By Richard Gwynallen
1677 – 1731
1684 – 1731
Relationship to Fawn: 8th great grandparents
1712 – 1791 or 1792
1705 – 1775
Relationship to Fawn: 7th great grandparents
In The MacCulloch Journey to America, we introduced Elspet Sharp as the wife of Robert MacCulloch. They became the parents of Eleanor McCullock, who married Robert Boyd and brought the MacCulloch line into our more recent family tree, ultimately connecting through marriage to the Murdocks. In this essay we look at the Sharp family itself, and the environment Elspet grew up in as part of the culture of northeast Scotland fishing communities in the 18th century.
Elspet’s parents were William Sharp and Jannet Christie. The Sharp family originates in Clackmannanshire, Scotland, but moved to the sea communities of Banffshire at least by the time William Sharp and Jannet Christie marry in 1702 in Grange, Banffshire. This represents the migration of a rural, farming family to a fishing village. I don’t, as of now, know what might have prompted that move. Elspet was born on 5 April 1712 in Grange.
In 1731, we find Elspet Sharp living with her brother, John, and his wife, Janet Smith, in the small fishing village of Portessie, originally called Rottenslough, along with their retired father. In the Scots dialect of the area, the village is called Peterhythe.
John and Janet had just married on 22 October 1731. John is listed as a seaman, as is everyone else in this and similar villages. There were only 40 people in the village.
Small fishing villages dot the east coast of Scotland. The images below shows the varied villages of 1850. Many of the 18th century villages mentioned in this essay can be seen here. The coast of Moray Firth are jagged with small coves just large enough for a small number of boats. Larger villages have piers; smaller ones just enough room to pull the boats on to the beach.
“Portessie became a fishing station in 1727, when 5 houses were built by the proprietor of Rannes for the accommodation of the original fishers from Findhorn.” (Old Statistical Account, p. 370)
The Sharp Family Proliferates along the Moray Coast
[Note: The below family accounts are drawn from the “Old Parish Records” for Rathven, Duffus, and Grange, and The Annals of Cullen, 1721 – 1791.]
Elspet Sharp and Robert MacCulloch
In 1741, John Sharp is still in Portessi as a seaman with his wife, and they now have four children. However, Elspet is no longer in the house. She married Robert MacCulloch on 26 July 1737 in Rathven parish and is living in the Broadhyth of Findochty. These seem to be two small villages that merged. The website for the Banffshire Maritime and Heritage Association states that “In 1716, Thomas Ord created Findochty by settling it with thirteen fishermen and four boys from Fraserburgh.”
In The MacCulloch Journey to America, I wondered how Robert and Elspet met. The MacCullochs were not from Banffshire. In fact, their family had moved to Ireland from Galloway. Robert himself seems to have been born in Ireland. His family emigrated but he did not even though he was young. Then, here he is in a little fishing town. My current speculation is that Robert tried his hand at sea in Ireland. Young people grew up quickly in fishing communities.
Andrew Blaikie identified how young boys started their life at sea. “In 1794, the minister of Rathven wrote of his parishioners: ‘They go to sea as boys, at 14 years of age, become men at 18, and marry soon after; for it is a maxim with them, apparently founded in truth, that no man can be a fisher, and want a wife. They generally marry before 24 years at farthest; and always the daughters of fishers from 18 to 22 at most’.” (Coastal Communities in Victorian Scotland: What Makes North-East Fisher Families Distinctive? page 19; Andrew Blaikie; quoting Rev. G. Donaldson, Parish of Rathven)
Further, it was not uncommon for young men to sign on with crews from other areas after they gained experience. Perhaps his life at sea ended up with him working on a fishing boat in Banffshire where he met Elspet and settled.
They were married on 26 July 1737 in the village. In 1741, they are recorded as having two children – Alexander, 2 years old, and Anna, a baby – both born in the village. Robert is listed as a seaman. Both villages were basically fishing villages, though Broadhyth of Findochty is twice as large as Portessi with 86 inhabitants.
In 1751, Elspet and Robert are still in Broadhyth of Findochty, now with three daughters (Anna, Jean, and Elspet born in 1742) and a son, William.
In 1761, they are still in the village, now with another daughter, Isabel. However, Elspet is no longer in the household, and there is no record of her marrying. She simply disappears from the parish records.
