The Mysterious Matter of Margaret McLeay
… and the Missing Link

Margaret McLeay, born 1851–52, was my great-great-grandmother, and has the same relationship to my first cousins, Craig and Martin Strachan. However, we only know this because Margaret was given as the mother to our great-grandmother Jessie Littlejohn. Margaret’s parents were not named in any records we know of — in fact, there are only six documents we have that mention her in any way at all: two census records (1861 and 1871); the birth certificates of her two children (Jessie in 1869,1Source: 1869 Scotland Statutory Births; 159/ 94; Keith, Banffshire. and John in 1871);2Source: 1871 Scotland Statutory Births; 159/ 90; Keith, Banffshire. her son’s death certificate in 1897;3Source: 1898 (for 1897) Scotland Statutory Deaths 168/1 23 Saint Nicholas, Aberdeen. and her daughter’s marriage certificate in 1900.4Source: 1900 Scotland Statutory Marriages; 644/12 271,; Gorbals, Glasgow. The last two gave her as already deceased.

John and Janet McLeay were recorded as Margaret’s ‘grandparents’ in the 1861 census for the Square, Keith (now the Crown Inn, Reidhaven Square);5Source: 1861 Scotland Census; 159/ 2/ 35 & 36; Keith, Banffshire. they were next shown as her ‘parents’ in the 1871 census for Moss Street, Keith, but this was certainly an error.6Source: 1871 Scotland Census; 159/ 3/ 10; Keith Banffshire. The 1861 census, however, specifically gave Margaret’s birthplace as Botriphnie, a hamlet 5 km (3 miles) southwest of Keith, and the neighbouring parish. These two records for her indicate a birth-date range of April 1851 to March 1852, but no search has located her birth for 1851, ±5, in Botriphnie, or anywhere else in Banffshire or Scotland.

Lament for Margaret McLeay: A tune I wrote in 2007.

Timeline for Margaret McLeay, mother of Jessie Littlejohn

  • 1851–52: born, possibly in Botriphnie Parish, Banffshire.‌
  • 7 Apr 1861: she was a 9-year old scholar and living at The Square, Keith, with her grandparents John and Janet McLeay.‌
  • Sep 1868: aged about 16, she fell pregnant to John Littlejohn, a farm labourer working at nearby Cairnwhelp Farm, near Cairnie.‌
  • 15 Jun 1869: she was a domestic servant and, aged about 17, gave birth to her only daughter, Jessie, at her grandparent’s home at Moss Street, Keith.‌
  • Sep 1870: Margaret fell pregnant again when she was 18, but to an unknown person — in April 1871, John Littlejohn was working nearby at Binhall Farm, but there is no evidence that he was the father.‌
  • 2 Apr 1871: heavily pregnant, Margaret (19), agricultural servant, was living at Moss Street, Keith, with her grandparents and her one-year-old daughter, Jessie.‌
  • 4 Jun 1871: still a domestic servant, she gave birth to her only son, John, at Back Street, Keith.‌
  • 1871–1897: she might have married or taken up with a draper called John Fleming (place unknown).‌ She died sometime in this period.
  • 1881: her children, Jessie (11, scholar) and John (9, scholar) were living with their great-grandparents (John and Janet) at Back Street, Keith, but Margaret’s whereabouts have never been found — it seems probable she died between 1871 and 1881, aged 19–29, though it is feasible (if unlikely) that she emigrated.‌
  • 1891: her daughter, Jessie (22), was a domestic servant for her mother’s 1st cousin Agnes Duff Watt (38) and husband George Christie at Regent Street, Keith; her son, John (19), was a baker and boarding with Angus McKay (a policeman) and his wife Jane Innes (of Keith) at Garscube Road in Glasgow.‌
  • 31 Dec 1897: her unmarried son, John (26), died at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary; Margaret was recorded as being already deceased; she could have been no older than 46, or as young as 19.‌
  • 18 May 1900: her daughter, Jessie (30), married James Craig in Glasgow, and declared that her mother was deceased, but had married John Fleming, a draper.

