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Donald R. MacGregor, MP of Leith

When researching the history of our much-loved flat (built 1880-1881) in Woodburn Terrace in Morningside, it was easy to confirm some facts. The land had been sold by its previous owners in 1878. They were a brother and sister from England called Charles William Anderson and Mary Anderson… and Mary was married to someone called Donald Robert MacGregor (or Macgregor, or McGregor), a merchant in Leith. Our deeds referred to the grand villa and its grounds adjacent to Woodburn Terrace (an area the same size to our entire street of 100 flats), and it was also listed as their property. That is, in 1878 and 1881 it was referred to as being owned by the Andersons:

The lines about Woodburn House that sparked further interest in non-owner Mr. MacGregor (1881): “… and on the East by the Property of Woodburn belonging to the said Charles William Anderson and Mrs Mary Anderson or Macgregor… “

So, (I wondered), why was the land for the building of Woodburn Terrace off Canaan Lane (and Woodburn House on Canaan Lane) not in the name of Mr MacGregor? Why was it his wife who was in partnership with Mr. Anderson? It was, after all, a man’s world. But it took a long time to realise I actually had to focus on local man Donald Robert MacGregor, the non-owner of the land. I’d acquired yet another unexpected research topic. So, nearly a year later (and after lots of confusion on my part, some of it conveyed below) I know the basic facts and gaps. His life story could inspire one hell of a novel or film, if you ask me.

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The plasterer’s flat

When we moved into a traditional tenement flat in Morningside (Edinburgh) in the mid 1990s, we felt very lucky. It was just what we wanted: spacious, in a great area of town (quiet, leafy, central and with varied local facilities). As a bonus it had relatively dramatic period features that gave our home extra character. Especially the ceilings.

But after nearly quarter of a century, the time came to move on. To flit. So, to partner a blog which sings the praises of one whole street of Morningside tenements, now here’s a specific eulogy to the history of our flat. Our much loved flat: the home our children grew up in. But we are not the focus… this is part of a “house history” of the place itself (Flat 1, 9 Woodburn Terrace), and of course it was a home for other people too. Here I’ll attempt to tell the story of the person who was responsible for creating its unusual charm, 140 years ago, its first owner, David Wight (~1838-1910), a plasterer who may or may not have been the intended first resident.

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A Morningside tenement

Many people with even quite recent Scottish roots are unfamiliar with the variety of Victorian tenements in Scotland. And in family history research people read and see photos and reports that equate all tenements with slums. Old maps can show street after street of densely packed housing, clustered around heavy industry in the inner city. This high density housing for working people, like the people who lived there and their way of life, were not cared for or valued by wider society, so they went into decline and were, in large areas, swept away.

Glasgow slum replacement, as unsympathetic as it gets. Gorbals photo by Oscar Marzaroli – see https://www.gcu.ac.uk/foundation/themarzarolicollection/

In our post-industrial age, and once refurbished, most of the so-called surviving “slums” have become desirable properties. Modernised, they can command a premium price over most 20th C. flats in the same area, if they survived in a sympathetic context. “Bought by a wide range of social types, [they] are favoured for their large rooms, high ceilings and original period features”, says Wikipedia. Spot on. But also, the largest or fanciest tended not to become dilapidated or be demolished in the first place.

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19th Century Morningside

A “row of thatched cottages, a line of trees and a blacksmith’s forge” is a much quoted description of Old Morningside (though the original attribution is unknown to me).

Morningside was a little rural village on the road south from Edinburgh and at the limits of the burgh’s lands. Around it, before 1800, were farms, and a couple of castles or grand seats, and beyond it to the south lay (and still lie, beyond the suburbs) wilder rural lands and hills that attract snow, shopping warehouses and outdoorsy activities. In the nineteenth century came two waves of transformation. First came the large villas, estates and institutions, parcelling up the land. Then down the roads and later into the fields came the smaller houses, terraces, and tenements, new roads and trams, with Edinburgh’s peripheral South Circular Railway appearing in 1884. By 1900, the area’s mixter-maxter of housing styles and road patterns were in place.

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Ayrshire coal and Hay

My mother-in-law Nessie (Agnes Inglis Erskine, later Kinnis, 1929-2017) came from a small family. Her upbringing was in rural Ayrshire (west central Scotland). Nessie was an only child. Having only a handful of relatives (in Switzerland and Lincolnshire), was part of her identity, at least as expressed to me in the context of family history.

People are related through their historical social networks, just as much as through their trees of blood relatives. The most important of these relationships is, of course, marriage. But other strong connections poke through the genealogical facts below. What follows is not just four generations of Hay men; not just a line of coal miners. I’ve named many non-relatives, fellow coal miners, neighbours, and friends.

My personal example of the “small world” is that, before she was my mother-in-law, Nessie was my primary school teacher for two years in the early 1970s, 45 years ago. (This is all part of my identity, of course.) I was 10 or 11… oh jings, and she was then a decade younger than I am now! So we go back a long way, me and her. And it’s no surprise maybe that my wife was in the same primary school (and all our siblings).

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The Newtons of Monifieth

The family of my great uncle Dr David McKenzie Newton (1881-1916) seem to deserve their own blog post, separate from his own story told in “Broughty Doctor Dies at Smyrna“. His elderly father was a well-known Dundee shipmaster, ship-owner and/or master mariner, associated with the clipper Pendragon. His elder brother was a mechanical engineer. A younger brother would marry into the Edinburgh Pillans family. It’s a nice set of ingredients that I’ll try to bake into a Dundee cake.

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A missionary pamphlet

A 27 page pamphlet of nearly 10,000 words was written by my great grandfather William Henderson Stevenson and “published” in 1887. He wrote: “having had the privilege of labouring among this interesting people [The Santals in India] for over nine years, we have been asked to tell something of their habits and customs…”

Stevenson’s booklet is titled (or was Number 21 in a series titled) Woman’s Work in Heathen Lands, and I have scanned my copy, then used (free) optical character recognition to create a text-searchable version, some extracts from which appear here. The whole text will appear online soon.

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Jack Black (Stevenson)

There are a couple of well-kent Jack Blacks out there: the American actor; the Scottish motivational millionaire. And then, there’s my father’s uncle. A few months ago I knew very little about Jack and his brother Willie, except that they were both medical doctors. I didn’t know for sure that Black was Jack’s middle name, or even that his birth name was John. Mainly I knew that the brothers and their sister my grandmother had been born in India, that their missionary father had died when they were very young, and that they returned to Scotland. I’d found them a dozen and more years ago in the 1901 census aged around 20 in Glasgow, then I’d got stuck. As described here, just a few months ago I chanced across the brothers’ university records, posted by the University of Glasgow, and everything opened up.

This was intended to be a short post about my Jack Black (Dr John Black Stevenson). But a rummage through a bourach of a shoe-box turned up things I didn’t know I had. One was the photograph labelled “Uncle Jack and Aunt Marianne Stevenson”, and another was a photo of a girl labelled in my father’s handwriting as “Marjory Russell (nee Stevenson)”. I’d no idea who Marjory or Marianne were, so as usually seems to happen, a short post of a few facts has turned into a substantial treasure hunt.

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