Finding Margaret Morice

Dr Deborah Simonton, University of Southern Denmark

This blog post first featured on the North American Conference on British Studies website on 10 April 2015 – http://www.nacbs.org/blog/finding-margaret-morice/

Detail from:  Milne, Alexander, fl. 1789-1818, ‘A plan of the City of Aberdeen with all the inclosures surrounding the town to the adjacent country, from a survey taken 1789’, http://maps.nls.uk/towns/rec/311.  ©National Library of Scotland 

I ‘met’ Margaret Morice in 1998. I had just finished writing A History of European Women’s Work.[1] Needing to get into some real primary research and since I was working at Aberdeen University, I asked myself the fairly simple question, ‘What kind of work were women doing in eighteenth-century Aberdeen?’ It was provoked by a number of factors, curiosity not being the least of them.

One of the first steps was a visit to Aberdeen City Archives, one of the best in Scotland. The initial visit was a bit demoralising, because the staff could only suggest the usual finding aids. Undeterred, I trundled through these and found the Register of Apprentices. This produced the first surprise, and was where I first found Margaret. The surprise was that with the exception of one entry for another female baker, she was the only one recorded—but in regular entries, between 1776 and 1797 she traded as ‘Margaret Morice and Co., baker in Aberdeen’.[2] This is notable on a number of levels. The bakers along with the weavers were seen as the most prestigious of the seven Incorporated Trades in Aberdeen and as their historian insisted:

Notably in Aberdeen, the baking of loaf and biscuit bread has been preserved as a strict monopoly for the men bakers. According to the acts and ordinances of the Baker craft in Aberdeen, women were not allowed to bake any bread, pastry, or pies to be sold in the streets or chops, a restriction that was maintained until the abolition of trading privileges in 1846.[3]

She also traded using her married name, when most Scots women kept their family name. She did so, I believe, because it furthered her commercial position as a widow.

Her husband had not been recorded in the Aberdeen Register of Apprentices, which misled me until I discovered that his were recorded in the Inland Revenue Apprenticeship Registers. She, in contrast, appeared only once at Inland Revenue; all of her apprentices followed his death.[4] As a relatively prominent member of the Incorporated Trades, and their Council representative from time to time, he would have paid the stamp duty and ensure that his apprentices were properly recorded. On the one occasion when she did, she had just ended a partnership with a previous apprentice. (She twice entered into such a partnership.) Thus a ‘properly’ registered apprentice may have been essential to retaining the prestige of the business. Over the 30 years that she ran the business herself, she apprenticed 16 boys from the tradesman classes (compared with John’s 12 over 25 years). The apprentice fee and the boys’ terms of service compared well with those for male bakers, including John’s, in Aberdeen, Essex, Birmingham and Staffordshire.[5]

This discovery sent me on a trail, which I followed alongside other research on Gender in European Towns.[6] In fact, I became addicted to finding Margaret Morice. Since there was little business information available in the archives, I turned to the parish records of births, deaths and marriages, available on microfilm in the Local Studies section of the Public Library. Here I found her birth in 1710 (though there is some doubt) and the birth of her seven children, including twins, beginning in 1739 and ending in 1750. Through serendipity, tucked in the back of the Council records, I found a notice of John’s burial in January of 1770, when she was 52. These also noted the death of a ‘child of John Morice’ on a couple of occasions. Thinking laterally, I tried Ancestry.com, and found the death of four of the children at very young ages. The eldest, David, and the female twin, Barbara, have a bigger part to play in her story. The seventh is still AWOL.

Trying a different line of enquiry, I went to the National Archives of Scotland (now National Records of Scotland), hoping for a will or inventory—no luck. I did however find window and inhabited house tax lists, showing her to have paid these through much of the same period that she was taking apprentices. Council Enactment Books added snippets here and there, mostly about John, but clarified that the bakery was well-established, that they owned the property from 1752 and that he was gradually building up a business and political persona. I felt I was coming closer to ‘seeing’ her, but frustratingly still with a great deal of speculation on my side. Through various venues, and thinking outside the box from time to time, gradually her story was becoming more and more visible—but still with gaps and a sense of incompleteness.

