James Abercrombie was born on 29th June, 1810 in the parish of Kilsyth in the county of Stirling. His parents were William Abercrombie, Shoemaker, born on 1st October, 1790, and Janet Brash, born on 29th August, 1789, both in the parish of Kilsyth.
James was the eldest child of seven born to William and Janet Abercrombie, quite a small family for the times. This might suggest that William died while still quite young. The youngest child of the family was Alexander who had been born in 1824 and there is one further appearance of William in the records in Pigot's Directory 1825-26 where he appears (with his father James) as a Boot and Shoemaker. James's mother Janet appears in the 1841 Census as a widow. It is possible that William died shortly after Alexander's birth.
The parish of Kilsyth is described by Rev Mr. Robert Rennie in the Statistical Account of Scotland (1791-1799) as follows:
Situation: The whole parish is situated in the county of Stirling. But it is southernmost extremity of it. The form of it is irregular oblong square, running in length along the great high way, leading from Edinburgh to Glasgow, 7 miles. The breadth is nearly one half of its length. Of course, it contains nearly 24 miles square, or about 15000 acres. The rivers Carron on the north, and Kelvin on the south, Inchwood burn on the west, and Bush burn on the east, from the natural boundaries of the parish; and it lies contiguous to Denny on the east, and Campsie on the west, to Fintry and St. Ninians on the north, and Kirkintilloch and Cumbernauld on the south.
The population of the parish in 1801 was 1,762; in 1811, 3,206; in 1821, 4,260; in 1831, 4,297; in 1841, 4,683; in 1851, 5,346; in 1861, 5,828; and in 1871, 6,313.
Although we cannot pinpoint precisely the birthplace of James within the parish, we might surmise that, because James's father William plied his trade as a Shoemaker, it would have been in the town of Kilsyth Burgh, the largest settlement within the parish.
The historic town of Kilsyth was situated in the valley of the River Kelvin then in the county of Stirling. To the north lay the Kilsyth Hills which rose steeply beyond the Garrell Burn, while to the south was the the River Kelvin itself. First appearing in historical records in the 13th century, as the lands of 'Kelvesyth' in the parish of 'Monyabroch', the town was later to grow up between the site of the medieval parish church and Kilsyth Castle, a tower house built by the Livingston family in about 1500. Kilsyth's position, astride the old road between Glasgow and Edinburgh, ensured a colourful history, particularly during the civil wars of the mid-seventeenth century. Royalist forces fighting for Charles I defeated a Covenenters' army just outside the burgh in 1645 and the 'Usurpers armie' of Oliver Cromwell destroyed Kilsyth Castle as they passed through in 1650. The ruins stand today as one of the many tangible reminders of the town's history.
The construction of the Forth and Clyde Canal and its improvement to transport encouraged quarrying and coal mining and these became increasingly important in the town's economy as handloom weaving declined in the course of the 19th century. Although the canal was not completed until 1790, the section to the south of Kilsyth was constructed in 1770. The book 'Historic Kilsyth' charts the development of the town from the scatter of ferm touns in the area in the late 1500s, through the elevation of Kilsyth to a burgh of barony in 1620 and the subsequent expansion of the 'new town', serving as a market and a centre of the textile industry.
Janet Gillies was born on 3rd March, 1813 in the parish of Kilsyth. She was the daughter of John Gillies, who worked as a Thatcher, and Agnes Bauld, both born in around the 1780s.
The graphic shows Janet's entry in the Parish Register of Births. Janet was the fourth child of eight born to John and Agnes, all of them having been born within the parish of Kilsyth. John Gillies is shown to be of 'Auchincloch' which appears to have been a small farm or steading beside the canal towards the south eastern corner of the parish and is still shown on a modern ordnance survey map.
James Abercrombie and Janet Gillies were married in June, 1833 in the parish of New Monkland, county of Lanark. There is no immediately obvious explanation for why they would be married in the parish of New Monkland, which took in the town of Airdrie and which was a mere 10 miles from Kilsyth Burgh. The usual practice was, as it is today, for a marriage to take place in the parish of the bride. Most likely, they were both working in New Monkland. In any case, they were soon back in the parish of Kilsyth because it was there on 4th November, 1833, that Janet gave birth to their first son William, named, as was the custom of the time, after his paternal grandfather.
