Tracing the Past

by Andrew G. Lockhart

(taken from Tapestry, the Story of a Family)

A few miles to the west of Edinburgh, and not far from the Firth of Forth, lies the village of Abercorn. It was a hamlet as early as the seventh century and is mentioned in the annals of the Venerable Bede, the Northumbrian cleric best known for his History of the English People.

Today, Abercorn is a mere dot on the map. Indeed, on some maps, it does not appear at all. It comprises a few farms, isolated cottages, an ancient church and very little else. The villages of Newton and Philipstoun to the south are small by any standard. Yet in the 18th Century Abercorn was a parish in its own right and part of the County of Linlithgow. In 1792, it stretched from the town of Linlithgow itself in the west to the village of Dalmeny at the southern end of the present day Forth Bridge.

Between Abercorn Church and the shore of the Firth lies Hopetoun House, one of Britain’s most beautiful stately homes. Hopetoun is the seat of Adrian Hope, the fourth Marquess of Linlithgow and, until 1987 when he succeeded to that title, the Earl of Hopetoun. The house dates from the 17th Century but its later extensions and alterations include some of the best work of the Adam family – William and his sons John, Robert and James. It has often been described as Versailles in miniature. ‘The natural beauty of the parish,’ wrote the author of the Statistical Account of the parish  in 1799, ‘is greatly heightened by the quantity of land which is planted, and the taste with which it has been done.’

When my story begins in the late 1770s, Abercorn’s population was 850. Most adults, both men and women, were employed on the land or in domestic service by owners of the nearby great estates. Wages were not high but employees appear to have been treated well here, even to the extent of support in retirement and widows’ benefits. One such estate worker in the employ of the second Earl of Hopetoun was a man called James Spring. He was my four-greats-grandfather.

One of the most recent stones in the churchyard of Abercorn, many of which are much weathered and difficult – if not impossible – to decipher, is a testimony to James’s long service. It reads:


James Spring was born in Banchory on Deeside in 1756. His grandfather seems to have migrated along the River Dee from Aberdeen and settled by the 1720s at a place called Candieshill, near Crathes Castle and its extensive forests. William Spring, James’s father, was born there in 1726.

James was about 20 years old when he came to Linlithgowshire to work for the second Earl of Hopetoun. The first mention of him in the estate archives was in February 1780, when he was paid five shillings for a full week’s work. That he lived a long life in the Hope family’s service is in no way remarkable.

The world of work has changed. The era of big business, corporate lawyers and accountants, multi-tiered health authorities and the five-day week has replaced a simpler age. Then, the grocer or butcher dispensed all the news that mattered, the journeyman was highly respected for his skill, the local doctor and school teacher were admired for their superior knowledge, and men worked from dawn till dusk, six days a week and sometimes more, to provide for their dependants. (Of course, many women worked just as long and hard and some even longer, and unpaid, in the home!)

We may scoff nowadays at cap-doffing and other signs of subservience we read of in 19th Century fiction. The old class system has a lot to answer for; it categorised people according to their birth and accorded them a status in life from which they were rarely, if ever, able to escape. It hindered free expression of social and political views, it hampered reform in education, housing and health, and it sparked revolution all over Europe – though not all revolutions were as bloody as the one in France.

It is undeniable that there were great abuses of power, yet the system was not wholly evil. People had a sense of place; there was little need for pretence because they knew who they were and how they fitted into society at large. Communities thrived on mutual respect, responsibility and loyalty. With enlightened and, moreover, successful employers, life could have been very pleasant, even without modern comforts.

This was the kind of society in which James Spring and his family lived and worked. In return for their loyalty, husbands had a job and a home for life; their continuing welfare and that of their spouses and children concerned the lord of the manor because he, as well as they, benefited from it. Perhaps we should ponder whether the old system has not been replaced by something infinitely worse.

Despite our illusions of freedom, real power is in the hands of wealthy corporations; the hard-won privileges of free education and universal suffrage are scorned by many. In a society dominated by the cult of personality, in which we are free to aspire to anything we like, people laugh at loyalty and respect has largely vanished.

The James Spring Stone in Abercorn Churchyard

But I digress. By the second half of the 18th Century, one family who were already well established in Abercorn were the Giffords. Robert Gifford and his wife Magdalene Granger had six children, of whom the eldest was Elizabeth, born in the hamlet of Newton in 1762.  In those days, the Scottish Church took an uncompromising position on pre-marital sex. Let anyone who doubts it study the baptism record of Elizabeth Gifford. Her unfortunate parents were censured for posterity in the following extract: ‘Febry. 18th – This day Robert Gifford and Magdalene Granger in Newton had their first Child born in an antenuptual fornication a Daughter and baptised March 4th 1762 Name Elizabeth.’

