Where there's a will...

Those who read my blog in January will know that one of my goals for this year is to find out more about my 5 x great grandfather. Like many people when they start researching their own family, I moved quickly through the more recent generations only to come to a screeching halt at the parents of my 4 x great grandfather, William Elliot. In preparation for picking up the hunt again, I'm reviewing all my old research, which is when I rediscovered Isabella Aitchison's will.

Isabella was William's mother. The only information I had on her was from William's death record: she was a domestic servant, deceased and William was illegitimate. William's baptism was registered, but the minister was clearly a fan of brevity as the information is minimal. Searches for her death turned up a few candidates, but nothing definitive. In spite of her occupation, I chanced a search to see if she had left a will - and she had.

Wills can be fabulous sources. Of course, you do have to get through all of the "... appointed by the Commissary Substitute for the Commissariat of Roxburghshire to take the oath of the Executor to the verity of the foregoing Inventory Conform to Commission granted in his favour..." kind of language first, to get to any useful details.

So is there anything useful in Isabella's will? After reading through nine pages of the document, the following is clear.

  1. The will is of "Isobel or Isabella Aitchison residing at Commonside who died there on the Twenty third day of November Eighteen hundred & forty nine."
  2. The executor was "Archibald Scott Esquire of Howcleuch residing at Commonside"
  3. She left her estate to "To Janet Aitchison or Douglas wife of John Douglas weaver in Hawick, Margaret Elliot servant at Commonside, Thomas Aitchison shoemaker in Langholm and William Elliot shepherd at Kershope, or their respective heirs."

The first thing leaping out at me is "William Elliot shepherd at Kershope", as this matches the details I have for my 4 x great grandfather. So we can have a level of confidence that this is the will of William's mother. But what about the rest?

Firstly, a search of the 1841 census shows Isabella at Commonside, with Archibald Scott and Margaret Elliot. This gave me an approximation of her age and said that she had been born in the same county. While this information is not always accurate, it was a start.

Secondly, I tried to find the two Aitchisons named. I couldn't find a unique example of a weaver called John Douglas in Hawick with a wife called Janet in census records. However, there was an example of a shoemaker called Thomas Aitchison in Langholm in 1851 and 1861. His death in 1864 put him around the correct age to be Isabella's brother, and that document detailed Thomas' parents. A search for Thomas' baptism turn up that he has a sister Isable (sic) born around the correct timeframe to match the 1841 details.

Of course, I can't be 100% sure that Thomas was Isabella's brother, but the possibility has opened up a new line of investigation for me. I can now go ahead and investigate this Aitchison family to see if I can turn up more information on them and see if there is any other evidence that suggests this is the family from which I am descended.

All of this goes to say 2 things... Firstly, always check for a will, even if it seems highly unlikely that your ancestor has left one, you might just be lucky. And secondly, if you find one, it is definitely worth wading through the difficult language and potentially challenging handwriting to see if you can just find a few lines that can help you out.

For more information on Scottish wills from 1513, have a look at the ScotlandsPeople site. For England and Wales, the National Archives site has good information for wills before and after 1858.