Patronymic Surnames

In modern times in Scotland (and many other countries) the way surnames are assigned is well known to us. As a child you get the same surname as one or both of your parents. This has been the case since around the same time as the Statutory Records began in 1855. In Scotland, a Statutory Birth record provides both the parents names and the child’s full name so there is no doubt the name the child has been given.

The prior records, kept before 1855, are nowhere near as verbose. These Old Parish Baptism Records record the father’s full name and address and the child’s first name. Here’s an example.

Baptisms 1802
Oct 24 Thomas Johnson, Cliprogarth a Son John

You might be thinking, well, that’s not a problem, the child’s full name is easy to extrapolate from the father’s surname. Clearly the child is called John Johnson. You would not be alone in thinking that since that is how the various online indexes would interpret this record too. However, this is where the practice of using patronymic surnames comes in and confuses the issue.

Patronymic Surname

A patronymic is where the child does not inherit the surname of their parent but instead gains a surname based on the father’s first name. In the example above, if the child had a patronymic they would be known as John Thomason, that is John son of Thomas.

This is a pattern that I believe was inherited from the Norse people who settled Shetland. Going back far enough in the records I am studying you do also come across the female form of this pattern, for example Joanna Williamdottir, that is Joanna daughter of William. There are not many examples of these and it seems that by 1800 the girls were following the male pattern, so Joanna would be Williamson just like her brothers.

So how do you know which surname pattern is in use in this time period prior to the start of Statutory Records? The answer is you can’t tell from just one record. You simply have to remember to bear it in mind when searching for records about a person. Some people used them and some did not.

For further reading, the Icelandic scheme still in use today is similar to how it was in Shetland in the early 19th century.

I’ve written a few blog posts where patronymic surnames have played a part in the research:-

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Tracking Thomas Johnson

I can’t resist a puzzle, and when someone posted a question about an Unst ancestor in the Shetland Genealogy Facebook Group, I couldn’t resist taking a closer look. Their 4th Great-Grandparents were John Thomason and Barbara Jane Winwick who I had in the Unst Family Tree already, and they were trying to determine John’s parents. John died on 8 April 1847 which is before 1855 and thus part of the Old Parish Records which means that no parents of the deceased are recorded.

Obituary. Burials at Baliasta 1847
Died Buried
John Thomason, Watquoy 8 April 10 Apr at Baliasta

She had found a John Thomason born to parents Thomas Johnson and Ann Williamson, and wondered whether that John could be the same one.

Thomas Johnson from Unst, and Ann Williamson from Yell (the neighbouring island) were married in Unst on 29 November 1801. From the Old Parish Record of their marriage contract we also know that Thomas was from Clipragrath.

1801 Contracts of Marriage
Nov 29 Thomas Johnson, Clipragarth and Ann Williamson

Ann Williamson/Johnson can be found in the 1841 and 1851 census returns living with her daughter Mary. She is recorded as a widow in the 1851 census, and was likely a widow in 1841 as well, but that early census does not record such data. To double check this is the same Ann Williamson, I found her daughter Mary’s death record in Unst on 10 July 1877 which shows her parents to be Thomas Johnson and Ann Williamson. So we have the correct person here. Finding all the siblings seemed to be the right thing to follow.

Looking through the Unst Old Parish Baptism Records from 1800 until 1823 (starting just before they were married in case there was a first child out of wedlock) for all children born to a father of Thomas Johnson, yields the following list.

  • 1802 Oct 24 Thomas Johnson Cliprogarth a Son John
  • 1804 May 2 Thomas Johnson Cliprogarth a daughter Mary (this one is written on the end of the list of 1804, after all the December entries, it could be an infant who died young, or a recording error.)
  • 1805 May 10 Thomas Johnson Cliprogarth a daughter Mary
  • 1808 July 15 Thomas Johnson Cliprogarth a daughter Jean Barbara
  • 1808 July 15 Thomas Johnson Cliprogarth a daughter Elizabeth
  • 1814 Feb 17 Thomas Johnson Cliprogarth a daughter Margaret
  • 1818 Aug 23 Thomas Johnston Gardie a Son WIlliam born 20 Aug
  • 1819 Nov 1 Thomas Johnson Midyell a daughter Ann
  • 1820 May 14 Thomas Johnson Haroldswick a Son Thomas born 7 May
  • 1822 Sep 1 Thomas Johnston Skaw a Son John born 11 Aug

Clearly these are not all the same father, however, the first five children (with Mary recorded twice) all born to a Thomas Johnson of Cliprogarth look very likely to be siblings.

