Looking for Eliza

Georgian silver spoon with family crest, soft dark brown Demerara sugar

Before I begin this blogpost, I should acknowledge that several others before me have ‘looked for Eliza.’ Black Isle historian David Alston has spent many years studying the murky connections between the Scottish Highlands, plantation owners and the slave trade. Twenty years ago he found the beginnings of Eliza’s story. I have drawn extensively on David’s meticulous research work for the timeline section in this blog (see also https://www.spanglefish.com/slavesandhighlanders/index.asp?todo=redo&pageid=222591) and he has kindly checked my text. I am further endebted to local historian Elizabeth Waters and her neighbour Sharon Jallow in Union Street and to Sheila Wickens in Seaforth Place for their interest and support and to members of the Fortrose and Rosemarkie Past and Present Facebook Group for their kind help. I have gone out of my way to check that local house owners are happy with all images used. I am also most grateful to Gavin Maclean at Fortrose Academy for sharing the blogpost to his school’s Facebook page.

My reading of Gerda Stevenson’s moving poem Demerara was the starting-point for this short project. I am most grateful to Gerda for allowing her work to be quoted here (it follows as an image). The idea was triggered by an animated discussion within the Black Isle Noticeboard page on Facebook related to the display and later removal of #BlackLivesMatter posters from the mercat cross in Fortrose – coincidentally a significant location, as you will see. Someone asked me then if I had read Demerara – and I hadn’t.

Demerara

by Gerda Stevenson

Eliza would have been as familar with the view from Greengates, the ancient Pilgrims Way from the Chanonry ferry to the Cathedral as we are today

I decided then to try to pull together in one place, this blog, what evidence remains today of the life of Eliza Junor (1804 – 1861). At present it is in draft form and I plan to update it as new discoveries/corrections come to light – David Alston’s research into Eliza is ongoing. All feedback is welcome and I will happily include the discoveries of others here.

It is unusual and pleasing to be provided with such detailed context material for a poem. The title is often the only clue as to meaning other than the words themselves. The aim of Quines is to celebrate and commemorate ‘the women of Scotland’. This is a wonderful anthology: thought-provoking, full of contemporary meaning as well as period detail and language. The women of Quines are real women, not always famous women: saints and poets and astronomers and dancers and folklorists but also ordinary folk, like Eliza, to whom extraordinary things happen. She differs from the other subjects in one significant respect. Her prize for ‘penmanship’ would be unremarkable, were it not for her birth: an accident of parentage in which she had no choice.

Gerda interprets Eliza as a young woman, a victim of casual early 19th century racism, in particular from the harsh tongue a female host who has invited her to take tea.  There is also a clever nod to the sugar ‘strike’ which helped to speed the abolition of slavery. This modern use of Eliza’s memory helps the poet shed light on the deep and knotted roots of modern racism. It is a poem which should encourage us all to reflect on ‘then and now’, inclusion and exclusion and the pernicious myth of ‘us and them’.

ELIZA JUNOR’S TIMELINE

1804

Eliza is born in Essequebo or Demerara to Black Isler Hugh Junor and an unknown mother, probably either a slave or a ‘free coloured’ woman.

1816

The Demerary & Essequebo Royal Gazette reports on Saturday, June 8:

‘This is to inform the Public that the following Persons intend quitting the Colony:

Hugh Junor in 14 days or six weeks from April 29.

William and Eliza Junor, free coloured children, in 14 days or six weeks from April 29.’

Eliza is therefore 12, her brother or half-brother four years younger. They may or may not have shared the same mother.

These notifications of departure and arrival are sometimes found in colonial newspapers of the period, aimed at preventing ‘a moonlight flit’ leaving unpaid debts. The dates suggest it took Hugh, Eliza and William two and a half months at most to travel the 7,500 nautical miles to the Black Isle from Guyana. The journey was perhaps broken in London, where Hugh Junor, Eliza and William’s wealthy plantation-owner father, may have kept a town house. Or perhaps they broke the journey back at Greenock.

Eliza and William were christened on August 21st at Rosemarkie Church. It is likely this would have happened very soon after their arrival home in order to speed their acceptance locally. The records show that ‘Elizabeth, daughter of Hugh Junor Esq of Essequibo, was born on the 11th September 1804, and baptised by Mr Wood on the 21st August 1816,’ and ‘William, son of Hugh Junor Esq above designed was born on the [left blank] and baptised by Mr Wood on the 21st August 1816.’

1817

On 19 September Hugh marries Miss Martha Matheson, daughter of Colin Matheson of Bennetsfield, who was the chief of Clan Matheson, so Eliza and William acquire a Highland stepmother.

