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 down) 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

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!!

Ancestors who lived in 1900s

Prompted by this post by Janet Few, which challenged you to realise how many of your ancestors were actually alive in the 1900s, I decided to count.

Ancesters 1900s

My ancesters who lived in the 1900s

I have 29 ancestors who were alive in the 1900s, including two Great Great Great Grand-parents.

I also have photographs of all my Great Grand-parents, and three of my Great Great Grand-parents.

However, I do agree with the sentiment of Janet’s post; I think I spend much more of my research time in the 1800s than the 1900s!

How about you?

Always check the real records

Transcribed records, provided by the various online genealogy websites are all very well, but part of your research should include checking the actual record image as well. For English records you may well be lucky enough to do this at the same time, and on the same website as the transcribed version, but for Scottish records you have to get them separately from Scotland’s People.

I had a recent person I was looking into that illustrated, again, to me, that it’s always important to look at the real records.

This lady was recorded as living in a house called Garden, in both the 1901 and 1911 census, and the transcription of the 1901 census said she was born in “North Unst”. That was in itself slightly unusual because most people recorded in Unst census returns have their place of birth recorded simply as “Unst”, without it being broken down any further. This is in contrast to the neighbouring island of Yell where birth places are broken down into “North Yell”, “Mid Yell” and “South Yell” because the island itself is not a single parish, and thus not a single registration area, unlike Unst which is.

When I found this lady’s birth record, it showed she was born in Garden, Unst. Not a surprise since this is where her parents, and later she, also lived.

Now there are two houses called Garden in Unst, one in Colvadale, and one in Snarravoe, neither of which I would consider to be in North Unst! See map for the two locations.

So, I brought up the actual 1901 census record, and it doesn’t say North Unst at all! It just says Unst. It would seem that the transcriber’s eye has been pulled offline to the record below her which records someone born in “North Yell”.

1901 Census

ROAD, STREET, &c.,
and No. or NAME of
HOUSE.
NAME and Surname of each
Person.
RELATION
to Head of
Family
CONDITION
as to
Marriage
AGE
(last Birthday)
WHERE BORN
Males Females
Garden Thomas Irvine Head Mar 34 Shetland, Whalsay
Janet Irvine Wife Mar 41 Do North Yell
Williamina Irvine Daur 10 Shetland, Unst
Thomasina Do Daur 5 Do Do
Andrina Williamsom Sister in law S 53 Do North Yell
Cathrine Do Do S 45 Do Do

So, remember it’s always worth checking!

Who is Elizabeth Fordyce?

To ensure I’ve found everyone who lived in Unst, I am going through each page of the census returns. In one page in the 1871 census I’ve come across an entry that has me stumped.

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
Burnside Alexr Fordyce Head Mar 75 Fisherman
Catherine Do Wife Mar 75 Do Wife
Elizabeth Gaunson Daur Mar 38 Sea Capts Wife
Elizabeth Fordyce Grand Dr 14
Catherine A Gaunson Grand Dr 22M
George F Do Grand Son 3M

I have found Alexander Fordyce and his wife Catherine (neé Jamieson) and their children, one of whom is Janet Elizabeth who married George Gaunson and had several children, the first two being Catharine Ann Gaunson and George Francis Gaunson, two of the three grandchildren listed on this return.

Initial Fordyce Family Tree

Alexander and Catherine with their five children

It is interesting to see the daughter listed as Elizabeth here, and not as Janet/Jessie as in all previous census returns. She is listed as Elizabeth in the 1881 return as well (where she and her children are again seen living in Burnside with her parents while her Sea Captain husband is, one assumes, away at sea). Did she adopt her middle name upon marriage or does her father, the head of the household and likely person to convey names to the census enumerator, prefer to call her that?

So, what of this other grand-daughter, Elizabeth Fordyce?

At this point in my research, I was aware that Alexander and Catherine had five children, two sons, one who dies as a youngish man, neither of whom have any children that I know of, one daughter Ann dies young, and two remaining daughters, one also called Anne Ursula, both of whom have children.

We’ve seen the daughter Janet Elizabeth, on the census return. Her two children have the surname Gaunson as per her married name. If the other grand-daughter was also hers, she would have been born prior to her marriage (which would explain the surname being Fordyce) and when Janet was aged 23. This is certainly a possibility.

