Alex Salmond ancestry revealed back to days of independent Scotland


by Derek Lambie

It is the bleakest of places, perhaps one of the most dreich in central Scotland. Drizzly and windswept and with nothing but marshland and mud-strewn fields as far as the eye can see, it is hard to fathom why anyone over the centuries would wish to call it home.

Yet this isolated stretch in rural Stirlingshire has played a small, but significant, part in history.

by Derek Lambie

It is the bleakest of places, perhaps one of the most dreich in central Scotland. Drizzly and windswept and with nothing but marshland and mud-strewn fields as far as the eye can see, it is hard to fathom why anyone over the centuries would wish to call it home.

Yet this isolated stretch in rural Stirlingshire has played a small, but significant, part in history.

For it was here in the early 18th century that the very last of the Salmonds to be born in an independent Scotland entered the world.

Today there is very little to see at Whin Farm, near Slamannan, save for the odd Highland cow.

A small steading stands on the same spot where one has stood for more than 300 years, but apart from that, there are no remnants of the moment Peter Salmond appeared in January 1704.

It is hard to imagine Scotland’s First Minister as shy and retiring, but when it comes to his family, Alexander Elliot Anderson Salmond is intensely private. Over the years he has given few interviews about his parents and grandparents, and except for a recent biography that recalled his early years in Linlithgow, West Lothian, very little is known about his ancestry or the historical trials and tribulations that shape the man he is today.

A quick look at the documents held in the National Records of Scotland throws up a multitude of potential stories and scandals, such as the Salmonds charged with habitual housebreaking in Edinburgh in the 1830s, the Robert Salmond accused of embezzling funds from the City of Glasgow Bank in 1879, and the William Salmond given land in Ayrshire by King James VI in 1585.

But it is painstaking research involving more than 400 years of birth, death and marriage records, wills and testaments written in flowery old Scots, and the scrawlings in old parish church log books that unlock the actual story behind the Salmond family tree.

Records held by ScotlandsPeople – an online database created by the National Records of Scotland and the Court of the Lord Lyon – trace his lineage back to the early 17th century and the Boquhatstoun farming estate in the hills around Slamannan.

But it’s the birth of the First Minister’s great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather Peter Salmond on January 4, 1704, that is most interesting, since he was the last of the family born when Scotland was still an independent nation.

His birth came at a time when Scotland was in the midst of political upheaval, what with the aftermath of the disastrous overseas Darien expedition, an economy in dire straits and an increasingly tempestuous relationship with England over religion and royal succession.

But it’s unlikely any of this would have been felt in rural Stirlingshire, where the Salmonds ran their farms.

When Peter was born he had older siblings. How many is unclear although there are handwritten records for two sisters, Jane born in 1690 and Kaithrine born in 1697, and an unnamed brother, born 1694. Life would have been tough, but no different from that of others in the lowland farming communities. And certainly it was better than many in Scotland at that time – at least they had land.

It is thought, from the boggy nature of the fields there today, that the Salmonds were mainly cattle dealers rather than agricultural farmers, although there is mention of small crops of barley and hay in a 1685 will. High Court documents from 1681 also state the family was concerned with the recovery of horses from the Battle of Bothwell Bridge two years earlier.

The records show Peter married Agnes Russell in Slamannan in 1736 and went on to have 10 children over the course of the next 20 years. His eldest son, John, who was born just three months after the wedding, went on to marry in 1765 and had nine children of his own, but apart from the fact they remained in Slamannan, very little else is known about this generation.

It is only the availability of the Census in the mid-19th century that allows us to learn more about the early Salmonds. Born in 1781, Alex Salmond’s great-great-great grandfather, John, continued to live in Slamannan for the early part of his life, and like his forefathers, he worked the land, as a ploughman and a labourer. By 1841 when the first Census records emerge, he has moved his family a few miles east to the West Lothian village of Torphichen, where his 13-year-old son, John, has left to live with another farmer as a farm hand.

