What your ancestors did for a living

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  • A display case containing a model tall ship in Aberdeen Maritime Museum
    Aberdeen Maritime Museum
  • Fort George - an 18th century military fortification and working army base, Ardersier
    Fort George, Ardersier
  • Old stone cottage
    The Weaver's Cottage, Kilbarchan
  • Looking over the gardens towards Pollok House
    Pollok House
  • Looking onto the exterior of the Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore
    The Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore

Discovering your ancestor's profession can provide a deeper insight into their lives and this page describes a few of the more common occupations that you might come across in census returns or family documents. There are also suggestions for related places to visit to find out more.

Coalminer

For many decades, if not a century or two, coalmining dominated the Scottish landscape, both physically and socially. The extensive coalfields of Lanarkshire, Ayrshire, the Lothians and Fife, were at the heart of the Industrial Revolution. Initially, coalmining was the business of individual landowners but during the 1800s, control passed to increasingly large private companies.

In the 18th century, and even later, miners were basically serfs. The owners had extensive powers of patronage over not only the miner but his family as well. It was, for example, the wife's job to transport the coal to the surface, initially by means of baskets strapped to her back and, later, by pushing carts on rails.

The work was long, hard and dangerous. The concept of silicosis was unknown, and that lead to many miners dying prematurely from lung disease. If that weren't bad enough, the dangers of explosion, fire and collapsing shafts were never far away: the worst disaster occurring in Blantyre in 1872 when 207 men and boys lost their lives.

Places to visit

Crofter

Crofting is the living derived from working a small agricultural unit in the Highlands and Islands.

Crofters were, and still are, hardy and self-reliant people who worked the land and, in most cases, held down another job within the community. Often crofters had to take lucrative summer jobs in the more fertile parts of Scotland, in which case wives and children were left to manage the crofts. Generally several crofts would have common grazing rights and would be linked together within traditional 'townships'.

Partly because of the Clearances, crofting became more and more concentrated around the coastal area of Argyllshire, Ross & Cromarty, Caithness, Sutherland, the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland. Many crofters became dependent on the harvesting of seaweed which when burnt, produced kelp, an invaluable alkaline fertiliser.

For coastal crofts, the sea was just as important as the land. Every croft had at least one boat which would have been used for fishing and transportation.

Following some serious disputes with landlords, the Napier Commission was set up to look into the question of croft tenancies. This led to the introduction of The Crofters Act, 1886 which enshrined security of tenure and fairer rents.

It's estimated that there are still almost 20,000 working crofts.

Places to visit

Domestic servant

Throughout the 19th Century, domestic service constituted the largest single employment for women and the second largest of the entire workforce. Butlers and grooms were typically male roles, while cleaners, maids and cooks were the preserve of the women.

Most domestic servants lived in the household of their employers and, although their wages fell well below that of most other occupations, they did at least have the security of board and lodging.

Most servants were maids-of-all-work, or 'skivvies', often working for employers in a social class not much superior to their own. They tended to be more badly treated than the servants in upper class households - and all worked extremely long hours with only the occasional Sunday off. Without today's labour-saving appliances, a servant's work was a never-ending round of stoking fires, scrubbing floors, emptying slop-buckets and cooking.

Places to visit

Although there are no museums dedicated to Scottish domestic service, any visit to a Scottish stately home or habitable castle should include an inspection of 'downstairs' as well as 'upstairs'. The contrast in lifestyles will prove an eye-opening experience.

Two examples of grand houses where this contrast is very evident are:

Farmer

There can be very few Scots whose ancestors were not engaged in the toil of the land in some form or other.

Before the onset of the agricultural revolution, it was common practice for most families to keep a few animals and to grow sufficient food for their own requirements.

Towards the end of the 18th century, the system of working strips of land (runrig) and of common grazing was superseded by self-contained farms. Many farming improvements, notably drainage and plough developments, were pioneered in Scotland. Increased efficiency inevitably led to fewer jobs on the land, pushing people towards the industrial towns and, occasionally, overseas in search of work.

Those who remained either lived in 'bothies'if they were single, or very basic farm cottages if they were married. If you are aware of the name of the farm where your ancestors worked, try to locate its position and visit the site. It might still be a farm, in which case it shouldn't be too difficult to visualise it in times past.

