Records of a Family of Engineers, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Introduction: The Surname of Stevenson

From the thirteenth century onwards, the name, under the various disguises of Stevinstoun, Stevensoun, Stevensonne, Stenesone, and Stewinsoune, spread across Scotland from the mouth of the Firth of Forth to the mouth of the Firth of Clyde. Four times at least it occurs as a place-name. There is a parish of Stevenston in Cunningham; a second place of the name in the Barony of Bothwell in Lanark; a third on Lyne, above Drochil Castle; the fourth on the Tyne, near Traprain Law. Stevenson of Stevenson (co. Lanark) swore fealty to Edward I in 1296, and the last of that family died after the Restoration. Stevensons of Hirdmanshiels, in Midlothian, rode in the Bishops’ Raid of Aberlady, served as jurors, stood bail for neighbours — Hunter of Polwood, for instance — and became extinct about the same period, or possibly earlier. A Stevenson of Luthrie and another of Pitroddie make their bows, give their names, and vanish. And by the year 1700 it does not appear that any acre of Scots land was vested in any Stevenson. 1

Here is, so far, a melancholy picture of backward progress, and a family posting towards extinction. But the law (however administered, and I am bound to aver that, in Scotland, ‘it couldna weel be waur’) acts as a kind of dredge, and with dispassionate impartiality brings up into the light of day, and shows us for a moment, in the jury-box or on the gallows, the creeping things of the past. By these broken glimpses we are able to trace the existence of many other and more inglorious Stevensons, picking a private way through the brawl that makes Scots history. They were members of Parliament for Peebles, Stirling, Pittenweem, Kilrenny, and Inverurie. We find them burgesses of Edinburgh; indwellers in Biggar, Perth, and Dalkeith. Thomas was the forester of Newbattle Park, Gavin was a baker, John a maltman, Francis a chirurgeon, and ‘Schir William’ a priest. In the feuds of Humes and Heatleys, Cunninghams, Montgomeries, Mures, Ogilvies, and Turnbulls, we find them inconspicuously involved, and apparently getting rather better than they gave. Schir William (reverend gentleman) was cruellie slaughtered on the Links of Kincraig in 1582; James (‘in the mill-town of Roberton’), murdered in 1590; Archibald (‘in Gallowfarren’), killed with shots of pistols and hagbuts in 1608. Three violent deaths in about seventy years, against which we can only put the case of Thomas, servant to Hume of Cowden Knowes, who was arraigned with his two young masters for the death of the Bastard of Mellerstanes in 1569. John (‘in Dalkeith’) stood sentry without Holyrood while the banded lords were despatching Rizzio within. William, at the ringing of Perth bell, ran before Gowrie House ‘with ane sword, and, entering to the yearde, saw George Craiggingilt with ane twa-handit sword and utheris nychtbouris; at quilk time James Boig cryit ower ane wynds, “Awa hame! ye will all be hangit”’— a piece of advice which William took, and immediately ‘depairtit.’ John got a maid with child to him in Biggar, and seemingly deserted her; she was hanged on the Castle Hill for infanticide, June 1614; and Martin, elder in Dalkeith, eternally disgraced the name by signing witness in a witch trial, 1661. These are two of our black sheep. 2 Under the Restoration, one Stevenson was a bailie in Edinburgh, and another the lessee of the Canonmills. There were at the same period two physicians of the name in Edinburgh, one of whom, Dr. Archibald, appears to have been a famous man in his day and generation. The Court had continual need of him; it was he who reported, for instance, on the state of Rumbold; and he was for some time in the enjoyment of a pension of a thousand pounds Scots (about eighty pounds sterling) at a time when five hundred pounds is described as ‘an opulent future.’ I do not know if I should be glad or sorry that he failed to keep favour; but on 6th January 1682 (rather a cheerless New Year’s present) his pension was expunged. 3 There need be no doubt, at least, of my exultation at the fact that he was knighted and recorded arms. Not quite so genteel, but still in public life, Hugh was Under-Clerk to the Privy Council, and liked being so extremely. I gather this from his conduct in September 1681, when, with all the lords and their servants, he took the woful and soul-destroying Test, swearing it ‘word by word upon his knees.’ And, behold! it was in vain, for Hugh was turned out of his small post in 1684. 4 Sir Archibald and Hugh were both plainly inclined to be trimmers; but there was one witness of the name of Stevenson who held high the banner of the Covenant — John, ‘Land-Labourer, 5 in the parish of Daily, in Carrick,’ that ‘eminently pious man.’ He seems to have been a poor sickly soul, and shows himself disabled with scrofula, and prostrate and groaning aloud with fever; but the enthusiasm of the martyr burned high within him.

