The First Melvilles

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The Melvilles who have been one of the principal sources of my Family History research originated in the hamlet of the Doll and in its close proximity.  Some of the early ancestors resided in the Doll itself, others in nearby Uppat and Sputie and a few in the village of Brora. The Doll, situated about two miles south of Brora and a little over three miles from Golspie, is an area of fertile land  between the River Brora and the more undulating and wooded countryside at Uppat.  For the main part the area is within the parish of Clyne with the boundary of Golspie parish, the Sputie Burn, on its south side.  The area known as Sputie, Spoutie, etc. lies on the southern boundary of the Doll. The community is a farming one with the croft sized lots being spread up through the flat open land to the higher ground around Carroll and Loch Brora.

What brought the Melvilles to this area is unclear and it is not certain when they first arrived. The Melville lands are, in the main, in the central and southern parts of  Scotland.  The traditional Melville areas are in the Lothians, Fife and Angus and also, to a lesser extent, in Aberdeenshire. However, it is clear that there were Melvilles in East Sutherland from at least the late sixteen hundreds.  In addition to the group around the Doll from which a sizeable descent occurred there was also a group in the Loth/Kildonan area which has not, as yet, been linked to the former group other than indirectly though marriage.  The Melville families in this latter group were also in the East Sutherland area at an early date.

The Melvilles were generally thought to have been a small family who came into the area late last century but research has proved both assumptions wrong.  The family became very widespread last century in the parishes of Golspie and Brora and there was much marrying into other ‘local’ families and incoming families associated with the introduction of sheep.  There was also a considerable amount of inter-marrying between Melville cousins in the various family lines. Between the four lines considered to be the principal descents from a small nucleus of early ancestors there are considerable numbers of inter-connections.  The closest and most obvious are best outlined in diagrammatic form though even then much study of charts is required to understand those relationships and identify other less obvious inter-marriages.

It is also worth noting at this point the possible earlier structure leading to the Melville lines and their possibly close relationship to one another.  The evidence so far uncovered suggested that William Melven could be the progenitor of the main lines in which I have an interest and there is the possibility that this individual was also the father of a number of early female Melvilles whose parents have not been determined.  In my Melville database they are listed under the family of ‘? Melven’ but it is highly possible that William Melven and ‘? Melven’ are one and the same person.

What is a most significant feature of the distribution of the Melvilles is the way in which the main family lines converge so rapidly in pyramidal form to a relatively small number of ancestors in the early to middle of the 18th century.  This structure, unlike that found for families of long standing in the area, leads one to the conclusion that the earliest Melvilles in the area probably date from the late 17th century or the early 18th century.  There is the evidence of old grave stones to Alexander, Hector and Adam Melvin in Golspie cemetery the details of which are outlined below.  The former could be the memorial to Alexander (c1755) who married Sarah MacKay but the other two are more problematical.  Adam is considered later but the lack of Hectors in the family until their emergence in the ‘Coalmine’ line is puzzling.  It is possible there could be some connection here with the earliest identified generations of the Loth/Kildonan Melvilles where the name Hector does appear at an early stage.  There is the possibility that there is some connection between the two separate Melville groups through an early Hector Melville.

The early Melville burials that can be identified are in Golspie cemetery and it is only later that memorial stones to Melvilles appear in Clyne cemetery and the Clynekirkton graveyard.  Those burials are almost totally in the same area of the Golspie cemetery in an area half way from St Andrew’s Church and the outer wall and in a direct line towards the top end of Duke Street.  The stones in the main Melville area comprise a row of upright memorials at the foot of which lie older flat stones and two table stones to the rear of the upright stones but still within the same general grouping.  The inscriptions on the stones indicate that a significant number of members of  individual families and of related but separate family lines are buried or commemorated. The oldest stone in this area which can be tied with some degree of accuracy into the family under investigation is the one to Willam Melven, presumably William, and Ana Sutherland.  It is clearly a memorial of some age but has the puzzling inscription towards the top of the stone where the words ‘Betsey Melville’, The Doll is carved.  Close examination of the stonework suggests that the lettering in this latter inscription is newer than the William and Ana stonework.  It is open to speculation why Betsey’s name should have been added later and above the other names though the reuse of older lairs was not uncommon.

