The Story behind the Stone – the families, estates and stories of Kirkmichael, Cullicudden, the Black Isle and beyond

Pipe Major Colin Thomson (1869–1933) of Resolis and Golspie
and his “stepfather”, Pipe Major John Wemyss (1861–1927) of Dingwall and Bothwell

text by Dr Jim Mackay; photography as annotated

thanks to Susan Haslam, Alness, Jonathan McColl, Dingwall, and James Holm, Easter Ferryton, for input

Lucy McIver pipes up a storm at Kirkmichael; photo by Andrew Dowsett

This is the story of two great pipers, one the gold-medallist and composer, Resolis-born Colin Thomson, Pipe Major in both the Argylls and the Seaforths, whose history is easily tracked. The other is the Dingwall-born John Wemyss, Pipe Major in the Seaforths and the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, who deliberately obscured his own history, presumably due to his bigamous second marriage. And it is the story of Cromarty-born Christina Sutherland, Colin’s mother and John’s wife, who led a rather unconventional personal life.


Colin Thomson — early days

Colin Thomson was born in Resolis on 8 March 1869, the son of Ferryton crofter Colin Thomson and Drumcudden domestic servant Christina Sutherland.

He is one of the unsung heroes of the parish and his remarkable career seems to have escaped the notice of those interested in Black Isle history, including myself, until now. I was reviewing associations between Resolis and the bagpipes, following the release of a bagpipe tune composed by Hilary de Vries about Kirkmichael called “Saint Michael’s” and noted an old tune entitled “Resolis” by one Colin Thomson, allegedly born in Cromarty. Well, the nearest town was Cromarty, but in fact he was born in and spent his childhood in Resolis. From the humblest of beginnings, Colin rose to be a successful Pipe Major, a composer of bagpipe music and one of Scotland’s best pibroch players.

Colin Thomson, then a Pipe Major with the Argylls, in 1896; you can see from the placement of his feet that he was also a Highland dancer

Following his birth, very unusually, both father and mother turned up at the registrars as informants, presumably because they were not married and Christina wanted the father to be recorded without the possibility of later dispute. She did in fact need to take Colin to court to secure financial support for their boy (Cromarty Sheriff Court, filiation and aliment, 28 January 1873, SC24/3/3).

Parish of Resolis Births, registered 26 March 1869
Colin Thomson (illegitimate) born 8 March 1869 at Drumcudden parents Colin Thomson crofter Christina Sutherland domestic servant informants Christina Sutherland mother Colin Thomson father crofter Ferrytown, Resolis

Christina would have been aware of the importance of formally securing support to which she was entitled as her family had been the cause in the 1840s and 1850s of a long running concern of the parochial board of Resolis. It considered that either the parish of Inverness or the parish of Cromarty should be responsible for supporting her parents. They were paupers John Sutherland and wife Mary McLennan and had moved from the Parish of Inverness to the Parish of Cromarty and then to the Parish of Resolis and had not established a working residence within Resolis.

Father Colin Thomson of Ferryton married another woman, Jessie Gray, in December of that same year of 1869, and their family continued to live and work in Ferryton, in the croft known as “Inch Cottage”, until relatively recent times. A small marble plaque in Kirkmichael commemorates Colin Thomson of Ferryton; it is tucked behind the headstone memorialising his son Hugh.

the Colin Thomson plaque is usually tucked behind son Hugh’s headstone; photo by Jim Mackay

the simple plaque; photo by Jim Mackay


Colin senior had actually been baptised Colin McKenzie Thomson back in 1839, the twelfth child of small tenants Donald Thomson and Isabel Munro, undoubtedly named after the then laird of Newhall, Colin McKenzie, on whose estate their modest tenancy lay. It was sometimes called Ferryton and sometimes Inch as it lies right on the western edge of Ferryton, where it shades into Inch.

The Thomson croft in the Newhall Estate 1918 sale plan, marked 3

the Thomson croft drawn out on a recent aerial photograph

The Sutherland family can be seen together, with the young Colin Thomson, in Cullicudden in the 1871 Census Return.

Parish of Resolis Census Return 1871 — Cullicudden, house with two rooms with one or more windows
John Sutherland head married 75 agricultural labourer unemployed born Inverness
Mary Sutherland wife married 70 born Gairloch
Christina Sutherland daughter unmarried 25 domestic servant born Cromarty
Sophia Sutherland daughter unmarried 22 domestic servant born Resolis
Colin Thomson grandson 2 born Resolis

A second illegitimate child was to follow, this time the father somebody who had been quite important in the area, James Dawson, formerly grieve or farm manager at Braelangwell. He was now over 60 and an agricultural labourer in Drumcudden. His wife, Annie Souter, was still alive, so it must have been quite a scandal. Nevertheless, Christina again had him attend the registrar’s to have it confirmed that he was in fact the father.

Parish of Resolis Births
Jessie Dawson (illegitimate) born 24 August 1873 at Drumcudden parents James Dawson farm manager Christina Sutherland ag lab informants Christina Sutherland mother James Dawson father Drumcudden

Christina’s sister Sophia, who found herself in the same position later that year, does not appear to have been so savvy:

Parish of Resolis Births
George Sutherland (illegitimate) born 27 December 1873 at Cullicudden parents [father blank] [mother] Sophia Sutherland agricultural labourer informant Sophia Sutherland her x mark mother

George was to die at Cullicudden just a couple of years later in 1876. Sadly, illegitimate children had a poor survival rate, almost certainly due to inadequate support. It was a difficult time for the family as Christina’s and Sophia’s mother, Mary Sutherland ms McLennan, had died at Cullicudden just a few weeks earlier.

Young Colin would have been exposed to bagpipe music from an early age. At this time, no festive occasion would be complete without music provided by fiddles and pipes. A mile east from Cullicudden, Roderick Mackenzie, crofter and piper, had settled in Alness Ferry, and three of his sons, Kenneth, Alick and Roderick, contemporaries of Colin, were great pipers and frequently appeared at competitions. In later life, Colin and in particular Alick Mackenzie (1869–1898) of Alness Ferry would often be seen in the prize-lists together. Alick, a gold clasp winner at Inverness, died young of tuberculosis, like most of the Alness Ferry family, a fate which escaped Colin himself.

We can assume that young Colin attended the Free Church School at Cullicudden, very close to where the state school was built a few years later. Like every other child in the area he would have roamed around the ruins of Castle Craig down by the beach and wondered if it had ever been besieged. Little would he have foreseen that he himself would be associated with the military life almost all his adult days!

By 1881 he would have been looking at Castle Craig from the other side of the Firth. Christina Sutherland with young Colin Thomson and sister Jessie Dawson had crossed to the north, to Lemlair in the parish of Kiltearn.