A return visit to the Archives, delayed by my move to Denmark, and assisted greatly by a Strathmartine Trust grant, turned out to be an epiphanic experience.[7] On arrival, Fiona Musk, the archivist, simply asked what I was trying to do. Not very optimistically, I told her, and then said flippantly, ‘What I would really like to do is find Margaret Morice’, literally locate her in the town. I knew roughly where the business was but her response, ‘I am sure I have seen her name on a map’, was astonishing after sixteen years of looking. A couple of hours later, she left the search room and returned with a bundle, and there was Margaret, on the plans for the ‘New Street‘ (now Union Street)—in one of the houses to be demolished.[8] And now, I confess, I did a dance in the record office to the amusement of the other four people in the room.

Map of Aberdeen with Margaret’s house marked (2) ©David Hastie

Margaret’s house also features in the image on the cover of The Routledge History Handbook of Gender and the Urban Experience

Furthermore, Fiona pulled up the records of saisine, which previously I had been told would be useless, to unfold the story of the property from John’s purchase to its sale to the Council in 1800. At first perplexed as to who the sellers were, two boys named Abercrombie, through antiquarian books in the Record Office, we identified that they were her grandsons, sons of her daughter Barbara, the second wife of an esteemed clergyman. This bundle corroborated and clarified the narrative of David’s bankruptcy and Margaret’s right to the property.[9] I had simultaneously been trying to read the whole of the Aberdeen Journal for the period, and there, in a notice she placed in 1789, I found her ‘voice’ for the first and only time, ensuring that none of David’s debts were charged to her and asserting her role as baker in Aberdeen.[10] All other mentions of her in the press had been oblique: a partner announcing the end of a partnership, her son asking for a lease for his mother, lawyers asserting her claim to the property. There are other small trails to follow up still, but from piecing together an array of disparate records, we can create a picture of her business, which was clearly long-standing and central to the commercial area of Aberdeen. It was also tolerated by the guild and held its own until near her death. Stories of such women are the bread and butter of our research, they whet our curiosity and through them we see the lives of towns come alive. This tale is not finished, and I intend now to develop it further and use this example with others with less detail to explore how businesses such as this inflect the character of eighteenth-century towns.

This tale of discovery probably replicates many other searches and journeys that other historians make. Our curiosity leads us on, we get ‘addicted’ to finding some answers, not all of which are terribly important. Perseverance and asking the same question, or similar ones, over and over, of the records, or of tangential material and of librarians and archivists is our stock in trade. In an age that prioritises publication—and publication of a particularly designated sort—we must not lose the curiosity and love of the past that drives us; we need to hang on to the wonder and joy of discovery—even with a little dance or two. And we need to keep using our skills, training and insight to solve these little mysteries; they can help solve the big ones.


[1] Deborah Simonton, A History of European Women’s Work, 1700 to the present (London: Routledge, 1998).

[2] Aberdeen City Archives (ACA), Enactment Books, 5. Register of Indentures, 1622-1878, see also Simonton, ‘Margaret Morice’, in The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women, eds, Elizabeth L. Ewan, Sue Innes, Sian Reynolds and Rose Pipes (Edinburgh University Press, 2006), 272; Simonton, ’Negotiating the Economy of the Eighteenth-Century Scottish Town’ in Katie Barclay and Deborah Simonton, eds, Women in Eighteenth-century Scotland (Ashgate, 2013), 225.

[3] Ebenezer Bain, Merchant and Craft Guilds, A History of the Aberdeen Incorporated Trades (Aberdeen: 1887), 212.

[4] Great Britain, Public Record Office, Board of Inland Revenue. Apprenticeship Regis­ters, 1710-1808, IR1. For John, volumes for 1743-68; for Margaret, 1788.