The other daughter, Anne Ursula, married Charles Johnson in 1856 and had a daughter, Catherine Elizabeth Johnson in 1857. This girl is a grand-daughter of the correct age, and could be known by her middle name. The use of her mother’s maiden name instead of her correct surname is not unheard of. This could be her, except, she’s recorded on the census in 1871 as being with her parents and siblings in their house in Lerwick.

I have seen several examples of people recorded twice in one census, some cases of grandchildren recorded both at home with their parents, and also at their grandparents house. One assumes the child was visiting the grandparents in the evening when the enumerator visited, but then went home and so met the criteria of “everyone who sleeps in the house on the evening of the census.” However, it is highly improbable that such a visit could happen in Unst by a grand-daughter from Lerwick.

Having ruled out that grand-daughter, I looked for all girls born in Unst (as this census return records she is) around 1857 (+\-2 years) with Elizabeth as a first or middle name (given the use of a middle name elsewhere in this household), listed in the 1861 census. There are 19 of them. My hope here was to find a girl in the 1861 census that is unaccounted for in 1871 and is maybe a grand-Neice or cousin of the family, who has just been rather sloppily referred to as a grand-daughter. However, none of the girls are unaccounted for in 1871. There is quite simply no-one called Elizabeth Fordyce born in Unst around that timeframe.

Having followed the premise that the name was wrong and that the place of birth was correct, I now changed tack. I started to search for Elizabeth Fordyce, born around 1857 anywhere in Shetland, which yielded nothing, and then born anywhere in Scotland. At this point out popped Elizabeth Fordyce, born 15 May 1856 in Edinburgh to parents James William Fordyce and Elizabeth McLeod. If this is James William Fordyce born in Unst, then she would indeed be a grand-daughter. I had not been able to find anything about James after he left Unst and was living in Edinburgh in 1851.

Having found this family through the grand-daughter Elizabeth, I could now see why. Her father James, is listed as having been born in Golspie, Sutherland and his wife Elizabeth McLeod is recorded as being born in Shetland. Following Elizabeth with her remaining children after James dies, it would appear that she was not from Shetland, it was she who was born in Golspie. So I believe that either the enumerator or the Ancestry record transcriber (since I haven’t seen the image for this one to know) has got the places of birth switched around. This is indeed James William Fordyce from Unst and his daughter Elizabeth Fordyce is visiting her grand-mother in Unst.

Fordyce Family Tree

Fordyce Family Tree
Green shows the people on the census return. Blue shows the family discovered as a result

Two wrongs don’t make a right, and in this case the two wrongs

  • Elizabeth Fordyce (grand-daughter) was not born in Unst, but in Edinburgh
  • James William Fordyce (son) was born in Unst and not in Golspie

left me with some searching to do, but I found them in the end!

The added benefit of locating this mystery grand-daughter was also the finding of the missing son and thus several more grand-children who are Unst descendants, so well worth the search.

Inaccurate recording strikes again

I love it when you find a record and all the names match up, correct parents, spouse, any mentioned children. Tick, tick, tick. All good, it’s definitely them.

However, every so often you come across one where it doesn’t fit and you run around in circles looking for the other person with the same name that isn’t them, to whom this record must refer, and end up back where you started with the belief that the record must be wrong. And after all, records are sometimes wrong. It’s like a detective story, where you have to work out who is lying, except (one hopes) the person who recorded the wrong information wasn’t lying deliberately, they just didn’t know (and didn’t realise the frustration their inaccuracies would cause 200 years later!).

This evening I have a Thomas Jam(i)eson whose death record shows his parents as William Jamieson and Catherine Christie, and wife Jane Fordyce. The record was informed by his son Thomas, so you start off feeling you can trust the information.

No. Name and Surname.
Rank or Profession, and whether
Single, Married, or Widowed.
When and Where Died. Name, Surname, & Rank or Profession, of Father.
name, and Maiden Surname of Mother.
Signature & Qualification of Informant,
and Residence, if out of the
House in
which the Death occurred.
16 Thomas
Jamieson

General Labourer

Married to
Jane Fordyce

1887
August
Twenty seventh
7h am

Cathoul,
Unst

William Jamieson
Fisherman
(deceased)

Catherine Jamieson
M.S. Christie
(deceased)

Thomas Jamieson

Son
(present)

Prior to his death Thomas can be found in the census returns along with his wife Jane and their children, and in two of the returns, also his sister Janet lives with them – in 1851 and 1871. I suspect she also lives with them in 1861, but she is recorded as a visitor in another house on the night of the census so that secret is likely lost to the mists of time.

