Wintering the bees in Osnaburgh.

Skeps, boles and the Dairsie Manse.

I knew that the house we were going to stay in had not always been a dwelling. Situated just outside the village of Dairsie in Fife, it was a renovated out-building behind the original manse. (A manse was the house provided for the local minister and his family). It was a solid stone-built edifice crouching next to a rippling field of ripening, bearded barley.  The landscape has probably changed little since the 1800s.

The village of Dairsie  is shown on several maps as “Dairsie or Osnaburgh” and the navigation in the car we hired also gave us the choice of going to one or the other even –  though they are essentially the same place. I was born and brought up in Fife but could not recall why this tiny village – no more than a small grocery store, a pub and a few original stone houses – had a mysterious extra name.

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Ordnance Survey map showing the dual names “Dairsie or Osnaburgh”. The Manse is marked towards the bottom left.

I did some “light” research on the origins of the name “Osnaburgh”. A similarly named town in Lower Saxony, Germany, called Osnabruck had given its name to a course linen fabric woven there. Internet stories centered around the suggestion that the first inhabitants of Osnaburgh/Dairsie were German immigrants who manufactured the same cloth. In the 1850s the name was noted in the Ordnance Survey book of place names with the following explanation:

“This village is also called Osnaburgh, from the circumstances that the first house in the village being occupied by a weaver who was working for some Cupar manufacturers a type of cloth called Osnaburgh cloth. The Rev. Mr Scott says that for the one letter directed to Osnaburgh there are fifty directed Dairsiemuir. He emphatically states that Dairsiemuir is the proper name. “*

The Rev Scott along with the schoolteacher and the local postmaster all concurred.  It’s likely that “Dairsiemuir” was a “planned” village, with houses built specifically to house hand-loom weavers so this explanation fits well with the history of the location.

The Rev. Mr Scott who gave this affidavit was the parish minister living in the Dairsie Manse in the 1850s. Unlike many of his parishioners, who had to cram a large family and a loom into two rooms, the Rev Scott lived palatially just outside the village. The Ordnance Survey book also describes the Manse:

“A neat and well-constructed house two stories high with suitable offices, vegetable garden and 6 acres Glebe land.”**

In 1861 the Reverend Scott was 59 years old, according to that year’s census. His wife was considerably younger and they had a one-year-old child – suggesting either that the Rev. had married late in life or that perhaps this was his second marriage.

The Manse was reached up an elegant driveway bridging a small stream. There was a very large walled garden to the left as we entered, and our house, the “Bee House”, was a short distance behind.

The current owners of the Manse had chosen this name based on the building’s former use as a place for “wintering” bees. Behind the wood-burning stove in what was now an elegant living space, there was a series of small square cubbies called “boles”. A “bole” in Scots is an alcove in a wall. Each bole was big enough to hold a wicker “skep” – a domed basket used in bee-keeping to encourage a hive. The skeps containing bees would be brought inside in winter to ensure the colony’s survival.


A wicker skep in a bole.

Bees had to go outside to keep the hive alive, so in one corner of the original building there was a hole in the considerably thick wall. This was the bee escape route. The current owners kept the feature during the renovation.


The bee “escape” route  set high in the wall.

Having never heard of bee boles or skeps before, I did some more “light” research and discovered that there is a whole organisation devoted to the preservation of boles. They have documented many of these in the bee bole registry! The boles in this house were included along with a photograph of how they looked pre-renovation.  You can view it here.Dairsie kitchen window barley

The unspoilt view from the kitchen window of the Bee House to the field of barley and beyond.


*Note that the name “Dairsiemuir” seems to have fallen into obscurity too. “Muir” is a common Scottish word tagged on to many place names, meaning “moorland”. It is also a common surname.

**Glebe land was a parcel of land that came with the manse used to support the minister of the parish, possible through farming use.

Photo comparisons in search of relationships.

Photo comparison is neither a science nor an assured way of confirming relatedness. We see what we want to see when comparing photographs in search of a likeness. But it’s fun to do all the same, with the appropriate caveats. Biological children can be the “spit” of their parents or it can be hard to find any resemblance. Children may look more like their aunts, uncle or grandparents until they grow into their features as adults. Different people will see very different things.

