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

Knitting belts

Knitting belts

Countryman Magazine

In a recent Countryman magazine, a reader asked if anyone could identify an object found in Norfolk.

It was a knitting belt.

knitting belt

My own knitting belt

I have always wondered how widespread the use of the knitting belt was.

Prior to the commercially produced knitting belt, a straw version, a wisp, was used by tucking it into the waistband, and knitting needles could then be stuck into the end.

wisp - early knitting belt

A straw wisp – an early version of the knitting belt

These and wooden versions were used in many areas of the UK.

Apparently, it is thought that although other devices were once used to support the right needle in the UK and elsewhere, the knitting belt is perhaps unique to Shetland, where they are called “makkin belts”.

However, they were possibly also used in the north east of Scotland. I know I have seen one in a museum in Nairn, near Inverness.


Knitters in Shetland wore their belts everywhere, walking home with a “kishie” full of peat, gathered with other knitters around the fire, the belt would still be in use because there was still knitting to be done.

Two women carrying kishies

Two women carrying kishies.
Photo Source: Shetland Museum

The “makkin belt” consisted of a leather pad stuffed with horsehair and attached to a belt. The technique requires the use of double point needles.

Shetlanders still use them.

So, how did a knitting belt  come to be found in Norfolk?

I wonder if  gutter girls from Shetland, who followed the herring all down the Scottish coast and as far as Great Yarmouth, gutting the herring, (taking their knitting with them to work on when off duty) introduced the knitting belt to others as they traveled.

Gutter Lasses

Gutter lasses knitting in front of barrels.
Photo Source: Shetland Museum

If anyone has any information about knitting belts used elsewhere, I would love to know!

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!

The puzzle of Jemima Georgeson

I do love a good puzzle, especially when you find the last little piece of the puzzle fits in perfectly and proves all your remaining outstanding questions.

I was actually following the branch of an Unst gent, Charles Peterson who, like many Shetland men, had moved to Toxteth Park to work in the docks. I found two possible marriage records for him, which upon further digging both turned out to be him as his first wife died not long after they married, as he is then recorded as a widower in the census and then in the second marriage record.

  • Oct-Nov-Dec 1890: Married Jemima Georgeson, Toxteth
  • Apr 1891: Recorded as a widower in the census return, where he is boarding
  • 4 May 1892: Recorded as a widower in the second marriage record

As I always do, I like to branch out sideways in the tree and find out what I can about spouses, siblings etc. But I didn’t really know very much at all about his first wife Jemima. I had an approximate age, and her father’s name Peter Georgeson, from the marriage record.

I had a Jemima Georgeson, born in Fetlar (the neighbouring island to Unst), with Unst ties in my tree, with the same approximate birthdate and father’s name. Could it be the same woman? I didn’t even know if Charles’ first wife was from Shetland, although it was certainly a common occurrence for two Shetlanders to meet in Toxteth Park and marry, I’d seen that many times already. If she was the same woman, then I wouldn’t find any evidence of her in the census in Toxteth Park because she was in Unst in 1881, and had died before 1891.

Then I found that she and Charles had a daughter, born in the same registration quarter that she died – suggesting a childbirth related reason for her death. This daughter died in Shetland in 1892. She wasn’t with her father in the 1891 census as he was on his own as a boarder. She must be somewhere in the 1891 census, perhaps she was already in Shetland by then, sent home by her widowed father to be looked after by relatives?

Sure enough I located her in Fetlar, living with her grandmother, her maternal grandmother. That link proved that Jemima Georgeson was indeed the one I already knew of. Also, the census showed that little Jemima Margaret Peterson was 4 months old in the 1891 census narrowing down her birth date from a registration quarter to a month, and also the same for her mother’s death date.

Charles Sinclair Peterson's Family Tree

Charles Sinclair Peterson’s Family Tree

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!