Parish of Kiltearn Census Return 1881 — Lemlair, North County Road
Christina Sutherland head unmarried 32 Farm outdoor servant born Cromarty speaks G
Colin Thompson Son 12 Scholar born Resolis
Jessie Dawson Daughter 8 Scholar born Resolis

A third illegitimate child arrived a few years later, although Christina does not seem to have been successful on this occasion in persuading the father to declare publicly his responsibility.

Parish of Dingwall Births
Jamesina Sutherland (illegitimate) born 26 August 1884 at 14 Warden Street Dingwall [father blank] mother Christina Sutherland domestic servant (domicil – Lemlair Parish of Kiltearn) informant Christina Sutherland mother

Jamesina sometimes called herself Jamesina Cameron Sutherland, and on her marriage to water bailiff John Douglas in 1926 she gave her father as coachman “Kenneth Cameron Sutherland”, the Sutherland clearly being a fiction to disguise her illegitimacy. I note there was a married coachman, Kenneth Cameron, at Highfield Lodge (this lies in Urray but is only a short distance from Kiltearn) in the 1861, 1871 and 1881 census returns, and it is likely that he was the father.

Colin Thomson, when he joined the Seaforths in 1889, gave his trade at that time as “coachman” but whether or not he worked with coachman Kenneth Cameron I know not.


Colin Thomson commences his military life

Colin had joined the militia (the 3rd Battalion Seaforth Highlanders) and was already making his mark in the piping.

The 3rd (Militia) Battalion Seaforth Highlanders at Fort George in 1896, courtesy of The Highlanders’ Museum, Fort George

Inverness Courier 30 April 1889
Yesterday the annual review of the 3rd Battalion Seaforth Highlanders took place at Fort-George in excellent weather. … The men connected with the Militia Reserve, who numbered a total of 192, were also inspected on the same day, and they presented a splendid appearance. As showing the interest excited in the Reserve, it may be mentioned that this season there were no fewer than 164 applications for 32 vacancies. The total strength of the Reserve is 250 men, who are liable at any time to be called out upon active service. The vacancies were filled up by those who proved to be the best shots among the list of applicants. … Yesterday the battalion, under the command of Colonel Macleay, paraded at ten o’clock in review order within the Square, and marched out to the common, where they were drawn up in line. … The annual competition for prizes in bagpipe playing, which were contributed by the officers, took place within the Garrison on Thursday. … March Playing (10 entries) – 1, Piper W. Campbell, C Coy.; 2, Piper Colin Thomson, K Coy.

A few months later, in July 1889 in Dingwall, Colin joined the Seaforth Highlanders for a seven year term. His attestation papers state that he was already serving in the militia (the 3rd Seaforths). He had been an apprentice, but his articles of apprenticeship had been cancelled. He was 5 ft 6¼ in tall, had a 34¼ inch chest, was 135 lb in weight, and was fresh-complexioned, brown-eyed, brown-haired and missing four teeth!

Pipers generally could persuade their Commanding Officers that it was good for the reputation of the Regiment if they were allowed to compete at public games, particularly if they stood a good chance of being successful. Permission was not always granted, but I see that Colin was at several games the following year, winning trophies in company with, amongst others, John Wemyss, the man who would some years later marry Colin’s mother.

Ross-shire Journal 25 July 1890
GAMES AT MUNLOCHY. … In the pipe music competion (open) prizes were won by Colin Thomson and John Wemyss, both of the Seaforth Highlanders, Dingwall.

Inverness Courier 26 August 1890
HIGHLAND GAMES AND PONY RACES AT ALNESS. … Pipe Music (7 entries)– 1, Colin Thomson, Dingwall; … 3, John Wemyss, Dingwall

Northern Chronicle and General Advertiser for the North of Scotland 10 September 1890
INVERCHARRON HIGHLAND GATHERING. … Pipe Music– Marches (14 competitors)– 1, Colin Thomson, Dingwall … Pipe Music– Reels and Strathspeys (14 competitors)– 1, Murdo Mackenzie; 2, Colin Thomson; 3, John Wemyss, Dingwall

Northern Ensign and Weekly Gazette 16 September 1890
HIGHLAND GATHERING AT DUNROBIN. The Highland games instituted by the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland, and under their distinguished patronage, took place in the Dunrobin Castle grounds on Saturday last, and proved very successful. They are got up by his Grace purposely for engendering a spirit of piping and dancing. … The games began with pipe-music, open to all-comers, for which there were ten entries, and after a very keen competition Colin Thomson, Dingwall, who, we understand, is a player of only three years’ practice, came to the front. He promises well, and will no doubt shortly be in the front rank of pipers.

young Gavin Mackay at impressive Dunrobin, 2009; photo by Jim Mackay

Colin would in due course make his home in Golspie, close to Dunrobin, and his positive experiences at events in Sutherlandshire and at Dunrobin itself must have contributed to that decision. Note the statement that in 1890 he was a player of only three years’ practice. This suggests that he started playing the pipes for earnest only when he joined the Seaforth Militia. I have seen the suggestion that he initially was a drummer when he joined the Seaforths but haven’t seen the evidence for that yet.

There are many similar records of his success within his regiment and at northern games in the following year. I include this one for interest as it gives his rank at that time:

Inverness Courier 24 April 1891
THIRD BATTALION SEAFORTH HIGHLANDERS AT FORT-GEORGE.– The bagpipe competition took place on the 22nd inst. … Pibrochs– 1, Lance-Corpl. Colin Thomson, G Company, with the tune “Thuair mi pòg o laimh an Righ,” or “I got a kiss of the King’s hand;” … The strength of the pipe band is 17 pipers; eight competed for pibrochs and marches.

And I include this one, as he gave as his address “Resolis”. Depending on your address, you could enter for the “open” and the “local” parts of Highland games, and I wonder if he deployed his birthplace strategically at times.

Ross-shire Journal 24 July 1891
HIGHLAND GAMES AT MUNLOCHY … Piping – Marches and Strathspeys – 1, Colin Thomson, Resolis (silver medal);

One last example of many, but in this case from one of the most prestigious events of all, and not long before Colin’s wedding.

Inverness Courier 18 September 1891
THE NORTHERN MEETING. Our great annual Highland Gathering, the Northern Meeting, opened yesterday with a large and fashionable gathering of ladies and gentlemen. ... So far as the general programme is concerned, attention may be first directed to the playing of pibrochs on the Highland bagpipes. No fewer than twenty-two competitors entered for this competition. … On account of the large number of players the competition lasted from two to three hours, and the judges ultimately allotted the first place, which includes the gold medal of the Highland Society of London, to Colin Thomson, 3rd Seaforth Highlanders, Dingwall. Thomson, who has been a successful prize-winner at other gatherings, played “The Prince’s Salute.” He was closely followed by David C. Mather, with “Macleod of Raasay’s Salute;” John Wemyss, Dochcarty, with “Strewan Robertson’s Salute;” and William Campbell, piper to her Majesty, with “Macrimmon will never Return.”