1818

The metal bar above the school gate into Seaforth Place (NB no public access) once carried the school bell. It was highly unusual for a girl to attend a grammar school, normally only for boys, but attend it Eliza did.

In 1818, the school records for Fortrose Academy show that Eliza wins a prize: ‘Fortrose, 15 December 1818: For Proficiency in Penmanship, Miss Elizabeth Junor, from Demerara.’ It is interesting that the Rector or whoever wrote the entry has appended her place of birth, when she had already been living in the area for over two years. Still seen as exotic, then, not local? Was Eliza herself keeping the memory of her homeland alive, or were others intent on not allowing her to forget?

No one building within Seaforth Place (NB no public access) is known as Seaforth House today. The building on the left was the Academy building. The building just visible on the right was where the hardworking masters lived: paid very little, they were expected to teach both school and Sunday school and to care for the boarders too. The school syllabus was on a par with that taught at Eton.

To compare this with an archive pic of Eliza’s former school in the late 1800s, see https://www.ambaile.org.uk/detail/en/39234/1/EN39234-old-grammar-school-and-teachers-house.htm

Eliza may also have attended some classes in the gloomy Cathedral Chapter House, which was also used by the academy during her lifetime.

1820

Eliza is 16 and her schooldays may be at an end. David Alston has found that Hugh Junor pledges a donation of £20 to Fortrose Academy, but appears never to have paid it out.

1823

Hugh Junor dies (perhaps in Demerara, as no sign of a grave or memorial in Rosemarkie kirkyard). Eliza is just 19 years of age, so not yet independent of her father’s family. Hugh leaves her a legacy of £500, but she would have been unlikely to be able to control it until she turned 21. David Alston points out that if invested this would have paid out £25 per year so while useful, not enough to live on without other income.

1826

Eliza is 22 when her step-mother Martha remarries the Rev. Archibald Browne, the first Presbyterian chaplain in Demerara. He is a supporter of slavery who has published three sermons in pamphlet form in 1824 ‘On the Duties of Subjects to their Sovereign and the Duties of Slaves to their Masters’. The Brownes then travel to live in Demerara, as we know a step-sibling (no blood relative to Eliza) is born there.

1828

Eliza does not go back to Demerara with her stepmother and her new husband. She pops up again in Edinburgh, calling on a friend or acquaintance there, accompanied by a Miss Gregory. Could Eliza already be learning the dressmaking trade in Auld Reekie?

1833

Slavery is finally abolished throughout the British Empire, although in practice slavery continues in many forms. Eliza has never herself been a slave, but must retain some memory of her early childhood on the plantation. We know nothing of her own attitudes towards slaves or slavery, or how she views her own origins. What we imagine of this aspect of her life will always say more about us than it will about Eliza.

1837

Eliza’s 33rd year sees an abrupt change in her life and location. Unmarried, she gives birth to a daughter, Emma, on 15 November at 18 Great Hermitage Street, Wapping. This is London’s noisy and bustling East End, close to the docks. The father is recorded as Thomas McGregor or McGrigor, gentleman (according to David Alston, possibly a Thomas McGregor, born Kirkhill in 1803, who later lived in Brighton).

1841

Eliza is now 37 and living in Brixton. with (we assume) her 3-year old daughter Emma McGregor – but according to David Alston she may now using a false surname [Menn? Mann? Nunn?]. Possibly Mann if she chose a known Fortrose name as an alias?

Why Brixton? At the time, it is a relatively quiet semi-rural area on the outskirts of London (complete with a windmill). Healthier than Wapping for a child, perhaps. In the eighteenth century, London had a high population of slaves and former slaves. By Eliza’s time their numbers were dwindling, mirroring the decline in support for slavery, but some of their descendants must have remained.

To see William Hogarth’s illustration depicting an African in 18th century London, see http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/abolition/africans_in_art_gallery_01.shtml

This Brixton period, which may have lasted up to a decade, is the biggest questionmark of all in Eliza’s story. Why did she do this? If in the mid 1800s Brixton is already a place to which people of colour are gravitating, is she hiding herself and her daughter among them? Why? Is Emma’s father contesting her right to keep his child? Or is Eliza simply wanting to be free of his control? Could it be a positive choice to live among people with similar stories to her own?

1851

Ten years later, an Emma McGrigor is to be found enrolled as a pupil at a small private school in Pennard, Somerset. Is it Eliza’s daughter? If so, why so far away, when 47-year-old Eliza, who has become a dressmaker, is now living with her married aunt Catherine Mackenzie (60) on the south side of the High Street in Fortrose? It was not uncommon for children to be ‘boarded out’ in awkward parental circumstances.

At this time Eliza and her aunt are known to have occupied a house on the south side Fortrose High Street, where, given Eliza’s trade, they quite possibly ran a dressmaking/clothing business.

