Clyth in Caithness, north-east Scotland was the original source of my mother’s parents. I was seventy-seven when I felt a renewed need to drive up there. A journey I should have made years ago when I was a shade spritelier.
The motivation, in 2011, was based on the research a cousin using on-line ‘Ancestry’, carried out on my mother’s parents, Jane (nee Sutherland) and James Baillie. Long-standing interest was reignited, but curiosity had always lurked at the back of my mind ever since I was a child.
Every Christmas, a full-bodied goose arrived by post, with somewhere called Wick showing on the postal tag on one ankle. Early questions prompted my mother to show me the location, on an atlas, where her parents were born. The source of the goose was a mysterious Aunt Isy, for whom there was no clear family connection.
Over the years, pieces of information would be recalled by various members of the family (my mother had three brothers and two sisters). Adding my own subsequent research, I was sure her fascinating story was worth writing about. Already my head carried a title, ‘The Saga of Jane Sutherland’. I know she became Jane Baillie, but her birth name seemed more fitting.
Now, I needed to put my long-standing ignorance of Clyth behind me.
There was much resistance to my journey north. My dear lady, although a little worried, knew how much I had become involved in tracking Jane Sutherland’s history. It was my elder son and my daughter who raised the greatest objections.
My eldest son said, “Dad, it’s nearly four hundred miles from here.”
And my daughter, “You can’t possibly drive that far.” And added stingingly, “At your age.”
Only my second son was a little more understanding, “Good for you, Dad. That you’d take this on—at your age.”
Eventually, we compromised. I would take the train from Newcastle to Inverness and hire a car and drive from there. Unwillingly, my family agreed. It was barely 70miles from Inverness north to Clyth.
Accommodation, on-line, was next, although I didn’t know it at the time, my choice would reveal a massive coincidence. The one place available anywhere near the Clyth coast was a B&B called ‘The Antlers’, which was part of a farm. I booked for three nights; two full days clear.
Only one car hire firm, Europcar accepted anyone over seventy, so, I was promised a small car would be at a hotel not far from Inverness station.
So, on a cloudy morning in early September 2011, I was on a train bound for the long journey to Inverness. I spent part of that journey reviewing all the factors that had brought me here.
For years I had gone along with the myths and disjointed fables that I had heard in my early life. But sometime in my sixties, my cousin, two or three years my junior, paid me a surprise visit. Along with the information gained on-line, about my grandparents both born of fisherfolk, it was confirmed that Jane’s father had been lost at sea with his brother when their fishing boat capsized. James’ father had what we would call dementia today.
But it was the extra detail my cousin had collected that grabbed me. Some I’d heard already, but there was information which she had collected from relatives, long passed, that was new to me. Again and again, I would ask myself why we had never pursued that information from relatives before they passed on.
It was guesswork how Jane and James Baillie became an item. Attending the same school was a possibility. Jane left school at fourteen and went into domestic service. Conjecture again as to where James had an apprenticeship. The 1891 census for the Jane’s household omitted her name, because, at eighteen she was living in Edinburgh. It was noted that James had become an engineer in Edinburgh. Conclusions are obvious.
My cousin had heard that our grandmother had told her eldest daughter that she met James every Sunday (her only day off) on Calton Hill in Edinburgh under a statue of Robert Burns, whose poems they were known to quote in later years.
But why did James Baillie travel to New York, leaving Jane for arguably two years? Conjecture again, but better prospects were the possible attraction.
In 1894, according to my cousin’s findings, Jane followed him, and they were married on the day she disembarked. That seemed a little far-fetched.
Their first child, a girl, named Isabella after Jane’s own mother was born in 1896. The following year came son James, and in 1899 there was another daughter, Catherine. In 1901 they were gifted a second son Robert.
As I sat there snug in my train seat I had to contemplate the fact that if tragedy had not befallen them, I would not have been here at all.
But tragedy did fall. Talk of smallpox had filled family tales. In 1902 despite strict quarantine to counter the disease, in just eight days three of their children were lost.
A family story was told of the saviour of the youngest girl, Catherine who was lowered, naked, in a tin bath down to a German lady, who kept her safe until danger was passed. That little girl grew to a ripe old age and became my Aunt Cath.
It is said that, after that gesture, my grandmother would not hear an ill word about the Germans. even when World War I came along.
