Taken from
Issue Number 47 Spring 2000


Ron Booth


In 1992, as soon as I retired from teaching in Canada, I took a drive around England and Scotland in an attempt to discover my roots. My father emigrated to Canada in 1911 from Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, while my maternal grandfather, John MacMurchy, was born in Machrihanish. John was the son of James MacMurchy and Jean Caskie. My visit to Machrihanish inspired me to delve deeper into the history of this family. As the result of a chance encounter with the late John Kelly in Machrihanish, I was advised to seek out Angus Martin, who subsequently provided me with a great deal of information pertaining to James MacMurchy. A plea for information to The Campbeltown Courier was responded to by Mrs. Jane [Cissie] McGeachy, Mrs. Margaret Miller, Mr. Duncan Colville, Rev John R H Cormack and several others. Their contributions were invaluable in the preparation of this history. I also spent many hours at the Mormon Family History Centre in Kitchener, Ontario, looking at both Census returns and Old Parish Records.

After the death of my aunt, Evelyn MacMurchy, in Ottawa in 1992, a package of letters was discovered in the attic of her home. These letters were written from Kilkivan Cottage, and later Machrihanish Cottage, to John MacMurchy in Ottawa, by John's sisters Jean and Bella as well as by his mother, Jean MacMurchy (Caskie). They provided a glimpse into the everyday life of the MacMurchy family in the late 19th century.

As a former Chemistry teacher, I pretend to be neither an historian nor a writer, but the following is the result of my research.

John Murphy and Jean Watson

James MacMurchy passed away at his home, Machrihanish Cottage, on 16 April, 1909, at the age of 74. For many years he had made his presence known in the district as a poet, singer, deacon of the Free Church of Scotland, preacher and as a visitor of the shut-ins. He was buried in Kilkerran Cemetery along with his wife. (The name of one of their sons, James, is included on the tombstone, but he was actually buried in Canada.)

James was born on October 8, 1835, the son of John Murphy and Jean Watson. The family home was Kilkivan Cottage. Later in life, James wrote a poem entitled 'The Wee Hoose', in which he fondly remembers life in that cottage. In the book by James McNeill, Meanders in South Kintyre, written in 1953, the author states that, at that time, only the foundations of the cottage remained. It was located by the road beside East Trodigal Cottage.

John Murphy (Murphy, Murchy, MacMurphy and MacMurchy were often used interchangeably) and Jean Watson were married in 1819 in Campbeltown. Jean was the daughter of John Watson, collier from Drumlemble. The marriage information states that both were of 'this parish'. I was unable to identify the parents of John Murphy, so this remains a question mark.

According to the Old Parish Registers of Campbeltown, John and Jean produced the following family: William, b 19 November 1820; Margaret, b 20 February 1825; David, b 28 February 1827; Jean, b 11 January 1829; Isobel, b 1832; James, b 8 October 1835, and Jean, 11 March 1838.

Their first-born, a boy named Alexander, was born October 30, 1819, in Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. For some reason, probably employment, the couple lived there for approximately one year. The parish records collected by the Mormon Church show a great number of people named Murphy (Murchy) on that island, so possibly John had relations there.

On their return to South Kintyre in 1820, they took up residence in Kilkivan Cottage and John worked as a coal-miner, probably at the Drumlemble pit. In the 1841 Census there is no mention of John Murphy, thus he must have passed away. Jean Murphy was listed as being 45 years old and Alexander was recorded as the head of the family. There is no mention of Jean Murphy (Watson) in the 1851 Census, so she must have died before that date. James and Jean were the other children listed along with Alexander. In one of the poems of James MacMurchy, he mentions that both of his parents were buried in Kilkivan Cemetery. A search of this property revealed no stone bearing their names.

After the deaths of the parents, some of the children were sent to work in the mines. James entered the mines at the age of nine years, while William was sent to live with his uncle, Hugh Watson, in Holy town, Lanarkshire. Later, William emigrated to Lonaconing, Maryland, where he continued to work in the mines. He married and fathered six children, whose names were Sandy, John, William, Hugh, James and Bella. They continued to use the name 'Murphy' and had a difficult time convincing other Americans that they were not Irish Catholics. During the 1920s, William's son, also named William, wrote to Emma MacMurchy in Ottawa and indicated that from that date hence, the family would be using the name 'MacMurchy'.

Very little is known about Alexander, except that he passed away in Campbeltown Poorhouse at the age of 50 years.

Jane married a fisherman named Andrew McKinven, who drowned in a storm in 1898 near Campbeltown.

In 1858, Isobella MacMurphy, as her name was recorded, married Duncan Thomson, a coal-miner. Duncan passed away in 1908, but Isobella was still living in the area in 1909. She visited James MacMurchy on the day he died.