Melvilles commemorated elsewhere are mainly females married into other families though two flat stones, one rather more a fragment than complete stone, are to be found distance of 30 to 40 yards further south in the burial ground.  Those are the stones mentioned above to Alexander and Hector.   One of those stones is engraved  ‘Alexr Melvin’ and the other ‘Hector Melvin’ with the letters ‘Katr’, presumably short for Katherine, below the Hector.  The Genealogical Society of Scotland Record of Golspie Memorial Inscriptions gives the former stone as Alexy Melvill but close inspection of the stone and examination of photographs under a magnifying glass shows my interpretation to be correct.  It is also clear under inspection of photographs, which show the inscriptions clearly against the light, that the two stones could have been carved by the same person.  The lettering on the Willam Melven and Ana Sutherland stone depicting their names is not unlike that on the Alexander and Hector stones.  Some of the letters are very distinctive and it is likely that the memorials are of similar age if not by the same stone mason.

The two isolated stones, particularly the fragment belonging to Hector, look a little out of place where they are and they may not be in their original positions though it has to be said that this area of the burial ground has stones from an early period.  They are not particularly soundly anchored, even allowing for being flat, and the stone to Hector is not of the same colour as those around it.  It is possible that those stones have been moved at sometime in the past and possibly even when the cemetery was extensively cleaned in the 1980s by a Job Creation group.  This group did an excellent job clearing away the turf which had hidden many of the stones.  After this had been done black polythene was laid and stone chips put on top.  I am told that some stones were lifted and that some actually had the inscription on the bottom side.  This inscription, it was said, could be read as clearly in the soil as an imprint as on the stone.

The clearing of the ground and the cleaning of stones enabled myself and other family historians to collect information that had been hidden for decades.  A negative side, however, of the work is the fact that some of the stones cleaned have now deteriorated to such an extent, due to weathering, that they can no longer be read.

The Golspie cemetery, amongst many others, has had its memorial inscriptions surveyed by A S Cowper and I Ross and published by The Scottish Genealogy Society.  Those recorders put in much work in a labour of love and produced an excellent gravestone record for future generations.  Their work is generally very accurate and it is only where stones have been very difficult to read or have had family information which has been particularly difficult to interpret that errors have crept in.  In my work I am only aware of one stone where a significant amount of potentially important family history data has been overlooked.  This is a much carved table stone to Adam Melvin and Elizabeth Elphinstone.

The stone to Adam and Elizabeth is engraved around the outside and has much carving in its centre and on the sides.  After some work, and with knowledge of local names I was researching, it was relatively easy to read the inscription, ‘ Here lyes the dust of  Adam Melvin who departed this world (date unclear) and his spouse Elizabeth Elphinstone’.  Unfortunately, the one area of the stone which was completely eroded was the corner where it would appear a date had once been.  This missing information would have been of great importance in dating the stone and placing Adam and Elizabeth accurately in the Melville family.  The name Adam, though appearing in associated families, is not common in Melville lines and no Adam is known from the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Despite much examination, including an attempt to enhance a photograph of the damaged corner, it has proved impossible to obtain any further information from this obviously important memorial.  Position within the cemetery, stone type and the inscription suggests that the memorial is from the 17th century and marks the last resting place of a couple of no little means.  It also represents a family who had a tradition of marking graves with a stone of some distinction and possibly even a family who brought such a cultural outlook with them from elsewhere.  While this stone is not the only one of a table type in this area of the cemetery it is fair to say that there are few stones of its kind and it appears to be one of the oldest of its type in the burial ground. 

