Saturday, March 27, 2010

So Much History on a Single Stone

Recently, on one of my Edinburgh “walkabouts,” I discovered Rosebank Cemetery in Leith. The cemetery dates back about a hundred and fifty years, not particularly old for this part of the world.

Rosebank is of interest because it contains a memorial and the graves of soldiers killed in the Gretna Rail Disaster of 1915, when 226 people, mostly members of the 7th Battalion of the Royal Scots, were killed in an accident near Glasgow that involved five different trains. It is the deadliest railway accident in the history of the United Kingdom. Because it occurred during World War I, when news has highly censored by the government, the disaster is not well known. The orange colored memorial features a large Celtic cross and bronze plaques with the names of the soldiers who died on their way to the trenches of France.

As I wandered about Rosebank, examining various tombstones and snapping photographs of things that caught my eye, I was struck by one particular stone. There on a single marker, broken as so many are, was the tale of a single Scottish family, all dead for more than a century.

The stone tells the story of David Wishart Watt, born around 1822, in Leith, Edinburgh’s thriving port of the time. He was first married to Elizabeth Gordon, a woman very close to his own age. Elizabeth died on July 28, 1866, at the age of 43, after having suffered the lost of three of their young children – Joseph on July 21, 1856, Agnes on November 23, 1856, and a second daughter named Agnes on December 1, 1865.

Watt remarried quickly, as was common in those days, needing a mother to care for his children. His second wife, Alison Wight, was approximately 10 years younger than he, but she died within three years, on September 5, 1869. In the years that followed, Watt lost three more of his children. Alfred died on May 25, 1878 at the age of 18, Joseph died on the day after Christmas in 1880 at the age of 23, and Frederick Niven died in London. Watt, lived on until June 11, 1900, when he died at the age of 78, having outlived two wives and six children.

There is much history on that single stone and yet it leaves so many unanswered questions. This is the frustration faced by historians, especially those of us who are fascinated with the lives of ordinary men and women. We must try to reconstruct the past from the tiny bits and pieces of information that survive more by chance than intent.

© 2010 by David Lee McMullen


  1. There is a lot of information available but putting it together can be the difficult part. Here's a little about my mother-in-law's family.

    The 1921 census ( shows Micheal O'Rourke, a 38 year old widower with 7 children. The list of the soldiers in the Newfoundland Regiment ( shows that Michael joined (or was drafted) and was number 1596. Since Michael had a child in 1916 and another in July of 1918, Michael was probably in France in 1916 and 1917 when he must have been wounded (or they wouldn't have sent him home). My mother-in-law tells me that this is the case as her father had severe scars from the war.

    The 1921 census ( also shows Catherine Walsh a 28 year old widow with 5 children.

    And the 1935 census ( shows the two of them together with 11 kids including 5 new ones not on the 1921 census (including my mother-in-law).

  2. It is like a giant jigsaw puzzle with half of the pieces missing from the box, but it is amazing what we can find, what we can guess, and what we can only wish we knew.

  3. In the Shakespeare play, Henry V, Shakespeare puts an incredible speech in the mouth of Henry. The St. Crispin's Day speech is awe-inspiring and makes you want to grab a sword and start hacking Frenchmen. But obviously that's Shakespeare and not Henry V. What did the real Henry say on the eve of the battle? Or did he say anything at all? French sources claim that he told his nobles that they would be ransomed if captured but there is no way to know if this true. The truth is that we can never know the truth. There is so much historians can never know which is one of the things that historians have to learn to accept.