[5] Simonton, ‘Education and Training’, 341, 352; see also Joan Lane, Apprenticeship in England, 1600-1914 (London, 1996), 117.

[6] Gender in the European Town, www.sdu.dk/geneton

[7] See the Strathmartine Trust website on support for Scottish research, http://www.strathmartinetrust.org/

[8] ACA, New Street Trustees, CA/10/1/30 South Entry Plan – Castle Street & Narrow Wynd, 1799

[9] Ibid, CA/13/NStT/5-16 Act ordaining David Morrice jnr to dispone his real & personal estate, 1789.

[10] Aberdeen Journal, 20 July 1789.

The Invisible Crofter: Work, Crofting and Highland Masculinity

Dr Elizabeth Ritchie (University of the Highlands and Islands)

I have a favourite set of placemats. They feature old photos of men and women engaged in crofting activities: cutting peat, winnowing corn, manuring fields. Although crofting was a marginal form of part-time agriculture forced on the people, by the mid-nineteenth century the work, and the land, and the embattled culture which came from it were central to the identity of Highlanders. Recognising this, the lenses of academia and government have sharpened their focus on men’s crofting, but to the blurring and near invisibility of their female counterparts, of non-crofting men, and of the other facets of crofting men’s identity.[1]
All images © E. Ritchie

The cultural and political importance of crofting and its association with men suggested to me that it would be a central plank of nineteenth-century Highland masculinity. As I perambulated around dozens of Highland burial grounds, I assumed if I looked for crofters on headstones, I would find an awful lot. I found three. In graveyards, even male crofters are invisible. Instead I encountered hundreds of Highland men who had instead expressed their identity through their families, through a sense of place, through their religion, and through non-crofting work.[2]

The exercise was a salient reminder of the variety of Scotland’s north. On the extensive, low-lying arable of Badenoch and Strathspey commercial agriculture was developed. In those graveyards are many farmers. Upland places, like Laggan and Dunbeath, were transformed into sheep farms then shooting estates. There are buried many shepherds and gamekeepers. On the fertile island of Tiree are farmers, master mariners, ship’s captains and boatmen. The men of small towns practiced a wide range of trades and professions. In the graveyard of Portree, the capital of Skye, repose two ship’s stewards, two merchants, three bankers (one for the National Bank of India), and a fischurer, solicitor, shoemaker, medical practitioner, joiner, weaver, salmon fisher, tailor, butcher, procurator fiscal, and the owner of the Caledonian Hotel.

 Dunbeath

Men of the professional and business classes recorded their expertise and esteem in stone. John Shaw Brown erected a substantial family memorial in Bracadale, Skye. He ensured the inscription mentioned his career as municipal engineer in Burma. It was important to Alexander Mackenzie that his wife’s headstone noted he was an Inverness merchant. Indeed, some stones read like advertisements for the family business. For the middling class of Highland men, professional success and a lifetime of honourable work was core to masculine identity. Donald MacLeay (1783-1868) was ‘45 years forester’; Neil MacLean (1783-1858) was minister of Coll and Tiree for forty nine years; Donald MacLean (1852–1907) was doctor in Garrabost and Stornoway; Donald Fraser (1797-1836) was Agent of the British Fisheries Society in Ullapool; James Kinghorn (1809-61), Ardgay, was an innkeeper; and Murdo MacKenzie (d. 1901) was Invergordon’s bank agent. The Highlands had a middling class, and central to the masculinity of its members was professional commitment and recognition.