1861

The long, low grey slate roof is all that now remains of ‘Greenside,’ No 3 Union Street

On census day Elizabeth Junor, 57, dressmaker, is now recorded as living at 3 Union Street, Fortrose, still with her aunt Catherine Mackenzie, now a widow aged 70 – and a visitor, Emma McGrigor, a governess, aged 23, who was born in England. The wealthy Junor family owned a row of several houses at the top end of Union Street. ‘Greenside’ is likely to have been the long, low one to the north of the fine old pink manse St Katharines, formerly accessed from Castle Street. (In the 1881 census the same house is occupied by another Junor, Penelope, a widow and her children plus other occupants, possibly lodgers or sub-lessees).

Only the roof now remains of ‘Greenside’ (a connection with Greenside Farm at Rosemarkie?), as part of it was demolished a few years ago to make way for the construction of a larger modern house on its garden plot.

Elizabeth Waters’ image of part of 3 Union Street while being demolished a few years ago. The roof was later replaced to form an archway. Note the fireplaces on the upper and lower floors

Emma is perhaps visiting Union Street in 1861 because her mother is unwell. Eliza dies on 20 April – her death certificate gives her father as Hugh Junor, West India Planter (deceased) and names no mother; the cause of Eliza’s death is unknown, so it was not perhaps ‘expected’; and the death was reported by her daughter Emma McGrigor.

Eliza’s tombstone also commemorates her brother William

Eliza is buried in Rosemarkie Kirkyard, surrounded by other Junor relatives, not far from the main path and the west end of the kirk. Her brother William’s death in Buenos Aires is commemorated on the same stone by the hand of a different mason. Eliza’s inscription is cut larger and deeper than that of William: carved to last.

Telling Eliza’s story today

Many people of colour feel that the challenges they face in modern life are no longer connected with slavery. Some find this continued automatic association offensive. Whoever tells Eliza’s story must understand this and proceed with due respect and caution. Inclusion is vital. Eliza did exist. Not to tell her story for risk of offence is in itself a form of censorship. This is a fine and difficult line to tread.

Eliza’s school, Fortrose Academy (where she won her precious prize for penmanship) was not in the current building. At the time it was located in Seaforth Place, a stone’s throw from the mercat cross – where local youngsters were to put up their sharpie-and-corrugated- cardboard #BlackLivesMatter posters some 200 years later. A poignant reminder of the freedom of speech fundamental to democracy which risks erosion today.

The current Academy building, founded in 1891, has echoes of its predecessor in the 1791 date on its clocktower.

For a novelist, the temptation to read between the lines of Eliza’s life story is almost overwhelming. Even though I have tried to resist, a number of rhetorical questions have still slipped into the timeline.

Hugh Junor’s relationship with Eliza and William’s unnamed mother, for example, range in possibility from the casual rape of a slave by a master to a loving or at least tolerable relationship with a ‘free coloured’ woman: although the lack of any indication of her name may make the latter unlikely.

There is also the small matter of a 7,500 mile journey to school. It was unusual for any girl to be educated at a grammar school of the time but not unheard of. Hugh must, at the very least, have had some feeling of responsibility for his children, to bring them home to the Black Isle for their schooling. We do not know if he was also fond of them, but must hope he was. Living with her Aunt Catherine for as long as she did would, I hope, indicate affection as well as expediency. She need not have returned to Fortrose from London. And yet she did. Racism began to consolidate in society from the 1830s onwards after the abolition. Could experience of that have hastened her return ‘home’?

Likewise, we know nothing about Eliza’s relationship with Emma’s father. He may already have been a married man. She is 33 when she has her baby – no slip of a girl to have her head turned. They may not be married, but Thomas MacGregor or McGrigor (who may or may not have been a gentleman from Kirkhill, near Beauly) appears to have been present at Emma’s christening, even if the clerk still registers the birth as illegitimate (in flowing copperplate, nicely ironic). At the time Eliza’s own illegitimacy may have been as great an obstacle to any ‘good’ marriage as her Guyanan bloodline.

And why then does Eliza relocate from Wapping to Brixton, apparently to live under an assumed name? The range of options here extends from fear to proto-feminism; a woman fleeing a man who has raped her and with whom she felt for a time obliged to live – to a strong woman’s desire to be rid of a controlling lover. In between is the possibility of a woman seeking a better place in which to raise her child.

We do not know what Eliza and William looked like. A portrait (possibly still in the possession of a Junor or McGregor/McGrigor descendant) would be an extraordinary find – by no means impossible. Again, there is a whole range of genetic possibility. In the 1800s the colour of Eliza and William’s skins, eyes and hair would have greatly impacted on how the children were perceived and accepted here. Resemblance to a Highland father or to a Guyanan mother could have meant the difference between remaining in Guyana on the plantation and a new life in Scotland.

