(see ‘Thomas & Jane (MUIR) WATSON Family’ under heading ‘WATSON’ , for photograph of WATSON family see post 29 April 2012)
[this post last edited, new information and/or images added 12 March 2013. Unless otherwise indicated all photos are from the author’s collection]
[For more Watson family photos also check out Donald Slater’s family history Flickr account www.flickr.com/photos/palaeoecogeek]
The skirl of bagpipes, swish of kilts, tales of Bonnie Prince Charlie, star crossed lovers on the shores of Loch Lomond, princesses who lived in castles, the romantic lairds of Sir Walter Scott; those were the images I had of Scotland when I was a child. I knew that my grandmother (Helen McNab (WATSON) ACTON), known as ‘Nell’ to adults, ‘Granny’ to we children) had been born in Scotland. I suppose she spoke with a slight Scottish burr, the residue of her Ayrshire accent that remained even though she had been in Canada for nearly forty years by the time I first became curious about my background. But I don’t remember her voice or accent.
I do remember that Granny never spoke of Scotland, or of her life there. One day, my curiosity got the better of me. I screwed up my courage since she seemed to never welcome questions about Scotland. I asked her if there wasn’t a laird or two in our background? I’ll never forget her reply. She chuckled and said ”no, there were no lairds, more likely road thieves.” At the time I wasn’t even sure what a ‘road thief’ was.
Later in life, as I learned more about Scotland and its history, I replaced my images of romantic lairds and clan chiefs with the more realistic vision of Highland Clearances, the extreme poverty of the crofters, people being starved out of their homes and forced to emigrate under appalling conditions at sea. I also learned how the industrious and hardworking Scottish people spread out across the world and have been instrumental in world development.
Princesses who lived in castles, evicted crofters, industrial magnates or road thieves; which were our ancestors? I decided it was time to start researching the Watson family.
Lowlands and Highlands of Scotland
My first research revelation occurred when I learnt the differences between the Scottish Highlands and the Lowlands. I had thought that all Scottish people had a relatively uniform background. However, historically Scotland was a land divided. In the Lowlands the people are of Anglo-Saxon stock, more like their English neighbours. To the north there is the Scotland of the Gaelic speaking Highlander. In the Hebrides, Orkneys and Shetlands, there is yet another society more akin to Scandinavia due to centuries of sea invasions from that area. These three distinct peoples were suspicious of each other and many vicious and bloody battles were fought. Even after Scotland was unified people from these areas continued to be wary of each other.
Our Watson family is from Ayrshire in the Scottish Lowlands and has been so since at least the early 1700s. To date the earliest direct link that I have been able to prove is to John WATSON, tenant farmer and labourer (born about 1717, Dundonald Parish, Ayrshire, died 11 January 1782, Dundonald Parish, Ayrshire) and his wife Agnes FREW (born about 1717 – died unknown).
My research also showed that our Watson family did not fit any of my preconceived ideas. We are descended from a long line of hardworking (no princesses), honest (no road thieves), Lowland (no clan chiefs or evicted crofters) labourers and tenant farmers.
Life as a tenant farmer in Scotland in my ancestors’ time was not at all what I had known in my own comfortable Saskatchewan upbringing on my parent’s farm. My parents and all the neighbours, although small landowners by today’s standards and certainly far from wealthy, owned their land and could develop and manage it as they determined. We never wanted for food; huge vegetable gardens, fresh wild berries and our own livestock (chickens, turkeys, cattle, pigs) provided a varied and healthy diet.
Many Scottish land ownership practices are completely different from those of Canada; understanding these gave me a better understanding of the hardships of the Watson family in Scotland, the reasons for the family’s move to Canada; and an appreciation for the determination, courage and initiative this move entailed.
Land Ownership and Farm Life in Scotland
Land ownership in Scotland, to this day, follows patterns established centuries ago. Since earliest times feudal lords, kings, titled nobles, clan chiefs and landed gentry fought frequently and furiously over land. Lands and authority were given as a reward in exchange for loyalty and the promise of enough men to raise an army.
Immense fortunes were made, and lost, as ownership changed hands as a result of the numerous wars that have marked the history of Scotland and England. Once land ownership was in a family, it was handed down through the generations to the eldest son. This inheritance was often interrupted if the property title was lost through battle, war or allegiance to the losing side in a political skirmish. “To the victor go the spoils” was accepted practice and often ownership of thousands and thousands of acres and miles of countryside would change hands as the result of a battle.
A mile of countryside by itself of course had no value, but rather it was the resources found in, or on, the land within that area that were worth a fight. Natural resources, such as lead and gold, made some land valuable. For a large portion of the land the value lay in what was on it, i.e. people who worked the land and paid rent. As an example, if a person (almost without exception a man) owned land where 10,000 families lived and worked then all those people paid rent and owed allegiance to the landowner. Often several small villages were (and still are) part of the property; shop keepers and village people also paid rent to the owner. The rental payments invariably made the landowner an extremely wealthy man, and while the owner had a few obligations to the tenants, the onus was on the tenants or renters to find the money to pay the rent.
This relentless search for rent money was constant and frequently debilitating. In the case of a farm, if a tenant farmer improved the property in an attempt to increase production, and therefore earn more to support his family, the owner often increased the rent based on the rationale that the land was worth more. This was a catch-22 situation that sapped initiative and ensured that most tenant farmers were trapped in a never ending cycle of near-poverty. For tenant farmers ownership of land was not even a dream. Not only was the money to purchase the land impossible to save, but the land simply was not available for purchase. Persons born to this station in life were destined to spend their lives working for a ‘laird’ or the owner’s representative (‘factor’) who lived in ‘the big house’.
Tenant farmers usually worked under a contract or lease arrangement. Often this contract was for a year; the tenant farmer and all his family were expected to work on the farm and were part of the contract. Each summer in every county or ‘shire’ at the annual fair, tenant farmers and owners / factors could meet and discuss arrangements for contracts and positions. If a tenant farmer decided to take a different position and move his family to another farm, it was often at this fair that arrangements were made. A handshake usually sealed the contract.
Farms were often large and required several families of tenants to work them. In this case there was a division of labour. ‘Ploughman’, ‘cattleman’, ‘dairyman’ were just a few of the occupations required. Farming practices were basic and extremely labour intensive. Work was hard, dirty, thankless, unprofitable and never-ending.
Tenant families usually lived on the farm, often in one of several cottages provided on the property. These cottages were primitive, certainly with none of the conveniences now considered essential for living and raising a family. Conditions were normally damp, dark and cold in Scotland’s continual rainy climate. Food was extremely basic; it was a treat to be given a small piece of an egg yolk my Granny told me.
Watson family life in Scotland was that of a typical tenant. For several generations Watsons lived and worked as tenant farmers with no hope or opportunity of owning land or directing their own destiny. Granny did later say that they “always felt like peasants in Scotland”. The Watson family moved often as Thomas, the father and bread-winner, attempted to provide for his family by taking different positions in different areas of the country. This is the story of their life in Scotland and the move to Canada which changed their lives and those of their descendants irretrievably.
(for the stories of the Watson family members see posts 14 May – 22 May 2012)