The CRANSTON Connection

The research into the Cranston family is mostly the work of Stuart Pearson from Sydney, and lately Bathurst, who is a direct descendant of Elizabeth Smith. The story of this family is eloquently told in Stuart’s book, “Blood on the Thistle”, which is available from Amazon and the Apple Book Store. You can read Stuart’s summary of the Cranston family and its sacrifice below.

Margaret McLeay

Margaret was the fifth child of John McLeay and Janet Mair. She was the last of her siblings born on Crackans, a farm lying a couple of kilometres (1.5 miles) north of the village of Cairnie in Aberdeenshire, roughly halfway between Huntly and Keith in Banffshire.

1835 SCOTLAND BIRTHS: Cairnie, Aberdeenshire 1Source: McLea, Margaret; 1835 Scotland O.P.R. Births; 178/ 30 108; Cairnie, Aberdeenshire.

Margaret, lawful daughter
of John McLea and Janet Mair
in Crackens was born 18th &
baptized 27th June 1835 —

In the article on the McLeay family of Cairnie and Keith, we saw that Margaret and three of her sisters had illegitimate children, all of whom were brought up by their grandparents in Keith, where the family had moved sometime soon after Margaret was born. All of her siblings, bar the youngest, eventually married and had other children, and four of the McLeay girls eventually moved to Edinburgh. Margaret and her sister Mary, though, lived for a while in Aberdeen, and we find Margaret there in the 1851 census working as a house maid at the home of the David McDonald.

1851 SCOTLAND CENSUS: 183 King Street, Greyfriars, Aberdeen 2Source: McLea Margaret; 1851 Scotland Census, 168/A 19/ 62, Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire.

David McDonald; Head; Unm.; 49; Cotton Spinner Manager; born Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire
Margaret McLay; Servant; Unm.; 20; House Servant; born Cairnie, Aberdeenshire

It was while living in Aberdeen that her older sister, Mary, had two illegitimate children — Janet Alexander and Agnes Duff Watt — both bundled off to live with their grandparents in Keith. It is unclear when Margaret and Mary moved to Edinburgh, but we know Mary married there in June 1855, and had her third child a month later. We also know from an entry in a family bible that Margaret gave birth to Elizabeth Smith at Leith, Edinburgh, on Christmas Day 1855 — and Elizabeth, like the others, was sent to live with John and Janet in Keith. We find three of these various illegitimate children at the hotel in Keith in the 1861 census (those marked in purple are my direct ancestors):

1861 SCOTLAND CENSUS: Square, Keith, Banffshire 3Source: McLay, John; 1861 Scotland Census; 159/ 2/ 35 & 36; Keith, Banffshire.

John McLay; Head; Mar; 59; Innkeeper; born Dingwall, Ross-shire
Janet McLay ; Wife; Mar; 57; born Huntly, Aberdeenshire
Isabella McLay; Daur; 19; Domestic Servant; born Keith, Banffshire
Margaret McLay; Grand daughter; 9; Scholar; born Botriphnie, Banffshire
Agnes McLay; Grand daughter; 8; Scholar; born Keith, Banffshire
Elizabeth Smith; Grand daughter; 5; born Edinburgh

In this record, the 9-year-old Margaret McLay is (if DNA evidence is to be accepted) the illegitimate child of Helen McLeay, whose whereabouts on census night is unknown (though, Edinburgh would be a good guess).  Agnes, is one of Mary’s two ‘natural’ children (the other died in 1851); Mary was by now widowed from her first husband, George Baillie, and living near Edinburgh High Street with their two ‘lawful’ children. Elizabeth Smith is, of course, the daughter of Margaret, who at this time was 25 and working as a domestic servant at Mayfield Terrace for Alexander Gibb, a builder.4Source: McLeay, Margaret; 1861 Scotland Census; 685/5 67/ 12; St Cuthberts, Edinburgh. Four years later, a pregnant Margaret married John Buchan:

1865 SCOTLAND STATUTORY MARRIAGES: Canongate, Burgh of Edinburgh 5Source: McLeay, Margaret; 1865 Scotland Statutory Marriages; 685/ 3 84; Canongate, Edinburgh.