I wanted to create a “line-up” of the Stevenson brothers of Barrhill with some of their descendants at the same sort of age although this is proving hard to do. As yet I have not been able to track down a picture of Mabel Earley in any stage of her life. I seem to have become the default keeper of all of the family photos from the Stevenson side but there are very few. I suspect that with some digging I could find some photos of Mabel by contacting descendants of her second son, Willy Watson. That family lived in the tiny hamlet of Sorbie, Wigtownshire. This corner of south-west Scotland was home to weavers – damask weavers in this case – and the main street of the town consisted mainly of low single-storey weavers’ cottages. Many parts of the south west of Scotland seem to be like the land that time forgot – there is a sense of tranquillity and stability in the air, a contentedness with the way things are. The photographs of Sorbie “then and now” illustrate that to perfection – the main street has barely changed since 1890.

(The same row of houses in Sorbie main street, 1890 and today).

Yesterday at lunch our elderly relative handed over a packet of old photographs of the family (unfortunately none of Mabel). All of them were black and white. We paused over one, my husband’s father in the grammar school rugby team in his teens, and wondered what colour the rugby shirt might have been. “Uncle” Jim said he couldn’t remember, but remarked that everything looked better in black and white, and that some people around here still have black and white television sets. Jim does not have any internet, probably hasn’t used a computer ever and I doubt whether he has a cellphone. He is a happy 90 year-old , in reasonable health, still driving, going bowling (lawn bowls, not 10-pin)  and enjoying a pint of Boddington’s Bitter now and again.

The photos were fabulous, a joy to have . There were several of my father-in-law as a young man, and a few of him as young as 7 or 8 in a boy scout troup. So from that I have been able to add another young face to the Barrhill Stevenson lineup. One of these faces was his grandfather and the other were great-uncles. Again, photo comparison is for fun and is pure speculation. But here they are.

The four Stevenson brothers of Barrhill – John, William, James, David.


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My father-in-law aged about 13, taken at school at Castle Douglas in Dumfriesshire – he is the grandson of one of the above.

And my husband and his brother, sons of the above, taken in “new-fangled colour”, also in Castle Douglas, around 1972?

Doug Bob cowboy crop 2


John, William, James or David?

Searching for more documentary evidence.


Mugshots from Barrhill – the four Stevenson brothers from the surviving family photograph. You can find the previous parts of this story here and here.

Right time, right place?

Mabel’s son, (my husband’s grandfather) was born on 21 December 1908, a few months after Mabel’s 20th birthday. Assuming that this was a full-term pregnancy, conception would have taken place around the middle of March 1908. As Mabel had been working as a maid in a country house near Barrhill, it seems fair to assume that she met the father of her child there. When there is not much else to go on, we have to hypothesize.

In March of 1908, John Stevenson was 21. His brother William was 19. James was 17 and David, the youngest, was just a few months past his 16th birthday. There’s nothing conclusive we can draw from any of this. I was more interested in trying to prove where they were living around this time. Cousin L from 23andMe had mentioned that the brothers all went to New Zealand. So, was it possible that some of the brothers could be eliminated by proving they left for New Zealand before 1908?

I couldn’t find any of them recorded as passengers on the available ships’ manifests for voyages from the UK to Australia or New Zealand. But by cross-referencing information about the family on with searchable death records at, I was able to locate death records for three of them. John, William and David had all died in New Zealand according to the index. The NZ government website told me that one of the pieces of information listed on the death certificates should be the number of years that person had lived there. I applied for the certificates online and waited to have them emailed to me.

The death certificates yielded the following information:

  • David Maxwell Stevenson died in 1965 and had been living in New Zealand for 54 years. This meant his approximate year of arrival was 1911.
  • William Stevenson, “retired dairy farmer”, died there in 1963 after living there for 51 years. So he arrived there around 1912.

