This 1830s sampler, made by a young girl in rural Scotland, eventually made its way across the globe and has been handed on down her family, together with her craft skills.
The sampler and its provenance
I got the history bug early, and when I was set a family history assignment at school I wrote to various elderly relatives for information. My lovely great aunt, Betty Holmes (née Stewart), passed on lots of details and stories. She was evidently impressed by my interest, because she generously gave me several family items, including the sampler. It was made by my great great grandmother, Betty Stewart (née Molison); Auntie Betty, her granddaughter, was named after her.
I’ve been thinking about the sampler recently, thanks to a new project of a history colleague, Tanja Bueltmann. Tanja, who’s based at Northumbria University, runs a blog about the Scottish diaspora. She recently set up a Scottish Diaspora Digital Museum, which includes items from various museums and libraries alongside community contributions. This is a great project and I decided to submit the sampler to it. If you have any intriguing items relating to Scots around the world, I encourage you to take part; all you need is a photograph of the item and a story.
Betty Molison probably stitched her sampler at school, where girls learned needlework as a valuable life skill. It’s what was known as a ‘marking’ sampler, showing the ability to stitch letters and numbers, used to ‘mark’ or identify linen or to decorate clothing. Auntie Betty thought ‘Gran’ made the sampler when she was about 10 years old. It showed her skill with cross stitch and eyelet stitch, together with the ability to create simple pictures and patterns. It was stitched in fine wool on coarsely woven linen. Some of the colours remain bright, but others are badly faded and difficult to read. I’ve had a go at transcribing the text, and this is how it reads:
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O
P Q R S T U V W X Y Z 1 2 3 4 5
6 7 8 9 ? ? JM MM AM
FM ?S DM HR JR MC M? SG
JR AR RR GR BR ?? AR
?? ?S DS MS JS AM ?? IH
A B C D E F G H
I J K L M N O P Q R
A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T U
V W X Y Z BETSY MOLISO
N AGNES MOLISON MF
A B C D E DR
This reveals some charming irregularities which demonstrate young Betsy’s lack of proper forward planning! One of her alphabets ends abruptly at the letter R, another leaves out the letter J, and she ran out of room for her own name, having to put the last letter of Molison on the next line. She gave her name as Betsy; she appears as Betty in some official documents and Betsy in others. Agnes Molison, also named on the sampler, was her younger sister. One intriguing feature of the sampler is the three and a half lines of initials Betty stitched: this was typical of samplers made in Scotland. They are most likely the initials of her relations. Though Betty had a small immediate family, she had a large extended family with numerous aunts and uncles nearby and some of their initials are included.
While researching Scottish samplers I was delighted to discover my friend Donald Cochrane, who runs The Lothians blog, has written about two samplers which also made their way to Dunedin through his family! One was stitched by 16-year-old Helen Dougal of Lanarkshire in 1833, and the other by 9-year-old Marion Craig, also of Lanarkshire, in 1795. Helen’s sampler used quite a sophisticated design, but Marion’s shared several design features with Betty’s schoolgirl effort: the colours were similar and it included rows of letters and numbers divided by various geometric borders, the full name of the maker, family initials and simple pictures.
Who was Betsy Molison?
Betsy or Betty spent the first 47 years of her life in the parish of Lethnot and Navar, Forfarshire (now Angus), Scotland, where her family had been for generations. She was born at her parents’ farm, Townhead, in 1824. Lethnot is a glen surrounded by the Grampian hills; snow often lasted well into the spring, and the nearest market town, Brechin, was several miles away, requiring a trip on a rough road over a steep hill. It was very much a rural place; in his 1843 report for the Statistical Account of Scotland, the minister noted that ‘none of the population reside in towns or villages’. This report, together with the earlier Statistical Account from the 1790s, gave a good sense of life in this rural backwater. The farmers were all tenants, leasing their land from absentee proprietors (including the Earl of Fife). In the 1760s most tenants were given leases for life plus one or two periods of nineteen years, on condition that they build houses and enclosures and generally improve the land. By 1843 there were still tenants with life leases, though a 19-year term had become more prevalent. The farmers sub-leased plots of an acre or two to labouring families, who raised a few stock and provided labour at harvest and in the winter. Their children added to the family coffers by herding stock from a young age, while girls and women could earn money spinning. In the 1790s the parish school boasted ‘sometimes above 40’ scholars in winter but just a dozen in spring and summer. There was also a second school; the 1843 report noted this was ‘supported partly by a small mortification [charitable gift], and partly by individual subscription, and taught only during the winter season’.
