Longevity is the theme for this week’s #52cancestors challenge. So did my direct ancestors reach their three score years and ten, 70 years in other words (Psalm 90:10)? And if they did, how typical were they of their time?

Walterina Nicholson, my paternal grandmother, was the oldest direct ancestor that I know of. She died in 1991, five weeks short of her 99th birthday. You can listen to her here. She had been a widow for over 40 years as my grandfather John Ross died in 1951 aged only 61.

I say “only” for in the main my direct line ancestors lived to a good age. As there are quite a lot of them, I’m going to focus here on my great great grandparents.

image of people at different ages

Sixteen great great grandparents

Thirteen were born between 1813 and 1827, the other two in 1839, all but one in Orkney, Scotland. The exception was Hugh Ross or Rosie who came from Stroma, Caithness. I have birth dates for 14 of them, 13 from the Old Parish Registers (OPRs) and one from a family Bible. There is a baptism date for the 15th and census records which strongly suggest that he was born in the same year as he was baptised.

I do not have a date of birth or death for the 16th person, a great great grandfather; he is rather a mystery generally.

How long did they live?

Only four died before they were 70, two men and two women. The two great great grandfathers were both 55, while the two great great grandmothers were 32 and 61.

Looking at the other 11, their ages at death range from 73 to 90. The three oldest were all women, one aged 90 and two aged 88. Two men reach their 80s, one aged around 82 and the other 80. The others ranged from 73 to 78 when they died. Overall a long-lived group of people.

To set this in some context, average life expectancy for a child born in Scotland between 1861 and 1870 was 40.3 years for males and 43.9 years for females. Survival of the first critical year made quite a difference with life expectancy for one year olds rising to a further 45.6 and 47.5 years respectively. (see information from the National Records of Scotland pdf).  Of course these figures will mask considerable differences across Scotland. If I find figures broken down by area I will add them.

Of my four x2 great grandparents who died before the age of 70, only one, the 32 year old who died in 1872, was truly young in these terms. The 55 year olds who died in 1869 and 1875, and the  61 year old who died in 1881 were all well on in years for their time. It may be coincidence, but all four were born in the parish of Orphir, Orkney and the first three lived most if not all of their lives there.

Causes of death are interesting too, including that scourge TB:

  • 32 year old Mary Leask – phthisis pulmonalis (TB)
  • 55 year old Nicol Slater – supposed inflammation of lungs (probably TB).
  • 55 year old James Slater – supposed decline, four weeks. Could be TB. The fact that he lost three young adult sons in the two years before his death may have been part of this.
  • 61 year old Cecilia Harvey – bronchitis.

My known 15 all lived most or all of their lives in Orkney while Caithness-born Hugh Ross moved there in his late teens or very early 20s. They were all from a farming or fishing background, some a little better off than others.

Have I inherited the long-life genes? Time will tell.





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