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Fiona Lochhead's surprising discovery about cave-dwelling ancestors


By Chris Saunderson


FIONA Lochhead, an Elgin mum and primary school teacher, decided to do a DNA test as part of a family history project. Her expectations were not high as previous research had indicated that her family were solidly Aberdeen City and Shire going back five generations. The results contained some surprises.

When Fiona Lochhead tracked her family history back she discovered that her ancestors used to live in a cave underneath Covesea Lighthouse. Picture: Daniel Forsyth. Image No.043902.
When Fiona Lochhead tracked her family history back she discovered that her ancestors used to live in a cave underneath Covesea Lighthouse. Picture: Daniel Forsyth. Image No.043902.

"My paternal grandmother came from a travelling family and we knew very little about her. I didn’t have her birth date, she had never married and we had no information about her parents or even her death certificate. The only thing I thought I knew about her for sure, was the name engraved on her tombstone, Helen McPhee.

When the DNA results came back I had matches to about forty second and third cousins and most of them had McPhee ancestors. I soon realised that I could connect to shared ancestors through these newly acquired cousins and doing this became the beginning of what my family describe as my obsession.

I had been searching for a birth certificate for my grandmother but without success. There were over 50 women with that name born in Scotland within that small timescale and there no way of knowing which one was my grandmother. I did know when and where my grandmother died though and that narrowed it down but she remained elusive.

My breakthrough came when I started searching using variants of her name. Helen had always been known as Nellie. I discovered that her birth name was in fact Nellie MacPhee. I’d been searching using the wrong forename and surname. From there I was finally able to make progress, finding her place of birth, Strathpeffer, and her mother’s name, Margaret.

The Facebook group 'Aberdeen history and stories from the past' helped direct the search towards key family history clues.

The next part of the process was both frustrating and time consuming. I had identified about 5 different Margaret McPhees and built family trees around them only to discover that they had died in the 1920’s or had emigrated or were only McPhees because they had married a random Mr McPhee. I started having online conversations with my new cousins and via their trees narrowed down the possibility of who Margaret might be. But the searches! Like all her ancestors before her my grandmother had never gone to school. Every time she appeared in a document it was signed by her mark, a cross. The spelling of her name was then MacPhee, McPhee, MacFee, MacFie and even McaFeea! It seems like nobody knew how to spell it.

It was like a very frustrating and complex jigsaw puzzle but slowly I was able to put enough of the pieces together to build a tree that linked to my McPhee relations. My grandmother was born after the last census so I knew it would be her mother that I was tracking in order to try to find out more about her life.

The story and pictures from the 1908 edition of the Northern Scot Christmas Number.
The story and pictures from the 1908 edition of the Northern Scot Christmas Number.

I finally discovered Margaret in the 1901 census in Elgin. I was quite surprised by this having no knowledge of a previous connection to the Elgin area. Even more surprisinglyrr she was recorded in Covesea Village. I live on Covesea Road and can see the lighthouse from my garden. To my absolute astonishment she was described as living ‘In a rook or cave under Covesea Village’. She was 9 years old and staying there with her mother, father and sister and apparently being hosted by her uncle, in a cave.

Those caves, that beach and the lighthouse are a frequent haunt for my family and my dogs. I could never have imagined that I had a hidden connection with those mysterious rocks.

This was the beginning of a series of revelations. I visited the family history section at Elgin Library armed with my library card and my census information.

Sharon the resident family history expert could not have been more helpful, more patient or more kind. She showed me how to make searches on the local heritage index in order to find articles in the Northern Scot and references to applications for poor relief. An hour later I had discovered that my Great Grandmother had a baby called Flora before Nellie was born.

The birth was registered in Forres, and she had requested rest and medicine in Elgin. By the time she arrived in Keith three months later the baby had died. The cause of death was a new word for my vocabulary ‘Marasmus’. This is defined as undernourishment causing a child’s weight to be significantly low for their age. Margaret had reached Elgin from Forres on foot 3 weeks after giving birth. She was alone and it appears that her baby had effectively starved to death.

I returned to the library the next day and Sharon had very kindly looked out historical photos of the caves at Covesea. One of the photos had a tinker family ensconced inside. It was labelled Lindsay’s Cave, Covesea. I was completely stunned because my GG grandmother was called Margaret Lindsay and upon further investigation I discovered that it is my family who are in that cave. My GGGG grand Father George Lindsay and his wife Janet MacMillan. It is a very eerie feeling to look at the faces of your ancestors but especially under such strange circumstances.

This couple featured in a special article about the caves published on Christmas day in 1908. Sadly, in separate articles I also read that Margaret and her elder siblings had been abandoned by their parents on many occasions. In fact, their cruelty to Margaret resulted in the mother being convicted and imprisoned for child neglect. While she and the father were serving time in prison the elder siblings aged 10, 8 and 4 years old were found on a bed of straw and rags at the caves in Cummingston, without food or adequate clothing. The children’s appearance at Elgin Court attracted much interest and a small crowd turned out to see the ‘Cave Children’. They were taken into care and sent to separate schools in Aberdeen until the ages of sixteen. Margaret aged only 7 months old was reunited with her parents upon their release from jail.

The story and pictures from the 1908 edition of the Northern Scot Christmas Number.
The story and pictures from the 1908 edition of the Northern Scot Christmas Number.

I discovered that my cousins’ ancestors were also cave dwellers, mainly in the Wick area of Caithness. The children in my family were born all over the North East Coast, from Orkney to PortKnockie where my own Great Grandmother was born. They were in gypsy tents in the 1881 census and sometimes cattle barns. Every single male relative in my Grandmother’s family were travelling tinsmiths, which is where the word tinker comes from.

In 1915, legislation was passed by Parliament to prohibit cave dwelling. This was to keep the coastline free of fires during the war. Several of my cousins died in that war and some returned to families that could no longer live and make a living the way they had for generations before. The old ways were lost with the tents, horses and carts.

Historically, I know that there has been discrimination against travellers. I didn’t know much about the lives my family led but their stories are full of drama. Drownings, hangings, beatings and many other tragic events. How can I with my privileged life be their judge? I have not walked in their shoes. The line between making a living and surviving seemed blurred and I am proud of their struggle.

They did what they had to do to survive and because of that I share my DNA with hundreds of their descendants via that diaspora to the new world. I am so glad that I finally know a little more.



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