Alexander McCulloch From the Crofts to the Mines

Rankinston, Ayrshire, C 1910

My husband‘s Great Grandfather, Alexander McCulloch was a miner. He spent every day working deep below the ground in complete darkness and unbearable heat. His job was dangerous and difficult. Breathing in stale air and coal dust and facing the constant risk of cave-ins and gas explosions to earn a wage that he would often have to fight to receive.


Yet, Alexander had started his life in a completely different setting. He was born on 5th October 1862, in Bonar, Sutherland in the Highlands of Scotland. He grew up in Creech, where his father, also named Alexander, was a farm servant. His mother was Jessie Fraser from Ferrintosh, in the Black Isle.

Birth Record for Alexander McCulloch 1862 Bonar , Sutherland

His early life would have been spent playing in the woodlands and glens around the Dornoch Firth. His father’s work meant the family moved from farm to farm where the work was available, living in the accommodation provided by the farm owners. As time went on his father was promoted to ploughman then Farm Grieve or Overseer.

A scene that may have been familiar to Alexander McCulloch in the late 1800s.

Alexander was the third youngest in a family of nine. He was only 12 years old when his mother died from inflammation of the lungs, leaving him in the care of his father.

By the age of 18, he had found a post as an Apprentice Gardener for the estate of Dunrobin Castle near Golspie, Sutherland.

Dunrobin Castle
Photo Credit: “Dunrobin Castle” by foxypar4 is licensed under CC BY 2.0
1881 Census for Dunrobin Castle, Golspie – Alexander McCullcoh appears as Apprentice Gardener

Dunrobin Castle was the seat of the Sutherland Clan. Most famously it was home to the Countess of Sutherland, Elizabeth Gordon, who came to residence in 1785. On her arrival at the castle, she set about upgrading her new husband’s estate and initiating one of the most brutal periods in Sutherland’s history, the clearing of Strathnaver. The Countess’s factor, Patrick Sellar, directed some of the most vicious acts of the Highland Clearances. He was responsible for brutally forcing families from their homes, dragging even the old and frail from the crofts that had been the only homes they had ever known, and burning them to the ground. Left homeless and often with only the clothes on their back they had nowhere to go. They slept rough and often died of exposure or starvation.

The clearances continued well into the 1800s, with the second wave seeing thousands of Highlanders forced to leave. Many migrated to America, Canada and Australia, their fares were often paid by landowners as ‘assisted passage’. This was a cheap way for them to dispose of their unwanted tenants. Many others headed for the main towns of Scotland looking for work.

Alexander was born at the end of this second phase of the clearances and Sutherland at that time was a stark place. There was little work and no prospects for young men like Alexander.

It is unclear when exactly he left Sutherland, but having made the journey south, he arrived in Ayrshire. The fact that he had family in the area would explain this move. His older brothers, John and Thomas, and his youngest brother, Philip, were already living in the county and working in the thriving mining industries there.

In 1891, Thomas was employed as a Crane Man, living in Prestwick, and John was a General Labourer, and Philip was a Fireman, manning a Stationary Engine. These two brothers were living in Rankinston, a small mining village in the shadow of Polquhairn Colliery. The colliery was owned by The Polquhairn Coal Company. It was a small village consisting of 148 houses arranged in rows of twenty at the top end. The cottages were owned by the Glengarnock Iron and Steel Co.

Throughout the 1800s, Ayrshire was a major coal-producing region. North Ayrshire had been extensively mined and by the end of the century, the owners had turned their attention to the more remote parts of the county. The seams were deeper and more difficult to reach. New mining communities sprung up across central and south Ayrshire often appearing on the remote upland moors.

Alexander and his brothers were Gaelic speakers. It was difficult for highlanders such as the McCullochs to fit in in the south. The people of the southern counties did not relate to the old customs of the Highland clan culture, which was deeply rooted in traditions of family and fealty. The Gaelic word ‘clann’ means children. For the McCulloch brothers, it must have been like moving to a foreign land. Having family connections and fellow Highlanders to talk to in their home tongue would have been some comfort to them.

On his arrival in Ayrshire, Alexander found work in the colliery and, in 1901, he was employed as a Pit Sinker. He was boarding with the McCaskill family at No 41 Rankinston. He was 38 and still a bachelor. His brothers John and Philip were also living in Rankinston. John lived at 114 Craig View Cottages and was a Char Contractor (Cleaning Contractor). Philip was married and was living at No 96 Rankinston. He was working as a Pit Bottomer.

Alexander McCulloch 1901 Census – Boarder in Rankinston

At this point in this story, attention must switch to Margaret McDonald Bruce. Margaret was born in Bryans, Newbattle, Midlothian, on 4 Nov 1874. Her father was a Farm Servant named William Bruce. Her mother was Margaret Douglas.

Birth Record for Margaret Bruce 11874 Newbattle, Midlothian

She appears in the 1881 Census living in Newbattle with her parents and younger siblings, William, 4, and Mary Jane, 1. She was 6 years old and had started school.

The Bruce Family 1881 Census Newbattle, Midlothian

By 1891, Margaret had left home and at the age of 15 was living in St Michael’s, Edinburgh. There she was employed as a General Domestic Servant for a retired farmer named, John Sinclair and his wife, Margaret.

1881 Census Margaret Bruce Edinburgh

Her parents and the rest of her family had relocated to Kilmarnock, where her grandfather, William Bruce, lived and worked as a carpet weaver. Margaret’s father was working as a general labourer. Her younger siblings, William, Mary Jane and James were at school.

