Skip to main content


By 21 February 2024No Comments

I was approached by a student in one of my classes who believed that her family was descended from Elizabeth Burns, ‘Dear Bought Bess’, Robert Burns’s first child, his illegitimate daughter by Elizabeth Paton.
In 1784, Burns had a brief relationship with Lizzie Paton, a farm servant, in Mauchline.  Their daughter, Elizabeth, was born on 22 May 1785 and baptised on 24 May.  The baptismal record in Tarbolton Parish records does not explicitly note the child’s illegitimacy.  All the other entries on the same page however merely note the father’s name, using the formula William Feguson in Drumley had his Son John Baptized May the 1st 1785.  Uniquely, Elizabeth Burns’s mother’s name is noted: Robert Burns and Eliz. Paton had their Daughter Elizabeth Baptized 24 May 1785[i]. The note of the mother’s name is the unusually subtle indication of the child’s illegitimacy.
Susan Forsyth, my student, had been led to believe that she and her family were descended from Elizabeth Burns, whom, I was aware had married and settled in Whitburn.  This made sense to Susan as her family was from West Lothian.  Ascertaining the truth of this family perception seemed an unavoidable genealogical challenge.
Some cautionary points require to be made in respect of what follows.
Firstly, although most Scottish vital records from 1855 (the date of the introduction of statutory registration of births, marriages and deaths) are accurate and informative, some aspects tend to be less accurate than others.  In particular ages given on both death certificates and census returns are often approximations made by individuals who were not always fully aware of the actual ages of those on whom they were reporting.  Similarly, spelling and forms of names, both of people and of places, will change, depending on who was writing the particular document.
Secondly, Scottish records prior to 1855 are largely Church records.  Marriages (or marriage banns) were almost always recorded.  Births (or baptisms) were often recorded but by no means always.  Deaths (or burials) were recorded systematically in only a few parishes.  Moreover, although the Church of Scotland Parishes were technically obliged to record all baptisms, banns and burials, that did not always happen.  For reasons of cost (there was a charge to have such matters recorded), conscience (members of denominations outwith the Established Church in some cases saw no need to record their vital events with the Established Church) and convenience (especially in wide-spread rural areas), many vital events were not recorded in the first place.  Other records have been lost.  It is not unusual therefore to find no trace of, say, a birth/baptismal record for someone whom we know to have lived.
Thirdly, the fact that a given number of children of particular parents have been identified, does not mean that these parents only had the identified number.  There may have been other children not identified in this research.
All of that notwithstanding, this has proved a most rewarding and fascinating search.

Susan Jane Forsyth was born in Edinburgh on 21 December 1955, the daughter of John White Forsyth, Building Contractor, and his wife, Agnes Cowie Forsyth MS Blackadder, of Bathgate.[ii]  John White Forsyth and Agnes Blackadder had married in Falkirk in 1953.  John White Forsyth was then 27, the son of William Calderhead Forsyth, Building Contractor, and Margaret Oswald Forsyth MS Whitelaw.[iii]
John White Forsyth, son of William Calderhead Forsyth, House Joiner (Master) and Margaret Oswald Fosyth MS Whitelaw, was born on 13 March 1926 in Armadale.[iv]  Second Lieutenant William Calderhead Forsyth of the Border Regiment, aged 23, married Margaret Oswald Whitelaw, in Westcraigs, Blackridge, Linlithgowshire, on 28 August 1917.  He was the son of John Forsyth, Joiner, and Barbara Forsyth MS Calderhead (deceased).[v]
