Thursday, November 30, 2017

What I Learned Transcribing Alexander Tocher’s 1844 Scottish Will

A probable distant relative contacted me recently, saying that she had come across the will of our common ancestor Alexander Tocher (1754-1844) on the Scotland’s People website. She found it too difficult to transcribe, so I cheerfully offered to try. Little did I know what would be involved! 

The handwriting is quite clear since the document was written by a court clerk, nevertheless, numerous words were hard to decipher. The unfamiliar terminology related to Scottish inheritance laws and land ownership proved the biggest challenge, and some complex sentences seemed to go on forever.

Still, I hoped this document would reveal more details about Alexander and his family. I already knew something about the Tochers, based on an outline of the family’s history compiled by an unidentified family member many years ago and verified by my own research, including a visit to the Tocher grave in Scotland.  

My husband and I beside the Tocher family monument in Doune Cemetery, Macduff. The monument reads: “Erected by the family in memory of their mother Jane Tocher, wife of James Smith, sometime schoolmaster in Macduff, d. 28 Feb. 1838 aged 35. Also her daus. Elizabeth aged 3 and Mary aged 2 and their son Alexander d. Toronto, Canada 18 Sept. 1855 aged 32. Also Alexander Tocher for 67 years schoolmaster in Macduff d. 10 Feb. 1844 aged 89 and his [second] wife Ann Haslopp d. 3 Jan. 1850 aged 83. The above James Smith late tutor Knox College, Toronto, Canada d. there 3 Jan 1867 aged 66.”

Parish records show that Alexander was born in Grange Parish, Banffshire, Scotland, where his father was a miller at Paithnick.1 After graduating from the University of Aberdeen in 1779,2 Alexander became a teacher in MacDuff, a market town with a harbour on the Firth of Moray. He taught there for 67 years.3

Alexander married Elizabeth Stephen in 17984 and they had three daughters, Margaret, Elizabeth and Jane. After his wife died in 1805, he married Ann Haslopp. He died on February 10, 1844, age 89.5  By that time, Jane (1803-1838, my great-great-grandmother), had died6 and his son-in-law was probably considering moving the family to Canada.

What Was in Alexander’s Will?

Some of my ancestors left quite personal wills, affirming their faith in God or expressing regrets for things they had done in life. Not so Alexander. This document is an inventory of his moveable property and a Disposition and Deed of Settlement from the Banff Sheriff’s Court. 

The first section of the will was housekeeping: it noted the date of his death and the value of his moveable property, and it noted that his daughter Elizabeth was the executor of the will. (According to the 1841 census of Scotland, the unmarried Elizabeth lived with him and his wife on Duff Street in Macduff. )

The inventory of Alexander’s moveable property indicated that he probably lived quite comfortably. Among his possessions were a portable writing desk, a dozen silver spoons, an eight-day clock, two feather beds, and two tea kettles, four pots and an oven. His most valuable possession was a branded cow with no horns. The total value of the inventory was 33 pounds, 12 shillings and eight pence.

Alexander mentioned his two sons-in-law in his will. He noted that he had loaned 200 pounds at four percent interest to Margaret’s husband, merchant Alexander Carny. It had not yet been repaid, and he directed his executor to forgive 180 pounds. Similarly, he had loaned 170 pounds to Jane’s husband, teacher James Smith, and he directed that debt be discharged.  

Other than this, Alexander’s will did not mention family members, probably because Scotland had clear rules about who was to inherit. Heritable property (land and buildings) was to go the eldest son, while wives and all children had equal rights to moveable property. 

This excerpt of Alexander's will reads: I hereby bind and oblige myself and my foresaids to infeuff? and ? the said Elizabeth Tocher and her foresaids upon their own charges and expenses and that by two several? infeffments and manners of holding, one thereof to be holden of me and my foresaids in free ? for payment of a penny Scots in ….. " image source:
Alexander’s Property in Macduff

The most extensive part of the will concerned his real estate: four tiny pieces of land in the town of Macduff. He had acquired them at different times, perhaps with the intention of consolidating them and building a house. He left these lots in Elizabeth’s hands.  

The fact that he had any land was a surprise. The vast majority of Scots were tenants. According to the Statistical Accounts of Scotland, 1834-1845, the Earl of Fife held almost half the land in Gamrie, the parish in which Macduff was located. In fact, the system of land ownership in Scotland was still a feudal one. Technically, Alexander was not a landowner, but a feuar: a vassal who paid annual dues for the right to use the land. 

After transcribing five of the will’s six pages – including lots of question marks and blank spaces -- I gave up, but by then I had learned a lot about my ancestors’ lives in 19th century Scotland.


1. Scotland, "Search Old Parish Registers (OPR) Births/Christenings (1553-1854)," database, ScotlandsPeople, : accessed 24 March, 2012, entry for Alexander Tocher, baptism, 28 July, 1754, Grange Parish Banff.)

2. Peter John Anderson, Officers and Graduates of University and King’s College Aberdeen, 1495-1855; Aberdeen: Printed for New Spalding Club, 1893;, accessed Nov. 19, 2017.

3. Monument Inscription, Doune Kirkyard, Macduff. Viewed personally, 1 June, 2012.
4. Scotland, "Search Old Parish Registers (OPR) Marriages," database, ScotlandsPeople ( : accessed 15 February 2015, entry for Alexander Tocher, 17 November, 1798, Gamrie and MacDuff.) 

5. Scotland, “Search Wills and Testments, 1513-1925,” database, ScotlandsPeople  ( : accessed Nov. 19, 2017, entry for Alexander Tocher, 8 January, 1845.
6. Monument Inscription, Doune Kirkyard.