To double-check sibling-ship, we need to find the death records for those who died after 1855.

  • Mary Thomason we found already, died in Unst on 10 July 1877. Her death record confirms both parents.
  • Elizabeth Thomason died in Unst on 17 May 1899. Her death record confirms both parents.
  • Jean Thomason is living with her twin sister in the 1861 census, and the relationship recorded confirms her as Elizabeth’s sister.
  • Margaret Thomson died in Unst on 18 December 1884. Her death record confirms both parents.

Confirmation of the parentage of all the sisters, who died after 1855, and the high likelihood that all the children born to Thomas Johnson of Cliprogarth are siblings, leaves me in no doubt that John Thomason was the son of Thomas Johnson and Ann Williamson as well.

Finally we must ask, could there be any other John Thomason born around the same time who is the man married to Barbara Jane Winwick? All we really know of John is from the 1841 census return where his age (which will have been rounded up) is given as 40.

Looking through the Unst Old Parish Baptism Records from 1795 until 1805 for all children called John, yielded a list of 46 Johns. It is unknown when looking at such entries, what surname the child will use in future records, as patronymic surnames were still very much in use at this time and the OPR entry only records the child’s given name (regardless of how some genealogy websites choose to transcribe it!). Considering both surname forms, we end up with the following list of John’s to follow-up on.

OPR Baptism Entry Patronymic Name Name
1798 June 17 George Thomson Gunister, a twin Son John John Georgeson John Thomson
1798 Sep 9 Thomas Miller, Skreveld, a Son John John Thomason John Miller
1802 Oct 24 Thomas Johnson Cliprogarth a Son John John Thomason John Johnson
1804 Mar 10 Laurence Thomson Setter a Son John John Laurenson John Thomson
1804 July 8 Thomas Harrison & Ursula Williamson a Son John John Thomason John Harrison
1804 Dec 14 Thomas Anderson Cliff a Son John John Thomason John Anderson

Here’s what we know about the above John’s.

  • John Thom[p]son, son of George Thom[p]son, lived and died in Bighton and married Ann Spence Trail. He is not the John we are looking for.
  • John Miller, son of Thomas Miller, lived and died in Petister and married Catherine Thomson. He is not the John we are looking for.
  • John Thomson, son of Laurence Thomson, married Margaret Mathewson. He is not the John we are looking for.
  • John Harrison, son of Thomas Harrison & Ursula Williamson, was a mariner, lived outside of Shetland, and married Margaret and Sarah. He is not the John we are looking for.
  • I don’t know anything about John son of Thomas Anderson, but the other children born to Thomas Anderson of Cliff used the surname Anderson, so I don’t believe he is the John we are looking for.

Through a process of elimination, we can therefore confidently say that John Thomason, son of Thomas Johnson of Cliprogarth, is the same man that married Barbara Jane Winwick. There is no other man it could be.

John Thomason and Siblings

John Thomason and Siblings with their spouses

My grandmother in the 1939 register

My grandmother in the 1939 register

The 1939 register is a census-like snap shot of people in England and Wales that was taken just as the Second World War broke out. It was taken on 29 September 1939 and the information was used to produce identity cards and, once rationing was introduced in January 1940, to issue ration books.

There is actually also a 1939 register for Scotland too, but it is not available to view in the same way as the England and Wales register.

Due to this I had largely discounted the 1939 register as a source of information for my research because I was looking for people in Scotland.

When I was visiting my family recently we were talking about my maternal grandmother and about the house she worked in as a Cook in London before the war. We had the address from letters she had written, 20 Halsey Street, and my sister had been along to that address in modern day London and taken a photo of the outside.

My mum wondered whether it would be possible to find out anything about the people who she worked for. This resulted in me realising that I did have a reason to look in the 1939 register after all!