William Forsyth (no middle name noted on his birth certificate), son of John Forsyth, Spirit Dealer and Barbara Forsyth, previously Morton, MS Calderhead, was born in Armadale, Linlithgowshire, on 19 October 1893.[vi]  John Forsyth, Joiner, married Barbara Morton, Publican, Widow, daughter of John Calderhead, Publican (deceased) and Agnes Calderhead MS Bishop (deceased), in Armadale, on 13 December 1892.[vii]
There is a comprehensive range of extant data emanating from the lives of John Forsyth and Barbara Calderhead.  Starting at the most recent, Barbara Forsyth, maiden surname Calderhead, died in (by an unusual coincidence) Calderhead, Lanarkshire, on 30 September 1912, aged 61.  Her Death Certificate confirms her as having been married, firstly, to James Morton, Grocer, and secondly, to John Forsyth, Joiner, and confirms her parents as John Calderhead and Agnes Bishop.  The informant was her husband.[viii]
Although there is an error in the recording of the husband’s name (which is noted as Calderwood), the marriage record of John Calderhead and Agnes Bishop has been found in Blantyre, Lanarkshire, in 1840, with little information other than that both of them were residing in Blantyre at the time.[ix]  By 1841 they had moved, with their young son, James Calderhead, to Golf Hill, in Barony Parish, in Glasgow.  James Calderhead, aged 24, born in Lanarkshire, Agnes Calderhead, aged 25, born in Lanarkshire (no occupations given for either) and James Calderhead, aged 1, were noted there on the 1841 census.[x]  Golf Hill House was then the country seat of the Dennistoun family, where, in the 1850s, Alexander Dennistoun began to lay out the housing estate he named “Dennistoun”.[xi]  By 1851 the Calderhead family had grown and there were five children, James aged 10, born in Barony, Thomas aged 9, born in Barony Parish, Glasgow (Thomas Bishop Calderhead, born at Golfhill in 1841[xii]), John aged 7, born in Rutherglen (John Bishop Calderhead, born 7 May 1843[xiii]), Agnes aged 6 and Barbara aged 1 month, born in Old Monkland.  They were residing in Carmyle, in Old Monkland (Coatbridge), Lanarkshire, where John, aged 32, born in Cambusnethan, was employed as an agricultural labourer.  Agnes was noted as aged 34 and born in Whitburn.[xiv]  In 1861 they were in Drove Loan, Armadale.  John was then a Carter.  Their sons, James, Thomas and John, were coal miners and their daughters, Agnes, was a brickworker, and Barbara, was a scholar.[xv]  They remained in Armadale in 1871, noted on the census of that year residing in Rennie’s Land.  John Calderhead was then noted as spirit merchant, and with him were residing his wife, his daughter Barbara, and an employee, Jane Mclean.[xvi]  On 18 July 1871, a few months after that census, Agnes Calderhead, MS Bishop died of an apoplexy in Rennie’s Land, Armadale.  She was 55 years of age, the wife of John Calderhead and the daughter of Thomas Bishop and Agnes Weir.[xvii]  John Calderhead died, aged 73, in Armadale, in 1891.[xviii]
The data transcribed to date can be illustrated in the following Pedigree Chart.
Some aspects of the life of Elizabeth Burns, daughter of Robert Burns and Elizabeth Paton, are well-known.  She was born in Tarbolton in 1785 and was raised initially by Robert Burns’s mother.  She moved at some point to Whitburn and married John Bishop.
Susan Forsyth’s traced ancestors have been traced to Agnes Bishop, born in 1816 in Whitburn, daughter of Thomas Bishop and Agnes Weir.  There are various posted family trees which show Agnes Bishop as the daughter of Elizabeth Burns.  It is therefore incumbent on the researcher to explore the Whitburn Bishops, pinpoint the various branches and ascertain if, indeed, Agnes Bishop is a descendant of, or is otherwise related to, Elizabeth Burns and John Bishop.
