26th April 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

Past Life: Jean Jack

From Shetland Life, July 1985, No.57

by Sheila Gear

When I was a child, listening to the Foula folk counting kin, one name that often cropped up was that of Jean Jack. It seemed to me that name was pronounced with an air of satisfied finality and since all family trees appeared to lead back to her, I grew up with the impression that she was the Foula equivalent of Adam and Eve.

Gravestones are seldom used in Foula. Of the few that can be found in the graveyard, the oldest one is that of Jean Jack. It is only a rough flat piece of sandstone lying in amongst the grass. On it someone has carved the initials J.J. and the date 1787.

Jean Jack was married to Willie Georgeson, known here as the “Satan of Papa”. He was said to have been as dark advised as his wife was fair and he had the reputation of being able to “mair as maet himsel”. According to the stories the Sandness folk told, when he was away at the fishing he would leave his spade stuck in the rig with his coat hanging on it, where it would mysteriously dell away all day long of its own accord.

He met up with Jean Jack when he was on his way to Sandness with a kishie, which he was always careful to keep close beside him, well covered up. Jean was full of curiosity an when he wasn’t looking she peeped in and saw inside a gory severed human head. This didn’t put her off Willie, however, and not long after they came to Foula and settled there.

The Foula folk thought she had originally come from Setter and in the parish records for Sandsting and Aithsting I found a Jane Jack recorded who may have been her. She is entered as marrying John Yell of Hestonsetter in 1734. The place names are similar enough for confusion to have occurred over the years. Only two years later John Yell died aged about 36 when their son John, recorded in the baptisms, was just one year old. There is no further trace of the little boy.

Jack is a name that occurs rarely in Shetland. From 1743 to 1755 four Jacks are recorded as being born in Yell, the family of John Jack, who was a servant to Ninian Spence in Valster, and in 1777 Bretta Jack is recorded marrying Edward Donaldson of North Yell. There is also a record of a Christian Jack age 50 dying at Papa in 1774 and no doubt there are one or two records elsewhere, but whether they are related to our Jean Jack, who can say. It is quite likely they are all members of one family who originally came up to Shetland from south as servants.

Once she got to Foula Jean Jack fared better. During the first half of the eighteenth century the island population was low following a series of smallpox epidemics.
The result was that there was plenty of vacant land available for folk such as Jean and Willie to take over. They appear to have flit around the island from place to place but probably stayed at the Biggins at one stage. Their children took the patronymic name of Williamson – their father’s first name with son tacked on the end, as was still the custom at that time in Shetland.

The Williamsons, however, were an ill-fated lot, despite having a wizard for a father. One of the boys slid on the ice below the Springs and was lost over the Wast bank o Wirwick. Another Williamson boy went out along the banks with Walter Tammason’s boy and his dog. Only the dog came back. Apparently they had found the piece of a ship at Skeld, had climbed on to it and had been carried out to sea.
The wreckage was washed ashore some time later at the Ness with the body of one of the boys still tied to it. Another one of the boys was a leper forced to live in a little felly house out in the Bittern. After he died the house was pushed in on top of him.

The only Williamson to leave descendants was Andrina, the daughter of Jean Jack’s son Andrew. At the beginning of the nineteenth century fixed surnames were being adopted but confusion can arise because they often seemed unable to decide which name to keep. So Andrina is recorded as Andrina Andrewson, Andrina Anderson and Andrina Williamson. She married Jimmie Umphray of Ristie.

The Umphrays were a family of small landowners on the West Side, first mentioned in a charter by Robert, Earl of Orkney in 1589. The first ones to come to Foula were a father and son, Laurence and John. John had apparently fallen out with Scott of Melby, when he appropriated the land belonging to his two elderly aunts – again by oral tradition Setter but possibly Hestonsetter where the Umphrays had land for some generations. To pacify him Scott gave him the croft of the Gravins in Foula. Laurence’s gravestone lies just below Jean Jack’s and is of similar shape with the initials L.U. and the date 1795 engraved in the same position, on the left hand side one third down from the top. Andrina’s husband, Jimmie, was his youngest son, possibly born after they came to Foula.

The Umphrays prospered very well in Foula and in one generation the children of John and Jimmie had spread over the island with families in the Niggards, Steol, Dykes and Bankwell at the south end, the Gravins, Brae, Myres, Burns, Ham and Veedal in the middle, and the Ristie and North and South Harrier at the north end.
In the next generation their descendants had spread further, to the Breckins, Biggins, News and Quinister in the south, Mogle, Leraback and Magdala in the middle, and Blowburm, Soberlie and Mucklegrind in the north and were already in more than half the houses in Foula. So, if you can count kin with the Foula folk the chances are that you, too, are a descendant of Jean Jack.