This is all that remains of the house on the former croft of Elster, near Lyness, in the island of Hoy, Orkney. Location map.

Elster, North Walls (the building in the background is the former Naval HQ and Communications Centre from WW2)

My grandfather, John Ross, was born at Elster on 28 May 1889 and his family was still there on 5 April 1891 when the census was taken. But very recently, in my ongoing research into the people of the area, I found a death at Elster in 1891 for someone who, as far as I know, is not related to my family.

Barbara Kennedy or Sinclair (1793-1891)

Barbara Kennedy, widow of John Sinclair, died at Elster on 20 February 1891, aged 97, cause of death unknown, no medical attendant certified the death. She was born in Stroma, parish of Canisbay, Caithness, on 9 December 1793 to Peter Kennedy and Margaret Stephen. Her grandson, Robert Wilson, who registered the death, was spot on with all the details. Full marks to him.

I’m intrigued that Barbara was still living at Elster when she died in early 1891 as I’d assumed my great grandfather John Ross, his wife Ann and their two children, Mary Ann and John, lived and farmed there on their own. What was the situation – did they all share the house – and if so why? A puzzle.

Assumptions and pre-conceptions

My initial thoughts were that maybe Barbara had really died at Orequoy home of her daughter Margaret, wife of Robert Wilson, mother of the grandson Robert who registered her death. It was not far away – you can see the house of Orequoy at the top right of the photo below. But that’s a bit of bending the situation to meet my pre-conceptions of my ancestors being at Elster alone, I fear. Had that been so, the record would have included the phrase “Usual residence Elster”. No, if the death record said she died at Elster it’s unlikely she died anywhere else, especially with the registrar just across the bay in South Walls. (Or is that another assumption that people in the Southside knew what was happening in the Northside??)

Rinnigill area, near Lyness, North Walls (island of Hoy), Orkney, Orequoy the white house top right. Plenty of WW2 buildings too.

What do the records say?

So I had to go back and examine the records to see if they would help with understanding the situation and creating a timeline.

The censuses

1851 – Barbara Sinclair, 56, and her husband John, 58, and David Watters, a servant, aged 17, recorded at an unnamed property which is almost certainly Elster by its location in the enumerator’s book and the fact that John died there on 26 December 1855.11851 Census, Scotland, Walls, Orkney, 032/ 4/5; Deaths, Scotland, Walls, Orkney, 032/ 17. Elsetter in the death record. All records from ScotlandsPeople unless otherwise stated.

1 household, 2 rooms with windows21861 Census, Walls, Orkney, 032/1 1/ 82 households, 1 room with a window in each31871 Census, Walls, Orkney, 032/1 1/ 51 household, 2 rooms with windows41881 Census, Walls, Orkney, 032/1 1/2 1 household, 2 rooms with windows51891 Census, Walls, Orkney, 032/1 1/22 households, 1 – 1 room with window; 2 – 2 rooms with window61901Census, Walls, Orkney, 032/1 1/ 7
Barbra/Barbara SinclairHead, married [sic], 66, b Cainsby [sic], CaithnessHead, widow, 77, knitter, b Stroma, CaithnessHead, widow, 86, b Stroma, Scotland
Margaret McKiver/McIverServant, unmarried, 60, b Halkirk, CaithnessLodger, single, 77, knitter, b Halkirk, Caithness
Isabella WilsonHead, widow, 67, knitter, b Thurso, CaithnessLodger, widow, 73, b Walls, Orkney
John GH RossHead, 34, shepherd
Ann RossWife, 25, b Orphir, Orkney
Mary A RossDaughter, 3
John GF RossSon, 1
Christina NicolsonHead, single, 70, cottar, own account
Margaret WilsonHead , single, 69, spinner, own account, at home
Inhabitants of Elster, 1861-1901 Censuses (birthplace Walls unless stated)

(Not listed at all in the 1921 Census so unoccupied.) In all these records, it is clear there was only one house. As Barbara was a widow from late 1855 any additional income may have been welcome, along with help to work the croft, if she did work it. Another assumption to investigate.

Birth and death records

Both the lodgers died at Elster, Margaret McIver on 6 August 1878 and Isabella Wilson (née Mill) on 22 October 1886.7Deaths, Scotland, Walls, Orkney, 1878, 032/1 9, and 1886, 032/1 7 Looking at the Ross family records, John Ross and his wife Ann were living at Upper Seatter, his parents’ small farm, when their first child Mary Ann was born on 27 July 1887.8Births, Scotland, Walls, Orkney. 032/1 10

I wonder if John had hopes of taking over the tenancy of Upper Seatter from his father Hugh who was already in his early 70s? If so, they were disappointed for Hugh left his stock, crop and implements to his wife Ann and daughter Catherine (Kate), then unmarried, when he died on 13 November 1892.9Kirkwall Sheriff Court Wills, ROSS, Hugh, 14 March 1893, SC11/38/14, ScotlandsPeople; Deaths, Scotland, Walls, Orkney, 032/1 15. Kate then took on the tenancy.

With both the lodgers dead, there would have been some room at Elster. Perhaps John Ross saw it as a stop-gap initially? The other thing to note is John’s description in the 1891 Census – shepherd. That suggests he was not farming but working for the Melsetter Estate who owned most of the island; there is certainly a large area of hill land very close to Elster where he might have worked. In contrast, his occupation was farmer in John junior’s birth registration in 1889. As no other children were born at Elster and no estate record survive from this period further checks on employment and tenancy were not possible.

