Interesting Stories from the Wills and Testaments (1902 to 1925)

Listed below are some stories of interest that appear in the Scottish Wills and Testaments.

These stories reach across all of Scottish society: from victims of the Titanic/Lusitania disasters and people who lived double lives, to an impoverished inmate of an Edinburgh poorhouse. Of particular interest and poignancy, are the letters written by soldiers who were fighting on the Western Front during World War One.

To see the records for these stories, just click the links at the end of each profile.

  • Donald Stewart, Head Gamekeeper to Queen Victoria (Balmoral Estate, Aberdeenshire)
  • Patrick Sharkey, Labourer and 'Walter Mitty' - aka 'John Smith' (Paisley)
  • William Balfour Hay, Shipmaster Who Was Having an Affair with a Woman in Adelaide (Aberdeen)
  • RMS Lusitania - Elizabeth C. MacLay (Rothesay) and Ella Osbourne (Glasgow)
  • RMS Titanic - Robert Douglas Norman
  • William Wright Black - a Soldier and Policeman in South Africa (Dunblane)
  • Soldiers in World War One
    • William Sutherland (Aberdeen)
    • John MacDowall (Ayr)
  • Robert Coutts Walker, a Soldier in India Who Committed Suicide (Ayr)
  • Robert John Brough, Artist (Aberdeen)
  • Margaret Bailley, nee Donoghue - an Inmate of Craiglockhart Poor House (Edinburgh)

Donald Stewart, Head Gamekeeper to Queen Victoria (Balmoral Estate, Aberdeenshire)

Donald Stewart was in the service of the royal family at Balmoral from 1848 until his retirement in 1901 at the age of 75. He was first engaged at Balmoral by the H.R.H the Prince Consort, as under-forester and assistant to John Grant, with the charge of the deer-hounds, he worked his way up to Head Gamekeeper and Forrester in 1874 and remained in royal service until his retirement in 1901. During his time at Balmoral he was immortalised in a water colour portrait by Kenneth Macleay along with other staff in the royal household published in the 'Highlanders of Scotland' by Mr Mitchell, publishers to the Queen in 1870.

He was employed at Balmoral for over 50 years and in this time he acquired a number of gifts from Prince Albert and Queen Victoria but also from notable visitors to Balmoral which he names in his will, along with who he bequeaths these gifts to:

To my daughter Helena Stewart residing with me, I leave the gold watch and chain presented to me by the Emperor of Russia in eighteen hundred and ninety six, and the diamond pin presented to me by his Majesty King Edward'

He also leaves to his daughter Helena 'silver salver presented to me by Queen Victoria's Household, the clock presented to me by Queen Victoria on the completion of my fiftieth year in her Majesty's service, and Queen Victoria's silver brooch presented by the princesses to my late wife after the Queen's death;…'

He was given a yearly pension of £100 which is the equivalent of £33,400 today based on average earnings. A total personal estate was worth £1086.1s.5d which would be valued at £88,300 today.

Donald Stewart was born on the 24 June 1826 to Donald Stewart and his wife Mary Gordon in the parish of Crathie and Braemar, Aberdeenshire. He married Margaret Thomson on 16 June 1853 and they had 6 children Charles, Alfred, Mary, Elizabeth, Helena and Victoria Louisa all born at Balmoral. Donald's son Charles and Alfred both died young. Charles a student at Aberdeen University died at the age of 20 on 31 December 1876 of effusion on the brain. Albert died at the age of 29 on 9 November 1889 of alcoholism and exhaustion. Margaret his wife died in on 16 July 1902 at the age of 70 and Donald himself died on 10 August 1909 at the age of 83 having lived in the Braemar parish all his life.

(Ref: Will: SC1/37/130 pp724-727)

(Ref: Inventory: SC1/36/160 pp562-564)
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Patrick Sharkey/'John Smith', Labourer and 'Walter Mitty' (Paisley)

Patrick Sharkey, labourer died at Royal Alexandra Hospital, Paisley on 2 December 1919 aged 58 years of age. He left a small estate of £144.11s.3d, which would be worth a modest £5,000 today. It is not this amount that makes his inventory so interesting, it is the fact that Patrick Sharkey was also known as John Smith and had not been in touch with his family for 25 years. Patrick Sharkey or John Smith originally came from Bishop Auckland in County Durham, he moved to Scotland around 1894.