What a success! With a regular income and his place on the piping field secured, only one thing remained outstanding. Colin now took the next step in life, and married Isabella MacKay back in Resolis, at the Balblair Ferry Inn.



Colin Thomson — marriage and more success

Balblair Ferry Inn following residential conversion; photo by Jim Mackay

Parish of Resolis Marriages
9 October 1891 at Balblair Inn Resolis After Proclamation According to the Forms of the Free Church of Scotland
Colin Thomson Piper in Seaforth Highlanders (bachelor) 22 Dingwall parents Colin Thomson crofter Christina Sutherland domestic servant
Isabella MacKay domestic servant (spinster) 22 Balblair Resolis parents Alexander McKay shepherd Hannah Smart domestic servant
John MacIver Free Church Minister, Resolis George Wemyss witness Maggie McKay witness

Isabella was herself illegitimate, although her mother, Hannah Smart, many years after Bella was born, married one Joseph Ross, a ploughman, in Fearn. I have to say I wasn’t entirely sure I had the right family, but when Hannah Ross ms Smart died, in 1909, the informant was her daughter – one Bella Thomson, of Old Bank Road, Golspie! It is always reassuring to get solid proof!

Why did they marry at Balblair Inn? I have to assume that Bella Smart or Isabella McKay, as she was now calling herself, was working there, although she doesn’t appear in the 1891 Census Return of a few months earlier. However, I believe she was in service just across the ferry at the Commercial Hotel in Rosskeen as Isabella McKay from Fearn at that time, along with a Margaret McKay also from Fearn whom I suspect is the witness Maggie McKay at the wedding.

Isabella Thomson ms McKay from a photograph used on various websites; I would be delighted to credit the original holder of the photograph appropriately so please let me know

Colin would have been only too pleased to return to the Parish of Resolis to get married. He was to compose a tune entitled “Resolis”, so he obviously had pleasant memories of the parish of his childhood. And as I say, I think he deployed his Resolis origins to allow entry into the “local” as well as the “open” sections of competitions. Here he is the year after his marriage at Munlochy again, with the strategy clearly displayed:

Inverness Courier 22 July 1892
BLACK ISLE ATHLETIC SPORTS– … OPEN TO ALL COMERS. Pipe Music– 1, Colin Thomson, Inverness … OPEN TO LOCAL COMPETITORS. Pipe Music – 1, Alex. Mackenzie, Alness Ferry. Dancing, Highland Fling– 1, Colin Thomson, Resolis.

He often featured in the prizes for the Highland dancing at these competitions, the Sword Dance or the Highland Fling, so he was obviously a fit and versatile man. The Alex. Mackenzie of Alness Ferry in this extract was born in the same year as Colin, and the two would have known each other as children.

I note that later in 1892 references to him in Highland games describe him as “Sergt. Piper Colin Thomson, 3rd Seaforth Highlanders.” He had thus reached the status of Pipe Major, an incredible success story given his age of only 23 years!

To summarise the Wikipedia entry on the Pipe Major, he is the leading musician of a pipe band, whether military or civilian. In the army, a Pipe Major’s position is by appointment, and is not a military rank. An appointee is required to attain a senior non-commissioned officer rank of sergeant, staff sergeant, colour sergeant, or warrant officer and to have successfully completed the pipe major’s course at the Army School of Bagpipe Music and Highland Drumming. He is customarily addressed and referred to as “Pipe Major”, not by his service rank. The insignia of appointment is four point-up chevrons worn on the lower sleeve, usually surmounted by a bagpipe badge and often by a crown or other badge, dependent on rank and regiment.

And what, I wonder, did his father, Colin Thomson of Ferryton in Resolis, make of the success of his son? I imagine his greatest concern was ensuring that his other children worked the croft satisfactorily. His name came up in the House of Commons the following year, in a case involving his children:

Ross-shire Journal 14 July 1893
PROSECUTION.– In the House of Commons on Monday, Mr A.C. Morton, on behalf of Mr Weir, asked the Lord Advocate whether his attention had been drawn to the case of Colin Thomson, of Resolis, who last month was fined 10s in costs and penalty by Sheriff Hill, in Dingwall, on a first offence of failing to send two of his children regularly to school; and whether he would advise the Sheriff that it was sufficient on a first offence merely to ask for an attendance order. The Lord Advocate replied in these terms – I have made inquiry into this matter. The complaint was brought at the instance of the Procurator-Fiscal, and charged the accused with having failed to perform the duty of providing elementary education in reading, writing, and arithmetic for two of his children, under the 70th Section of the Education (Scotland) Act, 1872. That being so, the Sheriff had no alternative, upon finding the charge proved, than to impose a penalty. It is to the School Board and not to the Sheriff that the right belongs to determine whether a penalty or merely an attendance order under the Act of 1883 shall be asked.

In 1894, Colin was transferred to the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, as Sergeant Piper, so I imagine he had been targeted as a Pipe Major by the Argylls. He continued his attendance at games, sometimes winning, sometimes further back in the list. I understand from stories of old pipers at these games that it was often sheer chance as to whether or not the fickle reeds would behave, and one piper who performed poorly at a prestigious competition went so far as to say that a rival had substituted a reed.

Inverness Courier 24 September 1895
THE NORTHERN MEETING. … After carefully weighing the rival merits of the competitors, the judges awarded the first prize, in the Strathspeys and reels, to Pipe-Major Sutherland of the 3rd Seaforths, Alex. Mackenzie, Resolis, securing the second place, and Pipe-Major Colin Thomson, 1st Argyll and Sutherland, the third.

The 10th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders at Fort George

Colin disappears from the northern papers for the following decade while he was away on service. He briefly resurfaces in an account of a London “Highland Ball” held at Westminster Town Hall in 1896. “Sodger laddies, chiefly Seaforths, were there from Aldershot, and Pipe-Major Colin Thomson, who gave Gille Callum.” (Northern Ensign and Weekly Gazette 18 February 1896).

In 1898, his mother, now about 55, although she declared she was 44, married. I’ve often noted both husbands and wives knocking a few years off their age at their marriage, but rarely anything quite as blatant as this. Her husband was someone whom Colin must have known very well, as they had competed at many Highland games together over the years.

Dingwall marriages
6 July 1898 at 2 Fingal Place Dingwall after Banns according to the Forms of the Free Church of Scotland
(signed) John Wemyss piper (bachelor) age 37 6 Blackwells Street Dingwall parents James Wemyss crofter (d) and Jessie Wemyss ms Campbell (d)
(signed) Christina Sutherland laundrymaid (spinster) age 44 2 Fingal Place Dingwall parents John Sutherland coachman (d) and Mary Sutherland ms McLennan (d)
(signed) M. Macaskill (signed) John Walker witness Catherine McDonald witness

It was not a match that was going to end well. However, we shall return to John Wemyss and Christina Sutherland.