Agnes Abercrombie, named after her maternal grandmother, was born in Kilsyth on 16th August, 1835. Agnes must have died soon after, because on 2nd August, 1836, another daughter was born, also named Agnes. Naming a child after an older sibling who had died was a common practice in those times and was a way of honouring the memory of a child who had passed away.
On 27th August, 1838, Janet Abercrombie, named after her paternal grandmother, was born in Kilsyth Parish.
Kilsyth was the focus of a famed religious revival in 1839. When Rev. William Burns was appointed in 1821 the parish was in spiritual decline. In the words of the chief heritor "the Apostle Paul himself could not bring the people of Kilsyth out in full meeting three Sabbaths running." The seeds of revival were carefully sown over a period of 20 years with a programme of house visits, prayer groups, adult Bible classes and Sunday school. Strong links were also forged with the Glasgow evangelicals led by some of the finest preachers of the day. During the summer of 1839, the minister's son William Chalmers Burns, then assistant minister at Dundee to the great evangelist Robert Murray McCheyne, preached on a number of occasions with startling results; at one open air service held near the church an estimated 10,000 people attended. It was common for several hundred people to meet in the market square on Market Street before going to work - many of them catching the 7:30 canal boat for Glasgow at Auchinstarry. William Chalmers Burns was to conduct revival meetings throughout Scotland and in Canada before devoting himself to pioneering missionary work in China.
At the time of the 1841 Census (7th June), the Abercrombie family was residing at Bridgend in the parish of Kilsyth and was comprised of James, aged 30, employed as a Labourer, and Janet who was recorded as being aged 25. It is worth noting that in the 1841 Census, the ages of adults over the age of 15 were to be rounded down to the nearest multiple of 5 before being entered in the census return. In fact we know that James was indeed 30, while Janet was actually 28. Completing the family were William, aged 7, Agnes, aged 5 and young Janet, aged 3.
It is not absolutely clear where Bridgend was located. However, towards the northern end of Main Street, the road passed over the Garrell Burn and it is likely that the Abercrombie family would have resided around here at the time of the 1841 Census.
At the same time, James's mother Janet was residing with her family in Market Street in Kilsyth Burgh. She was aged 50 and working as a Tambourer, who embroidered cloth stretched over a circular frame. Residing with her were James's siblings, Elizabeth (22), also a Tambourer, William (18), and Alexander (16), both Labourers. Although the 1841 Census did not record marital status, we have assumed that Janet had been widowed. Market Street is believed to be close the original nucleus of the settlement and has the town's market square located off its northern side. Although subject to considerable redevelopment over the years, the street exists to this very day.
'Historic Kilsyth' records that the predominant trade during the nineteenth century in Kilsyth was hand-loom weaving for Glasgow manufacturers. Nevertheless, even at this time hand-loom weavers were finding it increasingly difficult to compete with larger enterprises investing in power looms.
'Wages and living standards declined and weavers found themselves at the mercy of their agents, who reduced the local weaving rates by 25 per cent. The situation reached a crisis in 1826, when 1400 of Kilsyth's 1500 weavers were unemployed (the total population being about 4260). Free meals were distributed to the poorest families and others were encouraged to seek alternative employment in the quarries or on the roads. There was little improvement in the following years: Kilsyth's specialised embroiderers in fine muslin, called tambourers, were said to be in a most depressed state in 1841.'
It is likely that James's mother and sister would have been caught up in this economic gloom.
At the same time, Janet's parents John and Agnes Gillies were residing close by in Main Street, Kilsyth Burgh. John was recorded as earning his living as a Thatcher and was aged 65, the same age as Agnes. The other resident was their youngest son John Gillies, aged 16 and working as a Labourer. Main Street, Kilsyth also exists to this day, and is shown in the turn-of-the-century photograph below.
Very shortly after the 1841 Census was taken, on 22nd July, 1841, James and Janet had another son, John, who was named after his maternal grandfather. Next, young James Abercrombie, named after his father, was born on 7th July, 1843 and Mary Abercrombie was born at Foot of Town, Kilsyth on 25th November, 1845.
