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  • Kylie Sprott

X marks the spot

One of the greatest sources of joy for me is reading and writing. I have always loved the chance to disappear into another world, courtesy of a well written book. And writing has been a creative outlet for me for longer than I can remember. Reading and writing is a form of escapism and fuels my imagination.

I have taken my literacy and my education for granted for most of my life. Because everyone around me is literate and had the opportunity to go to school. And because a life without the ability to read and write seems unfathomable.

So, as Isabel the Bute genealogist continues to peel back the layers of our family history, I was saddened to learn about my great, great grandmother, Mary Woods. When Mary married William Morris on the first of July in 1878 in Rothesay, Mary was unable to sign her name. Instead, she made a small cross, which someone else noted as "her mark".

Not surprisingly, prior to her marriage, Mary was a factory worker. I imagine that her options in life were far reduced as a result of being illiterate. But back then, options for a woman born into a modest circumstances were fairly limited regardless.

By all accounts, hers was not an easy life. She was born in circa 1857 in Greenock to James Woods (a "Hammerman") and Mary McLees. There is no sign of her birth record, only a mention of her age recorded at her marriage and her death.

Mary died on 23 March 1895, at the young age of 38. She died at 93 High Street, Rothesay. A place that is visible from my flat on Mount Pleasant Road. Although that building has since been replaced with council flats, I walked past that very spot after the Highland Games.

The part of her story that filled me with sadness was her cause of death - "exhaustion". Trying to decipher what that means in Victorian Scotland is interesting. Some sources indicate that it may have been simply a loss of strength or a cancer of some sort. Alternatively, "exhaustion" in the 19th century is also linked to mental illness.

Sadly, when she died she left behind her husband William (a fisherman) and 6 children - Jane (15), William, my ancestor (12), James (11), Mary (10), Margaret (6) and Christina (4). Her husband moved very quickly to marry another woman (Janet Richardson) within 5 months. Janet also marked their wedding certificate with an "x".

Tragically, Mary's youngest child, Christina died only two years later, at the age of 6. Christina suffered from acute hydrocephalus - otherwise known as "water on the brain". This is usually evident in an infant by an abnormal enlargement of the head and is often accompanied by severe and frequent vomiting and seizures. Perhaps tending to 6 children, the youngest being severely ill, was just too much for Mary to cope with. My heart breaks for her.

My heart also breaks for my great grandfather, William. It was William who registered the death of his youngest sister, only two years after the death of their mother. William was all of 15 at the time.

Today, I feel enormous gratitude for my education. I am very much aware that education is such a huge differentiator in life - it provides you with choices, gives you freedom and helps you to dream. For me, a love of learning has helped me to carve out a life that my ancestors could never have dreamt of.

It makes me happy to know that William eventually named his only child, my grandmother, "Mary Jane" - a lovely recognition of the mother he lost at the tender age of 12.

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