Who was Nicholas Barber?


I first came across Nicholas Barber a few weeks ago when I was researching the McKay line in Dumfriesshire for a family. The person of interest was called John McKay. Late one day I had come across this record in the Scottish census of 1851, an entry for the village of Dunreggan, Dumfries and Galloway;


This fitted the information I had about John McKay. I was intrigued that the record also showed a sister, Janet,  plus another “son”, William Park. What struck me most about his household were the 3 different surnames.  I wondered about Nicholas Barber and presumed that he was some kindly gent who had taken in these children and was raising them as his own.

The next day I dived back into the records looking for more information about Nicholas Barber. The Scotland’s People website had just launched in a new format and seemed to be very glitchy. I was searching for Nicholas Barber in census records but not coming up with any other hits. Eventually I found a death record for a Nicholas Barbour in the right location that seemed to fit the bill;


The informant on the death certificate was Jane McKay, described as a grand-daughter of Nicholas Barber. I knew that one of John McKay’s children had been called Jane. The information fitted.

My searches for Nicholas Barber or Barbour continued to throw up nothing so I went back to searching for John McKay in the records to see if I could find them together. In the 1841 census for Scotland I found the following record;


The third name down is hard to read but it is “Niklos” followed by an abbreviation for ditto, meaning Niklos had the same surname – Barber – as the head of the house. In 1841 “Niklos” is 25 and William Park age 3, as well as John McKay aged 7 months, are living with this household. In other words two of the same three children from the 1851 census.

Something didn’t add up about my “kindly gent” hypothesis. I soon realised that it wasn’t the records’ fault. It was mine. Here is a closer look (one that I didn’t take) at the 1851 census entry for the family group again;

Barber 1851 larger shot.png

Had I taken a little more time when I first found this record, instead of jumping to conclusions, I would have noted that Nicholas Barber, according to this census, is a 34-year-old female seamstress. The 1841 census entry for Niklos Barbour also confirms that this is a female, as does the death certificate in 1901. Instead of a story of a chivalrous gent, I had discovered a young mother who had had 3 children by two different men without being married to either of them. Her unusual name  – Nicholas – meant I hadn’t read all the information carefully enough and had jumped to conclusions.

Naming traditions in Scotland at this time were both simple and traditional. Girls were called Ann, Mary, Sarah, Alison, Jean, Kate, Maggie…all solidly recognisable as girls’ names. There was a particular pattern often, but not always followed, of naming girls after the mother’s mother, then the father’s mother and so on. The office of the National Records of Scotland refers to the use of Nicholas as a girl’s name as an example of “Ambiguous Naming”. It refers to only two examples – Nicholas (which it says was confined mainly to the north of Scotland, not the case here) and Christian (used as an alternative for Christina).

The Whatsinaname website (http://www.whatsinaname.net ) is dedicated to documenting naming patterns in Scotland. It reports that there were “many uses of the name Nicholas for girls, particularly in the early 19th century in the counties of Ayrshire and Dumfriesshire. It does appear from the 1881 census of the lowlands of Scotland that Nicholas was more commonly a female name than a male name, and the male equivalent thereabouts was more likely to be Nichol.

As yet I have not been able to discover the historical reason as to why this name prevailed in two specific locals so far apart – mainly in Aberdeenshire and also Dumfries and Galloway. The two areas are roughly 200 miles apart, a huge distance in the rural Scotland of the 19th century. I have, of course, learnt an important lesson about not jumping to conclusions over names without a thorough evaluation of the records.

All images copyright of National Records of Scotland (http://www.scotlandspeople.org.uk ).


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