Barbara Lawrie, Robina Lawrie + 1 – Whitestones, Kemnay – c1890

Week Two of #52Ancestors.

My favourite photograph in my family tree collection is not a simple photograph of one ancestor although it does feature two ancestors. The photograph shown was sent to me several years ago by my dad’s cousin Helen Lawson who lives in Aberdeenshire where my paternal ancestors originated.

The photograph depicts three people sitting outside an old house/cottage, one clearly an older adult and two young girls. The elderly woman, sitting resting on what appears to be a pleasant day is my 3 x great-grandmother Barbara Smith or Lawrie and the younger girl is my great-grandmother Robina Lawrie, the mother of my grandad Albert.  It is not clear who the third person is although the rear of the photograph names her simply as “Minnie”. Perhaps a grandchild from another line of the family.

Robina was born in 1885 and from the photograph, it appears that she is under 5 meaning the photograph probably dates from around 1890. What I like about the photograph is that although it is posed it has been taken at a rare moment of relaxation for Barbara. Also important is the background as much as the people as I will explain below. I have used this photograph as the background for my genealogy business website, on business cards and other branding.

Barbara Lawrie had an interesting and challenging life. She was born in February 1835 in the parish of Cluny, only a few miles southwest of Kemnay where the photograph was taken. Her father James Smith was a shoemaker and crofter and the family lived for many years at Culthibert which is Gaelic for “corner of the well”. Today there is very little left of Culthibert and it is hard to imagine a place where several families lived and worked. It still features on maps but only a small farm steading is left and the area around it has been left untouched for many years other than the odd forestry plantation.

Culthibert and Cluny were significant places in my family history. As well as the Smith family one of the family lines from my paternal granny’s line, the McKenzies, including my 2 x great-grandmother were living at Culthibert at the same time. My granny’s maiden name was Bruce and her dad Peter Bruce lived at nearby Tillycairn Cottages as a young boy in the 1870s. It would be almost 60 years before the Bruce-Lawrie lines were united with the marriage of my grandparents in 1937 but it seems certain that the different family lines would have known each other. What they thought of each other – well we will never know – perhaps for the best!!

A shoemaker was an important role in a community at the time. It was not the practice of people to simply throw away and buy a new pair of shoes like we do today. The shoemaker was important to repairing and adjusting shoes etc and in Culthibert the number of farm workers would have kept James Smith in ready employment. The opening of a granite quarry nearby and the building of a railway line to Alford in the 1850s nearby would have brought more people into the area and with it a demand for the work of a busy shoemaker.

By 1851 Barbara had moved away although her parents and siblings remained in Culthibert. The norm at this time was for a young girl, around the age of 14 to leave home and take up work at a farm or house as a domestic servant.  I often think of my own daughter at 14 and imagine the feelings they must have had leaving home and living alone in what in many instances could have been a hostile place to live and work. Aberdeenshire had for many years amongst the highest levels of childbirths outwith marriage and the practice of young girls aged 14-16 years living alone in a remote farmhouse with a bothy or chaumer full of young men nearby is often cited as being the reason. We dare not think of how many young girls were subject to abuse at such a young age!!

In the 1851 Census Barbara was 15 years of age and working as a domestic servant at a farm called Alterdergue in Coull a few miles southwest of Cluny. The census shows that she is working to James and Margaret Archibald and their young family, the oldest child is only two years younger than Barbara!  We can imagine that Barbara would have worked under the direction of Margaret, the mistress of the house. Was it a supportive relationship? or did the Archibalds demand long hours and hard work from young Barbara Lawrie?

By the late 1850s, Barbara has returned home to Culthibert. In December 1858 she gives birth to twins – a boy John, my 2 x great-grandfather and a girl Mary. The father of the twins was John Lawrie, then working as a railway labourer, working on the new Great North of Scotland Railway which ran from Kintore to Alford and came close to Culthibert. A year later the couple were married at Culthibert.

We know that the railway opened in 1859 so John would have found himself out of work. By 1861 the family, now with a 2-week-old daughter Catherine to add to the twins are still living at Culthibert with the wider family but John is working as a quarrier in a local granite quarry. Aberdeenshire is of course renowned for its granite that gave the city of Aberdeen its title of the Granite City. This was the peak of that industry with quarries emerging all across the country, particularly around the villages of Kemnay and Kintore.

It was close to Kemnay at a quarry known as Whitestones that the family moved around the late 1860s.  By 1870 they had had seven children although sadly two girls Catherine, age 3 and Barbara Ann, age 1 had died.  The 1871 Census finds them facing a new life at Whitestones with john working as a quarryman. It has been claimed that Whitestones had a better quality of granite than the large quarry at Paradise in Kemnay but the routing of the railway line meant that Paradise would become the more famous source for granite stone.

Barbara Smith or Lawrie (1835-1904

Tragedy struck the young family a matter of months after the Census of 1871. John, now 38 years old developed a fever and died on 11 May 1871 leaving Barbara and his five children aged from one year old to the 12-year-old twins’ John and Mary. Of course, it is hard to know the nature of our ancestors from an image alone. Another image we have of Barbara (see above) shows the face of a determined and some may say, tough woman. What we do know is that she stayed on at Whitestones for the rest of her days and became the housekeeper for a hostel used by quarrymen working at Whitestones.

The main image shows the small cottage and behind that is a larger building which was presumably where the quarrymen would have lived.  I examined old maps of the quarry and the image below seems to show the likely location of the two buildings which today no longer stand.

Whitestones Quarry, Kemnay – OS Map – c1900 – Likely Direction of photograph
National Library of Scotland

We can but imagine the manner of life Barbara faced. Anyone who reads old newspapers knows that quarrymen of Aberdeenshire worked hard and played hard and indeed some of my own ancestors are cited in the newspapers falling foul of the local law after a night “relaxing” in a pub in Kintore or Kemnay!!

This image is special to me as it shows what appears to be a tranquil image of a woman sitting and resting with two of her grandchildren. It hides the tough, hard life Barbara had faced keeping a roof over the head of her young family. Despite its appearance, the reality is that they are sitting not at a country cottage but in the environs of a working granite quarry.

Barbara Smith nee Lawrie was 67 years of age when she died at Whitestones in January 1904 due to pneumonia. She lies at rest in the Kirkyard of Kemnay in a grave near the door of the Kirk. She has no headstone but she lies alongside her eldest son John Lawrie and in the next grave to her other twin Mary Lawrie nee Innes.