married: 21st April 1865   at: 10 Spring Gardens, Abbey Hill, Edinburgh
After Banns, according to the Forms of the Church of Scotland

John Buchan, Mason (Bachelor)  age: 25   of: 5 Richmond Lane, Edinburgh
father: James Buchan, Mason
mother:  Margaret Buchan M.S. Cowie

Margaret McLeay, Domestic Servant (Spinster)  age: 27   of: 26 Simon Square, Edinburgh
fatherJohn McLeay, Contractor
mother:  Janet McLeay M.S. Mair

minister: Daniel MacKie
witnessesWm, Gordon; Elizabeth Steele

Margaret &  John Buchan with daughter Margaret Cowie, c.1892. Son James had died in 1889, and illeg. daughter, Elizabeth, was married with 7 children and living at Haddington.

By this time, two more of Margaret’s sisters had relocated to Edinburgh: Jane (by 1859), and Helen (by 1862), both married and all, at some stage or other, living at 26 Simon Square. By the following census in 1871, Margaret had two more children; James (1865) and Margaret Cowie (1867) and her little family was living at 41 Arthur Street.6Source: Buchan, John; 1871 Scotland Census;  685/3 46/ 9; St Cuthberts, Edinburgh. That census also revealed Elizabeth Smith was back in town — but, interestingly, living as an inmate at the Dean Bank Reformatory School.7Source: Smith, Elizabeth; 1871 Scotland Census; 1871 685/1 110/ 34; St Cuthberts Edinburgh.

Margaret was to have no more children. Her unmarried son, James, died of tuberculosis in 1889, aged only 23;8Source: Buchan, James; Scotland Statutory Deaths; 685/5 497; Newington, Edinburgh. her husband, John Buchan, was only 53 when he died at 123 Pleasance just before Christmas in 1893.9Source: Buchan, John; 1893 Scotland Statutory Deaths; 685/5 1195; Newington, Edinburgh. Her daughter, Margaret, married Kenneth Campbell, a coastguard, in 1896,10Source: Buchan, Margaret; 1896 Scotland Statutory Marriages; 685/3 76; Canongate, Edinburgh. and was still living at Arthur Street when she died in 1930, aged 62.11Source: Campbell (Buchan), Margaret Cowie; 1930 Scotland Statutory Deaths; 685/6 323; Newington, Edinburgh. Margaret McLeay outlived all her siblings, dying at Arthur Street just after Christmas in 1916, no doubt aware that three of her grandsons had been slaughtered earlier that year in the trenches in France.

1916 SCOTLAND STATUTORY DEATHS: Newington, City of Edinburgh 12Source: Buchan, Margaret; 1916 Scotland Statutory Deaths; 685/ 5 749; Newington, Edinburgh.

Margaret BuchanWidow of John Buchan, Mason
died: 28th December 1916 (5:40 pm)   age: 81 years   at: 3 Arthur Street, Edinburgh

father: John McLeay, Inn Keeper (deceased)
mother: [Janet] McLeay M.S. [Mair] (deceased)

cause: Cardiac Valve Disease   doctor: John W. Senter M.B.
informant: Kenneth Campbell, son-in-law (present)

Elizabeth Smith (Smyth)

As mentioned above, Elizabeth was at the Girls Reformatory School in 1871:

1871 SCOTLAND CENSUS: Magdalene Asylum Girls reformatory School, Edinburgh 13Source: Smith [Smyth], Elizabeth; 1871 Scotland Census; 685/1 110/ 34; St Cuthberts, Edinburgh.