The death certificate for John Stevenson was difficult to read. He died in 1918 when he was only 33. He had been married for a year at the time of his death. The figure in the “number of years” column is unclear – it could be a one or it could be a nine. As he had married the previous year, and records seemed to indicate that he met his wife there rather than traveling to New Zealand with her, I went with “9”.

These dates didn’t help eliminate any of the brothers as the father of Mabel’s child. As often  happens, another story began to emerge from the death certificate of John. The cause of his death read “Verdict of Coroner’s Jury – Self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head whilst in a state of unsoundness of mind”. Something had gone awry in John’s life, causing him to take his own life.

James Stevenson was nowhere to be found in the New Zealand records.  Nor was he in the 1911 Scottish census, at least locally to Barrhill. Unfortunately a wider search of the same census revealed hundreds of young men by the name of James Stevenson. My feeling is that he may not have gone there, but at this point it is just not clear where he went.

A new family member

A few weeks ago we got another match on Ancestry, connecting my husband to this same family of Stevensons. Looking at this person’s tree, I can see that she is a direct descendant of David Stevenson. I’m hoping that if I ask her the right questions, she may have some answers that will help sort out this paternity mystery.

The Stevensons of Barrhill – the DNA connection.


Why is DNA useful when searching for relatives?

DNA is a very new tool in genealogical research. Previously family trees could be assembled through a combination of personal experience and family knowledge; documents and records. Even with a plethora of documents, gaps in a family tree can be left unfilled. In research terms these are called “brick walls”.  

DNA testing for genealogical purposes has become increasingly popular in the US over the past few years. At the beginning of 2017 Ancestry DNA announced that it had broken the 4 million mark of testers in its database. Many people initially test because of interest in and “ethnicity estimate” – a breakdown of where your ancestors may have originated hundreds of years ago. Ethnicity estimates are still being refined and are not always accurate. On the other hand, a positive match to someone who is a DNA relative within a database such as or can benefit genealogical research in the following ways:

  • verify existing research
  • establish that two surname variants are related
  • provide locations for further genealogical research
  • help determine the ancestral homeland
  • discover living relatives
  • confirm or deny suspected connections between families
  • prove or disprove theories regarding ancestry

(List courtesy of the International Society of Genetic Genealogy,

The 23andMe test

As a genealogist using DNA testing as a tool, it helps to have testers in as many databases as possible. My husband’s DNA is currently in 3 major databases. Each company has a different name for DNA matches. At 23andMe they are called “DNA relatives”.

So what are DNA relatives?

Testing companies basically do the science part for you. In simple terms, here is how 23andMe explains the comparison of DNA for finding relatives:

“When two people share identical segments of DNA, this indicates that they share a recent common ancestor. The length and number of these identical segments is used to predict the relationship between relatives.”

The term “Most recent common ancestor(s)” is used a lot in genetic genealogy and is often abbreviated to MRCA. The types of relationship that we share with most people who are our DNA relatives (other than close family) will be cousinship of some degree. There are many charts available to explain cousinship and the MRCA. Put simply, it works like this:

If you are…… Then your MRCA(s) are…
First cousins Grandparents
Second cousins Great-grandparents
Third cousins Great-great-grandparents

There are other variables to consider, such as half cousins, cousins “removed” once, twice or three times, but I have stuck to the simplest form for now. The testing company compares your “autosomal” DNA (taken from markers along the first 22 chromosomes) to that of everyone else in their database. Areas where your DNA is the same as another person’s are classified as matches. Autosomal DNA matches can be as close as parent/child or as distant as 6th, 7th or 8th cousin. The “size” of the match given indicates the closeness of the relationship. The larger the match, the closer the relationship.

So a few months ago on 23andMe, we got a match with a predicted relationship of third cousin to my husband’s kit. The match had overlapping shared DNA segments on chromosomes 11, 17 and 18. The largest segment was on chromosome 18, an overlap of 66cMs (CentiMorgans, a unit to measure genetic linkage). Totalled with the other segments, the resulting shared match was 109cMs which is in the third cousin range. Cousin L, as we shall call her,  was also a match for my brother-in-law and his three teenage children, who had also been tested on 23andMe.

