Sinclairs of South Leith

Ian C. Sinclair - Click for a detailed biography

This series of family history articles by Ian C. Sinclair was originally written for Girnigoe magazine.

  1. Sinclairs of South Leith   (c1700–1856)
  2. Sinclairs of Kelso   (c1850–1910)
  3. Sinclairs around Edinburgh   (c1655–1780)
  4. Sinclairs of Glasgow   (c1860–1923)
  5. Sinclairs of South London   (c1890–1940)

Ian C. Sinclair is a retired solicitor who specialized in water and environmental law; he now runs Sinclair Consultancy Services. He and his wife Janet live in Solihull, in the West Midlands, England, but travel extensively — click here for details.

(Photo: William Penny)

"So near and yet so far"! That phrase has a familiar ring to anyone who is involved with family history! There are not many miles between Rosslyn, "mediaeval strong-hold of the Sinclair chief of the 'lordly line of high St Clair'", and the narrow wynds of South Leith the seaport of Edinburgh. Yet what a difference in social class and position between the lords and warriors who lived in that famed castle and the very ordinary people who lived as tradespeople in the seaport.

And yet both bore the same surname of Sinclair. What a coincidence! Why is this so? Is it too fanciful to suggest that the Sinclairs of Leith were the descendants of those retainers of the great Henry St Clair, Lord High Admiral of Scotland whose expeditions went to Greenland and possibly to the New World? Henry's ships no doubt set out from Leith and so his retainers would have lived there to service those expeditions.

FamilySearch.org - a good place to start

This is, so far, mere speculation, as I have only been able to trace my ancestors back as far as a John Sinclair who was alive at the end of the 17th century. He was the father of my ancestor, David Sinclair, who was born on 3rd March 1707 in South Leith.

It is clear they were very ordinary people as, in the records relating to the birth and a baptism of his elder brother David — who was born on 19 March 1704 but who died before the second David was born — John, the father, is described as "Tayllor in the yeard heads". David's mother was described as "Bessie Hodge", while the witnesses were "David Neilson, Cordiner in ye yeard heads and Thomas Whytelaw, Saddler". The witnesses to the baptisms of the other sons, John (30 April 1696), Thomas (25 May 1699) and Robert (28 September 1701) were all people who lived "in ye yeard heads" and are variously described as "Cordiner", or "Joyner".

There is also the reference to the oldest son, John Sinclair son of John Sinclair and Bessie Hodge, who was born on 30 April 1696 in South Leith. The Register of Burials for South Leith from 1704 has the following entry: "John Sinclair, Taylor & Freeman in Leith, near the head of the Kirkgate, in the 54th year of his age, on the 1st day & was buried on the 2nd day – Sept, 1718". [So this John Sinclair must have been born in 1664 or 1665.] Thus, it is likely that he was the son of James Sinclair, as there is an entry of a Baptism on 27 June 1665 at Kirknewton/East Calder — "Sinclair, John – baptised to James Sinclair, one child – witnesses – John Gray and David Johnston".

Also in the Register of Burials for South Leith, there is an entry: "Bessie Hodge, relict of John Sinclair, Taylor in Leith, died above the South Kirk, about the 78th year of her age, on the 11th day & was buried on the 12th day – Sept 1731." Thus, if these facts and deductions are correct, John Sinclair appears to have been born in c1665, and his wife c1655. To date, I have no record of their marriage, but it seems they were not married till John was about 30, and Bessie about 40. And yet they appear to have children from 1696 to 1707! It does not seem to tie up with usual human fertility!

I have references and information on the births and baptisms of various people called "John Sinclair" and "Elizabeth", "Elisabeth" or "Bessie" Hodge, but so far, I have not yet been able to accurately fit them into the "weave and woof" of the family story. In fact, the names are very similar for many of the Sinclairs of South Leith. Thus, it is extremely difficult to be sure that the correct husbands and wives have been matched, and similarly, so many children had similar names and dates of births and deaths.

What is obvious is that, in the 18th century, there were many Sinclair families in Leith, all of whom were involved in serving the needs of that port in various jobs. I think I may have got my ancestors matched correctly, but I would not be too sure! I am still trying to find out, and would welcome any other information and assistance that others may be able to give me. There is a great deal of Sinclair family history waiting to be discovered in Leith!

David's life seems to have been lived in South Leith, working as a cork-cutter, a job which involved making, in particular, the corks for the glass bottles into which the wine was dispensed from the barrels and casks in which the wine was imported into Leith from France and Spain.

At that time, of course there were many other trades carried on in Leith. One that is often mentioned is cordiner. This is the same as cordwainer, which comes from the word cordovan or cordwain, which is goat-shik leather, originally from Cordova in Spain. Thus, such a person was a shoemaker or leather worker — another Scots word for this trade is souter. The most famous souter in Scots literature is Souter Johnnie, namely John Davidson of Kirk-oswald, Ayrshire, who was Robert Burns's "droothie croonie", his drinking companion, who is immortalised in Burns's poem, Tam O' Shanter.

On 2 June 1730, David Sinclair married Isabell Liddell (also born in South Leith, on 20 November 1708), the daughter of Charles Liddell (a gardener) and his wife Anna Stevenson. Naturally my mind questions whether this may be a link with the Sinclairs of Stevenson (as mentioned in Niven Sinclair's article in the December 2001 Issue No 23 of Girnigoe). Another fascinating bye-way to explore!