In 1904 Colin was transferred back from the Argylls to the Seaforth Highlanders, 3rd Battalion, again as Sergeant Piper.

I note from his pension records that he served in India where his service was “Exemplary”. I understand from information on the web that he also served through the Boer War. The young man from Resolis was playing the bagpipes in some very distant lands.

Colin clearly was back in the North from 1905, as there is a slew of records of him in the prize lists at events such as the Abernethy Highland Games and the Ballater Highland Games, and playing at social events. I note one of those was a Concert at Fort Augustus in aid of the funds of the village pipe band, an endeavour which would have been close to his heart.


Colin Thomson — first retirement

After 18 years of service in the Seaforths and the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, Colin retired from the army. By this time his home was in Golspie, and he became Pipe Major with the 1st Sutherland Volunteers. I do not know for sure why he became established at Golspie. He certainly knew the Highlands well as he had been on recruiting and training missions all around the north. But I imagine his choice of Golspie was tied in to his association with the Sutherland volunteers and the great Sutherland family at Dunrobin at Golpsie.

Dunrobin, 16 September 2021; photo by Davine Sutherland

By this time he was recognised as not only a piper but also a composer.

Northern Chronicle and General Advertiser for the North of Scotland 24 June 1908
THE CAMERON AND SEAFORTH BRIGADE CAMP AT KINGUSSIE. … The Sutherlands, under that excellent piper and musical composer, Pipe-Major Colin Thomson, drew crowds around them when they played. Their only drawback is a weakness in drummers, but this will no doubt be improved by next year.

He signed up as a territorial with the 5th Seaforth Highlanders in 1908. In the following period, 1909 to 1912, the papers are just filled with his successes at various highland gatherings, and his activities as a Pipe Major. On some occasions, he was not now competing at games, but judging at them (for example, the John O’Groat Journal of 30 August 1912 said of him: “The genial Pipe-Major of the 6th Seaforths, Colin Thomson, was the judge of both sets of competitions, and a more capable referee could not be got in the north of Scotland.”) One of the most prestigious series of events was around the celebrations of the coming of age of Lord Stafford, the eldest son of the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland.

At the great ball at Dunrobin Castle, “The Highland dances were under the charge of Pipe-Major Colin Thomson” and “Votes of thanks were then passed, and the party then moved off to the gardens, where music by the band of H..S. Nelson, and a band of 20 pipers and drummers, under Pipe-Major Thomson, Golspie, was played” (Aberdeen Press and Journal 4 October 1909). Dunrobin Castle is, of course, at Golspie, and I have already mentioned that it was perhaps this association with the Sutherlands that persuaded him to take up home in Golspie. The Sutherland Monument on Ben Bhraggie can be seen clearly (when mist isn’t in the way) from the grave of Colin Thomson.

The Sutherland Monument is directly over Colin Thomson’s memorial here; photo by Jim Mackay

It is astonishing how he fitted these competitions and events into his life given his other commitments, including to his burgeoning family. I set out in full his census return in 1911 as this I think must be the most complete picture of the family together.

Parish of Golspie Census Return 1911, Old Bank Road, Golspie – house with five rooms with one or more windows
Colin Thomson head 41 speakes G&E mar Pipe Major Army Pensioner worker born Resolis Ross
Isabella Thomson wife 41 do. do. [duration of marriage] 20 [no. of children born] 8 [no. of children still alive] 7 born Fearn Ross
Annabella [Bella] Thomson daur 18 single born Inverness-shire [named after Isabella’s mother]
Christina Thomson do. 16 do. born Inverness-shire [named after Colin’s mother]
Marjory Thomson do. 15 do. born Aldershot Hampshire
Colin B[uchanan]. Thomson son 10 born Dublin
Alice A[melia]. Thomson daur 8 born Holywood County Down
Grace M[cIvor]. Thomson do. 6 born Nigg Ross
Ellen S[cott]. Thomson do. 4 born Inverness-shire

There had been an earlier Colin, who was born and died in 1898. And not present in the return was Norman Laughton Thomson, born in Inverness in 1908, named after Bella’s grandfather Norman Smart, although I don’t know where the Laughton came from.

Several websites have this absolutely charming image of Colin, Bella and family in their garden, I presume at Golspie a few years before this time. I would love to acknowledge the primary source so please let me know! The photograph (which I have refreshed a little) was annotated to say that the girl at the viewer’s top right was Marjory. The boy obviously would be Colin junior, and the girls can be identified from their age.

But the idyllic picture set out in that 1911 Census Return was not to last. Children Norman and Grace died in 1912. Marjory had departed for Rhodesia the year before:

Northern times and weekly journal for Sutherland and the North 1 June 1911
PRESENTATION.– On the occasion of her leaving for Rhodesia, South Africa, to fulfil a position as governess, Miss Marjory Thomson, daughter of Pipe-Major Colin Thomson, was met by a large number of her friends in the West End Mission Hall, Golspie, and presented with tangible tokens of esteem. Rev. Mr Mackenzie, U.F.C., Golspie, presided, and in the course of an appropriate speech, spoke in high terms of Miss Thomson’s sterling Christian character. Miss Sally Mackay, East End, in a few well-chosen words, made the presentation, and handed over to Miss Thomson in the name of her friends, a silver Geneva watch, watch bracelet, and a purse containing a handsome sum of money. Miss Thomson feelingly replied. Appropriate remarks were made during the evening by Mrs Donald, Mrs Stage, and Mrs Chisholm; Messrs D.E.A. Horne, D. Chisholm, and J.S. Donald. Miss Annabella Thomson on behalf of her parents, thanked all for the kindness they had shown her sister. Miss Thomson leaves for South Africa to-day.

And his wife, Isabella McKay, herself died at the relatively young age of 44 on 18 June 1914. A couple of months later Colin re-joined the army. I suspect with Bella gone he felt his place was once more on duty.


Colin Thomson — back to active service and second retirement

He was on active service during World War 1 as Sergeant Piper from 5 August 1914 through to 6 March 1919 when he was discharged as “No longer physically fit for War Service.” He suffered from rheumatism.

a group of Seaforth Highlanders in the First World War, courtesy of James Holm of Easter Ferryton, whose uncle Thomas Holm of Alness Ferry is marked by a cross

Many army records were lost in the Blitz, but quite a few relating to Colin Thomson have survived, although deciphering them is another matter. However, there is more there for those who understand these records well. I note that the military records even contain details of his children’s birth dates: “Anabella 20/2/93; Christina 7/6/94; Marjory 14/1/96; Colin 20/9/00; Alice 5/10/02; Grace 11/1/05; Ellen Scott 5/7/06”.

