In the early twentieth century, Sir George McCrae was one of Edinburgh’s elite. Born in Aberdeen, he moved as a child to Edinburgh where he was raised by his uncle, John Buchan. He left school aged ten to work as a message boy but shortly afterwards was apprenticed to a hatter. Before his 17th birthday he became manager of the shop which his employer operated inDunfermline. Aged 18, in 1878, he returned toEdinburgh to manage theEdinburgh branch. He also became a private soldier in the Volunteers, the precursor of the Territorial Army. By 1879 he had been promoted to Sergeant. He also became involved in Liberal politics.
In 1880 McCrae established his own business and married Lizzie Russell. McCrae’s business prospered and he was commissioned in the Volunteers. In 1889 his life took another momentous turn: he was elected as a councillor to the Corporation of the City of Edinburgh. In 1891 he became a highly successful Treasurer of the City Council. He was elected as Member of Parliament for East Edinburghin 1899. By 1905 he was a Colonel in the Volunteers when Campbell-Bannerman’s Liberal government was elected with McCrae one of its loyal parliamentary members. He played a major parliamentary role in establishing the Territorial Army and was knighted in 1908. He remained an MP until 1909 when he took over as Vice-Chairman of the Scottish Local Government Board. He was also the commanding officer of the 6th Battalion, The Royal Scots (TF). In 1913 however, his wife Lizzie died. Earlier in that year, while she had been ill, he resigned his command of the 6th Royal Scots.
McCrae re-enlisted in 1914 and raised a battalion, the 16th Royal Scots, which recruited many of the Heart of Midlothian football team. McCrae forged the battalion and led it with credit. He was awarded a DSO for his leadership on theSomme in July 1916. After the war he returned to politics, unsuccessfully contesting Central Edinburgh as a Liberal in 1922 but winning theStirling and Falkirk Burghs seat in 1923. He died in 1926.
All of the above is superbly told in Jack Alexander’s McCrae’s Battalion, The Story of the 16th Royal Scots (Mainstream,Edinburgh, 2003). Alexander also points out that McCrae was illegitimate, a fact which McCrae did his best to conceal. Even Alexander’s account however, contains some minor errors. He gives McCrae’s date of birth as 29 August 1861: it was 1860. He states that his mother, Jane Buchan, “when registering the birth, named the father as ‘George McCrae, Mason’. There is no evidence that such a man ever existed.”
His mother may have indicated to George or to other family members that George’s father was one George McCrae, Mason, but no such name appears on the birth certificate (General Register Office, Scotland, 1860, 168/2 679) which notes him as illegitimate. There is however some evidence that such a George may have existed. In February 1859, 18 months before George’s birth, there was recorded the birth of Margaret McRae, daughter of George McRae, Mason, residing inNelson Street,Aberdeen. McRae (slightly different spelling) was a married man. There is at least one other George McRae, mason, of an appropriate age, residing inAberdeen, over the decades following George’s birth. Although therefore the mystery of paternity remains unresolved, there remains the possibility of his being the son of one George McCrae (or McRae), mason.
When George McCrae married in 1880, he was less than forthright. He declared (General Register Office, Scotland, 1880, 424 95) that he was George Buchan McCrae, son of George B. McCrae, Mason (Journeyman) and Jane McCrae, maiden surname Buchan. Firstly, George B (or Buchan) McCrae was the name by which the young George was known. His father would have been very unlikely to have had as a middle name the maiden surname of his wife. The more fundamental error is the statement that his mother was Jane McCrae. Jane Buchan appears on the 1871 census, residing with young George (noted however as George McCrae) and her mother and noted as Unmarried, and on the 1881 census, living alone in 12 East Arthur Place, Edinburgh, again declaring herself to be single. Jane Buchan neither married George McCrae nor anyone else.
Her son however maintained the pretence that she had. By 1901 Jane Buchan was residing in George’s home but appears on the census (General Register Office, Scotland, 1901 Census, 685/5 109 7) as Jane McCrae, mother of George, and a widow. While he bent the truth on several occasions by pretending that his mother had married, he did not do so when she died.
Her death certificate (General Register Office, Scotland, 1902, 685/5 1362), on which her son, George, was the informant, rightly notes her as Jane Buchan, Single, but notes her occupation as Nurse. McCrae moreover, notes himself, not as her son, but as “Occupier (i.e. of the house in which death occurred) & Employer”. When he declared her death he did not deny that his mother was unmarried. He denied that she was his mother.
It is almost impossible today to imagine the social stigma in privileged society of the illegitimate 100 years ago. George McCrae had been an elder of the Church of Scotland, a successful businessman, a popular politician, a forceful civil servant and a war hero. He was a gentleman on whom the King had been pleased “to confer the honour of Knighthood atBuckinghamPalace” (The London Gazette, July 28, 1908). Humble origins were acceptable to the establishment of which George McCrae desperately wanted to be a part. Illegitimacy patently was not.
Jane Buchan lies in Newington Cemetery in an unmarked grave.
From a genealogist’s perspective, the story of George McCrae carries several warnings.
- Errors of fact will enter even the best of histories.
- Always return to the original documents.
- If a birth certificate cannot be found, consider the possibility of illegitimacy and search for the certificate under the party’s forename plus the party’s mother’s surname.
- Treat all evidence, including that found in marriage and death certificates or in census returns with a due pinch of scepticism. Informants could have strong reasons to hide the truth.
This article was first published in The Scottish Genealogist,Vol LVIII, No. 1, March 2011, pp 42-45