The inventory includes several sworn statements to prove that John Smith was in fact Patrick Sharkey so that he brother John Sharkey could claim his brother's estate. The testament is interesting because it reveals a tale of family discord.

Through the sworn statements we find out that Patrick Sharkey left Bishop Auckland leaving behind his father, two brothers and sister with no word from him for 25 years because of differences with his stepmother, he went to the extreme of changing his name so that his stepmother could not follow him. Unfortunately the statements do not reveal the details why he did not get on with his stepmother.

(Ref: Inventory: SC58/42/92 pp211-223)
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RPI = £5,100

AE = £20,500


William Balfour Hay, Shipmaster Who Was Having an Affair with a Woman in Adelaide (Aberdeen)

William Balfour Hay was a retired shipmaster, born to David Hay, coast guard and his wife Mary Morrison on 21 October 1842 and died at Liverpool on 7 February 1918. William was one of 7 children and the youngest son. He appears in the 1851 census with his family living at 18 Shore Street, Fraserburgh. By the 1861 at the age of 18 he cannot be found in the Scottish census, so we could assume that he had already started his life at sea. By the time of his death he gives his domicile residence in Scotland as Pennan in parish of Aberdour, Aberdeenshire.

We have little information about his life but from his will we found out that he was married and that he was in Adelaide in 1875. We also find out much more about his relationship with his wife Ida Hay Harris and why she is left little only one shilling in his will. He writes 'it will be necessary to make known my reason for so doing…' He explains that he met 'Mrs Ellis' in Adelaide in 1875 understanding her to be a widow and that they spend many nights together in which he could not 'resist the temptation'. She became pregnant and Mr Hay agreed to marry her. Just prior to their marriage, she told him she had never been married before and that she was not a widow and that her four other children where the product of liaisons with a Mr William Leonard.

William goes on to recount in his will that when he retired from the sea his intention was to return to Adelaide to live with his wife only to find out that she had returned to England with Mr William Leonard the father of her children. He leaves the value of his estate to his three nieces. The value of his estate at death is given as £201.13s.3d which would be worth about £7,600 today.

(Ref: Will: SC1/37/139 pp609-611)

(Ref: Inventory SC1/36/178 pp537-541)
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RPI = £7,660

AE = £35,000


RMS Lusitania - Elizabeth C. MacLay (Rothesay) and Ella Osbourne (Glasgow)

The RMS Lusitania was a British ocean liner which came into service with the Cunard Line on 26 August 1907, it travelled the busy passenger service between Liverpool and New York which included a port of call at Queenstown (now Cohn), Ireland. The Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat U-20 on 7 May 1915 it sank in 18 minutes, 11 miles of the Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland, killing 1,198 of the 1,959 people on board leaving 761 survivors.

There are 16 testaments or inventories recorded between 1915 and 1918 of those who died because of the sinking of the Lusitania. For the first time, the wills and testaments of some of those who perished are made available online. Including missionary Elizabeth C. MacLay, who was a second class passenger, listed as 'Bessie' on the ships manifest, she died without leaving a will but had an estate valued at £381.0.1d. Ella Osbourne aged 31 and a saloon passenger, she left a small estate worth £117.12s.9d of which £50 was from a life insurance policy.

(Ref: Elizabeth C. MacLay, Inventory: SC70/1/585 pp209-210)

(Ref: Ella Osbourne, Inventory: SC36/48/260 pp213-216)
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RMS Titanic - Robert Douglas Norman (Glasgow)

The RMS Titanic was a British passenger liner owned by the White Star Company and built by Harland and Wolff in Belfast. It sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on 15 April 1912 on its maiden voyage after colliding with an iceberg. Over 1,500 of its passengers and crew lost their lives. The wills and testaments from 1902-1925 published online for the first time contain the testamentary papers of Robert Douglas Norman who perished in the disaster.

Robert Douglas Norman was a 28 year-old electrical engineer from Glasgow. Robert was to be a second class passenger heading from Southampton to Vancouver where he had a brother and property interests. The will of Robert contains a copy of a letter which was written at his sister's house in London where he was staying before setting sail on board the famous liner on 10 April 1912.

