that will be the subject of a future blog post.

12 thoughts on “Tracking Martha Johnson

  1. One of my great granddads died in Sunnyside in 1919. Apparently Sunnyside was chosen as the destination for Shetland people with mental problems because a civil servant looked at a map of Scotland and saw Shetland in in a box due east of Montrose.

    • Hi John,

      Doesn’t sound so far fetched given the problems we still have with getting Shetland in the right place on the map even now!


  2. Just when you think the story is completed there is so much more to uncover. Those poor babies! I am definitely interested in what drove Martha to the point where she did such things. Great detective work!

    • It is tough to lose one baby, no wonder losing two had her in the asylum. A very sad story. I hope to find the babies, but I suspect they may be pre-1855 and so before statutory records.

  3. Hi Morag,
    Just to record again my thanks for your excellent investigative work. From a limited amount of further research, it appears that “death from being overlaid” was a very commonly attributed cause of death when no other cause could be established. And, just as in many cases where Sudden Infant Death Syndrome has been seen as the mother’s fault in recent years regardless of any culpability, “death from being overlaid” was assumed to be a failing of the mother (or nurse, as applicable) in the 19th century. I can’t help but suspect that an incorrect blaming of Martha for the death of her child would have excerbated the pain and grief of the loss, and a further child dying would easily have been too much to bear (or perhaps too much for her husband to accept her innocence regarding?).

    Thanks again,

  4. Thank you for this Morag, her husband Donald was a 1st cousin 4x removed to me and I wondered why I could not find her after 1861. There are big gaps between some of her children: 7 yrs, 6yrs and 5yrs.. I also think it noteworthy that three of her children and her mother all left the Shetlands, perhaps they felt the need to get away from any bad feelings. I notice though that her son James named a daughter Martha so he still loved her.

  5. Morag, I totally agree with your advice about ‘following every possible lead, even if you don’t think it’s likely that someone would be so far from home when they died’. I wish more people would look in Australia for references to ancestors who lived in Britain, Europe, America, Canada, Africa etc. And asylum records are a superb source that is often overlooked by family historians. I am indexing historical records of some mental asylums here in Australia, and lots of other exciting records too, and over 53,000 names from those indexes are on my Web site (

  6. Two of her daughters arrived in New Zealand in 1874 as Domestic Servants. They were: my great grandmother Jemima Joanna Sutherland (B1847, Skaw), married James Smith Williamson (b 1849, Nesting, Lunnasting ) in 1877, House of Andrew Mouat, Oriental Bay, Wellington, NZ, (D 1929, Wellington, NZ). Recently have seen another family tree that Andrew Mouat’s wife was Margaret Sutherland. Not sure whether that is her sister Margaret. Need to research that! She came with her youngest sister, Isabella Sutherland (B 1859, Skaw), in 1892 married Arthur Taylor in Wellington, NZ (been told Upper Hutt). They had 3 children: Arthur, Isabella and Emily. That side of the family I know nothing more about or when or where Isabella (new Sutherland ) died.

    • Andrea, I don’t think that Margaret Sutherland could have been Jemima’s sister, I believe she died on 4 Jul 1886 at Norwick, Unst. The death registration has her mother’s maiden name as Jamieson but everything else tallies and it was registered by James William Sutherland, the brother of both Jemima and Margaret. She was single.

Morag would love to hear what you think. Leave a comment here.

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