The nine children of John and Janet McLeay

If Margaret was a granddaughter to John and Janet, then, ipso facto, one of their nine children must have been her mother or father. The comings and goings of these children appear chronologically in the main article on the McLeay family, but let’s summarise the lives of each of them to see which ones might be disqualified as a possible parent to Margaret.

  1. Anne McLeay (17 Nov 18237Source: 1823 Scotland O.P.R. Births; 178/ 30 35; Cairnie, Aberdeenshire. – 23 Dec 1872)8Source: 1872 Scotland Statutory Deaths; 685/3 1307; Canongate, Edinburgh.: When Anne was 18, she was working as a servant in the home of the Rev. James Gardener, the minister at Rathven, a village on the coast about 15 km (9 miles) north of Keith.9Source: 1841 Scotland Census; 164/ 7/ 1; Rathven, Banffshire. We know she had moved to Edinburgh between 1841 and 1848 and married a policeman, Angus MacKay;10Source: 1848 Scotland O.P.R. Marriages; 685/1 690 63; Edinburgh, Midlothian. they had six children between 1849 and 1866. This couple lived at Advocates Close and then  Bailie Fyfe’s Close, both off the High Street, and now landmarks on The Royal Mile. Her aunt Helen McLeay, who had married a tailor, Ronald McLeod,11Source: 1835 Scotland O.P.R. Marriages; 685/1 640 482; Tolbooth, Edinburgh. lived at the same place. Anne died of tuberculosis in 1872, aged only 49.12Source: 1872 Scotland Statutory Deaths; 685/3 1307; Canongate, Edinburgh. She cannot be the mother of Margaret.‌  ✗⃝
  2. Alexander McLeay (15/6/182513Source: 1825 Scotland O.P.R. Births; 178/ 30 44; Cairnie, Aberdeenshire. – 19/9/1906)14Source: 1906 Scotland Statutory Deaths;149/ A 18; Boyndie, Banffshire.Alex worked on farms around Cairnie between 1841 and 1851, but had moved north to Whitehills, near Boyndie, by the end of 1852 where he married Sarah Wood;15Source: Scotland O.P.R. Marriages; 149/ 30 211; Boyndie, Banffshire. they had 12 children between 1854 and 1875. It is certainly feasible for Alexander to have fathered a daughter in 1851–52, and to have left his parents to raise the child while he moved to Boyndie for work. Alex laboured for the rest of his life in and around Whitehills as a farm worker and ploughman, but had become a pauper by the time he died of a stroke in 1906, aged 81.
    ++Although it was more common for an illegitimate child to be brought up by the mother’s family, there are plenty of examples of fathers’ families taking the role (for instance, Jessie McKay on my mother’s side). Illegitimate children (and certainly those in our McLeay family) mostly took their fathers’ surnames, even if living with the mother. Margaret was only ever recorded with the surname “McLeay” — and, perhaps significantly, Alexander did not give the name “Margaret” to any of his seven daughters by Sarah Wood. Alexander is a definite finalist.‌ ✓⃝
  3. Jane McLeay (22 Jan 182716Source: 1827 Scotland O.P.R. Births; 178/ 30 53; Cairnie, Aberdeenshire. – 11 Jul 1900)17Source: 1900 Scotland Statutory Deaths; 685/4 741; St Giles, Edinburgh.Jane had an illegitimate daughter, Elizabeth Duff, in 1850 at Keith, and mother and child were living with John and Janet in 1851.18Source: 1851 Scotland Census; 159/ 4/ 14; Keith, Banffshire. Jane had moved to Edinburgh by 1859 where she married James Stewart;19Source: 1859 Statutory Marriages; 685/4 57; St Giles, Edinburgh. however, Elizabeth was living with a railway porter and his family in Huntly by 1861,20Source: 1861 Scotland Census;  Ancestry ED: 5, p.6/1; Roll: CSSCT1861_29; Huntly, Aberdeenshire. and was married at age 16 to a farm worker, John McLean, at Rhynie (this John is unconnected to other ‘McLeans’ in our family tree).21Source: 1866 Scotland Statutory Marriages; 198/ 6; Gartly, Aberdeenshire.