Despite claims the Titanic was unsinkable, the perils of sea travel seem to have been playing on his mind as he jotted down the note on 9th April. In the letter addressed to his brother George Stanley Norman, he specifies sums of money to be left to various relatives in the event of his death. Sadly, Robert's letter was to become his last will and testament as he was to perish six days later when the liner sank in the Atlantic Ocean on 15 April 1912.

Robert left an estate valued at £5793 which would be worth in the region of £360,000 today. When Robert's estate was settled, the original letter was preserved in the Books of Council and Session, a legal register of the Court of Session.

The discovery of the entry in the Sheriff Court registers and the original letter in the Books of Council and Session only came to light when the 1902-1925 testaments were being indexed in 2011. The letter went on display in the National Records of Scotland during the 100 year anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. When Robert Norman's great-niece heard about the discovery she contacted the NRS and provided helpful information about her great-uncle.

(Ref: Will: SC70/4/439 pp 463-465)

(Ref: Inventory: SC70/1/529 pp520-528)
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William Wright Black, Soldier and Policeman in South Africa (Dunblane)

William Wright Black was born on 31 March 1876 to David and Catherine Black. He was a member of the Imperial Yeomanry and latter in the services of the South African Constabulary, he died at the age of 26 at Ladybrand, South Africa on 7 July 1902. He travelled to South Africa on the SS Aurania in February 1900. The SS Auriania was a Cunard steamship launched on 26 December 1882. She was a passenger ship sailing between Liverpool and New York until she was requisition by the government as a Boer War transport ship from 1900-1903.

Before leaving to travel on the SS Aurania to South Africa William Wright Black took out a life insurance policy to the value of £100.00. Along with his inventory there is a copy of a letter William Black wrote to his family on board the SS Aurania describing his voyage, the conditions on board and the illness of his companions.

Importantly he wrote about the insurance policy in this letter and who his beneficiaries would be. It is this reason why the letter is included. However, it provides interesting information about his voyage including for example eating arrangements and food '…We get good food too nothing to complain about. You can get a good sandwich and cup of tea at night too for 3 pence from the cooks who do a good thing on the sly…'

William Wright Black had no worldly possessions on his death according to his inventory. His personal estate contained the sums of £50.00 from death benefits, an insurance policy of £100 and a bonus of £1.10s making his estate worth £151.10s, today's value would be £11,700.

(Ref: SC44/44/47 pp541-548)
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RPI = £11,700

AE = £49,200


Soldiers in World War One

For the first time hundreds of wills and testaments of soldiers who fought and died during World War One are available to search online. They include amazing accounts of soldiers' lives in the trenches. Testaments of soldiers can include the final letters sent home to loved ones.


William Sutherland (Aberdeen)

William Sutherland was a Gunner in the 315th Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery and was killed in action on 4 April 1918 at the age of 35. He was the son of William and Isabella Sutherland born on 2 July 1882. Prior to entering military service he was employed as a postman and motorman.

Probably his last letter to his father is recorded as part of his testamentary papers, stating that his father should have any money should he die. The letter also provides information about William's life during the British retreat in the face of the Germans' offensive of spring 1918. He writes 'We have had it very cold for the past few days, especially at night. As we are always in the open we feel it more.' '…He gassed us continually for eight hours, then about 8am in the morning, during a very thick fog he forced his way through & kept us on the run for four days…'

(Ref: Will: SC1/37/139 p683-684)

(Ref: Inventory: SC1/36/178 p825-829)
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John MacDowall (Ayr)

John MacDowell was born on 13 August 1867 to William and Margaret MacDowell. He married Isabella Cooper on 28 November 1890 and had 4 children, Margaret, Elizabeth, Agnes and William. He had risen to the rank of Lance-Corporal in the 2nd Battalion of the Scots Guard, when he died at the age of 48 in France on 29 September 1915.