Missing from these records is our Eleanor. Some believe that Eleanor was born prior to Elspet and Robert’s marriage, perhaps as early as 1732, and simply kept out of the records. Handfast marriages still existed in Ireland and Scotland, and such a marriage would not have been recorded. But then, why wait five years for a formal marriage? Others think Eleanor was their daughter Elspet, born in 1744, and who disappeared from the records by 1761. That would make her a little young to appear in the American Colonies in the 1750s.
Still others point out that the Parish Records only count who was in the house at the time of the census, and missed many who were at sea, engaged in work outside the house, or temporarily living elsewhere.
Prior to their 1737 marriage the last record of Elspet sharp is the 1731 parish record, which has her born in Grange, living in Portessie with her parents and 19 years of age. Robert MacCulloch is in no record. It is not impossible for Elspet and Robert to have met after the census and traveled back to Robert’s home in Ireland, had their daughter, Eleanor, and return to settle in Banffshire.
However, it is all speculation. Eleanor remains somewhat of a mystery. We know that by 1761 she was in the American Colonies and married to Robert Boyd. She seems to have been in Ireland prior to immigrating to America. Why did she leave Scotland? Did she go to live with her father’s family in Ireland? There might be an interesting story there, but we don’t know it at this time.
In 1771, Elspet and Robert are still in the village, now with only Jean and Isabel at home. William has his own household in the village. In 1765 or 1766 he married Helen Flett in Rathven. They now have three daughters of their own, Elspet, Ann, and Jean.
Their daughter Anna had married John Garden and moved to Portessie in 1762. By 1771 Anna and John had three sons, Alexander, George, and John, and a daughter, Jean. By 1781, two more children had been born, John and William. By 1791 only two children were still at home, William and Jean.
In 1781, Elspet and Robert are still in the village now sharing their home their daughter Jean, her husband, William Reid, and their children, John, Helen, and Jean.
On 28 October 1776, Isabel married Alexander Thain, had her own household in the village, and had two daughters, Helen and Margaret.
William and Helen are also still in the village, now with six daughters: Elspet, Ann, Jean, Helen, Helen (yes, two of them), and Margaret.
By 1791, Robert MacCulloch has died. His wife, Elspet, is living with her daughter, Jean and her family: her husband William, and two of there children, John and Jean. However, Elspet dies in 1792.
William and Helen are still in the village with their children. As are Isabel and Alexander.
Elspet’s Sharp Family
By 1751, Elspet’s brother, John Sharp, is no longer listed. He seems to have died before 1746. His wife, Janet Smith, remarried to Charles McKay on 6 February 1746. Their household consists of Charles’ children by a former marriage, Andrew, William, and Margaret, and Elspet’s children, Margaret, Alexander, and John. Janet Smith and Charles MacKay had two children together, Charles and Jean.
Elspet and John’s son, Alexander remains in Portessie in 1761 with his own household with Jean Wilkie, who married sometime after 1758. By 1771 they have four children, Jean, Alexander, Janet, and John. By 1781 they have another son, James.
In 1791 Alexander and Jean remain the village, but only three children are still at home; Janet, John, and James.
What was life like for the Sharp family?
The 19th century saw dramatic changes in the Scottish fishing industry, including new boat styles. Many of these developments in the industry changed traditional practices and cultural patterns. For instance, new boat designs and technology increased the size of the catch. As the industry increased, more specialization developed. A whole occupation of curers came into being. This had been primarily an occupation of women. The new curers, mostly men, displaced women from a role in production.
Our focus here is on the 18th century when our Sharp family members as well as the MacCullochs and families with which they were intermarried, were in the fishing industry, when fishing villages were getting established as efforts were made to build the industry, but when traditional patterns of fishing and life in fishing villages continued.
Increased migration to the area and the expansion of villages, combined with increased migration of east coast fishing families to Kintyre when new herring vessels started to be built there in the 18th and crews recruited for them, led to a distinct decrease in Gaelic as a daily language during the 18th century. By 1785, fifty of these new larger herring fishing boats were operating out of Kintyre.