Ellen Whiteford; Head; Unm.; 41; Matron of Girls Reformatory; born Newlands, Peebles-shire
      —— Multiple Entries ——
Elizabeth Smith; Inmate; Unm.; 15; Scholar; born Leith, Edinburgh

There is no information about why Elizabeth was at the Reformatory School, but when she married in 1878, she was living close by her mother, and for the first time we discover her father’s name:

1878 SCOTLAND STATUTORY MARRIAGES: St Andrew, Burgh of Edinburgh 14Source: Smyth, Elizabeth; 1878 Scotland Statutory Marriages; 685/2 355; St Andrews, Edinburgh.

married: 15th November 1878   at: 18 Regent Terrace, Edinburgh
After Banns, according to the Forms of the Church of Scotland

Alexander Cranston, Grain Warehouseman (Bachelor)  age: 24 years
of: 198 Bonnington Road, Edinburgh
father: Alexander Cranston, Road Labourer
mother:  Ann Cranston M.S. Dickson (deceased)

Elizabeth Smyth (Spinster)  age: 23 years
of: 132 Pleasance, Edinburgh
fatherThomas Smyth, Law Clerk (deceased)
mother:  Margaret Smyth M.S. McLeay

minister: Archd Scott
witnessesAlice Cranston; John Hall

Thomas Smyth was a law clerk (writer) who we know in 1861 was living with two younger sisters at 2 Munro Place, Piershill, in South Leith.15Source: Smyth, Thomas; 1861 Scotland Census; 692/2 60/ 17 & 18; South Leith, Midlothian. Presumably, he was in that district in 1854–55 when he had his dalliance with Margaret McLeay. It seems his father had been a reeve on a wealthy estate in Errol, Perthshire, and had moved to Ireland between Thomas’ birth in 183616Source: Smith, Thomas; 1836 Scotland O.P.R. Births; 351/ 70 328; Errol, Perthshire. and 1840 when his elder sister was born (Thomas also had a twin brother, David). Elizabeth’s marriage certificate (above) records her mother as Margaret Smyth M.S. McLeay, but this is certainly not the case — Thomas and Margaret never married.

There is no doubt that Thomas had little or nothing to do with Elizabeth and her single mother after her birth, and we know that he had temporarily returned to his family’s home in Northern Ireland where, in 1863, he married Margaret Stevenson at Glendermott, Londonderry. We know Thomas had returned to Edinburgh with his bride by 1865, because that’s when their first child, Jane, was born — and, in 1871, we find him at 4 Jane Terrace with his wife and three children:

1871 SCOTLAND CENSUS: 4 Jane Terrace, Canongate, Edinburgh 17Source: Smyth, Thomas; 1871 Scotland Census; 685/3 37/ 13; Canongate, Edinburgh.

Thomas Smyth; Head; Mar; 39; Writer; born Errol, Perth
Margaret Smyth; Wife; 37; born Ireland
George A. Smyth; Son; 4; born Edinburgh, Midlothian
Jane S.Smyth; Daur; 6; Scholar; born Edinburgh, Midlothian
Margaret L. Smyth; Daur; 1; born Edinburgh, Midlothian
Elizabeth B. Swinton; Servant; Unm; 17; Servant; born Muiravonside, Linlithgow

Thomas Smyth died of kidney disease in 1877, the year before his illegitimate daughter, Elizabeth, married. Elizabeth Smyth/Smith, as we can see from the chart below, had three half-siblings on her paternal side (Jane, George and Margaret), and two on her maternal side (James and Margaret). Stuart Pearson, a direct descendant of Elizabeth and fellow researcher into this family, has kindly summarised the heart-breaking and sobering story of the Cranston family for me below.

Elizabeth Smith was brought up by her grandparents, John McLeay and Janet Mair. She eventually married Alexander Cranston and moved to Haddington in East Lothian. Elizabeth and Alex had 12 children, but the boys were decimated during WW1 (3 killed in action, 1 died while serving, 2 badly wounded). As can be seen in the chart, I have known DNA connections to three of Elizabeth Smith’s descendants.

The Cranston Family

by Stuart Pearson

World War One had a dramatic effect on families both here in Australia and everywhere in the world where soldiers marched off to war. Husbands, sons, brothers and fathers went to fight leaving people at home coping not only with the mixed emotions of pride and fear but also with an increased domestic burden.

One such family was the Cranston family of Haddington, Scotland.

Alexander and Elizabeth Cranston had 11 children. What stands the Cranston family apart from many others is that out of seven sons who went to fight, four died and two were horrifically wounded. Only one returned home unscathed.