    ++Meanwhile, Jane and James were living at 26 Simon Square in Edinburgh,22Source: 1861 Scotland Census; Ancestry ED: 56; p.2/19; Roll: CSSCT1861_129; St Cuthberts, Edinburgh. and had six children between 1859 and 1869 — but, it is entirely plausible time-wise for her to have given birth to a second illegitimate daughter in 1851–52 — indeed, her older sister Mary had two illegitimate children before moving to Edinburgh and marrying in 1855. However, it’s worth noting here that both Jane and Mary’s known illegitimate children took their fathers’ surnames (Duff, Alexander and Watt) — also worth noting is the fact that Jane’s last child with James Stewart was named “Margaret” (born in 1869).23Source: 1869 Scotland O.P.R. Births; 685/5 834; Newington, Edinburgh.
    ++Jane became widowed in 187224Source: 1872 Scotland Statutory Deaths; 685/ 5 611; Newington, Edinburgh. and was living at Leith Street near Calton Hill in 1881.25Source: 1881 Scotland Census; Ancestry ED: 89; p.2/19; Roll: cssct1881_286; St Andrew, Edinburgh. By 1891, though, she was back in the Old Town at Nicholson Street, close to her sisters,26Source: 1891 Scotland Census; Ancestry ED: 18; p.10/19; Roll: CSSCT1891_353; St Cuthberts, Edinburgh. and was still nearby in 1900 when she died of a cerebral thrombosis. Jane, however, must remain a contender to be Margaret’s mother, if only because we have no primary evidence that would preclude the possibility. ✓⃝
  4. Mary McLeay (9 Oct 183027Source: 1830 Scotland O.P.R. Births; 178/ 30 79; Cairnie, Aberdeenshire. – 11 Dec 1906)28Source: 1906 Scotland Statutory Deaths; 685/3 555; Canongate, Edinburgh.Mary, at age 10, was living across The Square from her parents at the home of a Margaret Wilson, where she was registered as a servant (1841).29Source: 1841 Scotland Census; 159/ 2/ 1; Keith, Banffshire. By age 19, in 1850, she had given birth to her first illegitimate child: Janet Alexander, daughter of an Aberdonian shopkeeper, John Alexander.30Source: 1849 Scotland O.P.R. Births; 159/ 50 389; Keith, Banffshire. This child died in 1851,31Source: 1851 Scotland O.P.R. Deaths; 159/ 50 699; Keith, Banffshire. but her mother was only 22 when she gave birth to her second ‘natural’ daughter, Agnes Duff Watt, in February 1852 (the father was William Watt, slater of Aberdeen).32Source: 1853 Scotland O.P.R. Baptisms; 159/ 50 413; Keith, Banffshire. Mary had almost certainly been living in Aberdeen and returning home to deliver her babies; she would have been pregnant with Agnes from about June 1851, so could not have been the mother of Margaret.
    ++Mary moved to Edinburgh to join some of her sisters, and married police constable George Baillie in 185533Source: 1855 Scotland Statutory Marriages; 685/3 125; Castle & Portsburgh, Edinburgh. — she had two children with him before he died in 1859 and, at that time, was living at Simon Square next door to her sister Jane.34Source: 1859 Scotland Statutory Deaths; 685/3 469; Canongate, Edinburgh. Her abandoned daughter, Agnes Duff, was with John and Janet in 1861, along with Margaret and another illegitimate grandchild, Elizabeth Smith.35Source: 1861 Scotland Census; 159/ 2/ 35 & 36; Keith, Banffshire. Mary later married another policeman, Bannerman Mitchell, in 186436Source: 1864 Scotland Statutory Marriages; 685/4 93; St Giles, Edinburgh. and moved first to Physic Gardens (where she had two further children), and then to Arthur Street, near her sisters, by 1881.37Source: 1881 Scotland Census; 685/3 46/ 1; St Cuthbert’s, Edinburgh. For Mary’s last 16 years or so, she lived with her son Angus Baillie at Brunton Terrace in the New Town, and died in 1906, aged 76, of a stomach cancer. ✗⃝‌