His mother had died in Dingwall in the middle of the first world war.

Now discharged from the army, Colin continued to provide music at some events and act as judge at competitions. I note he was still judging in the last years of his life. When he died, he is not recorded as a pipe major but as a “Bagpipe Reed Manufacturer” but I have been unable to discover much about this aspect of his life. Several websites mention that he was a well-known reed maker. Given how erratically reeds could perform, reeds made by an award-winning piper would have been very desirable.

He died when under anaesthetic during an operation in the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh.

Edinburgh deaths
Colin Thomson Bagpipe Reed Manufacturer widower of Isabella Mackay died 16 Nov 1933 Royal Infirmary Edinburgh (usual residence Old Bank Road Golspie) 63 parents Colin Thomson farmer (d) Christina Thomson ms Sutherland (d) … heart failure while under anaesthetic informant C.B. Thomson son Balholm Pinner Middlesex

The great Colin Thomson is buried in Golspie New Cemetery (St Andrews), not far from Dunrobin Castle. His memorial, a solid red granite headstone, also commemorates his wife and several of their children.

Golspie New Cemetery
In Loving Memory of Pipe Major Colin Thomson who died 16th. November 1933 aged 63 years
Also of his wife Isabella McKay who died 18th. June 1914 aged 44 years
Their daughter Grace who died 26th. October 1912 aged 7 years
And their two sons who died in infancy
Also their daughter Christina who died 16th. February 1975 aged 80 years

Photo by Jim Mackay

As usual, I have not intruded upon the lives of more recent descendants. Suffice to say that several of the children of Colin and Isabella went on to have families of their own, with descendants distributed across the globe.


The Tunes of Colin Thomson

The most famous tune involving Colin Thomson is about him rather than by him. He is the subject of the great competition march Colin Thomson by Roderick Campbell, which can be heard here

The tune by Colin Thomson in which I have the greatest interest is a difficult and excellent jig called Resolis and can be heard here

Colin composed three 6/8 Marches which have been described by author Colin Campbell on the Piping Press website here thus:

Mrs John MacDonald of Aultnacealgach

Previously an inn and hunting lodge, Aultnacealgach is now a motel and lies beside Loch Borralan on A837 road from Bonar Bridge, via Lairg. Was Aultnacealgach a stopping place on route marches, or an officers’ howff?

The Assynt Hills


the Elphin Lads

C Company of the 1/5th Seaforths had drill stations at Lairg, Lochinver and Elphin. Killed in WW1, and named on Lochinver Memorial, are two Elphin lads, Donald Campbell and Hugh Fraser, both Seaforths.

I shall update this section as more tunes of Colin Thomson come to my attention.


The Half-Siblings of Colin Thomson

Jessie Dawson (1873–) had an illegitimate child named Jessie Dawson in 1894. Both Jessies went on to marry. Jessie senior had become a cook in the large household of Stafford Villa out in Achterneed, Fodderty, before marrying coachman John Mackenzie at Achterneed in 1907. Jessie junior had become a laundry maid in Dingwall, before marrying seaman John A. Franklin in Dingwall in 1918.

Jamesina Cameron Sutherland (1884–) was a domestic servant and married water bailiff John Douglas in 1926 in Dingwall.

There were numerous Thomson children at Ferryton, in the Parish of Resolis, born to crofter Colin Thomson and Jessie Gray. There were Isabella (1870), James (1873), Donald (1875), Alexander John (1876–1881), Margaret-Ann (1878), Jessie Gray (1880–1915), Colin (1882–1914), Alexander John (1885), Lilias Gray (1888–1888) and Hugh (1891–1955). It was Hugh who continued with the croft at Ferryton, and his memorial stands just north of the yew trees in Kirkmichael. Further than this, I have not intruded.

Memorial commemorating Hugh Thomson and family at Kirkmichael; photo by Jim Mackay


Christina Wemyss ms Sutherland (c1843–1916)

The link between Pipe Major Colin Thomson and Pipe Major John Wemyss, is, of course, Christina Sutherland, who was the mother of the former and the wife of the second. She was born in Cromarty according to some of her Census Returns, and certainly the family were there, at Peddieston, in 1841. No marriage record has emerged for her parents, John Sutherland and Mary McLennan, and no baptism record has emerged for any of their children. From the Census returns they had Robert, born Inverness, c1834; George, born Inverness c1836; Jessie, born Cromarty c1839 (who married Kinbeachie tailor Roderick McRae in 1863); Christina, born Cromarty c1843 and Sophia, born Cromarty c1848.

Christina’s birth year varies dramatically depending on if you calculate her age from census returns, marriage certificate or death certificate, The most accurate will be that calculated from her first census record in 1851 when she was given as eight years old, which is why I suggest she was born about 1843.

The family had resided in Inverness before moving to Cromarty some time between 1837 and 1841, again by calculating from the age and birth location of children in the 1851 Census. I see John Sutherland in the Cromarty Kirk Session Accounts in receipt of support meal and coals from February 1844 up to 12 January 1846 (when it is mentioned that he was sick). He first crops up in Resolis, at Easter Ardmeanach at a meeting of the Parochial Relief Board on 17 November 1845, when he is entered on the roll for Temporary Relief “John Sutherland, Easter Ardmeanach 13/ per Quarter …The abovenamed John Sutherland not having acquired an industrial residence in the Parish of Resolis, any aid now and henceforth to be granted him to be recovered from his last Parish, which is supposed to be Cromarty.” It didn’t prove to be so simple, and I see the family mentioned several times thereafter as the Resolis Parochial Board tried to determine if Inverness or Cromarty would support the family. The family moved to Cullicudden in Resolis where they resided for several decades.

From the names of his parents given on his death certificate, John Sutherland and Christian Munro, and from census returns, I believe John Sutherland was the son of the miller at Midmills in Inverness. He was born in 1807, but clearly had fallen on hard times. His various occupations are given thus: agricultural labourer (1841 Census), shoemaker (1851 Census), pauper (shoemaker) (1861 Census), agricultural labourer unemployed (1871 Census), pauper, former Hostler (1876, wife’s death certificate, informant John Sutherland himself), coach driver (death certificate 1879, informant Christina), coachman (Christina’s marriage certificate, 1898). I think piecing that together he must have started out as a coachman or ostler, but by the time Christina was born, he was picking up what work he could find as an agricultural labourer or shoemaker. His wife, Mary McLennan, again according to her death certificate and census returns, was born in Gairloch to a John McLennan, a ground-officer, and Janet Gillespie, but I have not traced the family.