Many of the remaining family members suffered physical and mental-health issues as a direct result of the conflict, and the family broke up following the end of the war. Only one surviving member of the family stayed in Scotland, the rest emigrated to Canada and Australia — including, I’m proud to say, my grandmother!

The Cranston brothers were ordinary people thrown into an extraordinary situation. They counted a stonemason, a baker, a butcher, a joiner, and a forester, but also career soldiers in their number. Many of them were already working to support their own families, as well as their widowed mother, when they enlisted or were conscripted.

The first to die was Sapper James Cranston (Royal Engineers) who, in 1915, contracted pulmonary tuberculosis during basic training and was sent home to await death, for in those days there was no known cure for TB. He passed away the following year in 1916 having never seen one single day of fighting. (Amazingly, during WWI, over 100,000 British soldiers died of accidents or disease during basic training!)

Company Sergeant Major John Cranston was a decorated career soldier, who was also ‘Mentioned in Dispatches’ from the front. In 1915 he had bravely protected his Colonel against wave after wave of fanatical German bayonet charges in the carnage of the Battle of Loos and was awarded the rare distinction of a double promotion to CSM. His life came to a sudden and dramatic end when he was blown apart by an enemy shell during the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

Private Adam Cranston joined the Royal Scots Fusiliers and was sent to the front in November 1916. In his very first engagement, he was caught up on barbed wire while attacking an impregnable German position at Serre in France and machine-gunned to death.

Finally, the last to die was Sergeant Alexander Cranston (Royal Engineers) who lost his life heroically defending a strategically important bridge over the Somme canal from falling into enemy hands during the German spring offensive of 1918.

Private William Cranston (Seaforth Highlanders) enlisted at the declaration of war August 1914. He saw a great deal of action in France, but was dreadfully wounded in 1916. During the famous Battle of Longueval in France, a German stick grenade exploded near him, causing Willie to lose the fingers of his right hand. His face was shattered, and his right eye was damaged beyond repair. He bore scars and an eye patch for the rest of his life. Unfortunately for William, before the war he was a semi-professional fiddle-player of much potential and renown; but the loss of his fingers put paid to that future.

Private George Cranston served in four separate units throughout the war and saw action in France and Belgium. Wounded several times — including suffering shell shock in 1915, which left him a nervous wreck — in the last months of the war he was badly gassed. The painful and unpleasant after-effects of the mustard gas were to remain with him for the rest of his life. Every nine months or so, the skin would peel off his body, and he had to be placed in an oil bath at Lady Davidson Hospital in Turramurra waiting for new skin to grow back.

Lastly, Airman Robert Cranston (Royal Air Force) was conscripted in September 1917, sent to France and worked as a ground crewman to a bomber squadron that flew missions over Germany. Robert was demobilised in February 1919, returning home to Scotland to a family that was shattered, broken and penniless.

But the person who was most affected was the mother, Lizzie. Like the rest of her family before the war, she was proud, strong, hard-working, loyal and aspirational. But with the death and wounding of each successive son, a little piece of her sanity was taken away. She had an emotional breakdown and ended the war unable to fend for herself.

She was one of five Cranstons who came to Australia by 1920 for a new life, but in her case, she never recovered — she was eventually declared a ‘lunatic’, and institutionalised to Rydalmere Mental Hospital, near Parramatta. There, in 1929, this once proud Scottish mother died alone, not even knowing what country she was in.

Yet, through all the losses, the destruction and the horror, I would argue strongly that this bleak tale does have a powerful message: that Lizzie Cranston, the illegitimate and unregistered daughter of her mother, a domestic servant with a Law Clerk who never acknowledged her, grew up to raise a large family of her own and resolutely defended them against all adversity.

Lizzie Cranston was an ordinary Scot whose family made an extraordinary sacrifice in the Great War. She did her very best to keep her family healthy, safe and happy until circumstances beyond her control brought incredible death and destruction down upon her adult children.

I warmly thank Stuart for this article about one side of our extended family. I would also like to acknowledge how valuable his early research into the McLeay family was to my own endeavours—ed.



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