Who rented Elster?

The valuation roll indexes on ScotlandsPeople were a potential source of help but if anything they only muddied the waters further. They stated:

  • 1856 John Sinclair widow, tenant occupier, farm of Elster
  • 1864 Mrs John Sinclair, tenant occupier, cottage on Elster
  • 1865 Mrs John Sinclair, tenant occupier, cottage in Elster
  • 1875 & 1877 Benjamin Waters, tenant occupier, farm Elster and Hilltown
  • 1876 Benjamin Waters, occupier, farm Elster and Hilltown

No mention of Mrs Sinclair at all after 1865 though clearly still living at Elster. No mention of Elster at all after 1877; absorbed into the Melsetter Estate generally?

There is one clue perhaps. A note in the Melsetter Estate sale papers, 1897, recorded that “The crofts of Greengears, Burnhouse, Little Scews, Burnhouse, Thurvoe, Summer Cleary, Pattaquoy [Pittaquoy], Flister [Elster] & Hilltown… are not under the Crofters Act, several of these having been sub-tenants at the passing of the Act”.10Inspection report by James Johnston, Orphir, for Macrae & Robertson. 25 September 1897. In Bundle of particulars and correspondence relating to sale of Melsetter estate by James Moodie Heddle to Thomas Middlemore. Macrae & Robertson Collection: Melsetter Estate. D34/A/12/1, Orkney Library & Archive, Kirkwall. (The Act is the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1886; many Orkney crofters had their rent reduced when the commissioners visited Orkney in summer 1888.) John Ross could have been one of those sub-tenants but there is no proof of that.

Thanks to a reader of this blog I have another clue.

A crofter named Benjamin Watters, residing at Hilltown and Elster, Longhope, Orkney, was to be evicted from his holding on
Wednesday by a sheriff-officer from Kirkwall. After part of the furniture was thrown out on the road the crofter produced to the officer medical certificate showing that Mrs Watters was too ill to be removed, and she was allowed to remain in the house, but the officer still at Longhope waiting to complete the work. The parish was declared a crofting one by ‘the Crofters Commission some time ago, but the Secretary for Scotland has not yet interposed his authority. It is reported that Watters is quite willing to pay rent”

Aberdeen Evening Express, Friday 31 December 1886

Things did not go well:

STAY OF EVICTION REFUSED CROFTERS COMMISSIONERS. About two months ago Benjamin Watters crofter Haybrake, Longhope, Orkney, applied to the Crofters Commission to cist eviction proceedings taken against him. The Commission having received statement of the facts and answers, have now issued an interlocutor, finding that the proceedings for the removal taken by Henry Louttit, principal tenant under John George Moodie Heddle, heritable proprietor of Haybrake, are not, as alleged by applicant, for nonpayment of rent, and that under section 61 of the Crofter Act the Commissioners are not authorised to sist proceedings of removal except in respect of non-payment of rent, and they dismiss the application

Aberdeen Evening Express, Wednesday 06 April 1887

From a brief search, Benjamin Watters, his wife Margaret and family lived in the Heldale area of Walls and then Kirkwall in the 1891 and 1901 Censuses before immigrating to Cook County, Illinois, USA.

Back to John Ross

It now looks much more likely to me that my great grandfather, John Ross, was not a tenant farmer at Elster but occupier of the house alone. He apparently remained there until he moved to the tenancy of Lyness in November 1899.

Macrae & Robertson Collection: Melsetter Estate, D34/A/3/1/15, Orkney Library & Archive, Kirkwall

My conclusions

For as long as I’ve known that my grandfather was born at Elster, I’ve assumed that his parents had the croft or small farm there. Now I’m far from sure that was actually the case. There are gaps and uncertainties but though the house survived, last occupied in the mid-1950s, the croft was quite possibly not let as a separate entity from sometime in the 1870s. A check of the 1866-1873 and 1878-1885 valuation rolls might clarify things.

This also raises questions for me about changes in land use in the area. If by the late 1880s, with the population falling, John Ross and family shared a house with someone who was not related (or at least not closely related), what does that say about the ease or otherwise of obtaining a croft tenancy? And does the Watters’ eviction really amount to clearance?  Something else to investigate.


There is however, in the way of small communities, a link or two between Barbara Kennedy or Sinclair’s family and mine. Firstly, she came from Stroma, like Hugh Ross, father of John my great grandfather. Secondly, her great great grandson, Peter Wilson, grandson of Robert who registered her death, was in the same class as my father at North Walls school. They remained friends until Peter, known to my father as Patty, died in 2006. They are both in the school photos.

Footnote: Elster was sometimes recorded as Elset(t)er but the former spelling is closer to the older local pronunciation. My father always pronounced Melsetter as Melster, for example.

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2 comments so far

  1. Lindsay Porter says:

    I'm so glad I found this blog. Benjamin Watters was my great great grandfather. His daughter Anna (sometimes called Anne) was my great grandmother. Most of the Watters family moved to Chicago when they lost their turnip harvest in a shipwreck. I live in Chicago and hope to visit Hoy someday!

    1. Janealogy says:

      Hello and thanks for commenting. I'm very interested in migration from Walls. Benjamin's brother John was drowned while shipping turnips from South Ronaldsay to Walls, his wife Mary Garrioch died very shortly afterwards. Her sister and brother-in-law then took the children to Michigan, USA. It's quite a story.

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