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Saturday, 15 September 2012


I began this blog as a way of preserving my family history research for a time when my young nephews and nieces became interested in it all. But one of the great pleasures of Tall Tales from the Trees has been the new cousins who emerge from the eCloud to follow up on mutual ancestors. Sometimes whole new branches of my tree have come to light, as in the case of two Piper cousins, Billy and Sally, who got in touch recently. From them I have learned of my first cousin four times removed, Hugh Piper.

Hugh was the son of my 4x great aunt Janet Piper and an itinerant farm worker called Abraham Edward who was passing through Ayrshire at harvest time in 1818. Edward, who judging by his name may have been from Wales, may not even have known that he and Janet had produced a child. There is no official record of the birth, and no sign of a father at any point in the boy’s life.

The River Ayr at Woodhead – Woodhead was the Piper home for generations, and Hugh, his mother Janet and grandmother Jean lived nearby in the early decades of the nineteenth century 
(photo © Stuart Brabbs and licensed for reuse)

Instead, like so many dutiful daughters, unmarried Janet and her young son lived with her widowed mother Jean. I’ve written here before about the obligation of nineteenth century maiden aunts to stay at home caring for a parent when often they would rather be off getting married or having a career. So far so normal for Janet and Hugh.

But when Jean died in the 1840s, Janet – on her own, without a husband – effectively became the widowed parent herself. Hugh, already about 30 and her only child, a son without a father figure, stepped into the role of maiden aunt. He continued to care for her until her death at the great age (for the time) of 76 in November 1859.

By then he was 41. One senses that a certain amount of frustration may have been building up over the years: within four months of his mother’s death, Hugh had married 23-year old Jane Kay, almost half his age. He then, as my cousin Sally puts it, set about making up for lost time. Over the next fourteen years Hugh and Janet began a family of eight children, the last born when Hugh was 56.

Slaters were indispensable tradesmen when slate roofs protected all goods, livestock and human inhabitants from the wet weather of west-coast Scotland

Hugh blossomed in other ways too. Until his mother’s death he had been confined to the farm they lived on, where she was a washerwoman and he was a simple agricultural labourer. But in later life he branched out and got a skilled trade as a slater. Perhaps he was encouraged in this by his young wife, and by the large family he now had to provide for – then as now a tradesman commanded higher rates of pay than a general labourer.

The lack of a father as role model must have made his own fatherhood problematic, I imagine. Although he carried his mother’s maiden name, and passed that on to his descendents, he was certainly aware of the absent Abraham, and at one point adopted a sort of double barreled surname for himself and his children, who are recorded for a while as the Piper Edward family.

Hugh’s wife brought something to the family too – the twin gene! There have been twins in every generation  of his line since, where as far as I can tell there were none before. Hugh himself lived to watch all his children growing up, including my cousins Billy’s and Sally’s great grandfathers. In 1886 at the ripe old age of 68, he died of pneumonia, perhaps caught slating a roof in the Scottish rain. He was a late starter but a busy and hard-working one.

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