History: The Turnbull tragedies

Marsali Taylor recounts the history of the Reverend John Turnbull, ill-fated minister of Tingwall parish.

In the last years of the eighteenth century, a young man came to Shetland to work as tutor to the family of John Scott of Scalloway. He was to spend the rest of his long life in the island as a highly respected minister, but he was also to suffer a series of personal tragedies.

John Turnbull was then in his early 20s. He’d been born at Ancrum, near Jedburgh, on 26th May 1775. Working as a tutor was a common way for a young man to earn his way through further study.

John Scott and his third wife (his cousin Clementina Scott, of Melby) had seven children, aged from 12 to infancy. John might have done some teaching of the older girls, Catherine, Mary and Elizabeth, but his particular charges would have been nine-year old John, and seven-year old Charles.

Turnbull wanted to become a minister, and presumably Scott encouraged him in this for he was licensed by the Presbytery of the Church of Scotland on 5th March 1800, and ordained as assistant to the Reverend Thomas MacFarlane, minister of Bressay, in 1805. He got his chance at a parish of his own on the death of the Rev. George Sands in December 1905; he was presented to the elders and congregation early the following year, and formally admitted to the charge of Tingwall parish on 11th September 1806.

George Sands had left a widow and seven grown-up children; the youngest, Wilhelmina, was not quite 19 when her father died. Perhaps she met the young Turnbull then, as she was leaving her home and he was entering it. They were married six years later, on the 26th December, 1811. He was 36 and she was in her early twenties when she returned as his bride to the manse which still stands by Tingwall loch – the house she’d grown up in.

Their first child, William, was born in August 1813. He was only a year old when they had an important visitor from south: Walter Scott, who was in Shetland researching his latest novel, The Pirate. John Turnbull had been down to the mainland on church business earlier that year and had returned on the lighthouse yacht Pharos along with the author. Walter recorded his visit to the Turnbull’s in his diary:

“Mr Turnbull is a Jedburgh man by birth, but a Zetlander by settlement and inclination. I have reason to be proud of my countryman – he is doing his best, with great patience and judgment, to set a good example both in temporals and spirituals, and is generally beloved and respected among all classes. The people around him are obviously affected by his example. He gave us an excellent discourse and remarkably good prayers, which are seldom the excellence of the Presbyterian worship. The congregation were numerous, decent, clean, and well-dressed.”

Over the next 20 years, John and Wilhelmina had six more children in a neat boy – girl – boy – girl pattern. William was followed by Elizabeth, three years later, and James the following year; then, in 1823, when James was six, Grace was born, then Robert, Barbara, and the last, John, in 1831, when John senior was 56 and Wilhelmina 44.

Life in Tingwall wasn’t totally peaceful. John bought the estate of Gott, and in July 1827 he was involved in a lawsuit against Adam Smith from Cunningsburgh, now living in Gulberwick, and Elizabeth Erikson, daughter of Erick Adamson, of Blosta, Cunningsburgh, for taking away John’s cattle. In 1832 he was involved in another lawsuit, this time a summons against Peter MacLaren, Islesburgh, Northmavine.

The eldest son, William, left home to study medicine at university in the early 1830s. James too might have gone in the autumn of 1836, when he was 20. Elizabeth had met and married a suitable partner, William Paterson, the missionary at Whiteness.

Winter set in early that year, with a heavy fall of snow and unusually thick ice. Perhaps the children were in the habit of playing on the frozen loch, or perhaps Tingwall Loch had a reputation for underwater springs that made the ice thickness vary in places. However it came about, something gave Morgan Laurenson, a merchant at Lochend, Northmavine, a particularly vivid dream concerning them; so vivid that he wrote to John, warning him to take precautions with his family as to the ice on the loch. John replied that he did not believe in visions of the night.

John and Wilhelmina celebrated their last Christmas together with their children. In those days, it was not as important as now. The Church of Scotland regarded it as a Popish festival, and for many people it was a normal working day. Boxing Day was their 35th wedding anniversary. On the following day, John had to go down to Dunrossness on church business. He was to spend some days there with the Reverend David Thomson, then aged 78, and in poor health.