23andme chr 18 stevensons and mcNeill

(23andMe Stevensons/”Cousin L”) Chromosome 18 from husband’s DNA “chromosome browser” at 23andMe. Very pretty, but what is it actually telling us?

“Cousin L” had a list of ancestral birthplaces that included Barrhill. This was already interesting. A potential match of a third cousin would mean that husband “D” and “Cousin L” shared a great-great grandparent, exactly what we would be looking for if Cousin L was a descendant of a sibling of D’s great-grandfather.

23andMe then gives you the facility to contact DNA matches and ask them if they would like to explore how you may be related. Many people don’t respond – part of the issue being that a lot of the early testers at 23andMe were only in it for the health and traits report, and were/are still not interested in DNA relative matching. That is slowly changing. Luckily cousin L was very open and chatty about the potential connection. Here is the extract from her reply that gave us hope:

  • “I know we are related to Stevensons in Barrhill. My great grandmother in Barrhill was part of that family. There were 4 brothers too.”

Over a series of emails, Cousin L told us the story of her Stevenson ancestors in Barrhill. Could DNA tell us which brother was our family’s direct ancestor? Which one of these four was the great-grandfather of these two cowboys from the 1970s?

Doug Bob cowboy crop 2

Who’s your great-granddaddy? John, William, James or David?

(The top photograph from around 1971 was taken around 50 miles away from the family portrait that the “mugshots” are lifted from. The Stevenson family portrait was probably taken around 1905, judging by the ages of the children.)

Meet the family.


(for the first part of this story, see previous blog post here

Drumlamford House, Barrhill, Ayrshire

According to her baby’s birth certificate, Mabel had been working as a housemaid in a large country house called Drumlamford, in Barrhill, Ayrshire, before becoming pregnant.

I haven’t been able to find much information about Drumlamford around the turn of the century. It was a large scale although somewhat plain-looking house set in 1500 acres of land. The Valuation Rolls (register of property tax) of 1908 and the census of 1911 both indicate that the estate was used for typical Edwardian country pursuits – several gamekeepers are listed living on the estate as well as dairy workers, grooms, coachmen, housekeepers, housemaids and a chauffeur. There were several trout-stocked lochs for fishing. Mabel’s father, George Earley, worked as a coachman on the estate, and had occupancy of a tied house called Drumlamford Cottage.

Drumlamford House, Barrhill

A housemaid’s job was tough enough. An unmarried, pregnant housemaid may not have been tolerated and it’s possible that Mabel lost her job or was unable to continue working as her pregnancy progressed. Her mother was dead and her father had remarried several years before. Presumably there was no offer “to do the right thing”; or perhaps she rejected it. Her expectations, fears and state of mind can only be guessed at. She travelled to London at some point in her pregnancy and gave birth there; I hope to visit the London Metropolitan Archives this summer and get access to the patient registers for the Queen Charlotte Hospital. Perhaps they will shed a little more light on her confinement.

After the birth (again, we don’t know when), Mabel entered domestic service as a cook in London. Somehow she survived. Her son was taken care of and eventually she took him back to Scotland.*

The Stevenson brothers of Barrhill

So who was the father? Living family members never spoke of who he was. When I began to “unravel” this mystery it was clear that no-one still living knew his name. Trust a genealogist to air the dirty laundry!

There were a few clues to his identity:

  • Mabel’s son was given the surname “Earley” – her family name.
  • By the time he got married in 1935 he had changed his name to “Stevenson, formerly Earley”. (Although Mabel had married by this time, her husband’s last name was Watson).
  • He was probably from Barrhill, Ayrshire.*

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(Excert from marriage register entry for “Douglas George Stevenson, formerly Earley”. At some point Mabel’s son had chosen to use the surname Stevenson over Earley. Did this mean that he knew who his birth father was?