  5. Margaret McLeay (18 Jun 183538Source: 1835 Scotland O.P.R. Births; 178/ 30 108; Cairnie, Aberdeenshire. – 28 Dec 1916)39Source: 1916 Scotland Statutory Deaths; 685/5 749; Newington, Edinburgh.: This Margaret was 16 in 1851–52 and, like her older sister Mary, had moved to Aberdeen; here she was working as a domestic servant in the home of David McDonald, a factory manager.40Source: 1851 Scotland Census; 168/A 19/ 62; Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire. We know from a family Bible passed down through the Cranston family that Margaret had an illegitimate daughter, Elizabeth Smith, on Christmas Day, 1855. The child was born at Leith, and we later discover that her father was a law-clerk/writer, Thomas Smyth, but the birth was never registered. By 1861, Margaret was in service at Mayfield Terrace, Edinburgh,41Source: 1861 Scotland Census; 685/5 67/  12; St Cuthberts, Edinburgh. and Elizabeth had been shipped off to live with her grandparents at Keith, along with two illegitimate cousins: my Margaret and Agnes Watt.42Source: 1861 Scotland Census; 159/ 2/ 35 & 36; Keith, Banffshire.
    ++A pregnant Margaret married John Buchan in 1865,43Source: 1865 Scotland Statutory Marriages; 685/3 84; Canongate, Edinburgh. and they had two children: James (1865),44Source: 1865 Scotland Statutory Births; 685/4 825; St Giles, Edinburgh. and Margaret Cowie (in Dundee, 1867).45Source: 1867 Scotland Statutory Births; 282/1 2191; 1st District Dundee, County of Forfar. They lived close by Margaret’s sisters, settling at 123 Pleasance for a number of years. Elizabeth Smith was living here with her mother and step-father in 1878 when she married Alexander Cranston46Source: 1878 Scotland Statutory Marriages; 685/2 355; St Andrews, Edinburgh. — so, Margaret had kept contact with her illegitimate child. Margaret was widowed in 1893,47Source: 1893 Scotland Statutory Deaths; 685/5 1195; Newington, Edinburgh. but was still living in the neighbourhood when she lost her only son, James, to tuberculosis in 1889.48Source: 1889 Scotland Statutory Deaths; 685/5 497; Newington, Edinburgh . Margaret died at Arthur Street of a heart condition in 1916, aged 81 — she was the last of her siblings to die.
    ++As we saw above, Margaret’s older sister Mary was working in Aberdeen both times she fell pregnant with her illegitimate children (Janet and Agnes), so there is no technical reason to suppose that she could not have had a similar experience in 1851–52. If her parents raised Elizabeth Smith, then why not a previous ‘natural’ child? Significantly, though, Elizabeth had taken her father’s name, Smith (Smyth) — so, if Margaret did have an earlier illegitimate daughter, we would expect that child would also use her father’s surname. We can note, as well, that her last child was named “Margaret Cowie” (born 1867) — as with her sister Jane, if Margaret was the mother of my Margaret, she would have had two daughters, both living, with the same name. Nonetheless, there is no hard evidence to prove she could not have been my Margaret’s mother. ✓⃝
  6. Janet “Jessie” McLeay (25 May 183849Source: 1838 Scotland O.P.R. Births; 159/ 50 268; Keith, Banffshire. – 13 Aug 1910)50Source: 1910 Scotland Statutory Deaths; 573/1 918; Paisley, Renfrewshire.Janet is almost always called Jessie in the records, and was 13–14 years of age when my Margaret was born. Although that would be young to be  a mother, it is certainly possible, and only DNA matching could eliminate her.
    ++Janet/Jessie is missing from the 1851 record, so may already have been in service like her sister Mary. She married John Stewart/Stuart in 1856,51Source: 1856 Scotland Statutory Marriages; 155/ 22; Keith, Banffshire. aged 18, and had eight children at the Square, Keith between 1857 and 1878. Her husband was working away as a farm labourer for the three censuses 1871–1891, but she was a widow by 1901 and living with her youngest daughter and son-in-law, Annie and John Fraser.52Source: 1901 Scotland Census; 159/ 2/ 50; Keith, Banffshire. She moved with them to Paisley, Renfrewshire, before 1910, and this is where she died of a heart failure, aged 72. Jessie was only 13 or 14 years old at the time my Margaret was born, but I share DNA with at least two of her descendants, so we will need better evidence to preclude the possibility. ✓⃝