The above stone is engraved with the surname as Melvin and this spelling was normal in the Old Parish Records for my Melvilles in the 18th century and the early years of the 19th century.  Indeed, as late as the 1850s one John from my line had his name spelt as Melvin rather than Melville which became the accepted spelling later.  A great variety of spelling is, in fact, to be found in the various sources.  Melvilles are variously designated as Melven, Melvin, Melvell, Melvelle, Melvil, Melvill and, of course, Melville by those who recorded the names.  It is likely that apart from the difference in spelling caused by the differences in the level of education of those carrying out the recording that the people themselves saw the different spellings of their names as being acceptable. All were seen as just minor difference of interpretation of the same designation.  How the name was pronounced is open to debate but it is likely to have been closer to Melville in the formal situation with Melvin being used as the diminutive form and maybe the familiar form, particularly in country areas.

I am told that Melville is the early form from the barony of Malaville or Malleville in the Pay de Caux, Normandy and Melvin the diminutive form.  However, in my family the movement his been from Melven or Melvin to Melville rather than the other way.  Also there is the celebrated, and oft reported, case of James Melville, the Reformer, who, in his own diary, spells his own name as Melville and Melvin even on the same page.  Black in his book ‘The Surnames of Scotland’ says that Melven and Melvin are the vulgarised forms and he quotes a number of other alternative spellings including Mellon and Mailing.

In my writing up of family information I have used the modern spelling, Melville, in most instances so as to avoid confusion.  Other names have been standardised also and this again purely to aid understanding and for convenience.  Though at times Sarah was spelt Sara and Mackay variously spelt as McKay, MacKay and Mackay I have used a consistent form.

Returning to the stones, there are some interesting points and questions regarding the ‘whys and whens’ of some of the memorials.  Apart from the Adam Melven table stone there is another table stone to Alexander and Lillie Sutherland.  This is an impressive but later memorial erected to a Brora merchant and his wife.  Now at first it is a puzzle as to why they are in Golspie cemetery but examination of the OPRs gives some clue.  Their two children were born in ‘The Dole of Brora’ and this would seem to suggest that this Alexander, though not yet identified with certainty as being in my Melville lines, was, nevertheless, a member of the family of the Melvilles of the Doll. 

There were, in fact, three Alexander Melvilles having family in the Doll area at the same time.  The first, and very certainly in my main line, was Alexander Melville who was married to Sarah MacKay.  His first children were born in Brora but from about 1800 he was having children in the Doll.  In an OPR entry he is described as Alexander Melvin ‘Forry’ and this was clearly a by-name to distinguish him from the other Alexanders.  The second was Alexander who married Lillie Sutherland and his by-name appears to have been ‘Drumer’.  I am not sure if this was a mis-spelling and he was indeed a drummer.  And finally Alexander Melville of Crislich, whose spouse was Margaret Graham, was designated ‘Sergeant’.

The former’s descendants are well documented  in the reference section of my family history and the latter’s descent now seems clearer since the discovery of Alexander and Margaret’s son, John, in Edinburgh and his descendants in Australia.  The remaining Alexander, known as 'Drumer', is the most likely one to be in my mainline Melvilles and the son of Alexander and Sarah though, of course, Alexander of Crislich must remain a contender.

The biggest puzzle in the Melville genealogy involves the number of Melvilles named John who crop up in the OPRs and the statutory records.  At first it appeared that there were either many more branches of the family in existence in the second half of the 17th century.  However, this is not entirely born out by other evidence albeit that it is fairly circumstantial.

There are three major lines apparently originating from a John Melville. One leading to the ‘Coalmine’ Melvilles from John Melville and Helen MacDonald, another leading to McBeaths in the Doll from John Melville and Kate Sutherland and another to the ‘Torbeg’ line from John and Elizabeth Munro.  At first glance there are too many Johns and there is the impression that they are all of a similar age.  However, the OPRs give some guidance on the matter if read carefully and if naming conventions are considered and places of birth are taken into consideration it is possible that there were just two Johns of different generations.  It is also worth pointing out that family tradition in Scotland and abroad indicates that all the Melvilles were from the same stock and so the question of one, two or more John Melvilles is in a sense purely academic.  The Melvilles of the Doll and the related families knew that they were cousins, albeit in some cases distant cousins, and stated as much both orally and in official documents.