Mrs. Jane McGeachy of Drumlemble reported that her great-grandmother, Christina MacMurchy, was born and raised at Kilkivan Cottage. Christina had a brother named John and she must have been a close relative of John Murphy's. Christina was the daughter of William MacMurchy, ploughman, and Euphemia Galbraith. Christina married Donald Paterson and their children included Bella, Jean, James, John, Donald, Euphemia and Janet. She passed away August 10, 1911, at the age of 72 years.

James MacMurchy

James MacMurchy commenced his working life at a very young age. It was reported that he worked in coal mines in both Drumlemble and Cambuslang.

As a child, he suffered an injury to his eyes and this problem plagued him for the remainder of his life. Later in his life, while visiting the sick, he was caught out in a severe snow storm and a bad eye inflammation resulted. His eye problems became so severe that at the age of 26 he was forced to go on the Poor Roll for a time.

At some point early in his life he worked as a farm labourer. At first he tended the sheep and cattle and then, in a later Census, he was listed as a ditcher-drainer. It has been recorded that he taught himself to read and write by scratching letters in the sand while tending cattle. He had very little formal education.

It is not known exactly when he began to visit the shut-ins and elderly in the area. He must have been a very caring and compassionate man, since he was known to walk miles through the district on his visits.

The owner of Machrihanish Farm, Mr. John Colville, who was involved in evangelical pursuits, was the main reason James MacMurchy became involved in the work. Mr. Colville passed away in 1886, but James continued with the work. An article in the 1966 Scottish Woman's Rural Institute booklet entitled, Machrihanish - Our Village History, described James MacMurchy as a colporteur. This was a person employed by a society to distribute bibles and religious tracts. In a letter from Bella MacMurchy, at Kilkivan Cottage, to John MacMurchy in Ottawa, dated July 5 1882, Bella mentioned that James was out delivering tracts for Mr. Colville. James was ordained a deacon at Lochend Church in 1884 and appointed an elder in 1895. At that time, this church belonged to the Free Church of Scotland. The book, Machrihanish - Our Village History, also mentions how James would preach the Sunday sermon in the local school for those unable to make the long walk to Campbeltown.

James must have possessed a fine singing voice, since his talent was often featured in the Machrihanish school-house or the Good Templar Hall in Campbeltown. One article, in the 23 October, 1875, edition of The Campbeltown Courier, told of a Friday evening concert at the Templar Hall, where James sang 'Our Volunteer Corps' and 'The Highland Railway', both songs of his own composition.

James McNeill referred to James MacMurchy as the 'Poet of Kintyre', since his poetry was well-known in the Campbeltown district. He wrote poetry dealing with everyday events in the lives of the local people. Such happenings as a trip to Belfast, the opening of the Machrihanish golf course, a mine accident, or the death of a prominent citizen became themes for his poetry. Most of his poetry was published in The Campbeltown Courier in the late 19th century. Two editions of his collected poetry were published, the last one appearing in 1888. In one of his poems, 'A Letter to Kate', James laments his daughter Kate, who emigrated to New York State and made little contact with her family back in Kintyre for about two years. There is also a poem titled 'John's Birthday', which was a greeting to a son who emigrated to Canada in 1882, on the occasion of his 21st birthday. He also showed his deep love of the natural world in his poem 'The Snowdrop'.

Although the MacMurchy name has long been associated with poetry in Kintyre, there is no evidence to link James MacMurchy with the line of bards.

James MacMurchy and Jean Caskie

James MacMurchy married Jean Caskie of Campbeltown on June 16, 1859. Jean's parents were James Caskie, maltster, and Catherine MacConachie. James and Jean spent the largest portion of their married life in Kilkivan Cottage, the small building where James was born.

The first two children, John (my grandfather) and Kate, were born in Glenhead, Dalziel. The 1871 Census listed the following children:

  • Catherine, age 11, b February 3, 1860;
  • John, age 9, b November 15, 1861;
  • James, age 7, b February 29, 1864;
  • David, age 5, b May 17 1865;
  • Jean, age 2, b August 15, 1868.
  • Annabel, the last child, was born May 29, 1871.
She was given the nick-name 'Tibby'.


It was Annabel and Jean who were such faithful correspondents of John's after he had emigrated to Canada. Annabel, or Bella, was a very clever young lady, and the schoolmaster at Drumlemble wanted her to become a pupil-teacher at the school. This did not happen, however, and she left school at the age of 12. She worked as a cook or 'domestic' at several places in Glasgow and eventually married James Scott Gardner. He was a cooper by trade who had been raised in the Townhead area of Glasgow. Bella and James Gardner raised four children, George, Sheena, Netta and Hamish.