But what of the less educated and less privileged? Expense would make it reasonable to find no gravestones for labourers or servants. However there are a few. The stone of James Wilson (1847-1868), a railway surfaceman at Dalwhinnie, was paid for by his fellow workmen. That of Dalwhinnie’s boatman, Donald Kennedy (1814-1881), was erected ‘by a few gentlemen friends’. Occasionally a servant lies beneath an elaborate headstone. These display the master’s munificence as much an honouring the servant. William Anderson (d. 1850) was a ‘faithful servant for twenty five years of James Horne of Langwell and Donald Horne of Langwell Berriedale.’[3] The inscription suggests that, like Stevens the butler in Kazuo Ishigiuro’s The Remains of the Day, Anderson’s entire sense of identity had become bound up in his work.[4] This was particularly the case when the man was foreign, possibly originally a slave. Despite his Scottish name he was ‘a native of the West Indies’. The Highlands had strong connections with the Caribbean slave economy. Anderson’s dates, name and connection with Langwell make it probable he was born into slavery.[5] The employer of another servant, ‘Kopuri Tom’ (d. 1877), knew neither his birth-date nor his real name.[6] He was a ‘Native of the island of Rotumah in the South Pacific Ocean’. Having died at Relugas House, Edinkillie, he was memorialised as ‘the faithful & attached servant of GF Wood Esq’. These men were set apart from other servants by race and nationality.[7] However they thought of themselves, their employers identified them through their exoticism and their excellence as servants.

William Anderson’s headstone overlooks the Berriedale Braes in Caithness.

Most men of lower social classes have no grave marker. In Lewis most nineteenth-century crofters lie in rows, between the tiny head and footstones. Yet poverty does not adequately explain the lack of men describing themselves as crofters on their headstones. After all skilled and semi-skilled men, of a similar social status, appear frequently.


Burial ground at Barvas, Isle of Lewis

Alexander Chisholm (1814-1873) was blacksmith at Glentruim; James Hossack (1808-1896) was gardener at Cluny Castle; William Ross Fraser (1861-1895) was telegraph lineman at Inverness Post Office; Alexander Macqueen (n.d.) was shoemaker at Camustianavaig; William Ross (1794-1876) was carpenter at Alness Moor; John Clark (1820-88) was saddler at Bonar Bridge; Thomas Calder (1797-1870) was lockkeeper at Gairlochy. These ordinary men’s skill, proficiency and place in society were recorded on their headstones.

It is possible some of these men were also crofters. Crofting was specifically designed to require a man to also take on waged work. However if these men were crofter-shoemakers, crofter-blacksmiths and crofter-lockkeepers, crofting was not the work through which they identified themselves for posterity.

I suspect other crofters are invisible due to their piety. Highland Evangelicalism provided formal positions, paid and unpaid, through which ordinary men could exercise religious leadership. These are noted on their stones. Donald MacKay (n.d.); John MacKay (1761-1839); John MacKenzie (d. 1897); and Alasdair (Beag) MacKay (1801-83), were catechists in Kilmuir Easter, Loth, Gairloch and Skerray respectively. Malcolm MacLeod (1837-1897) was missionary in Snizort, Skye. The income from these jobs probably supplemented their croft. Church voluntary roles provided no income but conferred esteem and authority. Alexander MacKay (1808-1865); Alexander Kemp (1806-88); and Donald MacDonald (1829-1899) from Invercharron, Gairloch and Portnaguran were elders. It is likely these men also crofted, but it was their identity as men of faith that was commemorated.

The three men I found who were primarily identified as crofters were Simon Campbell (1820-88), Torgormack, Beauly; George MacKay (1816-73), Bogrow, Edderton; and John Cameron (1815-1880), Upper Achintore, Kilmallie.

The rarity of men being identified on gravestones as crofters gave me pause. My survey demonstrates that what historians have said about nineteenth-century Englishmen and Americans applies to Highlanders: that work was crucial for their sense of masculinity and their public persona. But why, in a region where crofting was culturally, politically and economically important, do men not display this aspect of their self-identity on their gravestones? Several possibilities present themselves.