Tragedy strikes in 1857 when his son, now 29 and still working for the same family, falls ill and dies after a three-week fever. It wouldn’t be the last time heartache would visit the family, and the records show that over the next 60 years a number of the First Minister’s ancestors die either from illness or at the hands of the Germans at war.

In the 19th century tuberculosis killed a quarter of the population in Europe, and the Salmonds did not escape. Born in 1816, the First Minister’s great-great-grandfather, Alexander, lost two of his children at the height of the epidemic, sawmiller son Archie at the age of 26 in 1887 and dressmaker daughter Helen aged 29 five years later.

Tragedy would also afflict their brother, Robert, twice in the space of a year. The untimely death of his wife, Margaret, in 1915 from a brain condition was followed by his son, Henry, being killed by a sniper in Flanders in October 1916 – just a week after his 21st birthday – while serving in the Great War with the 2/8th Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment.

Better record keeping at the turn of the 20th century provides a valuable insight into professions, addresses, marriages and causes of death – and gives a good idea of how the Salmond family had changed since 1704.

A historical record of the 1860s remarked that rural areas were “no longer proving possible for large numbers of people to live off the land… and the result was large-scale depopulation”.

And so it proved for the Salmonds too. By 1871 they had moved from Torphichen to Linlithgow and into houses on the High Street.

As the years passed, the younger children were listed in the Census as “scholars”, while the teenagers had a varied array of non-farming jobs, such as a butcher, a blacksmith, a chemist’s assistant, and an engine fitter.

The First Minister’s great-grandfather Robert, the man who lost his wife in 1915, was a “vanman” with a grocer in Linlithgow, while his eldest son, Alexander – the First Minister’s grandfather – was listed in the 1911 Census as a “plumber (journeyman)”.

WHILE the family barely moved 15 miles in more than 300 years, the records show the Salmonds who did leave Scotland managed to reach the four corners of the world, including New Zealand and Canada. But it’s their emigration to the United States that is most notable, with much written about their transatlantic crossing in 1872 as one of the first pioneers of the new state of Minnesota.

On April 8, 1872, Alex Salmond – the nephew of the First Minister’s great-great-great grandfather – sailed to New York with his wife Jane, teenage son Peter, and nephew Robert, on board the Trinacria seeking land, and a new life. Eleven days later it is documented he “was wearing his kilt when he stepped off board and onto the new land”.

They headed to the town of Parkers Prairie, which was just being opened up to new settlers, and built themselves a small homestead.

In the spring of 1895, Alex Salmond junior, by now with nine children, moved to Roseau County which borders Canada in the north, and both he and one of his sons became stagecoach drivers. Newspaper articles dating to their time working for Iverson & Iverson on the Pelan-Roseau line still exist. One article, from the Badger Herald in February 1902, tells how they were the first to hook up more than one wagon together to form a 10-carriage train. “It was very successful… and shows what a man can do under favourable circumstances,” it stated. “The trip netted them ninety dollars.”

Eight years later Peter moved to Canada and built two houses and a farm in the new province of Saskatchewan. Today, Salmonds are still dotted across the region, some of whom have been in contact with the First Minister’s family over the years.

In her book, Alex Salmond: Cattle Dealer, Alex Salmond’s Canadian fifth cousin Myrla writes: “The Salmond pioneers had the courage to flout adversity. Their closeness as a family gave them the strength and support to build, and rebuild when necessary.”

Myrla, who still lives in Saskatchewan, was writing about Alex Salmond’s early life in Canada having set sail as a 16-year-old in the 19th century. But she could just as easily be describing the story of the Salmonds left behind, from that last boy born in an independent country to the man who now wishes to take Scotland there once again.

For information on how to trace ancestry, go to the ScotlandsPeople website, call 0131 314 4300 or visit the research centre at the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh.


Courtesy of the Scottish Sunday Express