Alexander McMillan 1834 – early 1900s

The McMillan’s were seafarers from way back.  Alexander’s grandfather, John McKinnon, was a boatman at Gourock , and his father a seaman of Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. The waters of the River Clyde were their home and no doubt, at times, their most ruthless opponent. Long before tar seal and combustion engines ruled the land, the rivers and seas were our roads. Cruel weather, currents, and rocks, were all just hazards of the job for the men who rode those wild highways. The skills and knowledge needed to navigate safe passages were passed down from father to son, and master to apprentice.

Alex and his siblings were born in Rothesay, but details of their childhood prove elusive. It was in Rothesay that he married Jane Currie in 186. He was twenty six years old and listed his occupation as “steam boat captain”; she was twenty five, and a “straw bonnet maker”. As trips “doon the watter” became more and more fashionable with Glaswegians, towns like Rothesay became the tourism hot spots of the day. Straw bonnets were probably in demand; as souvenirs, if not as protection from the fierce Scottish sun.

By the mid nineteenth century, canals and railways were being carved across the British countryside – the arteries which fed the industrial revolution’s racing heart – but coastal shipping still held its own. In his youth, Alex probably served his time on one of the coastal steamers or small puffers, which plied their trade on inshore waters. Once married, he settled with Jane in Greenock, where he was first a tug boat master, and then a Clyde River Pilot.

Both roles would have required intimate knowledge of the ever changing river. Tall ships under sail still ferried people and cargo to the farthest reaches of the globe, but they were unable to find their own way up the constantly silting Clyde channel. Tug boats towed them safely into harbour. In the eighteenth century that meant Greenock, but within Alex’s working life the Clyde was successfully dredged so that the largest ships could travel all the way to Glasgow.

Within a few years Alex had swapped his career on steady old tug boats for a much more exciting life as a river pilot. Pilot cutters raced their skipper out to the waiting vessel so that he could embark and give directions. In the days of sail, river pilots were self-employed, and business was competitive: the first pilot on board had the right to the job.

Old sailing ship in harbour waterline

Steam power brought fresh challenges, because the new cargo ships were more manoeuvrable and so less at the mercy of wind and tide, and the owners argued that this should reduce the pilots’ fees. It was a volatile time for the profession, but an exciting one, when great sailing ships and transatlantic steamers shared the estuary with coasters and fishing vessels of all sorts. Alex seems to have weathered all storms, remaining a pilot until he retired in his sixties.

The river transported us all from pre-industrial times to the modern world, and it transported the family from islanders to city dwellers in the beat of a generation. Alex and Jane brought up six boys and a single girl, moving up river to Govan as the family grew. Three of the boys became engine fitters (presumably in the ship yards), one an electrician, and the youngest a ships’ draughtsman; wee Jeanie married an assistant grocer who went on to be a successful merchant in his own right. Jane died at her daughter’s home in 1904, but Alex’s last years are as elusive as his early ones. I think he lived with one of his sons, probably near the sea and a busy port, keeping ‘a weather eye open’.

Fiona – Mari – Dan – Jeanie – Alexander


Jean (Jane) Anderson 1797-1885

Jean Anderson was killed by a train in 1885. Railway travel in those days was riskier than today, but Jean wasn’t a passenger. She was walking along the track when the footboard of the train struck her head. A small notice in the Scotsman about the accident said she “appears to have been of somewhat nomadic habits”. The coroner’s report said she was of no fixed residence and there was no undertaker to bury her.  What was my great granny’s grandmother doing, wandering on the railway line aged eighty seven? Where were her family? What kind of life leads to this end?

In 1797 John Anderson and his wife Christian Colqhoun christened their first child Jean. John was a hand loom weaver in Monklands Parish.  The eighteenth century saw a great population shift from the land into towns. Monklands had long been a food bowl for the growing city of Glasgow, but times were changing rapidly. New farming methods required less labour, while developing industries and markets demanded more and more workers in factories. Fine linen was one of several products manufactured in the district, first by craftsmen in their homes, but soon in factories filled with the latest machines.  Machinery was more efficient, so wages for the craftsmen dropped. If John was unable to feed his five children working from home, the whole family may have gone to work in a factory.  Children were employed because they were small, quick and cheap, despite the long hours, heat, noise, and risk to life and limb amongst the looms. Whether in poverty at home or employed at a mill, Jean didn’t attend school, or learn to read and write.

Jean married Alexander Brown when she was twenty four.  Alexander was a sawyer, and as the district was not known for export of timber, this is likely to have been work that supported construction for all the rapidly growing industries. Over the next eighteen years the couple baptised seven children, but it seems that only three survived early childhood. There is no way to know the causes, but it is easy to imagine the toll that such loss would take. Life would have been hard enough as it was. By the time of the first census in 1841 Alexander was working as an agricultural labourer, as was fifteen year old son John. Sawing may have been too physical a job to continue with as Alex aged, or opportunities may have been fewer.  By 1851 his occupation was thatching, so he remained within the small part of the community that still worked on the land.  Second son Thomas, however, was a twenty one year old house carpenter, and daughter Christina was a pirn filler at one of the mills. There is no sign that Jane worked after she was married, but either way, the family income would have been meagre and their existence simple.

By 1861 all the children had left home, and the couple were in their sixties. Jean now sometimes used the more English name of Jane. Alexander made a living as a gardener and labourer until he died in 1870 aged around seventy. Jean marked his death registration with a cross, still unable to sign her own name. She was listed in the 1881 census as a pauper, so as a widow she must have survived on poor relief from the parish. Life had always been a battle, but in her eighties, alone and penniless, it’s not hard to imagine how she ended up without a place to call home.  It is easy to see how the railway line might have seemed the best route to walk between villages, with gentle gradients and little mud.

I don’t know where Jean’s eldest son John was, whether he remained on the land or worked below it as a collier. I don’t know whether daughter Christina married or went into domestic service in a large town. I do know that young Thomas took advantage of the trade education that he had, and moved to Glasgow to become a ships joiner and pattern maker. He had six children by the time his father died, and another two soon after. By 1881 only four remained at home, but working in the ship yards to support a family of ten folk could have been cause enough not to bring his ageing mother into his home. Probably his siblings had similar challenges as they carved out lives against the raging flood that was the industrial revolution. Successive waves of new technology, economics and culture swept all before them in a time that was as exciting as it was oblivious to its victims. Jean was undoubtedly one of those.

I can see how it all happened. What I can’t see is how a life of eighty seven years could be unremittingly bleak. I have to think that when Jean endured those long hours in the mill as a child, she was surrounded by an artist’s palette of coloured yarns. That the luxurious fabrics she helped create travelled to the fanciest homes in Glasgow, and further, to exotic corners of the globe. That she knew this and it fed her dreams, providing an escape. I can’t imagine how she endured the loss of four little boys, and it must have altered her forever, but I like to think that she was proud to see three children take on a modern world and battle for a better way of life. I’m quite sure she wouldn’t have wanted to hold them back, and she may not have wanted to leave the parish where she was born, even if it was changed beyond all recognition. In the end, I’m left wondering if her story echoed down the generations, driving her children and grandchildren to grasp opportunities and never look back.

Fiona – Stuart – John – Christina – Thomas – Jean

Where the remote Bermudas ride

In the ocean’s bosom unespied,

From a small boat, that rowed along,

The listening winds received this song.”

Andrew Marvell 1621-1678