  1. Perhaps most crofters could not afford a gravestone.
  2. Perhaps in the rural Highlands, crofting was so ubiquitous that recording this on a gravestone was superfluous.
  3. Perhaps crofting was held in lower esteem than a trade. If a man practiced both, his skills as a blacksmith or saddler would be commemorated.
  4. Perhaps for a pious man, honouring his religious faith and service was more important than his few acres and his milk cow.

So, amidst a historiography preoccupied with land and crofting, it is good for a while to leave aside the documents and instead consider what men and their families said about themselves in stone. Their own words, however selective and stylized, remind us that many Highland men were not crofters. They were merchants, innkeepers, railway surfacemen, servants and bank agents. It is impossible to imagine that crofting was not a vital part of the identity of the working men whose photographs are printed on my placemats. But their apparent invisibility in graveyards reminds us that crofting men had a much broader sense of identity than historians have appreciated.


[1] Female crofters, for example, rarely appear as such in government records or in most history books. Despite women frequently running crofts single-handedly, ‘crofter’ is equated with ‘man’. The gendered view of crofters is dissected in Isobel MacPhail, ‘Land, crofting and the Assynt Crofters Trust: A post-colonial geography?’ unpublished PhD, University of Wales (2002), 214-221; Lynn Abrams has also challenged this through her study of Shetland women. Lynn Abrams, Myth and Materiality in a Woman’s World, Shetland 1800-2000, (Manchester University Press, 2005)

[2] The importance of place and of emotional relationships to masculine identity is examined in ‘Place, identity and Dead Men’ 15 February 2017 and ‘A dutiful relative, attached friend and obliging neighbour’ 21 March 2017 respectively. https://historylinksdornoch.wordpress.com/

[3] The military and sheep rearing activities of Donald Horne were described in glowing terms in George Tancred, Annals of a Border Club (Jedburgh, T.S. Small, 1899), 261-263. His evicting activities were recorded by Alexander Gunn in ‘Tales of Braemore’, Northern Ensign in 1879. These are reproduced on the Badbea Families website http://www.badbeafamilies.com/gallery-10.htm (accessed 20 December 2016)

[4] Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day (London, 1989).

[5] David Alston, ‘“Very rapid and splendid fortunes”? Highland Scots in Berbice (Guyana) in the early nineteenth century’, Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, vol. LXIII (2002-2004), pp. 208-36; S. Karly Kehoe, ‘From the Caribbean to the Scottish Highlands: Charitable Enterprise in the Age of Improvement, c.1750 to c.1820’ Rural History (2016) 27.1, 37–59. The family who leased Langwell, before it was sold to James Horne, were Andersons with multi-generation links to the West Indies. It seems probable he was a mixed-race son. The Hornes bought the estate in 1814. They had also benefited from slavery. In 1836 Donald Horne and his sister Isabella McLeay were awarded £1981 0s 11d compensation as co-trustees for her late husband Kenneth MacLeay when slaves on his plantation in British Guiana were freed. Legacies of British Slave-ownership database https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/claim/view/8644 (accessed 20 December 2016)

[6] Kopuri is an Indian surname. Rotuma is a Fijian dependency.

[7]. Although not slaves, without local networks their options for changing their occupation or employer were more limited. However, A.S. Cowper notes that Anderson latterly ran the Berriedale Inn. I can find no source for this claim which appears in ‘Burial grounds of Caithness and Sutherland’ Caithness Field Club Bulletin, 3.5 (1983). http://www.caithness.org/caithnessfieldclub/bulletins/1983/april1983/burialgrounds.htm (accessed 20 December 2016). It is not supported by the 1841 census where the proprietors are MacLeods. As early as 1790, Bishop Geddes notes ‘dining at Henderson’s’ in Berriedale. William Anderson, ‘Bishop John Geddes: Journal Ambula Coram Deo, Part Second’, The Innes Review, 6.2, (1955), 140. It is possible Geddes misheard the name but he does not comment on Henderson’s race. This, the early date, and the name suggest this proprietor was not William Anderson. However it is perfectly possible he ran the business sometime between the 1790s and 1841.