Eliza’s grave on the left, close to the path and kirk; her stone is also the memorial to her brother William who died in Buenos Aires

As to Emma McGrigor, Eliza’s only child, her appearances in the 1841 and 1851 censuses may be coincidental. After her appearance in the 1861 census, there seems to be no further trace. Did she marry? Emigrate? Change her name? So far I have been unable to find anything of her later life although I have looked hard. I hope others will keep looking.

It is very hard to tell Eliza’s story without either politicising or romanticising it. In my view we can however deduce from the position of Eliza’s neat tombstone in Rosemarkie burial ground, so close to the kirk and main path and surrounded by other family members, that she was accepted here in the Black Isle, if not respected and, perhaps, loved. Interestingly, Gerda Stevenson has not yet been able to visit Eliza’s grave. I wonder if doing so might have changed her poem in any way?

We can never understand Eliza’s now-distant life in full – but the fragments gathered together in this blog should at least encourage us to question closely our own attitudes to race and otherness. If all youngsters going through Fortrose Academy could be taught Eliza’s story and be encouraged to share it with others – one Eliza Assembly every year for all First Years, perhaps on the anniversary of her death? – that would be a good practical outcome. So would the creative use of Eliza’s story in any way which ensures it continues to be told and retold.

Eliza Junor’s life mattered – and it still does.

Author: veewalkerwrites

Hello new readers! I am here to keep you company. Thousands of you have now begun your reading journey of my award-winning début novel Major Tom's War. It was launched at the National Army Museum in London on 20 September 2018 (the eve of Tom and Evie's 100th wedding anniversary) by my lovely publishers www.KashiHouse.com. The revised and expanded second edition is out now on Kindle, the paperback soon - in theory launching during a book tour of Canada late 2020. We will see... https://www.google.com/search?q=majortomswar+kindle&oq=majortomswar+kindle&aqs=chrome..69i57.11416j0j4&client=ms-android-samsung-ss&sourceid=chrome-mobile&ie=UTF-8#sbfbu=1&pi=majortomswar%20kindle

11 thoughts on “Looking for Eliza”

  1. What an interesting story – my family have a real mix both bloodlines and politics… it’s all so muddled thinking at times… I value the words people like yourself share which reflect what I think too but I cannot always put so well. Thank you. I will look up your books.

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    1. Thank you for your kind words. My novel Major Tom’s War is out in hardback and Kindle, and in paperback this winter. Sending out signed hardbacks direct from here at present if of interest as my indie publisher was struggling during lockdown. MTW is the true story of my grandparents’ unlikely courtship during WWI. Thanks again. Vee

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      1. There are a few first edition glitches which still make me grind my teeth. It was rushed out for the Armistice 100 commemorations. All ironed out in the second ed, to which we have added an additional chapter 10 too! If you send me an email address can send you a pdf of it if you like. Best regards. Vee

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  2. Hi Vee. Our daughters were in school together. I work at Fèisean nan Gàidheal (Gaelic Arts Organisation) and each year we prepare a tour for GME schools on a topic of interest. Inspired by the BLM movement this year we have chosen Eliza Junor as our catalyst, having read David Alston’s findings on her – I had no idea you were also looking into her story – there is some fascinating additional information here and Gerda’s poem is really poignant. Thank you for sharing this.

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    1. Hello Eilidh! You’re Peigi’s Mum I think? What is she up to now? Adelaide started uni today, very proud of all she has achieved after two years of ill health. If you wd like a tour (virtual or otherwise) of Eliza’s Fortrose, happy to oblige. It certainly brought Black Lives Matter into sharp focus here!

      Vee x

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  3. Hi Verity
    Just came across your blog this morning! What a fascinating read about Eliza Junor. We have just been talking about her in the English Dept at Fortrose Academy! Jo-Anne Pugh has just come up with an idea to represent and celebrate Black History Month with us. She plans to run a competition of “penmanship” for some of our pupils (possibly S1-3) in which they will copy Gerda’s poem by hand for a prize. I think it’s a great idea and allows us to explore Eliza’s life – which you’ve already done in your blog. I was also very proud of some of my former pupils who voiced their concerns in favour of BLM in Fortrose and so disappointed to hear of some people’s reactions to their posters/actions.
    I recently heard Gerda read some of her poems including Demerara from the Nairn Book Festival online which was superb and I had given a copy of Quines to my mum. I do hope Gerda visits her grave sometime soon and I plan to do so in the Oct holidays.
    Hope all is well with the family and that Adelaide is settling into uni life. Wish her all the very best.
    Best wishes
    Karen

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