The Colorful Ones

The Wild West by overgraeme, on Flickr. CC Image, Some rights reserved

I love a good skeleton in the closet. Bring me tales of your scandalous, your salacious and your ne’er do well and I’ll be transfixed. I want to hear all about that bigamist, the eccentric uncle or unknown love child. Whatever it is about these colourful relatives, but I am absolutely fascinated by the process of uncovering the details of their often secret lives, and following the trail, papered in records, newspapers and old letters, that they never knew they were leaving.

Great Granny was a bit of a family black sheep. Born in 1887 to a farming family in the western highlands of Scotland, at the age of 21 Annie found herself the unwed mother of a baby daughter. 1 In 1908, the social mores of the time in that area frowned upon so called illegitimate births and treated both the mother and the child with disdain.

My great grandmother ventured southward to the city of Greenock to find work, as her 1912 marriage record 2 shows. I hope she married for love, but Annie was expecting a second child, and as an unmarried domestic servant, had very little choice. Annie and her new husband, Duncan, arrived in Canada in June 1913, a fact that is confirmed by online passenger records 3. With them, was a 3 month old daughter, Mary.

Family oral history told me that the small family settled in rural Ontario and that their happiness in the new country was short lived. Duncan, for never revealed reasons, left Annie and Mary and returned to Scotland. Never one to let grass grow under her feet, Annie picked herself up and obtained employment in her usual occupation, housekeeping. She kept house for John Killin, a bachelor farmer who had inherited quite a bit of property from his Irish immigrant ancestors. It wasn’t long before Annie married John, despite their 22 year age difference, and despite the fact that she was already married!

On Annie and John’s 1917 marriage registration 4, it clearly states that Annie was a widow. The only problem with that is that her first husband, Duncan, lived on for another 50 years. Oh how I would love to have been a fly on the wall when Duncan’s lawyers contacted Annie in Canada while Duncan was attempting to obtain a legal divorce in order to remarry! By that time, Annie and John had been married over 20 years.

For more than a decade, up until near the 100th anniversary of Annie’s departure from Scotland, I was on a mission to find out what became of my intriguing great grandmother. I had only a bits and pieces of her Canadian life story which tantalized me terribly as I am the granddaughter of the child born to Annie in 1908 and left behind in Scotland. My own family immigrated to Canada in 1967 but sadly never had any contact with her. Annie’s Australian brother-in-law referred to her as the “shady lady”, which more or less summed up her family’s attitude towards her and largely led to her isolation.  I imagined her to be a sad and forgotten figure.

As is often the case with missing female relatives, I lacked the one piece of information that would unlock the doors to the story – her married name. My break came in the way of an archived newspaper ad. 5 One last message on an often used genealogy message board 6 was finally seen by the right person – either that or the information had been recently added. There it was, in black and white, the obituary of Annie’s daughter, Mary, who had passed away at 23 while expecting a child, and there was Annie’s last surname.

Annie was definitely the most colorful member of her family, a free spirited puzzle of a woman, caring little for societal rules, cutting ties and bucking trends to achieve what she wanted, something nearly unheard of in her day. She weathered separation, rejection, loss and tragedy during the life that eventually spanned 91 years, but Annie was not the lonely soul that I envisioned her to be. In time, I met her great grandsons, and learned she had created a small but loving new family in this land. They remember her today as a wonderful and definitely different sort of lady who told tales of dancing in a Scottish castle and loved a bit of whisky.

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6 Responses

  1. Wayne Blankenbiller says:

    Your Great Grandmother sounds like a wonderfully independent woman! Congratulations on discovering her story. And thank you for sharing. If it were not for our colorful relatives, we would not be the characters that we are.

  2. Mary Harris says:

    Thank you very much, Wayne! I love family history and I truly do get a kick out of those colorful relatives.

  3. What a great story, Mary! We all have at least one character (and where there’s one, there are likely more, given the nature of DNA) in our families. And I agree. They add a little spice to the usual meat and potatoes. :)

    • Mary Harris says:

      Oh thank you, Elizabeth! Believe me, I do have MORE! Neil, who claimed he was the rightful chief of the clan, even became engaged to the chief’s daughter and eventually got banished to New Zealand for his efforts. And George, who left his inheritance in the Highlands to marry a domestic servant, remarried after she died having their 7th child, had 5 more children then abandoned the lot when he immigrated to Wyoming, USA. Love these fellows! 😀

  4. Flo says:

    Very well told story. I can relate to what you say about hunting down the facts. When I was a child I was told my great-aunt had married and buried 4 husbands. A few years ago, her great-grandchild said it was 5 husbands. Recently, her nephew said she buried 8 husbands!

  5. Mary Harris says:

    Wow, Flo!! Have you figured out yet which number of husbands is correct? I have just discovered yet another ‘colorful one’ of my own. A relative who employed my great great grandfather’s family bought his estate with the money he made from the opium trade with Hong Kong in the 1840s. I was pretty surprised by that.

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