A copy of a letter addressed to his Aunt is included as part of his testamentary papers. He writes "Expeditionary Force 7th December. Dear Aunt I now send you a note trusting you's are all well as this leaves me strong at presint are you still receiving the money from the war office yet let me know in your next letter, Aunt do not send tobacco we get plenty of it here but I give it all away I would rather have Woodbine, tobacco is to heavy on to me smoking so many cigaretts Dear Aunt one thing I would like is a we drop of Auld Kirk next time you send cigaretts trusting it wont be long. Dear Aunt one more thing I have to tell you is if anything becomes of me that money is to got to you & only & another is to see that father keeps straight & well will now close trusting this horrid life will soon finish. goodnight."

From this letter we find out that tobacco is a well distributed commodity amongst soldiers, instead John asks his aunt for 'woodbines' which were strong unfiltered cigarettes a brand very popular with soldiers during the war.

(Ref: Will: SC6/46/43 p209-210)

(Ref: Inventory: SC6/44/78 p389-392)
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Robert Coutts Walker, a Soldier in India Who Committed Suicide (Ayr)

Robert Coutts Walker was born in India on 24 September 1900 to John Walker and Elizabeth Walker (nee Crooke). Robert was one of four children and was the only child born overseas. His father was a Quarter Master Sergeant in the army. Robert was a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Scots Fusiliers, based in India (Dum-Dum is near Bengal). He died on aged 20 on 12 September 1921.

Robert's testament is interesting because included as part of his testamentary papers is a suicide letter. The reason it is included is that he states in the letter that his belongings and money should go to his father. The letter is dated the same day he died, from his death certificate we know he died of a self inflicted gunshot wound.

The letter is addressed to his father: "Dum-Dum 12/08/1921 [the day he died] Dear Dad, I have stuck it as long as I could but at last I have had to make an end of it all. …To be jeered at openly by spectators at a football match was the last straw. Then I have been told as directly as plain hinting could make it by members of the mess that I should resign. Heaven only knows what use that would be now. …Goodbye, Dad, may you find the future happier than I was likely to. At any rate don't worry on my account."

It is both sad and interesting to find such a letter included in testamentary papers.

(Ref: Will: SC6/46/49 p163-165)

(Ref: Inventory: SC6/44/89 pp467-471)
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Robert John Brough, Artist (Aberdeen)

Robert Brough was born on 20 March 1872 the illegitimate child of Helen Brough. His mother was unable to look after him and he lived for a time with his grandparents and then his Uncle. It was this period in his life that he obtained an apprenticeship to attend evening classes at Greys School of Art, and later moved to Edinburgh from Aberdeen to study life classes at The Royal Scottish Academy. He won the Stuart price for figure painting, the Chalmers painting bursary and MacLame-Walters medal for composition.

In 1896 he had a marked success at the Royal Academy with Fantaisie en Folie, which he bequeathed to the National Gallery of British Art (now the Tate gallery). His life was cruelly ended in a train accident 2 January 1905, the value of his estate shows that he was becoming a successful painter leaving £9268.14s.11d which today would be worth around £770,000. Three paintings in his possession were valued at £700 today is worth around £58,000. He must also have started to make an impact on the art world as the New York Times published an obituary on him on 22 January 1905.

His will also includes a mention of an illegitimate child whom he does not name but he leaves to the child and its mother £250.00. He also indicates that all letters are to be burnt. One must wonder whether the contents of these letters would have led to the identity of his child.

(Ref: Will: SC1/37/126 p280-282)

(Ref: Inventory SC1/36/151 pp532-535)
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Margaret Bailley nee Donoghue, Inmate of the Craiglockhart Poor House (Edinburgh)

Margaret Bailley nee Donoghue married John Baillie on 8th July 1862 at the tender age of 17. It appears that she had a hard life; by 1891 she is a widow living in Craiglockhart Poor House where she remained until she died at the age of 55 in 1904. She died intestate meaning she left no will. Her inventory is not extensive or interesting, but what is interesting is to highlight that someone who died in a poorhouse with very little in the way of personal property can still be included and have an inventory recorded. She died leaving an insurance policy worth £16.16s.0d. Today this sum would be worth £1,400.

The reason her inventory is included for such a low value is because her nephew is claiming the small inheritance as her executor.

(Ref: Inventory: SC70/1/438 pp235-239)
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