In 1840, two unlikely branches of my family met. The Bensons from Midlothian were powdermakers, miners and labourers. This group of families lived for many years in and around Glencorse. The local cemetery is stuffed with their remains, if you’ll pardon the expression.
It’s easy to go sideways in the family (Robert, whose brother was Francis and who had young Francis and so on and so on) but not as simple to go backwards. The earliest person I have is the wife, Isabella, of a Benson who would have been born around 1770.
But it’s the very first Robert Benson who married a Spence. Or to be accurate, a Thom. And Margaret, the bride, was from a long line of burgesses in the Royal Burgh of Linlithgow.
When I began researching this family line, I discovered that I wasn’t alone – contacts flooded in with stacks of information. Sadly, a lot of it turned out to be contradictory – and who to believe and why? Overwhelmed by the task, I set ‘the Linlithgow lot’ aside for a good while and only returned to it fairly recently. This time, I’ve done the research myself using (hopefully) ironclad sources.
The first surprise was one that’s all too common. This girl had the surname Thom but there was no marriage. I thought of a commonlaw marriage but the truth was that an already married man – Mr Thom, the exciseman – fathered two children on Helen Stanners. That wife and six children I’d been following? Somebody else’s.
Having overcome that hurdle, I began to find the families of Stanners and Spence. And they’re infinitely more interesting than an unfaithful exciseman.
Linlithgow is a town full of history. Mary of Guise, wife of James V of Scotland, was delivered of a daughter here in 1542, who was to become the ill-fated Mary, Queen of Scots. Linlithgow Palace, which royal princes altered and improved through the years, was considered an architectural gem of the Renaissance. Prince Charles Edward Stewart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) stayed there in 1745, but after fires started by the Duke of Cumberland in 1746, the palace burned to the ground. The ruins of it have lain unroofed and uninhabited since then.
The River Avon flowed through the town and was vital to the success of the leather industry which sprang up in the 1600s and continued for two centuries. My ancestors tanned the leather and made shoes from it for export. This brought them some reward, and there are several generations of both Stanners and Spences who were made burgesses of the town.
I’m still deep in the labrynth that is Scots history, but so far I’ve discovered that to be a burgess could mean several things. It could simply be a man who owned some land (and that could be a very small amount of land, say enough to build a house on). Or it could mean a man who was a member of a prestigious crafts guild, and there were certainly Guilds of Tanners and Cordiners. I think that at least some of my people will appear on Burgess Rolls, although the privilege of being a Burgess was also granted to those outside the burgh. A case of profiting by who you know.
It was a thing to be proud of, being a burgess, and this is illustrated by a rather grand tombstone in the kirkyard which was erected by one William Law in honour of his grandparents, George Stanners and Margaret Spence. William was himself a ‘feur of Glasgow & burgess here’.
I’m beginning to look at extracts from the commisary courts whose records are kept in the National Archives of Scotland and I found Charles Inglis vs George Stanners in January of 1769. The commisary courts were often concerned with moral matters as well as matters of money, and I will have to look at the full record to find out why Mr Inglis and Mr Stanners were facing each other in court. I’m also going to look into the system of apprenticeships – there were two George Stanners, father and son – could George Jnr have been apprenticed to his father?
These families probably owned little pockets of land on Linlithgow’s High Street and there is a record of a William Law in his shoe shop in the 1820s. I think it’s a fair bet that he was a descendant of the man who erected a monument to his grandparents.
Finally, looking into these families has also been an exploration into random spelling. Elizabeth Dow, whose father was James Dove. And Christian Cochran who was variously Christian or Christean and Cochran or Chochren or even Chochran. The Georges get off lightly, only once being spelled, rather Germanically, Georg.