A hard life for women

Researching Aberdeenshire family history has given me a greater understanding of living conditions at the time (as well as allowing me to develop a family tree back to about 1700).

It is clear that it was a time of great inequality, as rich landowners controlled most of what happened in rural areas, leaving the mass of working men and women with a life of poverty and hard work.

In many ways women had the more difficult life. Physically they were required to work hard, both inside the home and outside on the farm or in the garden, as well as give birth to many children (as many as 13 in the McNaughton tree) with minimal medical help.

But it must have been difficult emotionally too.

The records of the McNaughton family show several women who had children outside of marriage and raised them without fathers, for a time at least. Several entered marriage pregnant or with children from a previous non-marriage relationship.

We must recognise that there were many reasons why these situations might arise. Poverty made it difficult for men to earn enough money to rent a home to get married. Irregular marriages (those not conducted by clergy) were legal, but it wasn’t always clear whether a couple was betrothed or married.

Some women, especially single or widowed mothers, were left with fewer options to support their children, and sometimes entered into relationships to survive.

And young girls working as servants on farms or in city households were vulnerable to predatory men.

Lizzie and Jane Skinner, who I have been researching recently, are examples of this. They went away from their family to enter domestic service in Aberdeen while in their middle teens. Both had two “illegitimate” children in their early twenties. Jane later had two more. In none of these births is the father named, and it is unlikely they could ever be identified now.

Both Lizzie and Jane went on to get married and raise families that included the step-children as well as those born to their husbands.

And so I decided to investigate what life was like for working class women in nineteenth century rural Aberdeenshire. There is a lot of good information about, and it well illustrates the difficulties facing women at that time.

The sad life of Ann Ross (1805-c1856)

Ann Ross was Ron and Ian’s Great Great Grandmother on their father’s side. From the records we have, she appears to have lived a sad, impoverished life.

Ann was probably born in 1805, the youngest of 5 children of William Ross and Margaret Sherriff (sometimes spelt Shirres) – “probably” because I can find no record of her birth, just her baptism in that year in Aboyne, a small town on the north bank of the River Dee not far from Ballater where the McNaughton family lived.

She lived in her late teens in “Burn of Bennie” (the modern spelling) on the edge of the town of Banchory Ternan, which lies on the north side of the River Dee, about halfway between Ballater and Aberdeen. Burn of Bennie is identified as a separate location in the census returns, so we know that a very few families lived there. (In 1841, there were the Skinner family (6), the Ross family (7, not including Ann), two elderly ladies listed as paupers – 15 in all.)

The disputed birth of John Skinner

In 1824, when she was 19, Ann gave birth to a son. The church baptismal record names the son as John Skinner, and says she claimed the father was John Skinner, who was part of the Burn of Bennie Skinner family, but had recently moved to Drumoak, further down the river. But, from the wording on the baptismal record, he apparently refused to accept paternity.

John Skinner baptismal documentation. It seems to read: "Ann Ross at Burn of Benny had a son baptised October 3rd and named John - John Skinner in the parish of Drumoak late at Woodend of Leys given up as the father who refused."

John Skinner baptismal documentation. It seems to read: “Ann Ross at Burn of Benny had a son baptised October 3rd and named John – John Skinner in the parish of Drumoak late at Woodend of Leys given up as the father who refused.”

The church was a moral and social authority in those days, and often tried to determine the facts when paternity was disputed, virtually forcing the father to pay some maintenance. It appears in this case that paternity wasn’t settled, but we don’t know for sure, and we don’t know why. We might expect that they would believe the woman, especially as the two families lived so close to each other. But perhaps the Skinner family was more respected or more influential (John Skinner Snr went on to study at Aberdeen University for a year and become a teacher). But whatever happened, Ann never married and was left to bring up John Jnr herself.

Later life

We have to assume that Ann lived with her parents and then her brother George for the rest of her life, and son John lived with her until his teens when it appears he may have moved away to get farm labouring work.

The middle of the 19th century saw food shortages across much of the highlands, and these had some impact on Aberdeenshire as well. Many families were subsistence farmers, and struggled during this period. Unmarried or widowed women were particularly vulnerable. They could register as paupers and obtain some monetary support, but this was barely enough. While investigating this part of the family tree, I came across a number of women at that time and in that vicinity who were listed as paupers.

Ann was listed as a pauper, living with her brother George, in the 1851 census. Her son had long since moved away, and was recently married and a father, so he probably provided little support. It appears that she may have died in the next decade, but I could find no record of this – perhaps as a pauper her death wasn’t registered and she had an unmarked grave.

Her brother George died in 1869, and his wife Ann was listed as a pauper in 1871, and died in 1880. (George and Ann had a daughter they named Ann, so at one time there were 3 people named Ann Ross living in the same house, which was a little confusing for me at first!)

Her son John married Christian Ingram, and their daughter Lizzie was Jock McNaughton’s mother.

Thus it seems she had a somewhat miserable life, and we can feel for the difficulties she faced. Yet if she hadn’t given birth to her son, the rest of the family line would not have happened. Family history is full of little twists and unlikely scenarios like that.

You can see the details of Ann’s life here and see how she fits into the family here.

Genetic genealogy

I have been exploring the use of DNA in family history research.