The Statistical Accounts of Scotland provide a useful description of the state of agriculture in every parish in the late 18th and mid 19th centuries.

Places to visit

There are many excellent farming and folk museums that will offer an insight into the life of a tightly-knit farming community. Some of the most notable include:

Fisherfolk

Fishing is a part of the very fabric of Scottish life and its folklore. Even today, when the fishing industry employs many less than it once did, fishing communities can be found all along Scotland's long coastline.

Activities were many and diverse, ranging from whaling to crab fishing, and from herring to deep-sea fishing. Nowhere in the world was there a greater variety of fish than in the North Sea.

For every one job in the boats, there were around four back on land, with as many as ten in the heyday of the herring fishing fleets. These jobs, such as gutting, preserving, baiting of lines and net repairing, were normally done by members of the fishermen's families.

Fishing tended to be a seasonal activity with, for example, herring fleets going out to sea in mid-July. It was common practice for Highlanders to migrate to the ports to pick up temporary, but well paid, work as crew members.

Inevitably fishing boats were lost, sometimes as a result of overloading, or sometimes because of freak storms. This was always a devastating event affecting most families in small communities.

Fishing and agricultural communities tended to keep themselves separate from each other with, for example, virtually no inter-marriages between the two groups. In many East coast ports there was a religious divide too, arising from the conversion of fishermen by the Plymouth Brethren and other faith missions.

Places to visit

Visit any Scottish coastal town or village and you're sure to find signs of fishing life from days gone by.

School teacher

Scotland has a reputation of providing a top-class education to its young citizens. In fact, the quality of teaching has varied dramatically over the years, and according to location.

In the early part of the 19th century, schools were generally parish responsibilities and as a consequence, virtually all Lowland countryside parishes benefited from a school, the costs of which were supported by a tax on landowners and by fees paid by those who could afford them. These were complemented, especially in industrial, highly populated parishes, by 'adventure schools' which were supported to a degree by private fees.

In 1872, the Education Act made attendance compulsory up to the age of 13 and provided for state funding of schools. Subsequently secondary (Burgh) schools were established in the main towns and cities but these tended to be preserve of the middle classes.

Provision of education in the Highlands was a major problem because of the remoteness of many pupils. Gaelic was less of a problem as most parents wanted their children to be taught in English to improve their subsequent job prospects. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge (SSPCK) created many new schools in the Highlands.

The appointment of teachers was initially within the preserve of the local landowners (heritors) and the parish minister. It was often the case that the teacher also acted as Session Clerk. As a profession, it was poorly remunerated. From 1846 to 1906, the employment of Pupil Teachers was advocated, the principal stipulation being that they be aged at least 13!

There are several archive collections in the National Archives of Scotland relevant to the teaching profession. The record of the appointment of a parish schoolmaster should be found in the HR (Heritors Records) collection. The Kirk session records for the parish may also reveal comments on the schoolmaster in the CH2 records. The Free Kirk records (CH3) may also make mention of their nominated minister. The SSPCK records fall within the GD95 collection.

Places to visit

There is a good chance that the school where your teaching ancestors taught will still be standing, in which case, it's well worth a visit.

Shipbuilder

The early shipbuilders were known as shipwrights, whose principal skill was woodworking. Subsequently, Scotland's main contribution to the Industrial Revolution was the building of steel-hulled ships.

Shipbuilding in Scotland, and especially on the River Clyde, increased dramatically in the final decades of the 19th century. By 1913, 18% of the world's ships were built and the term 'Clyde-built' became a by-word for quality and reliability. Many famous ships were built in the Clyde's yards, including Cunard liners such as the celebrated 'Queens', warships such as the ill-fated HMS Hood and the former floating royal residence, RY Britannia.

One reason for this success was the competitive tenders offered by Scottish shipbuilding firms, made possible, in part, by the low wages paid to their employees. This was not the only problem the workers had to contend with. There were virtually no permanent jobs as employment was dependent on contracts to build specific ships.