Unfortunately Elizabeth Burns died in 1817.  She does not therefore appear on any census returns and although her children’s baptisms are noted on the Parish Register, there is not even a note of her burial.  Her gravestone[xix] however remains and the text is clear:
In Affectionate Regard
To the Memory of Elizabeth Burns, Spouse
to John Bishop, Polkem-
met, who died Jany. 8 1817,
aged 32 years,
and of his Daughter
Mary Lyon,
who died 26 April 1817,
aged 1 year – & 11 Months,
John Bishop
Died 20 June 1857
Aged 75 years

As well as providing the date of Elizabeth Burns’s death and the name and date of death of her daughter, the key information here is that her husband, John Bishop, died in 1857.  His death certificate indicates that he died of malignant disease of the spleen, aged 75, at Halfway House, Whitburn, that at the time of his death he was married (suggesting that he had remarried after Elizabeth Burns’s death) and that his parents were Thomas Bishop and Jane Bishop MS Weir.[xx]  He had been residing, in 1851, at Halfway House, Whitburn, aged 68 (implying a year of birth of c 1783), born in Whitburn, a farmer of 40 acres and an Inn Keeper, and residing with his wife, Mary Bishop, aged 60, his son, John Bishop, aged 21, and his daughter, Sarah, aged 28.[xxi]  In 1841, he had been residing at Halfway House, Whitburn, again with his wife Mary Bishop, and his children, John Bishop and Sarah Bishop, as well as with Sarah Millar, aged 75.  Whitburn Parish Register indicates that Sarah Bishop and John Bishop were two of the children of John Bishop and Mary Millar and it may therefore be reasonably assumed that Mary Millar was John Bishop’s second wife.
An examination of the Whitburn Parish Registers indicates that John Bishop and Elizabeth Burns had at least three children: Jane Bishop, born in 1811[xxii], Helen Bishop, born in 1813[xxiii], and Mary Lyon, born in 1815[xxiv].  As has already been noted from the gravestone, Mary Lyon Bishop (named after Mary Lyon Denniston, wife of William Baillie of Polkemmet, Bishop’s landlord), died in 1817.  Jane Bishop, born in 1811, died, aged 88, in Cambuslang in 1899.  She was the widow of James Weir, Estate Worker, and the daughter of John Bishop and Elizabeth Burns.[xxv]  No record of the marriage of Bishop and Elizabeth Burns has been found.
John Bishop and Mary Millar had at least five children born in Whitburn: Daniel Bishop, born in 1818[xxvi]; Sarah Bishop, born in 1821[xxvii]; Mary Bishop, born in 1824[xxviii]; another Mary Bishop, born in 1828[xxix]; and John Bishop, born in 1829[xxx].  John Bishop also had a son, Thomas Bishop, who was the informant on his death certificate.  It has not been ascertained whether this Thomas Bishop was the son of Elizabeth Burns or of Mary Millar.
The families of John Bishop and Elizabeth Burns and of John Bishop and Mary Millar are illustrated in the following chart.
Having established the two families of John Bishop, born c 1782 and son of Thomas Bishop and Jane Weir, it is worth exploring the wider Bishop family in Whitburn at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries.
Thomas Bishop married Jean or Jane Weir in Whitburn in 1781.[xxxi]  As well as Thomas Bishop (c 1783-1856), father of Agnes Bishop and for whom no baptismal record has been found, eight children of Thomas Bishop and Jean or Jane Weir have been traced: John Bishop, born in 1782 (whom we have already traced as the wife of Elizabeth Burns)[xxxii]; William Bishop, born in 1784[xxxiii]; Ann Bishop, born in 1786[xxxiv]; Helen Bishop, born in 1790[xxxv]; Robert Bishop, born in 1793[xxxvi]; James Bishop, born in 1796[xxxvii]; George Bishop, born in 1798[xxxviii]; and William Bishop, born in 1800[xxxix].
The following chart illustrates the children of Thomas Bishop and Jean Weir and their identified spouses.
Three children have been traced to Thomas Bishop (c1783-1856), son of Thomas Bishop and Jane Weir and husband of Agnes Weir: Thomas Bishop, born about 1817, died in Glasgow in 1868[xl]; John Bishop, born in Whitburn in 1820[xli], died in Armadale in 1891[xlii]; and Agnes Bishop (c1816-1871), who married John Calderhead.  The 1841 census illustrates however that Thomas Bishop, after the death of Agnes Weir, married Margaret Baillie and had at least three further children.  In 1841 his son by his first marriage, Thomas Bishop, agricultural labourer, was residing with him and his second wife in Greenridge, near Whitburn, as was Jane Russell, who would later marry Thomas Bishop junior.[xliii]  The families of Thomas Bishop, leading on to the Forsyth connection, is illustrated in the following chart.
