Helen McCaulay Ritch. That name stands out among my ancestors; it has a nice ring to it. Helen was a great-great-grandmother on my father’s side, wife of Ralph Nicolson. She was born in Rackwick, Hoy, Orkney on 10 March 1815, the second known daughter of Thomas Ritch and Ann Mckay.

I came across Helen fairly early in my family history research and her name intrigued me. I hoped that it would provide clues about her mother’s family perhaps. As I researched, however, I found not one but two baptisms of a Helen McCaulay Ritch, both in the parish of Hoy and Graemsay. The second one was in 1816, the daughter of Thomas Rich and Isobella Rich. It was that heart-stopping moment when you wonder if you have the right person. Could the parents’ names on her death registration be wrong? But Granny did talk about Ann Mackay – even if the details were vague.

If I’d been using Familysearch (or Walt Custer’s very useful Orkney extracts), I might have despaired due to lack of detail. A check of the full Old Parish Register entry on ScotlandsPeople reassured me.  Thomas Rich of the 1816 birth lived at the School in Graemsay; nothing beyond Helen’s name pointed to a connection with that island.

How did she get her nice name?

So how did two girls, born within 18 months of each other, have the same first and middle names, the latter rather unusual for Orkney? It took me some time but eventually I found the anwer.

Helen Macaulay was the sister-in-law of  the Rev Gavin Hamilton, minister for over 50 years of Hoy and Graemsay.. His wife, Penelope Macaulay, died in 1805 while their children were quite young and Helen, her sister, appears to have been there to help. In his will, Hamilton certainly encouraged his sons to be mindful of their aunt, if she outlived him, for all she had done in their younger years. According to the Hamilton family gravestone in Hoy, Helen was born at the  Manse of Lismore on 18 January 1768 and died at the Manse of Hoy on 21 March 1842.

So, it is quite likely that Miss Helen Macaulay, as she is recorded in the 1841 census, had been in Hoy for at least ten years by the time my Helen was born in 1815. It was relatively common for children to be named after local dignitaries, not least landlords and ministers and their wives. Or in this case, the minister’s sister-in-law.

Are there any unusual/ non- familial names in your family you’ve puzzled over? If so, check the bigwigs in the area at the time. I also have Isabella Hiddleston Groundwater, for example.


On Ritch or Rich, Helen’s maiden, name Gregor Lamb’s Orkney Family Names (2003) states:

“Ritch: Henry Ritche, Holm, 1492; also written Ritchie and Richeson; a patronymic family name, ‘son of Richard’; the spelling Ritch appears to be unique to Orkney; a common family name with a high concentration in Stromness where half the Ritch family names are found;”

This is broadly in line with George F Black’s Surnames of Scotland (1946), which includes examples of Riche under the name Ritchie. He describes it as “formerly a common Border surname”.  There  is a tradition that two prisoners with the surname Richard or Ritchie escaped from the shipwreck of a boat carrying Covenanters in Deerness, Orkney, and changed their name to Ritch, one staying in Deerness and the other in Hoy. See the Whitton and Ritch website, for example.

More about the two Helens

Helen M Ritch married Ralph Nicolson in November 1838, had at least nine children and lived the rest of her life in Brims, parish of Walls, Orkney. She died there on 11 August 1893.

Helen Macaulay was the aunt of Thomas Babington Macaulay, historian and Whig politician.

The penultimate post for the #52ancestors challenge on the theme ‘Nice’.

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2 comments so far

  1. Ron Spence says:

    Thank you Jane. This is a great help to me.
    I have been puzzling about the Ritches for a while. specifically Gavin Hamilton Ritch. I had come to the conclusion that he was named after the Reverend Gavin Hamilton. Pretty well certain now.
    You may know that he ended up in London – he appears in the 1881 – 1911 census. In 1890 he married Christina Robertson Sutherland in London and died in West Ham. Family Search suggests that Christina was born in Stonehaven, and there is a Christina Robertson Wood daughter of David Wood and Margaret Wood born 28/07/1837 in Fetteresso. This is the parish next door to Stonehaven.. So I have a bit of work to do.

    1. Janealogy says:

      Glad my blog was helpful to you.

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