‘I was made to take joyfully the spoiling of my goods, and with pleasure for His name’s sake wandered in deserts and in mountains, in dens and caves of the earth. I lay four months in the coldest season of the year in a haystack in my father’s garden, and a whole February in the open fields not far from Camragen, and this I did without the least prejudice from the night air; one night, when lying in the fields near to the Carrick-Miln, I was all covered with snow in the morning. Many nights have I lain with pleasure in the churchyard of Old Daily, and made a grave my pillow; frequently have I resorted to the old walls about the glen, near to Camragen, and there sweetly rested.’ The visible band of God protected and directed him. Dragoons were turned aside from the bramble-bush where he lay hidden. Miracles were performed for his behoof. ‘I got a horse and a woman to carry the child, and came to the same mountain, where I wandered by the mist before; it is commonly known by the name of Kellsrhins: when we came to go up the mountain, there came on a great rain, which we thought was the occasion of the child’s weeping, and she wept so bitterly, that all we could do could not divert her from it, so that she was ready to burst. When we got to the top of the mountain, where the Lord had been formerly kind to my soul in prayer, I looked round me for a stone, and espying one, I went and brought it. When the woman with me saw me set down the stone, she smiled, and asked what I was going to do with it. I told her I was going to set it up as my Ebenezer, because hitherto, and in that place, the Lord had formerly helped, and I hoped would yet help. The rain still continuing, the child weeping bitterly, I went to prayer, and no sooner did I cry to God, but the child gave over weeping, and when we got up from prayer, the rain was pouring down on every side, but in the way where we were to go there fell not one drop; the place not rained on was as big as an ordinary avenue.’ And so great a saint was the natural butt of Satan’s persecutions. ‘I retired to the fields for secret prayer about mid-night. When I went to pray I was much straitened, and could not get one request, but “Lord pity,” “Lord help”; this I came over frequently; at length the terror of Satan fell on me in a high degree, and all I could say even then was —“Lord help.” I continued in the duty for some time, notwithstanding of this terror. At length I got up to my feet, and the terror still increased; then the enemy took me by the arm-pits, and seemed to lift me up by my arms. I saw a loch just before me, and I concluded he designed to throw me there by force; and had he got leave to do so, it might have brought a great reproach upon religion. 6 But it was otherwise ordered, and the cause of piety escaped that danger. 7

On the whole, the Stevensons may be described as decent, reputable folk, following honest trades — millers, maltsters, and doctors, playing the character parts in the Waverley Novels with propriety, if without distinction; and to an orphan looking about him in the world for a potential ancestry, offering a plain and quite unadorned refuge, equally free from shame and glory. John, the land-labourer, is the one living and memorable figure, and he, alas! cannot possibly be more near than a collateral. It was on August 12, 1678, that he heard Mr. John Welsh on the Craigdowhill, and ‘took the heavens, earth, and sun in the firmament that was shining on us, as also the ambassador who made the offer, and THE CLERK WHO RAISED THE PSALMS, to witness that I did give myself away to the Lord in a personal and perpetual covenant never to be forgotten’; and already, in 1675, the birth of my direct ascendant was registered in Glasgow. So that I have been pursuing ancestors too far down; and John the land-labourer is debarred me, and I must relinquish from the trophies of my house his RARE SOUL-STRENGTHENING AND COMFORTING CORDIAL. It is the same case with the Edinburgh bailie and the miller of the Canonmills, worthy man! and with that public character, Hugh the Under-Clerk, and, more than all, with Sir Archibald, the physician, who recorded arms. And I am reduced to a family of inconspicuous maltsters in what was then the clean and handsome little city on the Clyde.

The name has a certain air of being Norse. But the story of Scottish nomenclature is confounded by a continual process of translation and half-translation from the Gaelic which in olden days may have been sometimes reversed. Roy becomes Reid; Gow, Smith. A great Highland clan uses the name of Robertson; a sept in Appin that of Livingstone; Maclean in Glencoe answers to Johnstone at Lockerby. And we find such hybrids as Macalexander for Macallister. There is but one rule to be deduced: that however uncompromisingly Saxon a name may appear, you can never be sure it does not designate a Celt. My great-grandfather wrote the name Stevenson but pronounced it Steenson, after the fashion of the immortal minstrel in Redgauntlet; and this elision of a medial consonant appears a Gaelic process; and, curiously enough, I have come across no less than two Gaelic forms: John Macstophane cordinerius in Crossraguel, 1573, and William M’Steen in Dunskeith (co. Ross), 1605. Stevenson, Steenson, Macstophane, M’Steen: which is the original? which the translation? Or were these separate creations of the patronymic, some English, some Gaelic? The curiously compact territory in which we find them seated — Ayr, Lanark, Peebles, Stirling, Perth, Fife, and the Lothians — would seem to forbid the supposition. 8