What is ultimately apparent in a highly confused family narrative, made additionally confusing by the duplication of names, is that Susan Forsyth is indeed related to Elizabeth Burns by marriage but is not her descendant.  Thomas Bishop (c 1783-1856), Susan Forsyth’s 3x great-grandfather, was the brother of John Bishop (1782-1857), Elizabeth Burns’s husband.  Both Thomas Bishop and John Bishop were sons of Thomas Bishop and Jane Weir.  The relationship may also be stated as Elizabeth Burns was the wife of the 4th great-uncle of Susan Forsyth.

[i] Baptisms  (OPR)  Scotland.  Mauchline, Ayrshire.  24 May 1785.  BURNS, Elizabeth.  GROS Data: 619/10  195.
[ii] Births (CR)  Scotland.  George Square, Edinburgh.  11 January 1956.  FORSYTH, Susan Jane.  GROS Data: 685/5  103
[iii] Marriages  (CR)  Scotland.  Falkirk, Stirlingshire.  3 August 1953.  FORSYTH, John W, and BLACKADDER, Agnes C.  GROS Data: 479  228
[iv] Births  (CR)  Scotland.  Armadale, West Lothian.  31 March 1926.  FORSYTH, John White.
[v] Marriages  (CR)  Scotland.  Blackridge, Linlithgowshire.  30 August 1917.  FORSYTH, William C., and WHITELAW, Margaret O.  GROS Data: 671/2  7.
[vi] Births  (CR)  Scotland.  Armadale, Linlithgowshire.  27 October 1893.  FORSYTH, William.  GROS Data: 662/2  167.
[vii] Marriages  (CR)  Scotland.  Armadale, Linlithgowshire.  15 December 1892.  FORSYTH, John, and CALDERHEAD, Barbara.  GROS Data: 662/2  29.
[viii] Deaths  (CR) Scotland.  Calderhead, Lanarkshire.  1 October 1912.  CALDERHEAD, Barbara.  GROS Data: 626B  123.
[ix] Marriages  (OPR)  Scotland.  Blantyre, Lanarkshire.  2 January 1840.  CALDERWOOD, John, and BISHOP, Agnes.  GROS Data: 624/40  146.
[x] Census  (1841)  Scotland.  Barony, Lanarkshire.  Vol.622.  ED182.  p.7.
[xi] The Glasgow Story.  Golfhill House. accessed 1 April 2019.
[xii] Baptisms  (OPR)  Scotland.  Barony, Lanarkshire.  3 November 1841.  CALDERHEAD, Thomas Bishop.  GROS Data: 622/110  297.
[xiii] Baptisms  (OPR)  Scotland.  Rutherglen, Lanarkshire.  25 June 1843.   BISHOP, John Calderhead.  GROS Data: 654/30  274.
[xiv] Census  (1851)  Scotland.  Old Monkland, Lanarkshire.  Vol.652.  ED3.  p.11.
[xv] Census  (1861)  Scotland.  Bathgate, Linlithgowshire.  Vol.662.  ED9.  p.2.
[xvi] Census  (1871)  Scotland.  Bathgate, Linlithgowshire.  Vol.692/2.  ED2. p.9.
[xvii] Deaths  (CR)  Scotland.  Armadale, Linlithgowshire.  18 July 1871.  BISHOP, Agnes.  GROS Data: 662/2  35.
[xviii] Deaths  (CR)  Scotland.  Armadale, Linlithgowshire.  28 March 1891.  CALDERHEAD, John.  GROS Data: 662/2  18.
[xix] Monumental Inscriptions.  Scotland.  Whitburn, West Lothian.  Burns and Bishop.
[xx] Deaths  (CR)  Scotland.  Whitburn, Linlithgowshire.  22 June 1857.  BISHOP, John.  GROS Data: 673  50.
[xxi] Census  (1851)  Scotland.  Whitburn, Linlithgowshire.  Vol.673.  ED1.  p.14.
