Wee Cumbrae & Mary Ann Wodrow

Off the South-West coast of Scotland, two islands lie. Great Cumbrae and Wee Cumbrae. The sole town of Millport on Great Cumbrae house the main population, with Wee Cumbrae having been largely uninhabited since the early twentieth century.


Until the appearance of Steamboats, in the early nineteenth century, there was no regular passage to the smaller island of Wee Cumbrae. This isolation had informed the historical path of Wee Cumbrae, as the ancient burial ground, and ruined chapel of St Bey. Nearby to this, a ruined castle had place in local myth, having been erected as a defence against the Vikings, and subsequently brought to ruin by Cromwellian attack, leaving the island with these historic traces.


By the middle of the seventeen hundreds, a number of buildings had been erected including some technologically advanced lighthouses, facilitating a rise in population; seventy people, mostly employees and tenants of the Eglintons, living there by 1764. Amongst these residents were members of the Wodrow family, who held long associations with the theological dynasty of the Church of Scotland.


Part of this line was Mary-Ann Wodrow, the daughter of Rev. Robert Wodrow and his second wife Ann. Mary-Ann married Wee Cumbrae resident James Archbald in 1789. Their first child, Robert, died shortly after birth in 1790. They also lost two sets of male twins in 1791 and 1799, and a son in 1799. Mary-Ann and James had four surviving children: James IV, born in 1793, Margaret-Ann in 1796, Patrick Peter in 1802, and their youngest, Helen Louisa in 1805.


James Archbald was a successful farmer. He grew vegetables and hay and reared sheep for marketing lambs and wool. He sold fur and meat from local rabbits, fished, and sold seaweed. In addition to her domestic role, Mary-Ann was an independent producer of textiles and knitted products.

The technological improvements of the seventeen hundreds did not benefit the Eglintons as much as they had hoped. By the end of the eighteenth century they were in substantial debt. Hugh, 12th Earl of Eglinton was in so much debt that he sold off a number of smaller properties and raised the rents on the others, including that of Mary-Ann and James’. In 1803, at the ages of 40 and 41, James and Mary-Ann faced a decision. Believing their own lives as being somewhat in ebb, their focus was upon what would best serve their children. These rising rents would cause financial ruin and destroy their ability raise their family as they wished. Rents were rising across the region and James was not able to secure that leading to mortgage. They saw no choice but to emigrate. Well into middle age and immensely attached to their homeland, the Archbalds faced the prospect with reluctance and dread, notably Mary-Ann. For Mary Ann, who had spent her life on Wee Cumbrae, met and married her husband, and buried five children on the island, there was significant emotional ties to be lost in departure. Reflective of her social standing, as a wife and mother she wrote of an awareness that she was not an equal partner in making such decision and would leave the decision solely in James’s hands, as he appraised the situation.


The family received offers from relatives in United States including her much older half brother who lived in Virginia. He wanted to reunite the two families. James rejected the offer believing that the climate in Virginia was unhealthy and it was too difficult to reach. Mary-Ann’s Uncle, James Ruthven, was a very wealthy craftsman and along with his son, John, were close and generous friends. It is thought that they encouraged them, with the offer of assistance, to come to New York. They were escorted across to America to settle on a farm in central New York State, by a Scottish friend, Mr. Fisher.  This event took on special significance as Mr. Fisher had recently proposed marriage to Mary Ann’s special friend and cousin, Margaret Wodrow, and there was ope she might now travel with them to New York.


In making this journey, Mary-Ann not only had to face the difficulties of leaving behind her 90 year old mother but also the graves of her five dead children in the cemetery on Wee Cumbrae. Alongside this, her closest friend and cousin, Margaret Wodrow, decided not to travel to America. She remained - through correspondence - her closest companion till Mary-Ann Archibald’s death on January 3, 1841.


“In the future it must be from pen alone that will waft the soft intercourse from soul to soul” Mary-Ann to Margaret, February 1807.


Although Mary-Ann became somewhat disillusioned with America, especially after the War of 1812 (James, as head of the household, had to register as an enemy alien), she never swayed in their decision, where going to America would benefit her children. However, accounts narrate that James was never happy with his new life. Their prosperity, through farming, varied over the years and was dependent on economic trends and markets. James died in 1824 and Mary-Ann remained on the farm with her eldest daughter, Margaret. When Margaret died in 1829, she lived with her daughter Helen Louisa and her husband, Jacob Snyder. Mary-Ann died on January 3, 1841.


Mary-Ann’s legacy has found contemporary voice through the archiving of her correspondence and digitisation of her diaries and notebooks. There are a selection of excerpts displayed, accompanied by some personal items which were sourced by Garrison House Museum, on Great Cumbrae.

Early into my research I discovered her biography during a visit to Millport. Having a particular familial significance, with Millport being a spot we frequently holidayed in as a child, I decided to revisit the island as a potential location involved in my own family history. During a rainy interlude, and in taking indoor retreat, I came across a transcript of one of her diary pages. On surface, making connection with Mary Ann as someone who endured the experience of migration, there was a starting point. On reading the found excerpt though I was struck by those pulls of legacy and of exploring devotional familial acts through the work I was making.


When I returned home following my discovery of Mary-Ann’s story I decided to go through some family photographs of our time on holiday in Millport. Within the collection a photograph emerged which seemed to present a strange coming together of timelines and narratives. The photograph showed myself as a baby, sitting up in a pram, with my grandmother, Agnes, beside me on a bench at the beach front. Agnes sat to the left of the photograph and off camera - just cropped from the right hand side - lay Mary-Ann’s island of Wee Cumbrae. The image, taken unbeknown at the time, framed myself between these two women who would find place in my research story. Despite my work eventually taking lead through my particular familial story, Mary-Ann’s place in my journey is nevertheless important and significant.