1851 Census

Name of Street, Place, or
Road, and Name or
No. of House
Name and Surname of each Person
who abode in the house
on the Night of 30th March, 1851.
Relation
to
Head of Family
Condition Age of Rank, Profession,
or
Occupation
Males Females
Catt Houl Thomas Jamieson Head Mar 42 Day labourer, Crofter
Jane Do. Wife Mar 35
Ann T. Do. Daur 4
Elizabeth Do. Daur 2
Janet E Do. Sister Widow 49 Pauper
Catharine Fordyce Wife’s Sister U. 25 Pauper, nearly helpless

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
Catthoul Thomas Jameson Head Mar 67 Quarryman Crofter
Jane Do Wife Mar 60
Margery Do Daur Unm 15 Veil Knitter
Thomas Do Son Unm 12
Janet Do Sister W. 70 Pauper

When I find his sister Janet’s death record however, I find that she is recorded with different parents to that on her brother’s death record. The informant for Janet is her brother Thomas himself – so I feel this record is more trustworthy than his one.

No. Name and Surname.
Rank or Profession, and whether
Single, Married, or Widowed.
When and Where Died. Name, Surname, & Rank or Profession, of Father.
name, and Maiden Surname of Mother.
Signature & Qualification of Informant,
and Residence, if out of the
House in
which the Death occurred.
24 Janet Williamson

Pauper
Widow of
Thomas Williamson
Seaman

1874
June Fourth
5h am

Baliasta,
Parish of Unst

William Gilb’t Jameson
Fisherman
(deceased)

Isabella Jameson
M.S. Anderson
(deceased)

Thomas Jamieson
His X Mark
Brother, present

Peter Johnson
Registrar, Witness

Thomas clearly knows who his own parents are, so is the death record for a Thomas Jamieson actually for someone else? Perhaps there are two Thomas’s and both married someone called Jane and that’s what’s causing the confusion?

Looking at the Marriage record in the Old Parish Records it shows the names of the two parties but not their parents (that only comes in with the Statutory Records in 1855). However, it is likely that the witnesses are in some way related to the marrying parties, and looks like Thomas’ father William was one of the witnesses. (Note: The names Jane/Jean are often interchanged.)

1841 Contracts of Marriage
Dec 2 Thomas Jameson, Stutoft & Jean Fordyce, Greenroad, were married by the Rev James Ingram. James Johnson, Greenroad, William Jameson, Stutoft, Witnesses.

This is clearly the same Thomas as on the Death Certificate because in both cases we have his wife’s maiden name. Here we can see that prior to getting married, Thomas lived in Stutoft. If we look at the census which was taken less than 6 months before (1841 census was taken on 6 June 1841) we can see all the people who lived in Stutoft.

PLACE NAME and SURNAME, SEX and AGE,
of each Person who Abode in each House
on the Night of 6th June.
OCCUPATION
Here insert
Name of Village,
Street, Square, Close
Court, &c.
NAME and SURNAME AGE Of what Profession,
Trade, Employment, or
whether of
independent means.
Male Female
Stutoft William Jameson 75 Farmer
Thomas do 30
William do 12
Ursula do 19
Joan do 8
Catharine do 50
Isabella do 70

1841 census don’t show all the relationships between members of the household (that doesn’t begin until 1851). The pattern I’m used to seeing, from extensive reading of 1841 census taken in Unst, is the Husband and head of household on line one, followed by his wife on line two, and then the children listed either in descending age order, or grouped into boys and then girls and in descending age order within each gender. This record has an odd order. William is listed first, and that is one thing all records agree on – Thomas’s father is called William. There is also a woman, of an appropriate age, called Isabella also living at this house, but she is listed last, like a servant or ‘other’ relation would be. If she had been listed second, that would have sealed it for me, but this record still leaves a small doubt in my mind.

Isabella and William Gilbert’s children span birth dates from 1791 (when Isabella was 20) until 1807 (when she was 35). I believe that the younger children on the 1841 census are not her children but in fact her grandchildren (and in one case step-grandchild), and that may account for the odd ordering.

Stutoft 1841 Residents Annotated

Here are William Gilbert Jameson and Isabella Anderson’s children.
The red borders show the people present on the 1841 census
The green bordered person shows where the death record confusion may have come from.

Christie is not a common surname in Unst, and it always pays to have a wider look around when faced with confusion such as this. I see that Thomas’ brother James is married to a Catherine Christie. I have to assume that this is where the confusion came in for Thomas’ son when informing the register of the details for the death record.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that the death record is wrong.