In 1781, James Spring was promoted to senior forester. He moved into a cottage at Parkhead, a tiny hamlet lying between Hopetoun House and Newton village. In 1783 he married, and his bride was Elizabeth, who gave birth to the couple’s first child, Magdalene, in December of that year.

The name Magdalene was a popular choice in this part of the country in that era and at the risk of buying into a piece of alternative history I wondered why. There were several Magdalenes in the Gifford family tree and would be several more in the generations to follow. The origin of this family name appears to have been in the parish of Kirkliston, which lay the southern border of Abercorn.

Today, the village of Kirkliston is surrounded by modernity – on three sides by motorways and on the fourth by the runway of Edinburgh Airport. However, it once lay on the royal road between Edinburgh and Linlithgow. Magdalene Granger, Elizabeth Gifford’s mother, was born there in 1741. Her mother’s maiden name was Marshall, her grandmother yet another Magdalene. Moreover, there were no fewer than five Magdalene Marshalls born or married in the same period.

There was also another Magdalene Granger born in Kirkliston in 1753. Her mother was a Wilkie, and several Magdalene Wilkies had been born in the parish around the turn of the century.

Old records tell us that Kirkliston was once, in the 12th Century, called Temple Liston, and it comprised of estates owned by the Knights Templar. The village church, rebuilt in modern times, was once a Templar church.

Readers of the popular Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, or The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln, will be familiar with the legends: how Mary Magdalene – she of the Christian Gospels – escaped Palestine to France after the Crucifixion and claim she was the wife of Jesus and carrying his child. Some imaginative writers would go further and state unequivocally that their son would go on to found a dynasty of kings.

Enthusiasts of those works may ponder what circumstances brought the Magdalene name to Scotland and consider what its connection might be with the Lothians – and with Leith, which is awash with Templar lore. They may even wish to read the history of the St Clairs of Rosslyn. Yes, they may, but my interest lies elsewhere!

James and Elizabeth Spring had four children altogether – two boys and two girls, although a document inside Abercorn church suggests there were more. After Magdalene came William (1786), James (1789) and finally Margaret (1796). As the family grew, the Springs may have moved into another cottage in the hamlet. It must have been decent accommodation because in 1813 and 1814 a local tax of four and sixpence per annum was levied on it – about 22p of today’s money, but a considerable amount in those days. The Parkhead cottages were rebuilt in the late 19th Century and are still occupied today.

By the early eighteen hundreds, James had worked himself up to the position of head forester to the earls. In the years from 1819 to 1822, the Hope family paid him a salary of £35 per annum, and in 1819-1820, he had enough men working for him to run up a wages bill of £380. He also received some payment in kind. Hopetoun was a successful and prosperous estate, and James benefited in other ways, such as receiving very fair expenses for travelling on estate business, which he seems to have done regularly. To celebrate the 1822 visit of King George IV to Hopetoun, he was given six shillings and sixpence year for the purchase of a new pony bridle!

Natural forest and plantation covered about one sixth of the area of the parish of Abercorn and a major part of it was on Hopetoun land. According to the Statistical Account of 1791, ‘Abercorn naturally strikes the eye from the opposite coast of Fife’. In a later account, the parish minister wrote in glowing terms of Hopetoun’s firs and elms, and of its imported species of tree. Those, and ‘hard wood trees … designed as shelter belts for both stock and game’ as well as some field enclosures were included in James Spring’s responsibilities.

Without an exact date for James’s arrival in Abercorn, it is impossible to say whether he was still working at the time of his death.  It is indeed probable he was; there is no evidence to suggest he was being supported by any of his children. He died on the 11th of April, 1838, leaving a widow, two daughters and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Elizabeth survived him by only nine months.

Magdalene, my three-greats-grandmother, had three sons and two daughters with her husband John Greenfield: Elizabeth, John, James, Agnes and William. The elder John was a man whom, in those days, his contemporaries would have called a gentleman’s gentleman. Though I know very little else about him, I do know a great deal about the children.

John, my great-great-grandfather, born in 1809, became a master builder in Edinburgh. His eldest son, James Spring Greenfield (1851-1890), who was a grocer and wine and spirits merchant in Leith, was my great-grandfather. There were no further Magdalenes among my ancestors and it was left to the family of James’s younger siblings to carry on the tradition.

Magdalene Little (1918-2015), a second cousin to my father, who helped me with my family research in 2006/7  was the granddaughter of James’s sister Magdalene Jane Greenfield (1856-1937). James’s brothers, Jack and Alex gave the name to their daughters, Jack going one better and calling his child Magdalene Margaret Spring Greenfield.

My three-greats-grandmother Magdalene Spring Greenfield died at the home of her son William on the 29th October, 1854, a few weeks short of her 71st birthday. She was buried at Newton. Until now, I have been unable to find her grave.

Leith Walk Today – the probable site of my great-grandfather’s shop is on the right.



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