The next in my direct family line was Andrew, who was born on 31 October 1737 and baptised on 6 November 1737, the fourth child of the marriage, preceded by:

  • Mary, born 30 April 1731;
  • Barbara, born in 1732 and died on 7 January 1733; and
  • Charles, born 20 November and died on 1 November 1736.

So Andrew became the eldest living son and appears to have carried on the family business as a cork-cutter.

On 4 June 1764, Andrew Sinclair married Mary Hasting (otherwise spelt as Haston or Houston). The marriage entry tells a sad, but familiar, story. The record states, "compeared Andrew Sinclair, Corkcutter in Leith and Mary Hasting & acknowledged their irregular marriage and produced the certificate thereof dated Edinburgh – 4 June 1764, showing that they were there married, signed by like partys, attested by William Dunnet as Minister and by George Rutherford & Betty McKenzie as witnesses. They were rebuked and exhorted."

The reason for this marriage and report becomes clear when it is found that their first child, David, was born on 9 September 1764 (baptised 20 September 1764).

This marriage seems to have produced 8 children starting with David born in 1764, and ending with Eadie (known as Adam) born 14 August 1786. The baptism entry of 27 August, 1786 for Perth reads "Sinclair, Eadie – lawful son to Andrew Sinclair, Corkcutter, in Perth, and Mary Haston, his spouse – born 14 August – baptised by the Revd Mr James Scott, Minister of the Gospel in Perth".

Eadie/Adam is the next in the family chain, although it took me years to find him. This is because, of all the children of this marriage, he was not born in South Leith, but in Perth, and his given name of Eadie is not the one by which he seems to have been known all his life.

It may be that his mother, Mary Sinclair (born Haston/Hasting/Houston) went to Perth to be with other relatives, possibly Sinclairs. In due course, I hope to find out more about the Sinclairs of Perth. There are known to be a number of Sinclairs living in Perth and Perthshire, and so it would be good to establish contact with them.

I wonder how it was that he was born some 21 years after the marriage — although only three years after the birth of the next eldest, his sister Elizabeth born on 26 September 1783.

It may well be that Andrew fell in love with a very young girl, and then they found there was a child on the way, so they got married before that child was born. However, they remained together for their long lives as Andrew died on 29 December 1812, and Mary died on 13 June 1821, both in South Leith.

On 18 January 1822, Adam Sinclair married Elizabeth Cameron; both are described as being of Leith, and Adam is called "Shoemaker". From this date on, it becomes easier to trace the family, as there are more records to check and cross-check.

For example, the 1841 census, for Kirkgate, South Leith, states that there were five people in the household headed by "Adam Sinclair (40) shoemaker (journeyman), not born in county" [of Midlothian]. The others included his wife, Elizabeth, 30, also "not born in county". This ties up with the marriage certificate where Elizabeth is described as "Elizabeth, residing in Leith, and daughter of Robert Cameron, late wright of the Parish of Dull". Dull is a Highland village, just north of the River Tay, north west of Aberfeldy.

The third member of the household to be listed was "Agnes, 45, not born in county". If this age is correct, it would give birth date of 1781. I am not sure who she was, as I have no trace of Adam having a sister called Agnes — the records that I have show his older sisters were Jean (born 14 April 1779), Janet (born 19 May 1782) and Elizabeth (born 26 September 1783). It is just possible that she was an elder sister of Adam, born between Jean and Janet, especially as no parish of origin is given, and ages stated in the 1841 Census were approximate [the census takers were told to "round off  ages over 15 to the nearest 5 years, so Agnes may have been reported as anywhere from 43 to 47 on census night, 6 June 1841].

However, there is another record of the birth of an Agnes Sinclair, on 3 November 1822 in South Leith Parish to "Adam Sinclair, shoemaker, Leith & Elisabeth Cameron, spouse", and it also appears that she died when aged 2 years, on 1 November, buried 3 November, 1824 in the South Maltman's ground in the graveyard of Leith.

South Leith Parish Church 1836 - click for more old pictures

In the 1841 Census, there is a record of two boys of the marriage living with their parents, namely Andrew "14, rope & sail-maker, apprentice", and his younger brother Robert, 12, no description, both "born in county". This ties up with a baptism record for Andrew for 13 February 1825 (born 28 January 1825) and for Robert of 13 August 1827 (born 1 August 1827).

Adam/Eadie seems to have come to a sad end, as he is reported as having died on 2 May 1856 in South Leith Workhouse "aged 67 years, of palsy – many months. Pauper. Widower. Son of Andrew Corkcutter (deceased), and – (unknown) – buried in South Leith Churchyard. Informant Andrew Sinclair, son". He had been listed in the 1851 census as living at 16 Kirkgate, South Leith, with his son Andrew (then aged 26, a rope-maker).

With the death of Adam/Eadie, the involvement of my direct ancestors with South Leith seems to have come to an end, as his eldest son, Andrew, moved to Govan, Glasgow, and my great grandfather, Robert, moved away to Kelso, in Roxburghshire, but that is another chapter in the story!

I have set out this story of very ordinary people in some detail, as I hope it may help others in tracing their section of the family. It also illustrates some of the difficulties and problems that, as we research family history, we encounter on the way. However, the good thing is that, as we do this investigation, we come across many others who are engaged in a similar search, and so we can help each other. So, I look forward to making contact in the years ahead with many others of the great, varied, and worldwide family of Sinclair.

Ian C. Sinclair


© Clan Sinclair Association Canada. All rights reserved.        
Maintained by admin@clansinclaircanada.ca