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Issue 37 - It's a small world

Scotland Magazine Issue 37
March 2008


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It's a small world

The mobility of Scots during the past two centuries never ceases to fascinate me. While researching my latest book project, I have discovered that, around 1842, Joan Carfrae, a relative of my great-great grandmother, married and emigrated to the United States with Allan Pinkerton (pictured), the Glasgowborn founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Along with my Australian and Canadian cousins, and my other more remote American kindred, this provides me with yet another link into the worldwide network of those with whom I can, for better or worse, claim kinship.

A century earlier, a neighbour of the Carfraes at Gifford was the Reverend James Witherspoon, the Minister of Yester Kirk, whose son John, having also joined the Church of Scotland, took his family to New Jersey in 1768. Once established in America, he became President of the small Presbyterian College of New Jersey which later developed into Princeton University. John Witherspoon was one of the only clergymen to sign the American Declaration of Independence, and from under his tutelage at Princeton emerged 37 judges, three of whom were elevated to the Supreme Court, 12 members of the Continental Congress, 28 US Senators and 49 US Congressmen. His best known descendant today is the Hollywood actor Reese Witherspoon.

Immersed in the same research project, I next found myself visiting the coastal town of Prestonpans, in East Lothian, where I met up with John Burns whose family own Burns Yard, a treasure trove of scrap merchandise. The Burns family have lived in Prestonpans since 1763 when Alexander Burn, a seafarer, originally from Monifieth in Forfarshire, settled there with his wife Margaret Wilson and raised a family of six children. It was Alexander, their youngest son, who added the ‘s’ to the surname, and it was his seventh child and fourth son, another John, who in the latter half of the 19th century emigrated to New Zealand. In a contemporary census, this John’s profession was listed as ‘gardener’ and, in 1814, he married Margaret Craig. They had 11 surviving children and, of these, seven sons, one daughter and eight grandchildren joined them on their journey to the Antipodes. Only their second son Samuel remained in Prestonpans.

In 1947, Samuel’s son, Sam, a firewood merchant, opened up a yard in a quarry. He had been previously employed in the local co-operative, but was suffering from angina and was therefore obliged to retire. His yard being strategically situated on the coastal road, behind the high walls of the Prestongrange estate, Sam Burns soon discovered that there was an even greater demand for the old wardrobes and wooden furniture which he acquired from house sales to transform into kindling. Thus was founded Samuel Burns & Co, Second Hand Goods Merchant.

As demand increased, Sam created makeshift shelters and stacked his furniture and bric-a-brac under trees for protection against the elements. With the entire stock being kept in the open air, he was obliged to keep his prices low in order to achieve a quick turnover. As the word spread, the yard prospered, furnishing countless homes in Edinburgh and some as far afield as Glasgow. “All of the family helped out,” recalls Sam’s son, John, who in time joined his father, and, today, Burns Yard is run by John’s sons, Gordon and another John.

Where this local story becomes all the more poignant is that in 1988, a reunion of the descendants of John and Margaret Burns took place in Dunedin, New Zealand. The celebration numbered into the hundreds, and, what is more, all of those who turned up for it had kept in touch with the Burns family members who had stayed behind in Scotland. “Some of them have even been over to visit us since,” says John.

What all of this tells us is that the world in which we live is a far smaller place than most of us imagine. It also underlines what a travelled and prolific race the Scots are, be it from the Highlands or the Lowlands. And this in turn leads me to make reference to the Gathering 2009 (, an unprecedented international get-together in Scotland’s Capital for those of Scottish descent. Under the patronage of the Duke of Rothesay (Prince Charles’s Scottish title derived from his Sterwart/Stuart ancestors), the Gathering programme from 25th to 26th July 2009 includes a Highland Games in Edinburgh’s Royal Holyrood Park, a conference/seminar in the Scottish Parliament, and a spellbinding historic pageant on the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle. Put the dates in your diary, wherever you are.

The centuries pass, but the goodwill generated through shared origins has created an immense asset in terms of communication and understanding in our ever more complex global community.

Of course, I am well aware that my connection with Allan Pinkerton is extremely tenuous, but at the same time, I still quite like the idea of being distant kin to a man who foiled an assassination attempt on President Abraham Lincoln.