‘STEVENSON— or according to tradition of one of the proscribed of the clan MacGregor, who was born among the willows or in a hill-side sheep-pen —“Son of my love,” a heraldic bar sinister, but history reveals a reason for the birth among the willows far other than the sinister aspect of the name’: these are the dark words of Mr. Cosmo Innes; but history or tradition, being interrogated, tells a somewhat tangled tale. The heir of Macgregor of Glenorchy, murdered about 1858 by the Argyll Campbells, appears to have been the original ‘Son of my love’; and his more loyal clansmen took the name to fight under. It may be supposed the story of their resistance became popular, and the name in some sort identified with the idea of opposition to the Campbells. Twice afterwards, on some renewed aggression, in 1502 and 1552, we find the Macgregors again banding themselves into a sept of ‘Sons of my love’; and when the great disaster fell on them in 1603, the whole original legend reappears, and we have the heir of Alaster of Glenstrae born ‘among the willows’ of a fugitive mother, and the more loyal clansmen again rallying under the name of Stevenson. A story would not be told so often unless it had some base in fact; nor (if there were no bond at all between the Red Macgregors and the Stevensons) would that extraneous and somewhat uncouth name be so much repeated in the legends of the Children of the Mist.

But I am enabled, by my very lively and obliging correspondent, Mr. George A. Macgregor Stevenson of New York, to give an actual instance. His grandfather, great-grandfather, great-great-grandfather, and great-great-great-grandfather, all used the names of Macgregor and Stevenson as occasion served; being perhaps Macgregor by night and Stevenson by day. The great-great-great-grandfather was a mighty man of his hands, marched with the clan in the ‘Forty-five, and returned with spolia opima in the shape of a sword, which he had wrested from an officer in the retreat, and which is in the possession of my correspondent to this day. His great-grandson (the grandfather of my correspondent), being converted to Methodism by some wayside preacher, discarded in a moment his name, his old nature, and his political principles, and with the zeal of a proselyte sealed his adherence to the Protestant Succession by baptising his next son George. This George became the publisher and editor of the Wesleyan Times. His children were brought up in ignorance of their Highland pedigree; and my correspondent was puzzled to overhear his father speak of him as a true Macgregor, and amazed to find, in rummaging about that peaceful and pious house, the sword of the Hanoverian officer. After he was grown up and was better informed of his descent, ‘I frequently asked my father,’ he writes, ‘why he did not use the name of Macgregor; his replies were significant, and give a picture of the man: “It isn’t a good METHODIST name. You can use it, but it will do you no GOOD.” Yet the old gentleman, by way of pleasantry, used to announce himself to friends as “Colonel Macgregor.”’

Here, then, are certain Macgregors habitually using the name of Stevenson, and at last, under the influence of Methodism, adopting it entirely. Doubtless a proscribed clan could not be particular; they took a name as a man takes an umbrella against a shower; as Rob Roy took Campbell, and his son took Drummond. But this case is different; Stevenson was not taken and left — it was consistently adhered to. It does not in the least follow that all Stevensons are of the clan Alpin; but it does follow that some may be. And I cannot conceal from myself the possibility that James Stevenson in Glasgow, my first authentic ancestor, may have had a Highland alias upon his conscience and a claymore in his back parlour.

To one more tradition I may allude, that we are somehow descended from a French barber-surgeon who came to St. Andrews in the service of one of the Cardinal Beatons. No details were added. But the very name of France was so detested in my family for three generations, that I am tempted to suppose there may be something in it. 9

1 An error: Stevensons owned at this date the barony of Dolphingston in Haddingtonshire, Montgrennan in Ayrshire, and several other lesser places.

2 Pitcairn’s Criminal Trials, at large. —[R. L. S.]

3 Fountainhall’s Decisions, vol. i. pp. 56, 132, 186, 204, 368. — [R. L. S.]

4 Ibid. pp. 158, 299. —[R. L. S.]

5 Working farmer: Fr. laboureur.

6 This John Stevenson was not the only ‘witness’ of the name; other Stevensons were actually killed during the persecutions, in the Glen of Trool, on Pentland, etc.; and it is very possible that the author’s own ancestor was one of the mounted party embodied by Muir of Caldwell, only a day too late for Pentland.

7 Wodrow Society’s Select Biographies, vol. ii. — [R. L. S.]

8 Though the districts here named are those in which the name of Stevenson is most common, it is in point of fact far more wide-spread than the text indicates, and occurs from Dumfries and Berwickshire to Aberdeen and Orkney.

9 Mr. J. H. Stevenson is satisfied that these speculations as to a possible Norse, Highland, or French origin are vain. All we know about the engineer family is that it was sprung from a stock of Westland Whigs settled in the latter part of the seventeenth century in the parish of Neilston, as mentioned at the beginning of the next chapter. It may be noted that the Ayrshire parish of Stevenston, the lands of which are said to have received the name in the twelfth century, lies within thirteen miles south-west of this place. The lands of Stevenson in Lanarkshire first mentioned in the next century, in the Ragman Roll, lie within twenty miles east.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/stevenson/robert_louis/s848rf/introduction.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30