Employment Opportunities in the Gilchrist-Shearer Letters

Employment Opportunities in the Gilchrist-Shearer Letters

Over the past several weeks I have written a series of posts that centre on a series of letters from one branch of my ancestors who lived and travelled between Scotland, Canada, and the USA. Please visit my introduction to the letters and my work on their news of births and deaths, their experiences with immigration and transatlantic travel, and agriculture and the environment in their old and new communities.

This week I want to build on the post I wrote about farming and agriculture by looking at some of the other branches of employment the authors of the letters and their friends and family were undertaking in the latter half of the eighteenth century in Scotland’s rural central belt.

Screen shot 2017-07-15 at 11.15.33

Segment of Shotts showing Hareshaw, Muirhouse, and the Kirk of Shotts, ‘Northern Part of Lanarkshire’, John Thompson’s Atlas of Scotland, 1832 [NLS]

From farming and mining to service in homes and religious institutions, the Gilchrists, Shearers, and their families and friends provide us with fascinating little details about their lives and their livelihoods.


Several members of these families worked as servants across the central belt. On 20 May 1861, Elizabeth Gilchrist in Scotland wrote to her sister Janet, Gavin’s wife, in Otanabee, Canada, to update Janet and their families about life back home:

“I am still in service. I am with Thomas Orr Banks. I have been there three and a half years. Was hoping another but I am going to stop service and come here and stay with my mother.”

Domestic service was the largest field of employment for women in Scotland during this period and the second largest employment sector overall. Therefore it’s not a surprise that at least one of the authors was worked as a domestic servant and that both male and female family members followed this path of employment. It frequently served as an income as well as a guarantee of housing, as most servants lived in the home where they worked.

In her letter, Elizabeth also mentions a family where the two eldest children have stayed to work on their parents’ farm but the next three are in service. A few years later in another letter to her sister, Elizabeth writes that their brother, Thomas, is in service at Carluke and her husband, John, is in service to a man named Mr Manuel.


Coal mining and the shale oil industry were exploding in Scotland’s central belt in this time period. Although many of the mines were quickly exhausted, the spread of mining resulted in an expansion of the railways radiating outwards from Glasgow into the countryside.

It’s no surprise that many family members and friends in their community worked in the mines, and that these communities could be devastated by the depletion of a mine’s resources and it’s resulting closure. In 1862, James Shearer wrote to his brother Gavin (Janet’s husband) in Otanabee reporting of a recent closure in the area:

“Mr. Buttery’s company of Calderbank and Chapelhall having entirely failed has thrown thousands out of employment”

I initially thought that “Mr. Buttery’s” might have been some sort of brand and related to dairy products, particularly as this note was shortly followed by a brief description of selling sour milk (below), but upon further examination it appears that James may have been referring to Monkland Iron Works of Calderbank and Chapelhall. The Children’s Employment Commission of 1842 mentions a Mr. Buttery and the Mining District Report of 1853 notes that Mr. Buttery is the resident managing partner of the ironworks. John Buttery died in 1842; his son Alexander W. Buttery then became a partner in the business.

James’ letter also shows how Scotland’s infrastructure was expanding to encourage growth in mining in the region:

“There is a railway started from Newmains for Mount Coue [?] and a Cleland junction to White a Green [perhaps Whitehill and Greenhill noted on the map above] and they have been applying very hard for Hareshaw barn during summer to make a store where we will sell a little bowl of sour milk for a penny. The new railway commences on my farm on the top of the hind hip, goes exactly through the palm tree taking a circle of fifty yards below the gowkstane.”

Apologies for the likely misspellings of place names here. This quotation describes elements of the Cleland and MidCalder Line that was opened by the Caledonian Railway in 1869. gives us insight into where James’ family farm may be and demonstrates that, despite the recent closure, there is enough promise in the area to continue expanding the rail line to serving the mines.

The pits of Calderbank had been served by the Monkland Canal since 1794. Under Scottish inventor James Watt’s leadership, the canal had been built to bring coal from the mines in the region to Glasgow. Increasing rail competition decreased the need for the canal, which was ultimately abandoned for navigation in the 1950s.

On 8 October 1870, James’ daughter, Agnes Barrie (née Shearer) wrote a letter updating her brother, James Shearer Jr., in Kansas about the latest births and deaths amongst family and friends still in Scotland:

“You might tell Ann Shearer that Marg Scobby is dead. She had brain fever. It lasted about a week. She died at the new place where her father got the gaffership but by drinking he lost it. Him and two boys are now hawking shale in the mines.”

The shale oil industry was growing in importance in this area at this time. Scots immigrated to Canada and the USA to work in mines and quarries. They would have been experienced, desired workers.

As a quick side note, it’s kind of amusing how Agnes refers to Ann’s friend Marg’s father having lost his job as a supervisor due to his drinking as a way of explaining where Marg had passed away. It sounds like his circumstances had certainly changed for the worse.


I thought I would include a final note here about volunteering in local religious institutions. From the letters we know that several of the authors including Elizabeth Gilchrist, Robert Davidson, and James Shearer Sr. are church goers and attend Church of Scotland/presbyterian church services. In a letter to his brother Gavin from 18 February 1875, James Sr. describes a recent stint acting as a church elder:

“If you come here don’t turn an elder. I was one for a while. I had to go round the congregation with my hat gathering money with a very grave face, always looking into the hat, then into the people’s faces.”

It’s clear that James was happy to have left that post. His framing of this anecdote also suggests that its possible that Gavin was considering coming down from Otanabee to Kansas to see him, or even possibly to settle there with his family. What a great little personal story to come across. The small details allow us to picture him making his way through the congregation, trying to act all stern and serious to raise money for the church.

Next time I’ll aim to expand on what we know about the authors of these letters using official records such as census and parish records.

Suggested reading:

Andrew Miller, ‘The Rise And Progress Of Coatbridge And Surrounding Neighbourhood’, Dundyvan Ironworks (1864), Chs. 19-22.

Harry Knox, The Scottish Shale Oil Industry & Mineral Railway Lines (Lightmoor Press, 2013).

Anthony Slaven, The Development of the West of Scotland (Routledge, 2013).

2 thoughts on “Employment Opportunities in the Gilchrist-Shearer Letters

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of July 16, 2017 | Unwritten Histories

  2. Hello. My grandmothers maiden name was shearer. I just recently learned they were from Scotland. I’m looking for ancestors and any info. I have some details, if could email me, I have some questions. Thanks


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