I’ve been searching my database for people who were born, married or died on Christmas Day or New Year’s Day in North Walls and Brims, my one-place study, with some success. A double hit even, for John Wilson appeared twice in my search, born on New Year’s Day and married on Christmas Day, more than doubly satisfying as some of his descendants are still family friends. So here’s a little bit about John. Part 2 – another couple – may appear later.

John Wilson (1833-1914)

John Wilson was born on 1 January 1833 to John Wilson and his wife Isabel(la) Mill/Mills/Miller; he was baptised a few days later on 5 January in Walls.1OPR Baptisms, Walls, Orkney. 032/ 40 45. ScotlandsPeople His father, John senior, was a fisherman from Walls while Isabella was a Caithness woman from Halkirk parish. John junior seems to have been the eldest of their family of five sons and one daughter. The family lived in the Lyness area of Walls with the 1851 Census specifying a place called Bruan though ten years later in 1861 they were at Scews and John senior was a farmer of six acres by then rather than fisherman.2Census 1851 Scotland, Walls, Orkney, 032/ 4/ 8. Census 1861 Scotland, Walls, Orkney, 032/1 1/ 7. ScotlandsPeople. If anyone knows where Bruan was I’d be very interested to hear from you.

Map of part of Walls and Brims showing places mentioned in this post. Bulwark about two houses to the left of Smithy in Crockness. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland: https://maps.nls.uk/


John married Grace Cantley on 25 December 1856 in Saltness, Walls, very likely at her home. He was described as a farmer in the marriage registration but a fisherman in the birth registration of their first child, Margaret, born 23 November 1857.3Civil registration marriages, Walls, Orkney, 32/ 3; Civil registration births, Walls, Orkney 32/ 34. ScotlandsPeople. So a union of one of the most common surnames in the place, if not the most common one, Wilson, with one of the least common ones, Cantley.

John and Grace lived first in the Lyness area in a house which had only one room with a window according to the 1861 Census.4Census 1861 Scotland, Walls, Orkney, 032/1 1/ 8. ScotlandsPeople. By October 1862 when their third child John was born they were in Crockness, with John still a fisherman.5Civil registration births, Walls, Orkney 32/1 15. ScotlandsPeople. Going forward ten years to the 1871 Census John was enumerated there as a farmer of five acres, now with six children.6Census 1871 Scotland, Walls, Orkney. 032/1 2/ 17. ScotlandsPeople. Farming or crofting seems to have been his settled occupation thereafter or at least he was so recorded in births, marriages, deaths and censuses.


Looking down at Bulwark with the Hackness Martello Tower across the bay and the tip of Cantick Lighthouse also visible toward the centre

The earlier censuses for Walls generally don’t include names for the houses or crofts in Crockness but in 1891 John Wilson’s home was named as “Bullwark” for the first time, a name that the house still bears today, usually spelt Bulwark. The name’s origins are uncertain but it was in use by at least 1888 when John gave evidence to the Crofters’ Commission, sitting in Stromness, in support of his application for a reduction in rent. There he stated that he had occupied the croft for 10 years (therefore from 1878 or so) and he had 2 cows, 2 calves, and 1 ox; and he was successful for his rent was reduced from £6 15s to £5 per year. You can read more here.

Re-marriage and later

I’ve already written about his wife Grace who died on 6 February 1880 after the birth of her ninth child, Jemima. What was John to do, a widower with nine children under the age of 14? Like so many men in the same situation, remarry, this time to a near neighbour Maria Thomson, on 14 December 1880.7Civil registration marriages, Walls, Orkney 32/1 3. ScotlandsPeople. She was a first cousin of my great grandfather John Ross (Upper Seatter), possibly the man of that name who was one of the witnesses at the marriage though his uncle, another John Ross (from Doonthro) is more likely being of a similar age to John Wilson.

John and Maria had one son William who was born on 17 January 1882.8Civil registration births, Walls, Orkney 32/1 7. ScotlandsPeople. Sometime between the 1901 and 1911 censuses John and Maria moved from Bulwark to her family home, Mo(a)ness (both her parents were dead by 1908). John’s son from his first marriage, Charles, took over Bulwark.

Photo of ruined house on the croft of Moness, Crockness, Hoy, Orkney
Moness under a stormy sky. Note the large flags (flat stones) on the house roof.

John was again widowed when Maria died on 30 April 1912 at Moness, Walls, aged 68.9Civil registration deaths, Walls, Orkney 32/1 2. ScotlandsPeople. John died just over two years later on 24 July 1914, aged 81.10Civil registration deaths, Walls, Orkney 32/1 8. ScotlandsPeople.

I doubt there was any “fizz” at either of John’s weddings; bride’s cog maybe and some home-brewed ale.

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