  7. Helen McLeay (16 Mar 184053Source: 1840 Scotland O.P.R. Births; 159/ 50 295; Keith, Banffshire. – 22 Aug 1903)54Source: 1903 Scotland Statutory Deaths; 329/ 55; Auchterarder, Perthshire.Helen had lived with her parents at the Square until 1851, and would only have been between 11 and 12 when Margaret McLeay was born — if Helen was the mother, she would have become pregnant at 10 or 11. However, this age is biologically possible for motherhood, and two descendants of Helen’s are on my DNA match list, and have a stronger connection to me than any of the other ‘McLeay’ lines. So, she cannot be excluded without further evidence, and is now the most probable of all the McLeay line.
    ++Helen’s whereabouts in 1861 is unknown, but it is possible she was living with her sisters Jane and Mary, for she gave her address as 26 Simon Square, Edinburgh, when she married a mason, Peter McLaren, in 1862.55Source: 1862 Scotland Statutory Marriages; 685/ 4 264; Saint Giles, Edinburgh. Their first child was born at that address in 1863; but, by 1865, the couple had moved to Peter’s hometown of Auchterarder in Perthshire — and her next eight children were born there. Helen died in Auchterarder of anaemia in 1903. ✓⃝‌
  8. Isabella McLeay (6 Jan 184356Source: 1843 Scotland O.P.R. Births; 159/ 50 330; Keith, Banffshire. – 28 Apr 1902)57Source: 1902 Scotland Statutory Deaths; 644/3 994; RCE 0237; Dennistoun, Glasgow.Isabella lived with her parents at The Square until she married Murdoch McRae, a railway worker, in 1862.58Source: 1862 Scotland Statutory Marriages; 159/ 62; Keith, Banffshire. It is likely Murdoch had been a guest at the inn run by Isabella’s parents, as the 1861 census shows a number of railway worker lodgers on census night. By 1871, they had three children and, on census night, were visitors at a home in Lochcarron,59Source: 1871 Scotland Census; 076/ 5/ 14; Lochcarron, Ross & Cromarty. in the west of Scotland, near where Murdoch was born in 1823.60Source: 1823 Scotland O.P.R. Births; 076/ 20/ 9; Locchcarron, Ross & Cromarty. Interestingly, this is the district that Isabella’s great-grandfather John McRae came from, so Murdoch and Isabella may well have been second or third cousins. This couple had two more children by 1878 — but, in that year, Isabella became a widow when Murdoch died of pneumonia while working at Wishaw in Lanarkshire.61Source: 1878 Statutory Deaths; 628/ 43; Cambusnethan, Lanarkshire.
    ++In November 1881, Isabella married for the second time,62Source: 1881Scotland Statutory Marriages; 644/9 499; Kelvin, Glasgow. on this occasion to a policeman, James McDonald — this marriage produced two children by 1884. In April 1902, the couple resided at Earlston Street in Glasgow — however, Isabella seems to have collapsed on a tramcar in Sauchiehall Street, not far from her home, and died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. She was much too young to have been the mother of my Margaret, but had seven children of her own. ✗⃝‌
  9. Elizabeth McLeay (25 December 184563Source: 1846 Scotland Statutory Births; 159/ 50 358; Keith, Banffshire. – 30 May 1854):64Source: 1854 Scotland O.P.R. Deaths; 159/ 50 711; Keith, Banffshire. Elizabeth was the only offspring of John and Janet’s to have died in childhood. She appears in the 1851 census,65Source: 1851 Scotland Census; 159/ 4/ 14; Keith, Banffshire. but died of an unrecorded cause in May 1854, aged eight. ✗⃝