Margaret Abercrombie was born on 15th April, 1848, and when Alexander was born on 29th April, 1850, the family had relocated to Twechar which was just a couple of miles south west of Kilsyth Burgh across the Forth and Clyde Canal, although in the parish of Kirkintilloch, county of Dunbarton. This move to Twechar is the first clue to the nature of the work undertaken by Labourer James Abercrombie. There is a long history of mining and quarrying activity in the Twechar locality and it is likely that James worked in one or both of these industries.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Britain generally saw greater concerns for public health resulting improved housing and sanitation, and in Kilsyth Burgh in 1845 it was noted that 'the streets have been much improved of late by levelling, removal of out-stairs and nuisances.' Despite these developments, in the winter of 1848/9 a cholera epidemic struck Kilsyth and 34 deaths were recorded over a 3 month period. Victims of all ages succumbed and probably everyone would have known of a family who had been bereaved. Fortunately, no Abercrombies suffered directly.
At the time of the 1851 Census (31st March), the family was still residing in Twechar. James was 40 and still employed as a 'Labourer in mine', confirming that he worked in the mining industry, while Janet was 38. Eldest son William, aged 17, was also a Labourer, while 14-year-old Agnes was a Weaver. Janet (12), John (9), James (7) and Mary (5) were Scholars, while Margaret (3) and Alexander (1) were of pre-school age.
The map, surveyed some 10 years after James and his family resided there, shows many old pits, some coal and some ironstone, in the vicinity of Twechar. There are also some active pits.
A contemporary description of Twechar read as follows:-
A cluster of farm houses on the north-west side of the canal and some small dwellings on the south side belonging to several proprietors. The drawbridge also bears the same name.
Robert Abercrombie, James and Janet's tenth child, at Kingston in Kilsyth on 5th February, 1852. We are tempted to assume that Kingston referred to Kingston Rows, a group of miners' rows which was located at the north side of the main Glasgow/Stirling Road. However, we have found no evidence that Kingston Rows were in existence in 1852. There are some of references in the literature to Kingston Rows having been built in around the early 1860s
The following map (surveyed in 1859 and published in 1862) shows the Kingston Rows in their distinctive 'one up and three across' layout. It is possible that the Rows were built following Robert Abercrombie's birth and took their name from whatever they replaced
Improvements in transport, especially the Forth and Clyde canal, brought about an increase in coal-mining. Baird and Company opened a number of coal and ironstone mines in the Kilsyth area and Kingston Rows were built to the north of the town, near the collieries.
In June 1853, James and Janet Abercrombie suffered a double tragedy when young Mary, aged 7, and then young Margaret, aged 5, both died of fever on the 6th and 21st of the month.
In December 1853, eldest son William married Margaret Russell Dickson in the Parish of Kilsyth. Margaret had been born in Cumbernauld, just a couple of miles south east of Kilsyth, in the county of Dunbarton.
On 14th June, 1854, Janet gave birth to her eleventh and last child, a girl, whom they named Margaret in memory of her sister who so recently had passed away.
On 19th December, 1858, 20-year-old Janet Abercrombie, then employed as a Cotton Weaver, gave birth to a son, James, at Parkfoot, Kilsyth, presumably still the family home. Janet registered the birth herself and no father was recorded.
On 15th July, 1859, 23-year-old Cotton Weaver Agnes Abercrombie residing at Parkfoot married Kilsyth-born James White of Kingston, also a Cotton Weaver, at Kilsyth. Witnesses on the occasion were Agnes's younger brother John Abercrombie and Daniel Stewart.
On 8th June, 1860, John Abercrombie, aged 18, now a Coal Miner, married the 19-year-old Irish-born Susan Wilson in Kilsyth. Susan's parents had been born and married in Co. Down in Ireland and had come across to Kilsyth shortly after her birth with 5 children in around 1843.
At the 1861 Census (8th April), the family was recorded as residing at Parkfoot, Parish of Kilsyth. This location was just to the west of Kingston Rows. The 50-year-old James was now recorded as an Iron Miner while Janet was a 47-year-old Housekeeper. Young Janet, now 22, was still a Cotton Weaver and young James, 17, was a Labourer. Alexander (11) and Robert (9) were Scholars, while Margaret was 6 years old. Also resident was 2-year-old James Abercrombie, grandson of James and Janet.