Nana Cook 1939

Nana recorded as a Cook in the 1939 register

Mary Anderson London

This is my grandmother in London – perhaps this is in the garden of 20 Halsey Street?

We found her in the register at exactly the address we knew from the letters. Unfortunately only domestic staff were listed at that address, no owners. I don’t know whether this means that they were away or perhaps were military people and so excluded from the 1939 Register because they were counted on some equivalent list that the military kept.

Notwithstanding the failure to discover who she worked for, it was lovely to find her in the register.

A real register

On Monday, Tuesday and half of Wednesday (today), I was at the Scotland’s People centre in Edinburgh. I had a couple of main tasks I planned to do this time around. One was locating the marriage records of people who were born in Unst, and that I knew were married from census records, but they got married outside of Unst. I was able to search the database that my TNG website creates to produce a list of all those couples where I didn’t yet have a marriage date for them and I worked my way through that.

My other task was about Unst houses. I’ve written in the past about normalising the names of Unst houses, since they seem to choose a different spelling every census, and trying to locate them on the old maps. One piece of data that can sometimes help with this is the column available from the 1861 census onwards that records the “No. of Rooms with one or more Windows”. It’s not something that websites such as Ancestry and Find My Past include in their census transcriptions, but if you look at the images of the census returns in Scotland’s People then you can see all the columns.

I came across one problem with this data in the 1871 census. This column is at the far right of the page, and for Enumeration Districts 1, 2 and 3 the curve of the pages into the binding was such that the images did not show this column on all the even page numbers.

I had a chat with the supervisors at the Scotland’s People Centre and they decided that rather than put in a rescan request for all those pages, they would get the actual book out for me to look through!

Enumeration Book Cover

Example Enumeration Book Cover

I was very happy with this as you might imagine. I got to leaf through the actual 1871 Unst census return enumeration book. I was actually a bit bigger than I imagined it would be. I am so used to seeing the pages printed on A4 sheets, but the real thing is probably another 20% bigger. It was a fairly plain cover with the five Enumeration Books for Unst bound together. Each Enumeration book within the plain covered book still has it’s blue cover (rather like the 1911 cover shown here but in Landscape orientation for the pre-1911 census returns), so you are physically aware as you move from one Enumeration book to the next, and of course there are a number of blank pages at the end, which you don’t really realise when just looking at the images.

I had all my research from looking at 1871 census images ready in a table with empty boxes where I could write the missing numbers so it didn’t take too long to turn over each page and find the column. It was really tucked in there, so I was having to look sideways into the binding crease to read it, rescanning them wouldn’t have helped as it turned out.

No photography is allowed in the Scotland’s People research rooms, so I wasn’t able to take a picture of this real register book, but I won’t forget it.

Misheard place name?

I was transcribing a marriage record today where the groom gave an address in Aberdeen to the registrar in Stornoway (so he was unlikely to know the address). Unusually, the handwriting on this record is very clear and easy to read (oftentimes the handwriting is utterly atrocious!) so I’m absolutely certain of what it says.

No. When, Where, and How Married. Signature of Parties.
Rank or Profession, Whether Single or Widowed,
and Relationship (if any).
Age. Usual Residence
3 1903on the Eighth
day of January
at The Free Church
Manse, Back,
Stornoway
(Signed)
Henry Bruce

Herring Worker
(Bachelor)
29 10 Gasmine
Aberdeen

However, there doesn’t appear to be a street in Aberdeen called “Gasmine”.

In the 1901 census (2 years earlier), Henry Bruce is living in 25a Roslin Terrace.

Looking at a modern day map of Aberdeen at where Roslin Terrace is, quite close by are Jasmine Place, Way, and Terrace.

Ear

So I wonder whether the way Henry said “Jasmine”, with perhaps a strong Shetland accent, was misheard by the registrar as “Gasmine”?

Light Keepers recorded at home

Muckle Flugga Lighthouse

Muckle Flugga from the seaward side
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Mike Penningtongeograph.org.uk/p/941026

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 Penningtongeograph.org.uk/p/311395

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
Person.
RELATION
to Head of
Family
CON-
DITION
AGE
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
Person.
RELATION
to Head of
Family
CON-
DITION
AGE
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

Oops!

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
married
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
married
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
married
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.