Jean was the mischievous child in the family and always ready with a quip or joke. Hamish Gardner remembers her as the ideal auntie. She married Duncan MacDonald, a painter. They lived in Glasgow the remainder of their lives and had no children.

James was another fun-loving member of the family and had been a good friend to Donald Paterson. James emigrated to Canada in the early 1880s and worked on a farm at Long Island, near Ottawa. He became very ill in May of 1884 and, receiving no medical assistance, died from diphtheria at the age of 20. He was buried beside the Rideau River, but the land has since been washed away by the annual spring floods. His name was engraved on his parents' tombstone in Kilkerran Cemetery.

David, or Davie as he was called in the letters, emigrated to the United States and worked in several locations. In 1898 he was employed in a foundry in Sing Sing, New York. He also spent some time in Elmira, New York, and finally ended up in Yonkers. He married Sarah Mauder and they raised six children. His contacts with his family in Scotland were few.

Catherine, or Kate, also emigrated to the United States. She did not write to her parents for at least two years. Her first marriage was short-lived. A second marriage was to Sam Sullivan, who eventually lost a leg through an accident. Life must have been very difficult for Kate, since she had to work to support the family.

John, my Grandfather, emigrated to Canada in 1882 and at first worked on a farm owned by one Robert Davidson near Ottawa. Davidson's niece, Margaret Neill, would occasionally visit this farm and true love ran its course. John eventually became a railway engineer with the Canada Atlantic Railway (later to be known as the Grand Trunk Railway). He was known to his fellow-workers as 'Honest John' and never had an accident on the job.

John and Margaret Neill were married on April 30, 1889, and moved into a house at 60 James Street, in Ottawa. They raised a family of nine children, who were as follows: Elizabeth, Emma, James, Grace, Sarah (my Mother), Neil, Annabel, Flora and Evelyn. Neither of the boys married, thus the MacMurchy name is no longer carried on.

John passed away in 1910 from dropsy. In an age when insurance was rare, this left Margaret with an enormous task to raise the family. The older children all worked to help with the finances.

The house at 60 James Street was the MacMurchy homestead from 1889 until the death of Evelyn MacMurchy on 11 February, 1992.

James MacMurchy - the later years

According to an article in The Campbeltown Courier, in 1932, using information supplied by Bella, the small thatched cottage at Kilkivan was always a haven for visitors. The garden at the back was ablaze with flowers. James MacMurchy loved nature and especially the time spent in his own garden.

The article stated that James was well-known as a philosopher and a friend to strangers. He was an inspiration to all who met him. His wife, Jean Caskie, was an educated woman for her time and station in life. James strongly believed in obtaining a good education since he had very few educational opportunities himself. He constantly encouraged young people to go as far as they could in school.

In the 1891 Census, only James, Jean Caskie and their daughter Jean were listed, and their place of residence was West Machrihanish Cottage. The exact date they moved from Kilkivan Cottage to Machrihanish Cottage is not known.

Jean Caskie passed away on 8 October, 1902. James, with ever-worsening eyesight, survived seven more years. The housekeeping chores were looked after by Agnes Glen. James died on April 16, 1909, and was buried in Kilkerran Cemetery.

Bella wrote to her brother John in Ottawa on April 20, 1909, to inform him of the passing of their father. At the time of his death he was having a visit from his sister, Bella. Bella, his daughter, also commented on the many people who attended the funeral. This showed the high respect the local people had for the man. A lengthy obituary appeared in The Campbeltown Courier.

James MacMurchy had very little in the way of material possessions to leave to his family. While working as a missionary he had earned three pounds a month, two pounds of which went for the mortgage on Machrihanish Cottage. Even though Mr. Colville, along with many other local people, helped with the cost of the cottage, James was still left with a debt of fifty pounds. The publication of his books of poetry had cost twelve pounds, but very few were sold. To help with the finances, James took in lodgers and in the summer provided rooms for golfers. Both Bella and Jean faithfully sent money home to payoff the debt of the house, which was settled in full by the time of his death.

The life of James MacMurchy had been very rich. This devout Christian had preached Sunday sermons in the local school and spent many hours visiting the sick and elderly. His poetry and singing were well-known. He counselled and encouraged young people to further their education. Of his grandchildren in Ottawa, one became a medical doctor, one a hospital dietician and two were teachers. As the years fly by, few will remember his name or its significance, but it is important for a community to frequently recall the importance of figures from its own history.

Copyright belongs to the authors unless otherwise stated.

The Kintyre Antiquarian & Natural History Society was founded in 1921 and exists to promote the history, archaeology and natural history of the peninsula.
It organises monthly lectures in Campbeltown - from October to April, annually - and has published its journal, 'The Kintyre Magazine', twice a year since 1977, in addition to a range of books on diverse subjects relating to Kintyre

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