My man Murdo

I’ve written before about my ongoing investigations into the roots of the MacIver family tree. But despite many research hours spent in Lewis and Harris’s libraries, cemeteries, and family history center, I’d come away from previous visits unable to “cross the water.”

On this trip I was determined to try everything I could think of to locate my great-great-grandfather Murdo MacIver on his home island.  After dropping Mich off at the ferry terminal on Monday morning, I left Andreas and Alekka to their own rainy-day devices while I settled in once again at Leabharlainn nan Eilean Siar (Libraries of the Western Isles), Stornoway branch.


I was happy to see that Anne, the same wonderful librarian who had been so helpful two years ago, was still there. That summer, thanks also to the remarkably thorough croft histories put together by local historian and genealogist Bill Lawson, we had eliminated all the Murdo/Murdoch MacIvers who had been born on the island’s country crofts in the 1830s.  So now Anne and I started to look carefully at records of men in the town of Stornoway itself.

I had only three pieces of evidence that Murdo was from Lewis: first, Lewis has the highest concentration of people with the surname MacIver in Scotland; second, Murdo named his second son Lewis, which is an unusual first name in Scotland but is traditional among the MacIvers of Lewis; and third, this 1860 census record that shows Murdo and his young family in Boston, Massachusetts (Lewis MacIver was born later, after the family moved to San Francisco). This is the only record that gives birthplace detail on Murdo beyond “Scotland.”

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It’s this census record that made me so sure that the Isle of Lewis was the place to look. In those days, U.S. census information was gathered by an interviewer going door to door, and if you can imagine a native Gaelic speaker with a thick Scottish accent saying “Stornoway” it could very likely sound like “Stormwal” to a census taker who had never heard of the place. But while I felt confident that this meant Murdo had been born on Lewis, I also thought there was a good chance he had named Stornoway because it was the only town on the island, in the same way that people from El Cerrito, Mill Valley, or South San Francisco might for the sake of simplicity tell a foreigner that they had been born in San Francisco.

But now we were turning our attention to Stornoway proper. There were eight men with the same name and about the right age living there in 1851. The one that looked likeliest to me was the 18-year-old grandson of the retired surgeon and ship-owner Alexander MacIver. Alexander was fairly well off, and also well documented in the various local histories. He was not a good businessman, however, and eventually had to sell his property to the Lewis herring-lord at an unfavorable price. It was about then, and probably because of the family’s diminished circumstances, that the grandson Murdoch went to sea to seek his fortune. This story matched up neatly with what I knew about my Murdo, who worked his passage on a ship and continued to work in and around ships for the rest of his life. I have to admit that I became a little over-attached to the idea of this being the right man when I learned that Alexander was descended from a Scottish warrior named Murchadh Riabhach nan Corc (“Nasty Murdo of the Sheath-Knives”). I really wanted to put that name in my family tree.

But alas, it was not to be. That particular Murdoch turns up in Canada, where he remained. So back to the census books. As I followed their lives through the census, marriage, and death records, a few more of the Murdos fell by the wayside for one reason or another. Then Anne brought me something she’d found in a Stornoway baptismal book: an adult man, Murdoch MacIver, born 1824, son of Murdo MacIver excise taxman on a ship and his wife Marion MacKenzie, baptized “John” on 6 Aug 1850.

Adult baptism is an unusual thing in Scotland, especially since this same Murdoch (with the same parents) had already been baptized in Stornoway soon after his birth in 1833 (the 1824 birthdate recorded on the adult baptism turned out to be incorrect). This second baptism would have been carried out for one of two reasons, or both: the family wanted to honor someone whose name was John, or the young man was going to embark on some dangerous endeavor. I knew that my Murdo was actually John Murdo, as he sometimes appears this way in American records, but I hadn’t found a baptism of any John Murdo of the correct age on the island yet. This would explain why. Further investigation shows the family of the twice-baptized Murdo living in a humble part of town, the father usually at sea on the ship “Prince of Wales.” The paternal grandparents of young Murdo are John MacIver and Janet Grant, so it is possible that the parents decided late that they wanted to honor the young man’s grandfather by giving his name to their only son. Also, this second baptism would have taken place shortly before my Murdo sailed to America, a good reason to make sure his soul was safe.

It all lines up. But the clincher is the family names. In Stornoway in 1841, we see this Murdo living with his mother Marion and two sisters, Catherine and Jessie. His father is at sea. In America, my Murdo’s second, third, and fourth daughters are named Marion, Catherine, and Jessie (the first daughter, Mary, was probably named after her Irish Catholic maternal grandmother). Murdo’s first son is John Murdoch and his second son is Lewis. I am satisfied I have found my man.


About lornaofarabia

I am a teacher from Medford, Oregon. I currently live and work in Bangkok, Thailand.
This entry was posted in Family, Islands, UK and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to My man Murdo

  1. Good job, sounds like definitely got your man!
    Looking over your “good reads,” I was wondering if you might have come across this quote in your reading:
    “Once a selkie find its skin again, neither chains of steel nor chains of love can keep her from the sea. From that day on, it was forbidden to harm a seal on the island.”

    • I know a bit about Celtic mythology, so I know what a selkie is, but I had to look up the quote. I have never seen or read The Secret of Roan Inish (original book title The Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry) but it looks like I need to!

  2. Linda says:

    Congrats! I love a happy ending to a good mystery!

  3. Pingback: Black sheep | Lorna of Arabia

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