[xxii] Baptisms  (OPR)  Scotland.  Whitburn, Linlithgowshire.  9 April 1811.  BISHOP, Jane.  GROS Data: 673/10  210.
[xxiii] Baptisms  (OPR)  Scotland.  Whitburn, Linlithgowshire.  15 July 1813.  BISHOP, Helen.  GROS Data: 673/10  227.
[xxiv] Baptisms  (OPR)  Scotland.  Whitburn, Linlithgowshire.  19 May 1815.  BISHOP, Mary Lion.  GROS Data: 673/10  247.
[xxv] Deaths  (CR)  Scotland.  Cambuslang, Lanarkshire.  25 February 1899.  BISHOP, Jane.  GROS Data: 627  55.
[xxvi] Baptisms  (OPR)  Scotland.  Whitburn, Linlithgowshire.  15 December 1818.  BISHOP, Daniel.  GROS Data: 673/10  266.
[xxvii] Baptisms  (OPR)  Scotland.  Whitburn, Linlithgowshire.  30 August 1821.  BISHOP, Sarah.  GROS Data: 673/40  12.
[xxviii] Baptisms  (OPR)  Scotland.  Whitburn, Linlithgowshire.  1 February 1824.  BISHOP, Mary.  GROS Data: 673/40  25.
[xxix] Baptisms  (OPR)  Scotland.  Whitburn, Linlithgowshire.  23 May 1828.  BISHOP, Mary.  GROS Data: 673/40  50.
[xxx] Baptisms  (OPR)  Scotland.  Whitburn, Linlithgowshire.  11 December 1829.  BISHOP, John.  GROS Data: 673/40  58.
[xxxi] Marriages  (OPR)  Scotland.  Whitburn, Linlithgowshire.  19 August 1781.  BISHOP, Thomas, and WEIR, Jean.  GROS Data: 673/20  220
[xxxii] Baptisms  (OPR)  Scotland.  Whitburn, Linlithgowshire.  25 January 1782.  BISHOP, John.  GROS Data: 673/10  113.
[xxxiii] Baptisms  (OPR)  Scotland.  Whitburn, Linlithgowshire.  3 October 1784.  BISHOP, William.  GROS Data: 673/10  117.
[xxxiv] Baptisms  (OPR)  Scotland.  Whitburn, Linlithgowshire.  10 September 1786.  BISHOP, Ann.  GROS Data: 673/10  117.
[xxxv] Baptisms  (OPR)  Scotland.  Whitburn, Linlithgowshire.  17 October 1790.  BISHOP, Helen.  GROS Data: 673/10  126.
[xxxvi] Baptisms  (OPR)  Scotland.  Whitburn, Linlithgowshire.  24 March 1793.  BISHOP, Robert.  GROS Data: 673/10  130.
[xxxvii] Baptisms  (OPR)  Scotland.  Whitburn, Linlithgowshire.  21 May 1796.  BISHOP, James.  GROS Data: 673/10  135.
[xxxviii] Baptisms  (OPR)  Scotland.  Whitburn, Linlithgowshire.  22 March 1798.  BISHOP, George.  GROS Data: 673/10  139.
[xxxix] Baptisms  (OPR)  Scotland.  Whitburn, Linlithgowshire.  29 January 1800.  BISHOP, William.  GROS Data: 673/10  150.
[xl] Deaths  (CR)  Scotland.  Kelvin, Glasgow.  27 February 1886.  BISHOP, Thomas.  GROS Data: 644/9  220.
[xli] Baptisms  (OPR)  Scotland.  Whitburn, Linlithgowshire.  29 January 1820.  BISHOP, John.  GROS Data: 673/40  3.
[xlii] Deaths  (CR)  Scotland.  Armadale, Linlithgowshire.  17 March 1891.  BISHOP, John.  GROS Data: 662/2  17.
[xliii] Census  (1841)  Scotland.  Whitburn, Linlithgowshire.  Vol.673.  ED1.  p.11.

Leave a Reply