The 28th was a bonny winter’s day, with the moon shining in the afternoon. The manse servant woman took little Barbara and John, then aged eight and five, out for some air. They stayed out playing so long that Wilhelmina became anxious, and went out to call them in. When she joined them on the frozen loch, her added weight was too much, and the ice beneath the little group broke. Their calls for help were heard immediately, and neighbours hurried to pull them from the freezing water, but it was too late.
Eleven-year old Robert and 13 year old Grace watched in horror as the bodies of their mother, brother, sister and the servant were carried into the house and laid out in the front room.

The little group of crofters gathered there had, in the absence of their minister, to act as best they could. There were no near neighbours of sufficient social standing who could come to be with the distressed children and break the news to their father when he returned. John’s farm man was sent as a messenger to Dunrossness; some kindly neighbour took Grace and Robert away. She did not feel up to remaining in the minister’s house with them, but whether it was fitting or not to have the manse children in a croft house, she wrapped them in shawls and coaxed them away to the only night they would ever spend in a box bed.

At Dunrossness manse, the man requested John Turnbull to return immediately to Tingwall, then galloped off again without giving any reason. John set off at once, and after the anxious ride along the moonlit track, he came into the dark house. He lit a candle and went from room to room, searching for his family. It was not until he entered the front room and saw the bodies that he realised what had happened.

News of the tragedy reached Lerwick that same evening. Francis Heddell recorded it in his memorandum book, now in the Shetland archives: “This evening the distressing news of Mrs Turnbull, her son John and her daughter Barbara and a servant woman being all drowned in the Loch of Tingwall (the ice having given way) reached town. An awful warning.”

John acted with movingly deep faith. It was Thursday night. On Sunday, his congregation was uncertain as to whether there would be a service, and many of them stayed away. Others were there to support their minister as he took his place in the pulpit as usual, and preached from the text of Ezekiel, chapter 24, verse 18: “So I spake unto the people in the morning and at even my wife died and I did in the morning as I was commanded.”

The funerals took place during the next week. The following Sunday his text was from the Book of Job, Chapter 5, Verse 7: “Yet man is born into trouble as the sparks fly upwards.” You hope his example of fortitude comforted his bereaved children, dressed in mourning black and staring mutely up at him from the manse pew.

It was after this that the tragedy struck home, and he suffered what we would today call a nervous breakdown. His daughter’s obituary says that “for a time grief drove him frantic, and his reason tottered, but he recovered, although he was never the same man as he had been before the accident.”

The tragedy was recorded in the Shetland Journal of February 1837: “At Tingwall, the 8th [28th]of December, by the breaking of the ice while walking on the loch, Mrs Turnbull, lady of the Rev John Turnbull, together with Barbara the daughter, and John, youngest son of the same.” The paper added its condolences: “Our obituary records an event which has filled us with heartfelt sorrow. To have so many of the dearest ties which link us to earth severed as it were in a moment, is indeed a severe trial, and the bereavement of the respected pastor of Tingwall claims the deepest sympathy of every feeling heart. May that beneficent Being who tempers the wind to the shorn lamb give him fortitude to bear up under his heavy afflictions.”

John was never to spend a night away from home again, whatever the inconvenience.

That tragedy was to be followed by another. In the following year John’s oldest daughter Elizabeth and her husband William decided to take advantage of the free passages to Australia. Perhaps she was not coming to terms with her triple loss, and her father and husband felt she needed a new start. She was not to get it; the boat was shipwrecked en route, and she died soon afterwards. William no longer had any heart for the “new world”, and he returned to Shetland where, less than three years later, he remarried.
You wonder how the grieving family at Tingwall felt about that; John and Grace, at least, summoned up their courage to befriend the new bride, for her younger sister came to stay with them in Tingwall during 1851. His new wife was Jessie Spence, sister of the author Catherine Stafford Spence, and they moved to Cockburnspath shortly after the marriage. Their second daughter was called Elizabeth Turnbull Spence.