On 12th September, 1862, William Abercrombie, eldest son of James and Janet, was tragically killed in a mining accident while working as a mine sinker at Gartshore No. 3 Pit, just south of Kilsyth, owned by William Baird and Company. The Mine Inspector's Report stated that William had'fallen off the kettle while ascending the shaft.' He had been only 29 years old and had been married with five young children. The previous year, at the 1861 Census, he was residing with his family at Low Craigends in Kilsyth Burgh.
On 2nd March, 1866, 27-year-old Janet Abercrombie married Kilsyth-born George Morrison, a Cotton Weaver, in Kilsyth.
On 31st December 1867, James Abercrombie, now a 24-year-old Coal Miner, married Kilsyth-born Helen Chalmers Auchinvole at Kilsyth.
At the time of the 1871 Census (3rd April), the Abercrombie family was residing at Main Street in the town of Kilsyth. James, recorded as age 61, was a Labourer Coal Work and Janet was 59. 20-year-old Alex was a Coal Miner while 19-year-old Robert was an Engine Stoker at a Coal Pit. 17-year-old Margaret was a Housekeeper.
In 1873, on 6th September, James Abercrombie died aged 63 at Kingston - this time, probably Kingston Rows - in Kilsyth. The cause of death was Phthisis Pulmonalis (Tuberculosis) from which he had been suffering for 10 months. His occupation at the time was recorded as Labourer. His son Alexander registered the death. James had lived his entire life in and around Kilsyth. He and Janet had had 11 children, 4 of whom had pre-deceased him. The evidence is that he had worked as a Labourer in both the coal mining and iron mining industries. He and Janet had at least 67 grandchildren.
Kingston Rows are occasionally referred to as 'Brick Rows'. In 1875 a Glasgow Herald correspondent writing about the quality of housing penned the following:-
At the entrance to Kilsyth, "The Brick Rows," belonging to Messrs Baird, first invite our attention. There are three parallel rows, with a fourth built along one of the ends. I did not count them, but there must be some 200 altogether in single and double apartments - the former with bed-closet, rented at 5s 1d a month, and the latter at 7s 1d a month. They were built about a dozen years since, at which time they were probably reckoned very superior houses of their class. Even now, although the people complain of damp, they are not bad miners' dwellings, and the sanitary arrangements are excellent. There is ample space between the rows, the ground being laid under grass, and large ashpits and closets are set down at regular intervals, while substantial drains carry off the surface water. The household supply of water is ample. A man is daily employed keeping everything clean and orderly; and an inspector,appointed by the firm, looks after the behaviour, as well as the comfort of the tenants. On the whole, the government of the Brick Rows is firm and intelligent.
This narrative implies that the Kingston Rows were built in around 1862.
On 20th March, 1874, 23-year-old Alexander Abercrombie married Kilsyth-born Jean Patrick at Kilsyth.
On 24th April, 1874, 22-year-old Robert Abercrombie, now employed as an Iron Miner, married 20-year-old Banton-born Machinist Jean Gracie Linn at Parkfoot, Parish of Kilsyth. James Abercrombie and Maggie Abercrombie were witnesses. It is likely that the marriage would have taken place at the Abercrombie family home.
On 5th April, 1875, 34-year old John Abercrombie, who had married Susan Wilson, died of Acute Laryngitis at Honeybank in Carluke, Lanarkshire. His brother James registered the death. Susan Abercrombie (nee Wilson) subsequently remarried Hugh McConville, who was also widowed and had a large family. Hugh McConville arrived in the US in 1887 and Susan McConville arrived in New York in 1888 with some of her children. With her were David (Hugh's son), Edward, and Robert McConville as well as Alexander, Mary and Thomas Abercrombie. They were aboard the S. S. State of Pennsylvania. It arrived in December 1888.
On 27th July, 1877, 23-year-old Margaret Abercrombie, now a Cotton Weaver, married 26-year-old Grate Polisher John Connacher in the parish of Kilsyth.
At the time of the 1881 Census (4th April), 69-year-old widow, Janet Abercrombie was residing alone at Low Craigends in Kilsyth. Her occupation was recorded as Winder.