We have already seen how Christina had a succession of children by different fathers whilst residing in Resolis and then in Kiltearn. She moved to Kiltearn following the death of her mother in Resolis:

Parish of Resolis Deaths 1876
Mary Sutherland pauper (married to John Sutherland pauper, former Hostler) died 8 February 1876 at Cullicudden Muir Resolis age 76 parents John McLennan ground-officer (d) Janet McLennan ms Gillespie (d) informant John Sutherland husband (present)

Her elderly father moved to reside with Christina, and he died there in Kiltearn:

Parish of Kiltearn Deaths 1879
John Sutherland coach driver widower of Mary McLennan died 18 December 1879 at Lemlair Kiltearn age 78 parents John Sutherland farm labourer (d) Christina Sutherland ms Munro (d) informant Christina Sutherland daughter present

Christina was still there in Lemlair in 1881:

Parish of Kiltearn Census Return 1881 — Lemlair, house with one room with one or more windows
Christina Sutherland Head Unmarried 32 farm outdoor serv born Cromarty speaks G
Colin Thompson Son 12 scholar born Resolis
Jessie Dawson Daughter 8 scholar born Resolis

However, Christina moved to the metropolis of Dingwall, and in 1891 was in residence there with her two daughters. Young Colin of course by then had joined up and was, at the time of the Census, in the garrison at Fort George.

Dingwall Census Return 1891 — Fingal Place, house with two rooms with one or more windows
Catherine [sic] Sutherland Head Unmarried 38 Housekeeper born Cromarty speaks G&E
Jessie Dawson Daughter Unmarried 17 General servant born Resolis speaks G&E
Jamesina Cameron Sutherland Daughter 6 Scholar born Dingwall speaks E
Barbara McDonald Visitor 26 General servant born Assynt, Sutherland speaks G&E

She picked up work as a laundrymaid, and then, surprisingly, married piper John Wemyss. I assume without any evidence that John Wemyss must have been a good friend of her son, Colin Thomson; they must certainly have been at least acquaintances. They had been in the Seaforth Militia together and had met at countless Highland games. What Colin’s take was on his mother marrying John Wemyss we cannot tell.

Dingwall Marriages 1898
6 July 1898 at 2 Fingal Place Dingwall after Banns according to the Forms of the Free Church of Scotland
(signed) John Wemyss piper (bachelor) age 37 6 Blackwells Street Dingwall parents James Wemyss crofter (d) and Jessie Wemyss ms Campbell (d)
(signed) Christina Sutherland laundrymaid (spinster) age 44 2 Fingal Place Dingwall parents John Sutherland coachman (d) and Mary Sutherland ms McLennan (d)
(signed) M. Macaskill (signed) John Walker witness Catherine McDonald witness

We never see them together thereafter. In the 1901 Census, John can be found as a piper in the garrison at Fort George, whilst Christina is at home in Dingwall with Jessie Dawson, the daughter of her daughter Jessie Dawson. Jessie herself was not far away, a cook in Stafford Villa, Fodderty. And Jamesina, under the name Jamesina Sutherland, was a servant in a lodging house in Fodderty, also close by.

Dingwall Census Return 1901 — Grant Street, off High Street, house with two rooms with one or more windows
Christina Wemyss Head Married 46 Housekeeper born Resolis [sic]
Jessie Dawson Grandchild 7 Scholar born Dingwall

John Wemyss must have jumped ship between this time and 1908, when he bigamously re-married in Glasgow. The marriage had lasted less than ten years. By the time of the next Census in 1911, Christina had reverted to her maiden surname. She was still recorded as married, but clearly she recognised that John Wemyss was not returning to their home in Dingwall.

Dingwall Census Return 1911 — Grant Street, part of house with one room with one or more windows
Christina Sutherland Head 57 speaks G&E mar [duration of marriage: blank] [children born alive] 3 [children still living] 1 [an error, as all three were alive; she probably meant one was still living with her!] washerwoman laundrywork worker born Resolis [sic]
Ina do. daur 26 single general servant (domestic) worker born Dingwall
Jessie Dawson g child 17 single general servant (domestic) worker born Dingwall

She died five years later, in 1916.

Dingwall Deaths 1916
Christina Wemyss (married to John Wemyss, Piper) died 16 July 1916 at 12 George Street, Dingwall age 63 parents John Sutherland Shoemaker (deceased) Mary Sutherland ms McLennan (deceased) informant Jamesina Sutherland Daughter (present)

I have been unable to trace where she is buried, but I imagine it would be at Mitchell Hill cemetery in Dingwall. It is surprising that none of her children had a memorial erected to her.


John Wemyss (1861–1927)

John Wemyss was the son of labourer James Wemyss (1822–1888) and Janet or Jessie Campbell (1826–1894). The locations of James give a good feel of how a family would move about but always in the same general locale: Heights of Dochchairn, Fodderty, (1841), Mill Street, Dingwall, (1851 and 1861), Heights of Dochcarty, Fodderty, (1871 and 1881). The ridge to the north of the River Peffrey between Dingwall and Strathpeffer bears a line of “Heights” from east to west, all in the Parish of Fodderty: Heights of Dochcarty, Heights of Fodderty, Heights of Keppoch, Heights of Inchvannie and Heights of Achterneed.

Looking down from the Heights of Dochcarty to the town of Dingwall, with the Black Isle across the Firth; photo by Jim Mackay

At time of marriage, James Wemyss was residing at the Heights of Dochcarty and she was from the Heights of Inchvannie, just further along the ridge.towards Strathpeffer. They had married in November 1845.

John was born in Dingwall itself in 1861.

Dingwall Births 1861
John Wemyss born 17 May 1861 at West End, Dingwall parents James Wemyss general labourer Janet Wemyss ms Campbell married 12 December 1845 Parish of Fodderty informant James Wemyss his x mark father (present)

Although their marriage date was given here by James as 12 December 1845, the Fodderty parish register records the marriage in November 1845, on 29 November on the original rough entry (where Janet’s address is Heights of Inchvany) and 30 November on a “tidied up” copy (where Janet’s address is Heights of Inchrorie)! Michty me! Let’s just agree on 1845!


John Wemyss — early engagement with the militia

John became involved with the military from an early age, and in the 1881 Census he is to be found in the garrison at Fort George, but in the role of a groom! His cousin Hector is also there, and he emerges as a piper as well. In the Return below H.R.M stands for The Highland Rifle Militia. In the Army Reforms of that year of 1881 the 3rd (Militia) Battalion Seaforth Highlanders was formed by redesignation of the 96th Highland Rifle Militia (the old Ross-shire Militia). Its uniform conformed with the Regular battalions of the regiment, except that it continued to wear trews of Mackenzie tartan instead of the kilt.