Even so, the language hung on. Electric Scotland’s section on the history of Moray indicates that Gaelic disappeared at different rates in different places in Banffshire. “In the Minute Book of the Synod of Moray (1715) it is recorded that the Synod considered that “Irish was necessary in the case of the minister of Glenlivet, . . . It is the view of Rev. R. H. Calder, the present minister of Glenlivet, that Gaelic probably became extinct in that district about the close of the eighteenth century. It held its ground more tenaciously in the neighbouring parish of Kirkmichael. There is evidence that in 1794 it was the dominant, if not the sole, language at the Tomintoul markets, and there is reason to believe that it continued to be the dominant language at these markets till the middle of the nineteenth century. The late Rev. James Grant, minister of Kirkmichael . . . was a bi-lingual preacher and a good Gaelic scholar. On the half-yearly pre-communion Fast-days, his custom was to conduct a short Gaelic service before the English service. . . . The Gaelic service was finally discontinued about 1893.”
Many factors set boundaries on how the Scottish fishing industry developed in this period. A lack of capital was certainly part of it. So was the pattern of life set by cultural and religious practices. There were simply times they just didn’t fish. In this way, fishing communities were the same on east or west coasts. David Thomson comments: “Outsiders thought it smacked of lack of enterprise, and development of indigenous fishing fleets was slow. But it ensured a gentle impact on the marine environment, and would have achieved a sustainable fishery in the long term.” (Hebrides and west coast of Scotland: The social and cultural importance of the coastal fishing communities and their contribution to food security)
Whitefishing was dominant in traditional fishing in Scotland’s northeast. White fish (predominantly cod and haddock) live in deep water or at the bottom of the sea and were traditionally caught on lines. Line fishing used baited hooks. This highly labor-intensive practice required the collective efforts of a family and fostered a co-operative and egalitarian approach.
Consequently, women held a unique role in fishing communities. “They participated wholly in their husbands’ trade and led a laborious life.” Being full participants in the economic life of the community gave them stronger voice in community affairs than women in many other social settings of the time. “. . . women’s employment (and, to a lesser extent, that of children), included collecting bait, knotting hooks, baiting lines, preparing fish for sale and selling the catch, alongside domestic household work. . . . these were not insignificant tasks. For example, each fishing trip would set out with up to 5,000 baited hooks aboard.” (Blaikie, page 16)
The herring fishing we think of today began developing during the 18th century. Until that time, the Dutch dominated the herring fishing . Using very large boats called busses, they lay overnight with the drift nets set to catch the herring, which were were hauled in by hand in the morning. The herring were salted and placed in barrels, the barrels then transferred to small boats called jagers, which took the fish to the markets.
In the 18th century some Scottish fishermen began to emulate this method of fishing in order to break into the herring market. In 1718, the government introduced the bounty system to promote large scale fishing. This meant that the government paid a bounty to the boat owner based on the tonnage of the vessel and would also pay a bounty to anyone for simply building a fishing boat. This continued until 1820. However, the “bulk of the Scottish fishery was still using the line and bait method in inshore waters. However, in 1785 the government instituted barrel bounties, which meant that the bounties were payable based on the amount of cured herring produced. This encouraged the herring curers to enter into contracts with the fishermen whereby they would be guaranteed a price for their catch.” (Scottish east coast fishery, Wikipedia)
In the 18th and very early 19th centuries, Scottish fishing boats were small, open, made of wood, and were either one or two masted with square sails. Lacking capital, the fishing families required that the boats be inexpensive to build, able to be repaired by the fishermen themselves, and light enough they could be dragged up onto the beaches. Often the fishermen were themselves the builders. In some villages builders fond enough work to keep themselves employed full-time.
On both the east and west coasts of Scotland, the fishing fleets that developed were based on the very old “Scottish pattern of relatively small family-owned boats which operated on an equitable share system, skippers and deckhands receiving equal shares of the crew’s allocation which was 50 percent of the proceeds from catch sales, less the operating expenses. The arrangements ensured a spread of financial benefits from fishing throughout each community.”
“The result of the share system was that members of the community identified with boats, and hence other families, to which they had some attachment and not with a particular stratum of society.” (Blaikie, pg. 17)
Intermarriage was a dominant feature of these communities. In our case of the Sharp family we find marriage almost exclusively with other fishing families. Some of the incentive was the equitable profit sharing system of the boats. If families were linked by marriage less of the profit left the use of a family. Also, the physical and psychological demands of the life for men and women left the communities feeling that outsiders lacked fitness for the life. Beyond the work at sea, women were working with sharp hooks, sheeling mussels, and walking for miles with their creel to sell the catch.
Fishing communities developed distinctive manners similar to the clans of the Highlands. The common way of making a living, the unique character of that economy, as well as the unpredictability of the sea, fostered a closeness and solidarity among fishing families.
Select Readings on Traditional Scottish Fishing Industry