Just after this period, the Burgh of Kilsyth was described in the Gazetteer for Scotland in the following terms:
Kilsyth has a post office under Glasgow, with money order, savings' bank, insurance, and telegraph departments, branches of the National and Royal Banks, a National Security savings' bank (1829), 7 insurance agencies, 3 hotels, a town hall, assembly rooms, a cemetery, gasworks, a good water supply, a new drainage system, effected at a cost of £2250, fairs on the second Friday in April and the third Friday in November, and sheriff small-debt courts on the fourth Thursday of March, June, September, and December. The parish church, at the W end of the town, is an elegant structure of 1816, containing 860 sittings. Other places of worship are a recent and handsome Free church, a U.P. church (1768; 559 sittings), Independent and Wesleyan chapels, and St Patrick's Roman Catholic church (1866; 450 sittings). The Burgh Academy, at Craigend, is an Italian edifice of 1875-76, built at a cost of £4800.
On 17th September, 1890, Janet Abercrombie, aged 78, died at the Cross in the Parish of Kirkintilloch. This would have been in the Town of Kirkintilloch, just 5 miles south-west of Kilsyth in the county of Dunbarton. The cause of death was stated to be General Debility and Old Age. Her son Robert, of Eastside in the town of Kirkintilloch, registered the death.
On 30th May, 1905, 61-year-old James Abercrombie, oldest surviving son of James and Janet, died at 86 Barrhill Rows, Twechar, Parish of Kirkintilloch. The cause of death was recorded as Chronic Bronchitis and Exhaustion. His son, George, registered the death.
On 26th May, 1917, Alexander Abercrombie, at that time the elder of two surviving sons of James and Janet, died aged 67, of Atheroma and Cardiac Disease at the Old Man's Home, 81 Rottenrow in Glasgow. His son John, of Inchwood Cottage, Milton of Campsie, registered the death.
On 23rd May, 1919, Agnes Whyte died from a Cerebral Haemorrhage, aged 82, at Waterside, Parish of Kirkintilloch. Her son Robert, registered the death. A few weeks later on 8th July, 1919, Janet Morrison died, aged 80, at 5 High Craigends in Kilsyth Burgh. The cause of death was a Cerebral Haemorrhage and Senile Decay. Her son John registered the death.
On 17th March 1932, Robert Gillies Abercrombie, a retired Draper, died aged 80 at 62 Warwick Street, Glasgow. He was the last surviving son of James and Janet Abercrombie. The cause of death was Bronchitis and Heart Failure. His son George, registered the death.
On 15th May, 1932, Margaret Connacher, youngest and last surviving child of James Abercrombie and Janet Gillies, died, aged 77, at Craiglinn, parish of Kirkintilloch. She had suffered a Fracture of the Left Tibia, Shock and Cardiac Failure. Her son-in-law Robert Cleland, registered the death.
Kilsyth today is situated in the District of Kilsyth and Cumbernauld in North Lanarkshire and, as might be expected, has changed considerably from the time James and Janet Abercrombie lived there. The weaving, quarrying and mining industries have long gone. Significant changes to the street layout have occurred during the second half of the twentieth century. The creation of residential areas to the outskirts has led to the building of new roads through the town.
'Historic Kilsyth' states:
Kilsyth's convenient situation on the Glasgow-Edinburgh route, close to a good water supply, has ensured continuous human activity in the area for many centuries. From its seventeenth origins as a small market centre, Kilsyth expanded in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as weaving, coal-mining and quarrying changed the economic function of the town. Over the past century, however, the historic core has become obscured by unsympathetic development.
Nevertheless, the courses of many of the original streets remain recognisable - even on the modern tourist map shown above which indicates the location of many of the streets of significance to the Abercrombies. At the top of the map Kingston Road is marked. Just above that is a modern development built on the original location of Kingston Rows. Immediately to the west of that is Parkfoot Street. Also indicated are Market Street and the now pedestrianised Main Street at the historic core of the town.
There follow some recent photographs of some of these locations in modern-day Kilsyth.
Historic Kilsyth: Archaeology and Development (Scottish Burgh Survey) E. Patricia Dennison