My cousin admitted that she had brought me all these details for me to write about Jane Sutherland’s life. “You like writing. Could you write a book about them? I mean, you know what happened when they returned.”
“I don’t know why they didn’t go back to Scotland.”
I did know they had five more children, one of them my own mother.
“You could make something up.”
The truth was, I had become intrigued but needed more facts, more clarification. There were too many gaps, and I felt I might belittle them if I attempted to ‘make something up’.
Blessing the internet, I found, from Ellis Island.org, a full passenger record for Jane Sutherland, giving the date of arrival as 20th August 1894, and her age as 22 years, one year out. Also, amazingly, I downloaded a photograph of the ship she travelled on, the ‘Anchoria’, (a double masted schooner, with a single funnel). Intriguing!
I discovered that the fare would have been twenty-one guineas, (third class) and it is pure supposition how she paid that. Maybe, James sent her the money.
But there were still so many doubts and uncertainties.
In 2002, holidaying in New York, so much to see, but a ferry to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty recharged my search.
Gazing up at the world-famous edifice, I realised it had only been erected eight years before Jane Sutherland arrived.
In the information centre, a most helpful lady showed us Jane Sutherland’s arrival page, but there were no details of a James Baillie arrival. The lady laughed when I mentioned the fable of them marrying on the day she disembarked, “Sounds like a movie.”
Then, at the ‘New York Municipal Archives’ building, across the street from the ferry landing, we found more desks of computers. So easily, I called up a formally scripted document headed ‘Certificate of Marriage, Brooklyn.’ Their names were clear in thick black ink. I skimmed quickly to the date, “on this 20th day of August 1894.”
So, it was no family myth, they had married on the day she disembarked.
I ordered two copies, one for my cousin. On a separate sheet personal details gave James as a resident of 541 Flushing Avenue. No such building remained in 2011.
On-screen again, I found three rather emotive death certificates for Isabella, aged five, James, aged four, and one-year-old Robert, all Baillie, with another reversal of family belief. The cause of death was given as Scarlet Fever.
An assistant confirmed that the smallpox epidemic missed the Flushing Avenue area. Later a smaller epidemic of Scarlet Fever was confined to tenements around Flushing Avenue.
Arriving home, online I found a sailing manifest of 1892 naming James Baillie, aged 21, on a ship bound for Quebec. More conjecture. I had previously only looked at New York sailings.
There were many more uncertainties, and the years were pushing on. If I really wanted to write this saga, I needed to see where it all began. And that was why I was dismounting from a train in early afternoon Iverness.
No trouble finding the car, and less trouble finding the Antlers B&B, so well signposted, off the main A9 road. Down a lane, to a car park and a neat white-painted two-storey building, with ample window space including bays out from the roof. Much more modern than the old stone building of the farmhouse further down the lane.
I began my stay with a monstrous faux pas. While taking tea with Sandra, late forties, early fifties, a figure approached down the corridor. In the pale light, with his frail build, lined face, ragged hair sprouting from a near bald scalp, and shambling gait he momentarily put me in mind of my own father in his fading years. After introduction, his name was Vic, I told him, “Your daughter’s been telling me about the farm.”
“Sandra’s my wife,” Vic said with a wry grin.
As I gasped my apologies, Sandra was smilingly reassuring, ”I wish I had a pound for everyone who has made that error. We’re used to it.”
Their reaction, friendliness and subsequent easy-going manner had made me glad I had chosen The Antlers as my base. And our subsequent conversation was set to lead me into the land of amazing coincidence.
Mention of the goose from an unknown lady called Aunt Isy brought an instant wide-eyed glance between them. He had known Isy well. But that wasn’t all. When I told him of Jane Sutherland came the amazing revelation that his name was Sutherland,
Could there ever be such a wild coincidence?
“Mind you,” Sandra now warned, “ there are many Sutherland families in these parts.” She chuckled, “So much interbreeding.”
Vic also laughed, “We might be remote cousins. Come with me.”
Without further explanation he had driven me to the other side of the A9, where stood an old stone ruin, “The remains of Isy’s farmhouse,” he said, almost proudly.
