Family Research – English, Scottish and Irish Genealogy


Treasures of the National Archives

The National Archives of Scotland holds the older surviving records of the Scottish courts, including most sheriff courts and Scotland’s supreme civil and criminal courts, the Court of Session and the High Court. We also hold records from specialist courts such as the Land Court, which largely dealt with appeals from crofters and small agricultural tenants seeking a fair rent. Court proceedings can often give an insight into what was happening in a local area; for example, actions for debt may record local traders and the value of goods.

Some of the most vivid insights into the past come from statements provided by witnesses to the criminal courts. In 1840, a Glasgow chimney sweep named Francis Hughes was charged with the culpable homicide of his young assistant, John O’Neill. O’Neil and Hughes had been employed to clean some 42 chimneys in a newly-built tenement. It was common to have the vents cleared of lime and rubbish left by the masons, but this was extremely hard work. O’Neill was on his 38th chimney when he became stuck in the vent and was asphyxiated. One witness, Roger Hayes, described how another climbing boy had been sent to try to rescue O’Neill, and had heard him coughing, but that O’Neill had only been released from the chimney after he was dead (AD14/40/242).

Transcription of part of Roger Hayes testimony

Roger Hayes
when Hughs came in alone and in great haste saying “the damned leat or Creole (meaning O’Neill) had got into a Vent, and he would neither come up or down” and he wanted the assistance of Hugh McManus another of Blacks’ Apprentices to assist in getting him out. That McManus being in the House he and Hughes went off together and Mr Black and Declarant [Roger Hayes, the person making the statement] followed. That Black & Declarant arrived at the House or Lodgings where the Vent was said to be in which O’Neil was; but as Hughes and McManus had not yet arrived the Declarant and Black were at a loss to know what vent O’Neil was in, and they hallooed in their own usual way at different of the vents, but could get no answer. That Hughes at length came with McManus and having pointed out the vent, as that in which O’Neil was when he left it – and learning from Hughes that he had sent the Boy down it from the Top Thomson Black got up on the top of the House, and repeatedly called out, but getting no answer – he exclaimed “Good God my Boy is dead!” That the whole of them had got up to the top of the House by this time, and hearing what Mr Black said as to the Boys being dead Hughes fell a crying. That McManus went into the vent and attempted to get down but came up saying it was too strait for him – and that he thought he had heard O’Neil coughing. That they then went to the bottom of the vent in the inside of the Building and finding that the bottom – the fire place – was choked up with stones and lime that had fallen from the workmen whilst building – and that the vent was like a Boiler one, they broke up a piece of the wall till they got an entrance. That Thomson Black with a long stick cleared away the Stones and rubbish and he made a remark that he felt the Boys feet and he knew from the way they were hanging that he must be dead…

Civil actions, which are those brought by a private individual or group, are heard in the so-called ‘civil courts’ such as the Court of Session. They often relate to property issues: claims over money or land. However, some more unusual cases can also be found, such as the action brought by Peter Williamson in 1762. (CS29/10/3:1762) He accused the Burgh of Aberdeen of culpability in allowing him to be kidnapped by agents of an Aberdeen baillie William Fordyce, who was one of the city’s magistrates. Along with other captured boys, he had been sent to America and sold as a slave. He succeeded in gaining his freedom there, only to become involved in fighting against the Indian and French forces then in the colonies. He returned to Scotland twenty years after his capture, and published an account of his life called French and Indian cruelty; exemplified in the life and various vicissitudes of fortune, of Peter Williamson. The story of Peter Williamson was one of the inspirations behind Robert Louis Stevenson’s story Kidnapped.

The case of Peter Williamson preoccupied Aberdeen society for several years. Although he initially lost a libel case brought against him by the Aberdeen magistrates, Peter Williamson pursued his case and succeeded in winning £100 damages. In the printed ‘Memorial’, which sets out his case, he is referred to as ‘poor Peter Williamson’; this indicates that he had been accepted onto the Poors’ Roll, and was in effect receiving an early form of legal aid. Scotland has long had a tradition of providing access to the justice system for all; as early as 1424, King James I had ordered that an advocate (lawyer) be assigned to poor people bringing cases before the courts, so that they might be able to argue their cause on equal terms.

Transcription of Peter Williamson’s ‘Memorial’

Memorial for Poor Peter Williamson late of the Province of Pennsylvania in North America, Planter, now Residenter in Edinburgh; Pursuer,
Alexander Cushnie late Dean-of-Guild and Procurator Fiscal of the Borough-Court of Aberdeen, and others: Defenders.
With an abstract of the Proof.

The pursuer was born in the parish of Hirnley in Aberdeenshire, in the month of February 1730, and continued with his father, who was a reputable tenant in that country, till about the year 1740, when he was sent to school at Aberdeen, where he lived under the care and inspection of an Aunt. At that time it was common practice among the merchants in Aberdeen to pick up young boys from the street and in the country, whom they confined in barns and other convenient places, till such time as they had got together a sufficient number of them, when they used to send them to America, and there sold them as slaves. It was the misfortune of the Pursuer to fall into the hands of one employed by Baillie William Fordyce and Company merchants in Aberdeen, to pick up boys…

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