Cap Badge of the Highland Rifle Militia

Ardersier Census Return 1881 — Fort George
Hector Wemyess do. Private H.R.M. unmarried 24 Piper born Dingwall
John Wemyess Private H.R.M. unmarried 21 Groom born Dingwall

Cousin Hector was present in Fort George as a piper in 1871 as well, aged 19 at this time, from Fodderty but spelled “Hector Wemyes” on this occasion. Hector’s parents were John’s uncle and aunt, Peter Wemyss and Ann Brogan or Brogue in Fodderty, although he doesn’t appear in any register. He can be seen in household in 1861 in the Heights of Dochcarty aged 9, so he must have been born about 1852. He can be seen in the prize lists for piping at Highland games as well, but nothing to the extent of his cousin John. His father Peter Wemyss had the unfortunate distinction of being killed by a train on the North Highland line, close to Dingwall station, in 1888. On Hector’s death certificate (he died in Inverness in 1907), he is described “General Labourer, Late Pipe Major Seaforth Highlanders” so John Wemyss was very much following the footsteps of his older cousin! Hector’s brother was named William (1842–1898), and when John was disguising his tracks when he married bigamously in 1927 the name that came to his mind when he had to fill in “father” was “William Wemyss”.


John Wemyss — early piping success

John Wemyss first comes to notice as a piper himself in the press in 1889, when he would have been 28 years old. He was a piper with the Seaforths by that time.

Ross-shire Journal 9 August 1889
John Wemyss, Dingwall, one of the Seaforth Reserve pipers, obtained the second prize at the Nairn Games, on Saturday, for bagpipe playing – reels and marches.

This was the start of a long series of prizes, not so often being first but frequently in second or third position. Despite this, as a military reserve, his day job was as a humble labourer, and that is how he is described in 1891, back at the Heights of Dochcarty with his widowed mother:

Parish of Fodderty Census Return 1891 — Hts of Docharty
Janet Wemyss Head Widow 66 Cotter born Fodderty
John Wemyss Son Unmarried 28 General labourer born Dingwall
John McKenzie Grandson Unmarried 23 General labourer born Dingwall

I have provided in the Colin Thomson section examples of prize-lists demonstrating that the two pipers must have known each other well. Here are another few:

Ross-shire Journal 28 August 1891
Alness Athletic Association. Annual Gathering. … PRIZE LIST. … OPEN COMPETITIONS. … Pipe Music 1 Murdo Mackenzie, piper to Lady Ann Murray, Lochcarron; 2 Colin Thompson, Dingwall; 3 John Wemyss, Dingwall

Ross-shire Journal 25 September 1891
Tain Highland Gathering. … OPEN COMPETITIONS. … Pipe-Music – Reels, Marches, and Strathspeys – 1. W. Maclennan, Edinburgh; 2 Colin Thomson, Dingwall; 3 John Wemyss, Dingwall.

Ross-shire Journal 30 August 1895
Invercharron Highland Games. … OPEN COMPETITIONS.– … Pipe Music – Reels and Strathspeys– 1. John Wemyss, Dingwall; 2. Pipe-Major Thompson; …

I could give many more examples, with the same small group of quality pipers winning the prizes in the “Open” categories in these games, usually (but not always) with Colin Thomson placed ahead of John Wemyss. Thomson excelled in the pibrochs, and was called one of the finest pibroch players in Scotland, while Wemyss did well with the reels and strathspeys. It might not be a coincidence that Wemyss was often engaged in providing music at social events, such as here:

Ross-shire Journal 17 February 1893
Dingwall – Brahan Volunteer Ball. – The annual dance of the Brahan Coy., 1st V.B.S.H. [Brahan Company of the 1st Volunteer Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders], was held in the Masonic Hall, Dingwall, on Friday evening. … The Dingwall String Band, under the leadership of Mr Stenhouse, and the Company’s piper, Mr John Wemyss, Dochcarty, supplied excellent music…

Ross-shire Journal 29 September 1899
Garve Reading-Room. Concert in Aid of Funds. … After the concert the school was in an incredibly short time cleared, and a dance was engaged in. Music was supplied by Mr John Wemyss, Dingwall, on the pipes, and Mr James Reid, Dingwall, on the violin. Dancing was carried on with enthusiasm far into the following morning.

a picnic locally, and of course no social event would be complete without a piper. I think the piper may very well be one of the Mackenzie brothers from Alness Ferry; photograph courtesy of Andrew Mowat, Woodhead (and if you know anything more about any of the people in it, then please let me know!)

and another outing, this time to Castle Craig, and I think this has to be one of the Cullicudden Musical Association’s annual events – and a piper was of course essential. Photograph courtesy of Andrew Mowat, Woodhead


John Wemyss — marriage to Christina Sutherland

In 1898, as previously recounted, he had married Christina Sutherland in Dingwall and had embarked on married life. I don’t know if his daughter, Johan, would have been present at the wedding – she was working in Inverness in 1901 so it would not have been a great journey if she was there at that time. She would have been aware of his success in the piping field of course. His daughter Johan? We shall return to her later!

By the next year of 1900 he had become Pipe Major with the Royal Scottish Reserve Regiment:

Ross-shire Journal 28 September 1900
The Northern Meeting. … Strathspeys and reels – 1 Andrew Macdonald Glengrant House, Rothes; 2 Pipe-Major John Wemyss, Royal Scottish Reserve Regiment, Fort-george;

The Royal Reserve Regiments were reserve battalions of the British Army in existence only from 1900 to 1901. So I assume it was back with the Seaforth Reserves that he was Pipe Major in 1905:

Ross-shire Journal 25 August 1905
At Nairn Games on Saturday several Ross-shire natives scored successes. … Pipe-Major John Wemyss, Dingwall, had a first and second for bagpipe playing.

And then he disappears.


John Wemyss — a new life

Now, he had married Christina Sutherland in 1898. We pick him up in Fort George in 1901 in the long list of enrolled soldiers working for the Government:

But he suddenly disappears after attending various games in 1905. His wife, Christina, remained in Dingwall and is given as “married” in the 1911 Census. When she died in 1916 she was still given as “married” with husband “John Wemyss”. But where was he?

Much investigation of blind alleys followed, until I wondered if he perhaps had disappeared to make a new life for himself.

The 1911 Census Return for Bothwell in Lanarkshire contains a John Wemyss from Dingwall, with a middle name of Campbell. However, he was working in the coal industry and was married to a lady called Elizabeth, so initially I passed over him.