Since there seems no way to confirm my theory with certainty my views regarding the Johns must remain speculation but I would contend it is informed and researched speculation.  Firstly, apart from family knowledge, it would appear from the OPRs that John Melville who had a son, John, to Helen MacDonald was somewhat older than the other John and by the time of death of himself and the date of death of Helen it would appear that he was also significantly older than Helen MacDonald.  In the OPR entry for the baptism of his son, John, he is described as ‘John Melvin elder’.  This is likely to refer to his age rather than position in the church.  It also would appear that he had only one child to Helen which again might have something to do with his age and since his death date in unknown but pre-1841 this is a further indication of his position in the family structure.  Now neither the John who had family to Kate Sutherland nor Kate herself can be found other than through the statutory record of their daughter Isabella’s death.  This is possibly an indication of an older couple having family before the existing OPRs and most dying before census or statutory registration.  There could possibly be two John’s here with one being the brother of an earlier generation, say brother to Adam or William,  and the other being the son of one of those individuals.  The alternative theory would be that there was just one older John who married twice and had a family to Kate, probably more than one child,  and a son, John, to Helen.  The family to Kate would include a son, John, born circa 1770, who would later marry Elizabeth Munro.

The above is speculation but the family structure and descent pattern makes it at least a very reasonable possibility and probably more likely than earlier thoughts on the matter when I was of the opinion that there might have been one John who had a legitimate family and two illegitimate children to different women.  This latter theory is harder to sustain when one accepts that, in Scotland, at a census it was possible for a woman, and particularly a widow, to be recorded in her maiden name.  My first thoughts on finding Helen MacDonald living with son John in the 1841 census and designated as such was to assume that she had been unmarried and, of course, the existence of just one child fuelled this possibility.  However, other women who were very definitely married have come to light and are recorded in the census, along with their husbands, in their maiden names.

All this brings forth the question of who the other family of John and Kate might be if there were indeed other children.  Clearly, Alexander Melville who married Lillie Sutherland is a possibility and there are a number of unidentified female Melvilles from the second half of the 18th century who are contenders.  Naming patterns suggest that they are members of the family being researched and that some, if not all, are the family of William Melven and Ana Sutherland.  Some might easily be the family of John and Kate and it is interesting to note that the son of Alexander and Lillie who would by tradition be named after his paternal grandfather is, in fact, John.

As for Adam his place in the scheme of things may never become clear.  It is very unusual to find such an early ancestor with no one named after him.  He may not be a member of the family in which I have an interest or the children named after him may have died young.  However, from the placing of the stone he is likely be a member of the family being researched and from the type of stone it is possible he was one of the earliest ancestor in the area.  Despite this the earliest identified likely ancestor is William Melven and must remain so until further evidence can be found on Adam.

What can be safely said is that the Melvilles from the Doll grew in number from a relatively small group of people, possibly one or two families, in the 18th century to a world-wide family  inter-related by inter-marriage but, nevertheless, with clearly definable descent lines.

Finally, are there any clues in the early records to indicate when a Melville or Melvilles might have entered Sutherland?  Marriages to other families and events in the history of the area are worth considering in such a quest.  The task is too difficult to tackle here except to say that there were many changes in Sutherland over the centuries and many times when new families might have come into the area.  Changes at Dunrobin, the 1715 and 1745 rebellions and the constant recruiting of highlanders for the army are just some examples of the opportunities for new blood to reach the area.  Melville marriages to Elphinstones and Gordons, both families who came originally from outwith the highland area into Sutherland, might easily have been instrumental in bringing the Melvilles north.  The possibilities are many and, again, the likelihood of answering the question with any certainty is remote.