DNA testing has become a powerful and reliable tool in helping confirm ancestral relationships. In this case, I was able to make significant progress in overcoming the “brick wall” of unknown paternity with DNA results. Through a DNA match I was able to connect with a third cousin of my husband’s. Her description of her family background, after some research, gave me some likely suspects to be relatives of him, his brother and all of our children. As an added bonus, I was thrilled that she was able to provide a photograph:


Great GrandMother Annie Broadfoot- Great Gr Uncles Jonny-William-David-Jamie StevensonOne of these four young, hot-blooded Scots was, almost certainly, the father of Mabel’s child. He is my husband’s great-grandfather and my sons’ great-great grandfather. The four brothers are John, born 1885 (standing, left); William, born 1888 (standing, right); James, born 1890 (seated, left); David, born 1892 (seated, right). Their sister Annie is standing in the middle, and seated are their parents – Annie (McKie) Stevenson and William Stevenson.

The problem is, which brother was it?



*Location threw me off the scent for a long time. As Mabel gave birth in London, I thought she must have met the father in London. A recent conversation with the oldest living person with knowledge of the family said “his father was born in Barrhill” but had no other information on the matter.


Tough women – Mabel Fanny Earley

I’m doing a mini-presentation to family this weekend on (mainly) solving the mystery of a previously unknown great-grandfather on the Stevenson paternal line. The DNA matching we have pinpoints the family but there were 4 brothers and any one of them could have been the father. My catchy title for the presentation is “Who Do You Think He Was?” The photograph is from one of London’s “lying-in” maternity hospitals in 1908, where my husband’s great-grandmother gave birth to a son in December of that year. The pregnant, unwed mother made the trip from rural south-west Scotland to London when heavily pregnant, possibly to partake of the “modern” facilities at the Queen Charlotte Hospital in Marylebone. The hospital allowed unmarried mothers to give birth there if this was their first child. Presumably this was more support than she may have been given by remaining in Scotland. After the birth she remained in London for several years, working in domestic service as a cook in a private household. Her young son spent some time in the care of a children’s home or school about 15 miles from where she was working. It’s impossible to document what their life must have been like at that point, but eventually she was able to take her son back up to Scotland where her father and stepmother lived. She eventually married and had at least two more sons. I’d love to post a photograph of this tough and resilient woman, Mabel Fanny Earley, but unfortunately there don’t seem to be any in the family. A DNA match in Canada who was essential to the discovery of the father has sent me a fabulous photo of the 4 brothers and their parents and given me a lot of information on the family. I will post those after I have shown them off at the weekend. These kind of discoveries are why I love what I do.Midwife at another London lying in hospital, 1908

Finding Philip – a brief introduction (in memory of M.P.H).

Philip Holmes

A few months ago I posted this picture on my personal Facebook page. I had seen it on a private forum for people who are searching for lost family by using simple direct-to-consumer DNA testing kits. A lovely woman called Carol, from the UK, posted this photograph of the man she believed was her maternal grandfather, Philip Holmes.  She had never met him. Her mother had grown up not knowing her father and the name and the picture were the only pieces of information they ever had.

Carol was frustrated with the search. Her Mum had DNA-tested with Most of her DNA matches were distant – 5th to 8th cousins, meaning that they shared a set of 4th great-grandparents or beyond. That can be very hard to trace, even if you can identify the ancestor you have in common. The majority of her results appeared to connect to her grandmother’s side.

I started working with Carol, analyzing her DNA results and thoroughly going through her matches. I will be posting more on the story in the near future, but I am happy to say that we were able to solve this 80-year-old mystery last week. One new DNA connection, and a great family tree meant that we were finally able to connect Carol’s Mum by DNA to a man called Philip Holmes who was born in 1903. There comes a point in DNA searching where the paper trail and the DNA line up, and this was it. We had found our Philip.

Sadly Carol’s Mum had been unwell and passed away the day after I was able to confirm the match. She is heartbroken at the loss of her Mum, but wants to continue the search to see if we can find living descendants of Philip. She has given me full permission to write about the search, which I hope to do sometime in the future, at a more appropriate time.

In the meantime I have 2 other people I am working with in search of missing relatives. The work is long, slow and detail-oriented but the results are game-changing for the field of genealogy and literally life-changing for the people involved.