DNA is a complex organic molecule that stores enormous amounts of information which controls how our body grows, by providing code to make the different protein molecules which make up different parts of the body. DNA is made up of two strands which curl around each other in the famous “double helix” shape. Along each strand are nucleotides (a sugar based molecule), each of which links with a nucleotide on the other strand, so the structure is akin to a coiled ladder, with each rung made up of a nucleotide pair. There are four types of nucleotides, labelled A, C, G and T after their chemical names, and are sometimes called DNA bases. The human genome has more than two billion bases.

DNA molecules are grouped into 23 chromosome pairs – 22 autosome pairs, which control most of our body’s characteristics, and a sex chromosome pair (either XY for men or XX for women).  These are found in every cell in our body. However only a small portion of the DNA is used to make protein in cells; the rest is sometimes called junk DNA. In addition, information is stored in mitochondrial DNA, found in a different part of each cell, and passed on from mother to child.

Genes are segments of a chromosome that determine particular physical attributes. Humans have two copies of every gene, one from each parent and each one is different (i.e. with different base pairs) – these different forms of the same gene are called alleles. Humans have more than 20,000 genes in total. Most genes are the same in all people, but some are different, giving the wide variety in human bodies and personalities.


Cells reproduce by dividing and reproducing their DNA almost exactly. But recombination can occur, where segments of DNA are swapped between two chromosome pairs, thus creating a new DNA. Occasionally mutations also occur, though few of these are viable and passed on.

When a child is conceived, one DNA strand is copied from each parent so that a new DNA is created, half from each parent. But recombination when the sperm and egg cells are produced means that there are subtle, more or less random, but important differences in the DNA passed on to each child. Thus we all inherit half our DNA from each parent, but only approximately a quarter from each grandparent, and so on.

Genetic genealogy

Because we inherit our DNA from both parents, with subtle changes due to recombination, we will have many long segments of each chromosome the same as each parent, fewer long segments the same as each of our four grandparents, and reducing amounts in common as we go back up our family tree. Thus if two people have long segments of DNA in common, it is highly likely, though not certain, that they have a relatively recent common ancestor. The larger amount in common, the more recent the common ancestor is likely to be. The amount of DNA in common is measured in CentiMorgans (cM), which give an indication of the probability of a family match.

DNA testing is carried out by identifying the base pairs in long segments of DNA. Four basic tests are available:

  • Autosomal tests identify the bases at about 700,000 locations on the 22 autosomal chromosomes that are known to vary across humanity. Matches can identify relations up to about 5th or 6th cousins.
  • Y DNA is only carried by men, so this test can provide information of the male line – in effect the surname line – and can give an indication of deep ancestry (i.e. back many generations to a common ancestor).
  • Mitochondrial DNA is carried by both genders but is passed on only by mothers. It gives an indication of deep ancestry back to tens of thousands of years, by identifying a haplogroup, which identifies a common ancestor and location.
  • X DNA is found in the 23 chromosome of both genders. It can be tested separately, but is often included in autosomal testing.

DNA testing can reveal relationships that were previously unknown. If two people who have tested have several large segments in common, then they can conclude they have common ancestry, and begin to search documentary records to discover their common ancestry. Once two people have identified a common ancestor, they can be confident that anyone else who shares the same common segments has also descended from the same common ancestor, whereas someone with a match on a completely different set of segments probably comes from a different branch of the family.

DNA testing and matching

Autosomal tests cost about $US100, with other tests costing $200-$300. There are three main genealogical testing companies, 23 and Me, Ancestry and Family Tree DNA. All companies have their advantages and disadvantages. For example:

  • Only FTDNA does a full range of autosomal, mtDNA and Y-DNA testing. The others only do autosomal (23andMe includes a small amount of mtDNA and Y-DNA in its autosomal testing).
  • Ancestry’s comparison tools are not as comprehensive as the others two, but they can provide links to the large number of Ancestry family trees online (though it costs extra to gain access to these).
  • The Ancestry and 23andMe databases are larger than FTDNA’s (important because this provides a larger pool of possible matches) but FTDNA has more people from outside the USA.

It is possible to examine matches obtained by one of the other companies by (a) transferring Ancestry and some 23andMe results to the FTDNA database for a small fee, or (b) uploading results from any company to the free Gedmatch site, to increase the number of matches to investigate. If you are serious about using DNA results for genealogy, this is a no brainer.

McNaughton family history and DNA testing

I’m not aware of any DNA testing of anyone in this family tree. I have had an autosomal DNA test performed (by FTDNA), but I am not personally part of this family. It is possible some testing will be done soon, and I would be interested in hearing from anyone connected to this tree who has done a DNA test.

DNA diagram by US National Library of Medicine.

Some family photos

A distant relative has drawn my attention to an old (1913) book on Moir family history that is able to be viewed online. It is Moir Genealogy and Collateral Lines by Alexander L Moir, and the relevant sections for the McNaughton family are pages 159 to 175.

These pages list descendants of James Moir, who was born in the later years of the 17th century, and includes the following descendants in a direct line:

George Moir (1702 or 1713 to 1784 – I still have to resolve his birth date)
George Moir (1746 to 1825)
George Moir (1790 to 1871)
Elspet Moir (1833 to 1891)

Some of the details are different to what I have found elsewhere, so I am still checking on that.

One of the most interesting parts of this section of the book are the photos after page 168. I am still checking some of the details, but a photo of George Moir (1790 – 1871) and his wife Margaret Calder (1792 – 1866), which you can see on George Moir’s page. I’ll be adding some of the other photos soon.

I’ve also added an old photo of the Methlick Parish church (1780-1867), which would have been the church many of the Moirs were familiar with.