See also:
Janice Hamilton. “My Tocher Family,” Writing Up the Ancestors, Feb. 13, 2015,

The following sources provide background on Scottish wills and testaments:
National Records of Scotland, Scotland’s People ( Guides -- Wills and Testaments, accessed Nov. 19, 2017,
Chris Paton, Discover Scottish Land Records, Unlock the Past; Milton, Ontario: Global Genealogy, 2014. 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Photos from the Launch of Beads in a Necklace: Family Stories from Genealogy Ensemble

The nine authors of Beads in a Necklace: Family Stories from Genealogy Ensemble  are, left to right, Mary Sutherland, Janice Hamilton, Barb Angus, Tracey Arial, Lucy Anglin, Marian Bulford, Claire Lindell, Sandra McHugh, Dorothy Nixon. The book is now available on Kindle as well as in paperback.  

Here is a panoramic photo of the launch last night of this collection of short stories about our ancestors. The nine authors (center) were present, along with invited family members and friends. Gail Dever, rear left, an original member of our writing group and now celebrated writer of the blog, acted as emcee. 

The authors all brought some of the family heirlooms that inspired their stories.

Barb Angus (shown) and Marian Bulford each read one of their stories from the book.

Justin Bur (lead author of the recently published Dictionnaire Historique du Plateau Mont-Royal, ecosociete) David Rosenberg, Janice Hamilton.

                                                       all photos copyright Harold Rosenberg

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Tonight is the Night

Tonight is the night Beads in a Necklace: Family Stories from Genealogy Ensemble will be launched. I just came back from doing an interview on CBC radio about the book, and tonight all nine authors get together to see it and feel it in our hands for the first time. We have invited family members and friends to join us for this celebration, so tomorrow we'll post pictures. Meanwhile, here is an look at the cover, and a copy of the media release we prepared.

Beads in a Necklace: Family Stories from Genealogy Ensemble

The nine women who write the family history blog have fleshed out the dashes between the dates on their family trees, chosen their favourite stories about their ancestors and published them in a new book called “In Beads in a Necklace: Family Stories from Genealogy Ensemble.”

Inspired by family myths, heirlooms, letters, and vintage photographs, these are historically accurate stories with a huge heart. They describe the lives of merchants and military men, society ladies and filles du roi, reverends, rogues, medical men, restless women, cooks and farmers, each of whom was somehow related to one of the book’s authors.

These ancestors lived between 1650 and 1970 and hail from Montreal, rural Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick, the United States and other places around the world.

Contributors Lucy Anglin, Barb Angus, Marian Bulford, Claire Lindell, Sandra McHugh, Dorothy Nixon and Mary Sutherland, for the most part amateur authors, developed their creative writing skills over a five-year period under the guidance of professional writers Janice Hamilton and Tracey Arial, who also co-authored and edited the collection.

Getting together monthly, they experimented with a variety of narrative techniques to preserve the ever-fading memories of their great uncles and four-times great-grandparents, and to shed light on the times in which these people lived. They publish their stories on, and polished their favourites for the book. The result is a volume of easy-to-read articles, filled with fascinating bits of social history, and with enough footnotes to satisfy the most exacting genealogist or historian.

Fille du roi Anne Thomas, who married master carpenter Claude Jodoin in Montreal way back in 1666;

Felicité Poulin, 18th-century career woman, Ursuline nun and matchmaker;

Stanley Bagg, Massachusetts-born merchant who helped build the Lachine Canal in the 1820s;

Gospel singer Edward McHugh, whose 1910-period debut at the Montreal Hunt Club launched an international career;

William Anglin, respected Victorian-era Kingston, Ontario surgeon and wannabe thought-reader.
and many more.

The authors hope that Beads in a Necklace will serve as a model for people from any country or culture to write up their own family histories. They will be making presentations at Montreal-area libraries to share what they have learned about writing and publishing family history.

If you are a genealogist, a creative writer, or are the kind of person who loves reading about the lives of ordinary people whose real-life actions and relationships were discovered within piles of papers, historical photos and old newspaper clippings, Beads in a Necklace is for you.

A self-published paperback is on sale for $20 in Montreal at Livres Presque 9/Nearly New Books, 5885 Sherbrooke O; Montreal, Quebec H4A 1X6, 514 482-7323.

An Amazon Kindle edition is available for $3.89.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Beads in a Necklace Ready for the Printer

Earlier this week, I got together with fellow authors Sandra McHugh and Claire Lindell to go over the (almost) final draft of Beads in a Necklace: Family Stories from Genealogy Ensemble. This collection of 49 short stories, written by myself and eight other family historians, will soon be a beautiful, 250-page hold-in-your-hands paperback book. 

Some of these stories were first published on Writing Up the Ancestors and/or our collaborative blog Genealogy Ensemble – recently named by as one of the 100 top genealogy blogs – has been online since 2014. Things were going so well with it that we decided to choose some of our favourite stories and put them together for posterity. 

L to R, Janice Hamilton, Sandra McHugh, Claire Lindell
For the book, I chose Montreal-based stories, including two about merchant, tavern-keeper and canal-builder Stanley Bagg (1788-1853), one about Irish-born hardware merchant Henry Mulholland (1809-1887) and one about his daughter Jane (1847-1938), my great-grandmother who lived in her own world in a big house on the slope of Mount Royal.

I also included two new stories. One explained why my family remained in Montreal throughout the difficult years of the referendums on Quebec sovereignty, and the other described how I grew up surrounded by the portraits of my ancestors. I knew very little about them, but eventually they inspired me to start researching my family’s history.

The launch of the limited edition print copy of Beads in a Necklace is scheduled for Nov. 15. We’re all super excited about sharing this achievement with friends and family members. I’ll let you know soon how to obtain a digital or print copy of the book, so check out this blog, or Genealogy Ensemble, for further details.