John McLeod - an enigma


There comes a moment in the course of every would-be family historian’s researches - that thing we all dread - the proverbial brick wall. No more clues as to how to proceed - nothing more to go on. This is it !

Above you will find a copy of the birth-certificate of my paternal grandmother, Betsy Watt Kinnear or McLeod. She was born at Knappies in the parish of Rescobie, Forfarshire, in Scotland on 15.05.1868. This is the only document in my possession which has the name of her father, John McLeod, on it. That in itself is rather unusual, because the baby’s parents were not married at the time of the birth. Underneath the new baby’s name the word ‘Illegitimate’ appears in brackets. A later hand has added ‘? or McLeod’.

John Mcleod was illiterate, and made his mark as the father of the child. Fathers of illegitimate babies were not usually keen to be identified in this way, which makes me wonder whether he intended to marry Betsy’s mother, Mary Kinnear, as soon as he could, but was prevented from doing so by unknown circumstances. On the certificate he is described as a farm servant, which is the Scottish way of saying ‘farm labourer’. At the time of the birth he was working at Home Farm, Burnside, a farm about three miles east of Forfar in Angus, Scotland. (NO 500 500).  Mary had been working as a domestic servant before the birth of her daughter, and continued to do so afterwards, so Betsy was largely brought up by her grandparents, Andrew Kinnear and Betty (ne้ Watt), who lived in the village of Rescobie (NO 505 501).

The possibilities

So, what did become of John McLeod ? Here are some of the possibilities I considered, and where feasible explored.  Reasons for a marriage not to take place:- the father being under-age; of unsound mind; already married to another; too poor (quite possible); his imprisonment or deportation for a crime committed (no evidence found here); emigration; - or that he died shortly after the birth of his daughter (no evidence for this either).

I could find no record of either John or Mary in Forfar or Rescobie, in the 1871 Census. This is not to say that they weren’t there - just not in the right place to be counted, perhaps. Scottish outdoor farm servants were customarily housed in a bothy - usually a fairly primitive form of accommodation in one of the farm outbuildings. It would be quite easy for a census enumerator to overlook such dwellings. Mary was probably just keeping her head down, and working in domestic service, not far from her parents’ home. By 1881 Mary was married to a widowed farmer, William Henderson, and living comfortably in South Kingston, just outside Forfar.(NO 472 491)

There is one more possibility which I have not yet been able to investigate, but fully intend to do so, when a suitable opportunity occurs. In the Scottish National Archive there can be found a great many parish records (Kirk Sessions), and so far as I know, these are not yet indexed in any detail. Any illegitimate birth would have had to be considered by the Parish Officers (in case the mother became dependent on the parish) and almost certainly there would have been an investigation into the whereabouts of the putative father, to see if he could provide support for the mother of the baby.(Note: in 2013 I had the opportunity to search Kirk Sessions minutes for the period 1861-1871 for the parishes of Rescobie, Aberlemno, Dunnichen & St James Forfar - to no avail.)

Where did John McLeod come from?

Mary Kinnear was born in Aberlemno, another tiny hamlet not far from Forfar, in 1840. So I decided to limit my researches to the County of Angus (formerly Forfarshire). If John McLeod was just an itinerant labourer passing through the district, then any chance of discovering more about him would be an almost impossible task, since his name is really quite common in Scotland.

Beginning with the 1881 Census, I searched for the name John McLeod in the county of Angus, and restricted the potential age group to 40 +/- 5 years, since this would tally with Mary Kinnear’s peer group.

I discarded:-

John McLeod b.1835 in Forfar because he married in 1870 aged 35 (less than a year after the illegitimate baby was born).

John McLeod b.1843 in Dundee because he married in 1864 at age 21 (four years before Betsy was born).

John McLeod b.1851 in Dundee because he would have been only 16 in 1867 (when the illegitimate baby was conceived).

I considered as a possible candidate:-

John McLeod b.1845 in Kettins, just outside Coupar Angus, about 16 miles from Forfar. I could not find him in the 1851 Census, aged 6. In the 1861 Census (aged 15) this young man’s address was Bratland Bothy, in the parish of Coupar Angus. His occupation was given as farm servant, and he shared the bothy accommodation with another, older farm worker. I could not find him in the 1871 Census.

In 1881 (given age 34) he was still unmarried, and living with relatives in Blairgowrie, Perthshire, about 8 miles from his birthplace. He would have been 23 in 1868. In 1891  (given age 45) he remained unmarried, and was living with his older sister Jessie and her family in Rollox, a district of Glasgow in Lanarkshire. In 1901 I found a John McLeod (given age 49) born in Kettens (sic) Forfarshire. His occupation is ‘paintworker’ and he lives in lodgings at 14 St Mungo Street, Glasgow McLeod, Lanarkshire.

An IGI Family search for b. John McLeod 1840 +/- 5 years produced:-

John Taylor McLeod b.18.05.1838 in Auchterhouse, Angus (4 miles N of Dundee, but about 16 miles from Forfar by road)

1841 Census - Auchterhouse, aged 3

I could not find him in subsequent censuses, so it is not unreasonable to assume that he died in infancy.

John McLeod b.29.11.1839 in Glamis, Angus. Parents John McLeod & Margaret

1841 Census - ref. 289 West Denoon, aged 1;

1851 Census - ref. 289 West Denoon, aged 11

1861, 1871, 1881 Census not found.

John McLeod b.14.10.1845 in Kettins, Angus - see above


I have tried to trace all of these people and their families through consecutive censuses, and largely failed; the disparity of the data making it almost impossible to build up any useful picture from which to draw conclusions. John McLeod (b. Kettins, Forfarshire, 1845) is the only person whom I have been able to trace reliably over a period of almost fifty years. He would appear to have been something of a loner, working in unskilled occupations, and perhaps unable to live independently for one reason or another. Just because I have more information on him than all the others does not, alas, make him the ideal candidate to be the father of Betsy Watt Kinnear. I still cannot prove that he was that farm servant from Home Farm, Burnside, just outside Forfar in 1868…

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