The parish population was on the decline: in 1750 there were 635 inhabitants; in 1790 there were 505, living in 103 houses; and by 1841 there were just 400 in a parish of some 190 square kilometres. As in many parts of Scotland, considerable agricultural ‘improvement’ went on over this time, with arable land nearly doubled in size in the early nineteenth century. Though there was still plenty of work – that would change later, with increasing mechanisation – young people were tempted to leave by better wages in the south, or ‘for the sake of learning, a particular trade or art, as their genius leads them’. Farmers were taking back the leases of their sub-tenants and expanding their holdings.
The Molisons were well off, judging by the £2000 dowry given to Betty on her marriage. With just two children, her father James Molison could afford to be generous. James’s wife, Helen Ramsay, seems to have died when their daughters were very young. At the 1841 census, James, then in his fifties, lived on his farm Townhead with 15-year-old Betty, three agricultural labourers and a female servant. Betty’s maternal grandfather, James Ramsay, lived on the neighbouring farm, Newbigging, together with her uncle and several aunts. Betty’s sister Agnes, aged 14, was lodging in Brechin with the Stewart family, who may well have been relatives; James Molison’s mother was a Stewart. Betty’s husband David, whom she married at Lethnot in 1843, was also a Stewart. His family had been in the parish for many generations, and farmed the property Nathro. At the 1851 census David and Betty, with their growing family and three servants, were living at Nathro, where David was described as a farmer of 100 acres employing five labourers. His widowed mother, Ann Tosh, lived in another house on the property, and in yet another house lived his unmarried uncle and aunt (confusingly also named David and Betty Stewart!).
By 1861 David and Betty (the younger) plus children had moved into the main farmhouse and Uncle David, by then 82 years, boarded with them. They now farmed 140 acres and employed three labourers and a ‘boy’, along with a couple of house servants. In the meantime, Betty’s father, James Molison, had died. His will divided his property carefully between his two daughters. Agnes and her husband Alexander Mitchell had taken over his farm at Townhead, so he left his two other farm properties, Braco and Westside, to Betty and David. By 1864, when my great grandfather George Leighton Stewart was born, the family had moved to the Braco sheep farm. George was the youngest of Betty’s 12 children by quite a stretch. Four of the children died before George’s birth, three as young babies, and six-year-old Eliza Betsy from burns.
Around 1872 David and Betty made the big decision to leave the parish that had been home to their forebears for many years and cross the world to Otago, New Zealand. Exactly what prompted this move is unclear, but it may have related to the end of their lease on the Braco property. Their two oldest sons, William and John, had migrated to New Zealand a couple of years earlier and presumably sent back good reports. On 14 August 1872 the family set sail from Glasgow aboard the iron clipper Helen Burns, arriving at Port Chalmers on 2 December after ‘a rather protracted passage of 110 days, owing to a continuation of light winds and calms’. It wasn’t a crowded migrant ship: the Stewart group of seven accounted for over a quarter of the 26 passengers! Along with David, then 59, and Betty (47), travelled Mary Ann (22), Helen (19), Agnes (17), James (15) and young George (7). Unlike many of my family, who came as assisted migrants, they paid the full £94 cost of their ticket; David and Betty would have been too old to qualify for an assisted passage. The daughters were all described as domestic servants on the passenger list. Oldest daughter Annie remained behind; she died in Dublin in 1875.