During the First World War, the Admiralty took over the local shipyards due to the strategic requirement for both warships and merchant ships. The economic depression following the war hit Scotland's shipbuilders very badly because of the high level of over-capacity. At one stage in the 1930s, two-thirds of the shipbuilding work force was unemployed.

Unfortunately, few archival records relating, for example, to employment, remain, either at national or regional level. There are however some excellent books, documents and photographs in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow relating to all aspects of the industry.

Place to visit

Soldier

The defeat of Prince Charles Edward Stewart at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 brought to an end the Scottish clan system and, with it, the private armies which clan chiefs were able to muster.

Thereafter, Highlanders and Lowlanders alike fought under the British flag. Twelve Highland regiments were created and, soon, Scottish troops were in action in Europe, North America and India. At the end of particular hostilities regiments were disbanded almost immediately. Following defeat in the American War of Independence, disbanded troops were encouraged to settle in Canada and large numbers of Scots did.

It has been estimated that 6070 officers and men of Scottish regiments fought at the famous Battle of Waterloo in 1815. They also distinguished themselves in both the Crimean and Boer Wars and of course in the First and Second World Wars when conscription was widely enforced. Official records show that 147,609 Scottish military personnel lost their lives in the First World War.

In the past 50 years or so, many Lowland & Highland Regiments have been disbanded or merged, latterly being combined to form the individual battalions making up a single Royal Regiment of Scotland.

Sources of information

Although there is a vast collection of records relating to military service, most of these are in London at the Public Record Office. These records do not generally have name indexes and it may be advisable to employ a professional to undertake the research.

The National Archives of Scotland (NAS) holds records relating to the militia and more recently, the Territorials. The Militia existed from the 1790s to the mid-19th century, and comprised men conscripted by ballot.

The General Register Office for Scotland (GROS) holds war registers, from 1899, providing brief details of deaths of Scots on active service in the Boer War and World Wars.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website provides burial details of service men and women killed in the two World Wars.

Places to Visit

The principal military museum in Scotland is the National War Museum, in Edinburgh Castle.

Fort George, built to discourage Jacobite uprisings and lying north east of Inverness, includes historic barrack rooms depicting conditions in the late 18th and 19th centuries.

There are also several regimental museums including:

Spinner

Spinning is the process by which fibres are drawn out and twisted together to produce a continuous thread. Traditionally, spinning was the duty of unmarried daughters living in poor households, hence the term 'spinster' for an unmarried woman.

Over the centuries, the introduction of mechanisation and other technologies transformed spinning from a cottage industry into a fully-fledged industrial powerhouse. Spinning mills were established throughout lowland Scotland, mainly staffed by women and young children. Wages, by any standards, were low and the standard working week was around 50-60 hours.

At one time, the cotton mills at New Lanark, on the River Clyde, employed thousands. Run by David Dale, and his son-in-law Robert Owen, New Lanark was revolutionary, in both social and economic terms. As steam power began to replace the water provided by rivers and streams, large mills were built in areas of greater population, helping to turn towns such as Paisley and Dundee into thriving cities.

Places to visit

Weaver

Weaving was a staple industry in Scotland during the 19th century, with most of the output produced by handloom weavers working from home.

By Victorian times the output of weavers was as impressive as it was diverse. Quality tweeds were produced in the Borders and elsewhere, cottons came from the West of Scotland, damask and other fine linens from Dunfermline, patterned shawls from Paisley and jute products from Dundee. Tartan, as we know it today, was not produced on a commercial scale until the resurgence of all things Scottish following the famous visit of George IV to Edinburgh in 1822. Prior to that, the production of standardised patterns was largely restricted to the needs of the Scottish Regiments.

Although the work of spinners and weavers was closely linked, there were often serious disagreements between them, arising mainly from the superiority felt by many weavers over their spinning counterparts.

Invariably, handloom weaving was carried out by women in their own cottages, with assistance from their children. As with spinning, the coming of the Industrial Revolution had a profound effect on the industry; the cottages giving way to huge weaving sheds filled with power looms.

Places to visit

Many museums and visitor attractions around Scotland contain looms and examples of the material produced. They're all worth a visit by genealogists with a connection to the industry, but the following are especially noteworthy:

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