At some point after 1891, Maggie joined her family in Ayrshire. There she met and married Matthew Nicol Robertson, a coal miner. They were married in Kilmarnock in 1898. Maggie was 24. Matthew, 28, was a widower. He had tragically lost his first wife, Sarah, four years earlier when she died from sudden heart failure. She had been just 20 years old.

Margaret Bruce marriage to Matthew Robertson 1898

Matthew had lived in Ochiltree when he was married before and had probably worked in the mines there, so after they married, he and Maggie settled in Ochiltree. They lived at 1 Drongan and in Sept 1899, Maggie gave birth to their first child, a daughter, Margaret Douglas Robertson, named after Maggie’s mother.

In 1901 Census, Maggie and Matthew were still living at No 1 Drongan. By then they had a 4-month-old son, named William. Their first child, Margaret was living with Maggie’s parents about a mile north, in Pottery Row. Perhaps this was to help Maggie out after the birth of William.

Matthew and Maggie Robertson 1901 Census Drongan
1901 Census Drongan Maggie’s Parents

Her father was then employed as a Mechanic and her brother, James was a Coal Miner.

Two years later Maggie and Matthew had moved 2 miles further down the Littlemill Road to Rankinston. On the 1st of July 1903, Maggie gave birth to another daughter, named Sarah Nicol Robertson after Matthew’s mother. By 1904, they were living in Station Row in the village. Matthew was working as a Bencher in the nearby pit.

Death of Matthew Robertson 1905
Corrected entry for Matthew Robertson 1905

Then, on 21st June 1904, Matthew was injured when some coal hutches came loose and ran down an incline crushing Matthew against a pit prop. The accident was not fatal, but Matthew’s spine was fractured.

At this point in my research, I was struck by the utter tragedy that befell this little family.

It is hard to imagine the impact of this terrible accident. Matthew was crippled by his injuries. His spine had been crushed. Maggie was pregnant with their fourth child when the accident happened, and on October 16th she gave birth to a little boy. He was named Matthew, after his father. Sadly, little Matthew lived for only a few minutes before dying from Post-Natal Asphyxia.

Maggie was not even 30 years old. She had 3 young children and had just lost a baby. Her husband was bedridden. How did she cope with the care of her badly disabled husband after the accident? It must have been an awful time for them. The miners’ rows in Rankinston were ill-equipped for the care of someone so badly injured. The house had a coal hearth and a shared earth water closet outside. It had access to a coal house and wash house but no running water inside. How would Maggie have managed to toilet her husband? Did her family help with his care?

Matthew lay at home for six months before he died. I can only imagine how awful this would have been. Maggie would have had no medical training and, with Matthew unable to work no income. It is probably significant that Matthew died in early January. The winter months and the cold weather in rural Ayrshire would have been harsh. Money would have been hard to come by as there would have been no financial support for the family after his accident. Food and heating may have been scarce. Did he waste away? In the end, his death might have come as a relief. He was just 34 years old.

So, in 1905, Maggie was a 30-year-old widow with three small children to care for.

Alexander likely knew Matthew and Maggie before the accident. They were neighbours in the little village and he would have worked beside Matthew in the pits. I like to think that he was there to support Maggie in the dark days after her husband’s terrible accident.

In any case, they became involved and were married in Rankinston, on 6th July 1906. Alexander, who was twelve years older than her, may have provided some security for Maggie after the hardships she had been through. Their marriage was witnessed by James Clifford and Catherine McCulloch.

Marriage of Alexander McCulloch to Maggie Bruce 1906 Rankinston

Alexander and Maggie started a new life together. They continued to live in Rankinston after their marriage and in 1911 were residing in a miners’ cottage at Station Row. This was probably the same house that Maggie and Matthew had lived in. Alexander was by then 48 and worked as a Pit Bottomer. They had also taken in a lodger, Donald Thomson, aged 39. It was a common practice for unmarried miners to lodge with mining families.

Alexander and Maggie 1911 Census Rankinston

At the time the Census was taken his step-children, Margaret, 11, William, 10 and Sarah, 7, were at school. He and Maggie had three more children together with John, 4, Helen Holland Bruce, 2, and Alexander, 1. Maggie was also heavily pregnant again. This child, Jessie Fraser, was born just two weeks later, on 13 April 1911 and was destined to be my husband’s grandmother.

At some time after Jessie’s birth, the family moved to Ferniegair, near Hamilton. They lived at 28 William Place.

Ferniegair, like Rankinston, was a mining village. It was located on the Carlisle Road between Hamilton and Larkhall. Alexander probably worked at the Ferniegair Colliery, owned by Archibald Russell Ltd, although it is possible that he worked in one of the other nearby Collieries, Allanton and Haugh Head.

The family remained there until 1927 when Maggie died from breast cancer. She was 52 years old.

Death of Maggie McCulloch in Ferniegair 1927

I am not exactly sure what happened to Alexander after Maggie died. He was still living and working as a Colliery Strapper when his daughter, Jessie, married Samuel Miller in Hamilton in 1931. Jessie was working in the Bolt Works in Burnbank, Hamilton.

To date, I have not been able to find a record of Alexander’s death, but my search continues.

Children of Maggie and Matthew

Margaret Douglas Robertson Born Rankinston 1899
Sarah Nicol Robertson Born 1903 Rankinston
Matthew Robertson Death Rankinston 1904

Children of Alexander and Maggie

Helen Holland McCulloch Born Rankinston 1908
Alexander McCulloch Born Rankinston 1909
Jessie Fraser McCulloch Born Rankinston 1911

Matthew Robertson’s first wife

Sarah Robertson Death 1994 Coylton

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