I’m uncertain what exactly the Stewarts got up to when they first arrived in Otago. Son William had a farm at Waiwera, South Otago, but his parents lived the rest of their lives in Dunedin. By the time David Stewart died, in 1888, they lived in City Road, Roslyn. He probably left the property to his unmarried daughters, Mary Ann (listed in the 1893 electoral roll as a mantlemaker, that is, dressmaker) and Agnes; when Mary Ann died in 1908 she bequeathed ‘to my sister Agnes Stewart my interest in the freehold property at Roslyn … held by the said Agnes Stewart and me as tenants in common’. By then the property must have been rented out. James and Helen had married and left home by the time of their father’s death, though James was staying with his mother at the time of his own death in 1892; George left home when he married in 1903. In the mid-1890s Betty, George, Mary Ann and presumably also Agnes moved to Cumberland Street, Dunedin, and about ten years later to 229 Castle Street (a house they named ‘Nathro’ after the Stewart farm in Lethnot). Around 1911 Agnes Stewart is listed at 403 Castle Street and Betty probably lived with her; it was there that Betty died at the grand old age of 93 in 1918.
A rare article about the sleepy hollow of Lethnot in the nineteenth century British newspaper archives, dating from 1875, is entitled ‘our old parishioners’, and notes the district’s reputation for longevity. Likewise, in his 1790s statistical report on Lethnot, Rev John Taylor noted that ‘in general the climate seems favourable to longevity. Within these last 16 years, four persons have died, who were above 90; one of them was 106’. Whether it was the climate, genetics, or just healthy living, Betty Molison lived up to this reputation! She did not, however, pass the trait on to most of her children, and just three of her large brood outlived her (William, Agnes and George).
We have only one photograph of Betty, taken in old age, but it is a splendid one. Mairi Ferguson, my aunt, has a large copy hanging on her wall, and visitors often ask why she and her husband display a photograph of Queen Victoria. The standard response is to point out that the woman in the portrait is knitting a sock, possibly not an activity indulged in by the queen! An obituary of Betty in the Otago Daily Times reveals why she may have been photographed in this way: ‘Although advancing years gradually narrowed the range of her activities, it was not until three weeks ago when serious illness overtook her that she was finally precluded from enjoying in [sic] those useful works, especially knitting for soldier friends and others, which were her constant delight’. In wartime, knitting was a patriotic activity to take particular pride in. Betty was, according to this obituary, ‘very widely known. She was also very highly esteemed and greatly beloved’. Three former and present ministers of Knox Church, where she was ‘senior member’, officiated at her funeral. I have Betty’s Bible, which is inscribed ‘Mrs D. Stewart. Pew 64. Knox Church. 7/9/02. 229 Castle St’. In the spidery writing of old age she listed on another page the psalms memorised by Ruskin, with special note of those he said ‘well studied and believed, serve for all personal guidance’ and those which ‘contain the law of the prophecy of all just government’. She also noted that ‘Ps. 104 anticipates every triumph of natural science’.
Betty lived half her long life in Lethnot and half in Dunedin. She must have treasured the sampler she stitched as a young girl, for she brought it with her when she migrated; presumably it sparked happy memories of her schooldays. The handcraft skills she learned at school, and no doubt also from relatives, proved valuable to the end of her days. Though her mother died when she was young, she had plenty of aunts, grandmothers and cousins to teach her the skills commonly handed on to girls within families. These skills were then passed on down the family to present generations. There are many fine needlewomen – especially knitters – in the family, and I have even been known to knit socks myself, as has my young niece!
Vivien Caughley, New Zealand’s historic samplers: our stitched stories (Auckland: David Bateman, 2014).
Family notes from Betty Holmes.
Family statutory registration, census, probate and church records at ScotlandsPeople.
John Taylor, ‘Parish of Lethnot’, Statistical account of Scotland, 1791-1799, Part 4, no. 1, 1-20.
Alexander Gardner, ‘Parish of Lethnot and Navar’, Statistical account of Scotland, 1834-1845, Vol. 11, 687-90.
‘Lethnot: Our old parishioners’, Dundee Courier and Angus and Northern Warder, 5 February 1875.
Patrick Henderson Shipping Company paying passengers to NZ ports, 1871-1880 (Auckland: New Zealand Society of Genealogists, 1993).
Shipping news in Otago Daily Times and Evening Star, 3 December 1872.
Stone’s Otago and Southland directory, 1888-1918.
Mary Ann Stewart probate file, 1908, Archives New Zealand, via Family Search website.
Betty Stewart obituary, Otago Daily Times, 17 April 1918.