The sea had not finished with John’s family yet. His son Robert went into business in Scalloway, perhaps connected with hosiery, for the next we hear of him is in July 1844, in company with Edward Standen. Standen was from Oxford, and one of the first people outwith Shetland to take an interest in selling Shetland knitting down south. He held exhibitions of hand-made goods in Oxford and elsewhere. The young men had been visiting Skeld, and were on their way back to Scalloway when the boat sank, and Robert Turnbull and both boatmen were drowned. Robert had celebrated his 21st birthday only two months earlier.

There was one final tragedy in store. William, the eldest son, was now an army doctor, serving in India. The news of his brother must have reached him by letter, as much as a year later; maybe it influenced his decision to come home. His health, however, had been damaged by the Indian climate, and he died at sea on 14th October, 1846. His family at the manse, John and Grace, learned of his death in February, through a paragraph in a newspaper.

John served out the rest of his life as the minister of Tingwall Parish. He died on 9 February 1867, aged 92. His remaining child Grace lived with him until his death, and then she came to live at the Old Manse in Lerwick. In the 1870s she inherited the liferent of the estate of Massater, in Orkney, from a Stewart kin of her mother’s, and thereafter was known as Miss Turnbull Stewart. She remained involved in church affairs, teaching a girls’ class in the Sunday school and being a power in the Women’s Guild. She was also involved in a scheme for educating girls in the domestic arts. Her obituary said, “she invariably set the example herself of leading a devout, pious life. In private life she was a charming, accomplished lady, and those who knew her most intimately were loudest in her praise.”

* * *

In researching the story of the Turnbull family, I encountered a number of problems and contradictions, outlined below. My historical sources were the 1907 obituary of Grace Turnbull Stewart in the Zetland Times, George Nelson’s account in The Story of the Tingwall Kirk (1965), Francis Heddell’s memorandum book in the archives, and the information on Bayanne’s website. Tony Gott and Angus Johnson helped me with extra research, though the conclusions I’ve drawn from it are my own.

1. There is some uncertainty over the number of children in the Turnbull family. The 1907 obituary of their fourth child, Grace, says there were eight, but Bayanne says only seven. There is, however, a six year gap between the third and fourth, which might suggest a missing child – perhaps the Catherine recalled in the obituary.

2.  The son James seems to disappear from the records. I’m sure if he, too, had died tragically it would have been remembered, but he must surely have been dead by 1853, as in that year Grace was the only child left to inherit the Massater estate.

3. There are alternative dates given for the first tragedy. Nelson gives Christmas Day, 1838. The year is certainly wrong, as shown by Heddell’s Memorandum book. Even in the pre-phone days, it seems likely that news of such an accident, taking place in the late afternoon (before the bedtime of such young children) would have reached Lerwick that same evening.

4. There is some confusion over the next tragedy. John’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth, married, and she and her husband planned to emigrate to Australia. There was a shipwreck on the way, and Elizabeth died. Bayanne gives her husband’s name as William Peterson, and her death as “before 1853”; the 1907 obituary however gives the daughter’s name as Catherine, and the husband as Reverend W McLaurin. The obituary goes on to relate how McLaurin then married a sister of Miss Catherine Stafford Spence, the author and teacher, and was given the parish of Cockburnspath. Reverend McLaurin certainly married Martha Jane Spence in 1853; in 1851, she’s registered as living at the manse, Tingwall. Their marriage was in Cockburnspath, but they lived in Shetland for 13 years before moving to Galashiels. However, an older sister, Jessie Hay Spence, married a William Paterson, minister at Whiteness from 1834, and in Whalsay from 1843.

They married in 1843, and went to live in Cockburnspath – where, perhaps, Reverend Paterson married his sister-in-law, Martha, to his fellow-minister McLaurin. Given the name of their second child, Elizabeth Turnbull Paterson, I think it’s likely to be the same man. In that case, as I’ve conjectured here, he and Elizabeth must have left for Australia in the late 1830s, perhaps as a consequence of the first tragedy, and John lost his daughter only two or three years after the drowning of his wife and youngest children.

Marsali Taylor


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