Technically speaking, Alexander, JaneMargaretJessie and Helen could all have been the ‘unidentified’ parent to my great-great-grandmother Margaret – that is, there is no direct evidence that would confidently debar any of them. However, both Jane and Margaret each had a legitimate daughter from their respective marriages named ‘Margaret’, which circumstantially weakens the case for either of them being the mother of the illegitimate Margaret.

Initially, I had presumed that Helen would have been too young to be considered a likely candidate, even though it is biologically possible (if somewhat disquieting) for a girl to be a mother at twelve. So, while Alexander and Jessie seemed to be the logical frontrunners, my hope has been that further DNA analysis of the descendants of Alexander, Jane, Margaret,  Jessie and Helen would link me more directly to one than the others — and, at the start of 2020, one emerged.

Recent DNA Evidence

In 2019, an user “Kerry Mitra”, a 3g-grandchild of Alexander McLeay and his wife Sarah Wood, appeared with 6.8 centimorgans over 1 segment (6.8cM-1) of shared DNA. This level of DNA, we are told, could mean we were full 5th cousins, or 4th cousins once removed. In my initial excitement, it seemed as if Alexander was firming as my direct ancestor — but, then, “Natasha Sacouman” (16cM-1) and “Claire Renwick” (9.1cM-1) appeared, and they are direct descendants of Alexander’s sister Margaret (via Elizabeth Smith), and they have more shared DNA with me than does Alexander’s direct descendant “Kerry Mitra”. At first, this seems to swing the weight of evidence back to Margaret as being my direct ancestor.

However, in September 2019, a more likely, and completely unexpected, contender emerged that seems to push Alexander and Margaret out of the picture: user “Philip Jones”, with a significant 40cM-1 of shared DNA — and he is a proven direct descendant of Alexander’s sister Helen, who married Peter McLaren of Auchterarder. Additionally, “Philip Jones” has a solid match with my first cousin, Craig Strachan, (27cM-2) and our other shared matches include: “Scott Sheppard” (32cM-1); “Jamie Stacy” (27cM-1); and ”Natasha Sacouman” (16cM-1). Now, as of November 2021, a new match in this line has also popped up: ”Kaye Hall” (19cM-1). Kaye is a 1st cousin of “Philip Jones”, and also has strong connections to my cousins, Craig and Martin Strachan.

Elsewhere, two descendants of sister Jessie (who married John Stewart) have appeared in my list:  “lyander43” (9.5cM-1) and “John Grant” (7.6cM-1)66Coincidentally, John Grant, and his father of the same name were champion drummers in the Brisbane Pipe Band scene, and I came across John Snr. in competition in the late 1960s, not ever suspecting that we were related via our McLeay lines. — and only one of those has any link to my cousin Craig Strachan, and a weak one at that! Interestingly, these levels looks quite similar to those of the descendants of Alexander and Margaret, and this all makes Helen’s claim to a direct ancestral link look more credible.

There are a number of other McLeay descendants with sizeable DNA matches who, as yet, cannot trace their connection to a particular line within the family. The largest match is “Susan Morrison” with a massive 67cM-2, and she connects directly to my 1st cousin Craig Strachan, and “Jamie Stacy”. Susan and I also have these other big-hitter users as shared matches: “CR Morrison” (49cM-3);  “Muriel S” (29cM-2); and ”pamgatthall” (23cM-2) — some of these connect to “Dylan Mitchell” (54cM-2). And, as of July 2023, I have a 2nd cousin to add into the McLeay mix: “Margaret Molloy” (219cM-12), who has direct links to my 1st cousins, my daughter and, importantly, … “Philip Jones”!

This all must seem very confusing, but the chart below graphically sets out these and other relationships connected to the McLeay line. However, for the meantime, it is easy to see that although “Susan Morrison” has not worked out her relationship to the McLeay family, she is strongly connected to others who are matched to ”Philip Jones” (descendant of Helen). It is also significant that she seems to have only the most remote connections to the descendants of Helen’s other siblings, Alexander, Margaret and Jessie.

No doubt, over time, Ancestry will improve the matching, and if we are ever able to connect “Susan Morrison” and her shared matches to Helen‘s line, then we will know for certain that Helen was the mother of our mysterious Margaret McLeay.





4. Margaret McLeay: Missing Link — 2 Comments

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