Parish of Bothwell Census Return 1911 — 8 Millside
John Campbell Wemyss head 49 speaks G&E married coal miner & labourer above ground born Ross-shire Dingwall
Elizabeth do. wife 50 mar. 3 years married no children by marriage born Lanarkshire Newarthill
Maggie Bruce adopted 10 school born Lanarkshire Braidwood
Robert Finnie boarder 26 single coal miner & hewer born Lanarkshire Newmains

I returned to him several times as, after all, how many men called John Wemyss from Dingwall of the right age could there be. I found his marriage certificate:

Glasgow Marriages 1908
21 March 1908 at 50 Wellington Street Glasgow by declaration, in presence of William Lees, Commercial Traveller, and Margaret Brown, or Macreadie
John Wemyss Corporal (4th Scottish Rifles) (bachelor) age 44 The Barracks, Hamilton parents William Wemyss, farmer (d) and Jessie Wemyss ms Campbell (d)
Elizabeth Finnie (widow) age 45 7 Watts Land Newmains by Wishaw parents James Brown waggon driver (d) and Esther Brown ms Dobbie (d)
Warrant of Sheriff-Substitute of Lanarkshire dated March 23rd 1908

Well, the mother’s name was correct for our John Wemyss, but why was his father given as William? The same is given on his death certificate in 1927:

Bothwell, Lanarkshire, Deaths 1927
John Wemyss general labourer married to Elizabeth Brown or Finnie 13 Aug 1927 at 2 Green Street Bothwell age 63 parents William Wemyss farmer (d) Jessie Wemyss ms Campbell (d) informant Robert Finnie stepson 27 Park Street Blantyre

It looked very much as if John had joined up again, with the 4th Scottish Rifles (The Scottish Rifles were the Cameronians and their Garrison and Heaquarters were Hamilton Barracks at Hamilton) and had re-married bigamously. But while the evidence was strong, I’d have wished for some further confirmation. This came from the surviving First World War military records, with a different regiment altogether.

The military records show that he was in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, with regimental number 21667. He enlisted on 31 August 1914 and was discharged on 22 March 1919 with rank “Sgt. Piper”. Sergeant Piper was the rank assigned to Pipe Major in the army, so John had become a Pipe Major with the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. In case there is any doubt, these military records state that John Wemyss, regimental number 21667, was from 27 Green Street, Bothwell in Lanarkshire, and his wife’s name was Elizabeth. And the civil records state that this same John Wemyss was born in Dingwall and his mother was Jessie Campbell.

Now, there is such a thing as coincidence, but two Pipe Majors from Dingwall named John Wemyss in the same period with the same mother would be a step too far, so I think it is safe to conclude that this is the same John Wemyss moving away from his Dingwall roots and re-establishing himself in Lanarkshire. Life with Christina Sutherland must have palled on him, and he implemented what was called “the poor man’s divorce” – bigamy.

It is sad that his undoubted accomplishments as a piper and as a pipe major should have been thus over-shadowed by his personal life.

The 1st Battalion Pipes and Drums at Schloss Berg in 1919, the year that John Wemyss was discharged; thanks to King’s Own Scottish Borderers Regimental Museum for the original photograph


Johan, daughter of John Wemyss, Pipe-Major

When John Wemyss married Christina Sutherland, she was about 55 years old. Elizabeth Brown, his second wife, was born in 1860, so must have been about 48 when he married her in 1908. It was therefore unlikely that there would be any children in either marriage, although I see from the 1911 Census that James and Elizabeth adopted a child, one Maggie Bruce. But John Wemyss was the biological father of one child, Johan Wemyss, born when he was a very young man.

She was born at Ardochy of Breakachy, to the west of Beauly.

Kilmorack Births 1878
Johann Fraser illegitimate born 23 June 1878 at Ardochy of Breachachy, Kilmorack [father blank] [mother] Christina Fraser domestic servant informant Christina Fraser her x mark mother Peter Fraser registrar witness

John Wemyss would have been 17 at this time, 16 when Johann was conceived. His name doesn’t appear on the Birth Certificate, but she starts calling herself Wemyss by the 1901 Census:

Inverness Census Return 1901 – 3 Factory Close, house with 2 rooms with 1 or more windows
Duncan McKenzie head mar 33 gardener worker born Ross-shire Dingwall speaks G&E
Mary A do. wife mar 35 born Forres
Tomasin do. 13 scholar born Inverness
Alexander 10 scholar born Inverness
Johan Wemyss 22 domestic servant born Invernessshire Kilmorack

She married Alexander Sinclair and it is then that the name of Pipe Major John Wemyss appears:

Brora Marriages 1903
1 January 1903 at Brora Parish of Clyne after publication according to the forms of the Free Church
(signed) Alexander Sinclair hotel boots (bachelor) 23 Brora parents Donald Sinclair fishcurer Williamina Sinclair ms McIntosh
(signed) Annie Wemyss barmaid spinster 23 Brora parents John Wemyss pipe major Seaforth Highlanders Christina Wemyss ms Fraser
(signed) Kenneth Cameron F.C. Minister Brora signed Donald Cameron witness Donald Gilchrist witness

Now clearly John Wemyss wasn’t a pipe major when she was born, although he probably was a young recruit to the militia when he and his mother met. But Johan must have followed his career with interest, and chose from at least 1901 to take his surname.

By 1911, they were in Dingwall with a young family:

Dingwall Census Return 1911 — 4 Ussie Place, house with three rooms with one or more windows
Alexander Sinclair head 30 speaks G&E married insurance agent worker born Sutherlandshire
Johan do. wife 32 speaks G&E married born Invernessshire
Hughina do. daur 7 school born Ross-shire Knockbain
Janet do. daur 5 school do. Dingwall
John do. son 2 do. Dingwall

Alexander Sinclair, her husband, died in 1923 in Invergordon Hospital. Hughina (1904–1974) married an Alexander Macmillan. John Robertson Sinclair (1908–1973) emigrated to Australia. Another son, James Fraser Sinclair (1905–1987) married Margaret Foster Brown; he had also emigrated to Australia. And they had twins, Donald or Dougal Sinclair (1913–1973) and George (1913–1974), both buried in Fodderty where they share a small grey granite headstone.

And Johan herself died in 1930 and is buried at Mitchell Hill, Dingwall.

Mitchell Hill Cemetery, Dingwall
Erected by the family in loving memory of their father and mother ALEXANDER SINCLAIR who died 11th April 1923 also his beloved wife JOHAN WEMYSS who died 4th Oct. 1930.

Her death certificate again confirms her father was pipe major John Wemyss (note the registrar seems to have heard “Lossie Place” for “Ussie Place”):

Inverness Deaths 1930
Johan Sinclair widow of Alexander Sinclair barman died 4 October 1930 at Northern Infirmary Inverness usual residence 4 Lossie Place Dingwall age 52 parents John Wemyss Pipe Major (d) Christina Wemyss ms Fraser (d) informant J. Sinclair son (present) 4 Lossie Place Dingwall

And so there are many descendants of Pipe Major John Wemyss after all.

the Johan Wemyss memorial in Mitchell Hill Cemetery, Dingwall; photo by Jim Mackay

photo by Jim Mackay


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