Staggered by that, my breathing was caught up again the next evening, when Vic produced his laptop and among a host of photographs I got my first look at Aunt Isy, taken, Vic affirmed, forty years earlier. It was a black and white picture of an old, plump lady seated outside her cottage door, and I couldn’t avoid comparing the figure in a large pinafore with the only black and white photograph I had of Jane Sutherland.
“She passed away shortly after that picture was taken,” Vic explained with a sigh and went on to outline how, as a struggling young farmer, he had received much sound advice from her.
But, he told me, he had queried her unusual name and she admitted she hadn’t liked the ‘posh’ Janet Alexandra Adamson, her father had given her.
I’d brought my cousin’s Ancestry outline with me, and I remembered reading that Jane Sutherland’s mother, Isabella, had remarried a William Adamson. I had given a cursory look at the 1891 census, to ascertain that Jane was not listed. But, after Vic’s disclosure, I looked to find a Janet Alexandra Adamson, age one year, was there. So, she had been Jane Sutherland’s half-sister. The mystery of Aunt Isy was solved
Elated by the luck of learning so much, next day I drove into Wick, and searched through microfiche newspapers in the Press archives, The Clyth fishing tragedy of 1876 was given much detail. Extensive coverage was given to there being six lost souls, leaving five widows and twenty-six children in poverty
The report stated that when righted, so close to safety, the boat was in full sail, leading to the supposition that a sudden squall had struck side-on causing it to capsize.
Micro-fiche named the two professional divers who spent a full Saturday scouring the seabed over a three-mile radius, while crowds watched anxiously from the cliffs. On a ledge of rock, six and a half fathoms down the body of Willie Mackay, nineteen, was the only one recovered. He was the one unmarried member of the crew.
Further information dealt mainly with the funds collected for the widows. That seemed minimal to me but in those times many would have been quite generous.
With a visit to the Wick museum, I gained an appreciation of just how fragile the boats were. A full-size replica of the type of boat, or ‘fyfie’, revealed how difficult it would be for six men to operate together in that limited space.
Many tombstones in the Clyth graveyard bore the name ‘Sutherland’ and I was unable to differentiate.
Perhaps the most emotional moments for me were standing on the clifftops looking down into the inlet that the Clyth fishing boats left from. About half a mile out were the two peaked rocks between which the foundered boat had been discovered. That grey sea looked benign now and there was little breeze. I guessed I would be standing just where the weeping widows had watched as divers went down to find their men.
I wandered along those rocky clifftops a few times while I was there, my mind placing Jane Sutherland there as a grieving child. On the day I left, I hugged Sandra, thanking her for her kindness. I handed her a potted rubber tree plant as an indication of my gratitude, for which she declared her gratitude.
As I shook Vic’s hand and thanked him for all the helpful revelations, he commented, “I hope I’m as able as you when I’m your age.” Had I told him my age? Maybe, in passing. I had no idea how old he was. But his words pleased me and gave me something to throw at my doubting family.
On the train back to Newcastle I dozed a great deal but spent some time considering how lucky this trip had been for my research. I had discovered details that I could not have hoped for.
However, back home, I should have set about the task immediately. But there was other writing to occupy my mind, and after putting all my notes into some chronological order, I laid them aside. Every so often I reviewed them. After all the initial enthusiasm, as I discovered further facts, (life in New York tenements in the early 1900s for instance) by 2020 I still had done nothing.
The excuse I gave myself for not writing, was fear of weakening the true facts of the story as I imagined and wrote about, the unknown sections. In other words, I see now, I doubted my own capabilities.
But in that year, I told myself, if I wrote nothing, the whole research experience would be a sham. I had been kidding myself.
Having received decent feedback from a couple of other personal tales I’d written on Story Space, I drafted out a short prologue introducing a three-year-old Jane, in bed, on the eve of her father’s loss at sea. A chapter one would show her reaching six years old, by which time she has experienced the death of a younger brother, and the birth of a sister. This suggests she would inherit the strength and fortitude of her mother in the face of tragedy that would come her way in later life. If I gave the story a later life.
Both pieces are now on Stories Space, but even in writing them, I was uncomfortable with the notion that imagination and fiction were inevitable.
Now, having completed this memoir, I see it as a train of thought, which needs being told truly where possible and cautiously with any fictionalisation. And perhaps add a little lightness with the fiction.
Only time and urgency will be my judges.