Remembering Isabella of Ullapool

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In 1817 in the small fishing village of Ullapool a 16 year old crofter's daughter called Isabella became pregnant to a 25 year old fisheries inspector. She had the child in 1818 - a girl called Bessie. In 1819, she fell pregnant again to the same fisheries inspector. That year he also made another girl pregnant in Ullapool - a girl called Anne. In 1820, Isabella gave birth to a boy, John, and Anne gave birth to a boy, James.

The fisheries officer, George Macphail, decided to marry Anne that year, 1820.

Isabella was left alone at the age of 19 with her two babies.

There are no stories about Isabella. There are no photos. We know of no stone marking her grave. In fact we don't even know where she is buried. On her death certificate, she is marked as a pauper and single - yet her descendants count amongst some of the most prominent and respected citizens of Ullapool. Later generations of her descendants have scattered around the world, including the USA, Australia, South Africa, France, Spain and Italy. The writer is one of them.

Isabella's children and grandchildren

We don't know what Isabella was like but we know that she didn't attempt to hide her past. She didn't leave Ullapool under a new name to start her life elsewhere - perhaps posing as a widowed mother of two. She made no attempt to hide the illegitimacy of her children - keeping her own surname of McLennan, while identifying the father by giving her children his Macphail name. She lived with her son in later life, and always gave her relationship to him as mother in census records and on his marriage certificate, while providing her unmarried McLennan name.

She may have been a difficult person. She certainly was an inconvenient truth. When she died, attempts were made to cover up that truth and they nearly succeeded. She was almost forgotten but she has been rediscovered from the traces she insisted on leaving in the official records. This is about remembering Isabella.

The Story

George Macphail was the Fishery Officer responsible for Ullapool from 1816 to 1845.

By 1820, when he was 28, he had two children by a crofter's daughter, Isabella McLennan. He never married Isabella. In 1820 he married Anne Ross in Ullapool, with whom he had at least 8 children, mostly born in Ullapool.

His children by Isabella were John and Forbes (aka Bessie) who took the surname Macphail, but their mother always stayed as Isabella McLennan. Isabella was 17 when Bessie was born (1818) and 19 when John was born (1820).

Isabella appears to have brought up her children by herself. In both the 1841 and 1851 census records we see Isabella and Bessie living in Ullapool with an elderly Lily McKenzie.

Isabella and Bessie in the 1841 census
Isabella and Bessie in the 1851 census

In the 1841 census John Macphail is recorded as a student living with the household (containing several servants) of a Hector McKenzie - (agent of the British Fisheries Society).

We don't find John in the 1851 census but in 1856 he marries (another) Lily McKenzie. He is 36, she is 31. It is likely that this Lily McKenzie is related in some way to the Lily McKenzie (50+ years older) who was living with Isabella and Bessie.

On John and Lilly's marriage certificate, John's father is recorded as "George Macphail, Fishery Officer".

John and Lilly's marriage certificate
Macphail family in the 1861 census
Macphail family in the 1871 census

In the 1861 census we see the whole family together for the first time. Isabella and Bessie are living with John and Lilly and their three children: Catherine, George Ross and baby Isabella (aka Bella).

George Ross appears to have been named after his natural grandfather and also after the woman, Anne Ross, that George eventually married instead of Isabella! This implies a continued close relationship with George and his wife Anne. Perhaps they did not turn their backs on Isabella, John and Bessie but helped them through those difficult early years.

In 1871 John and Lilly have three more children: Abigail (aka Abby - named after Isabella McLennan's mother), William McKenzie (named after Lilly's father - aka Willie) and Ann Barbara (possibly named after Anne Ross - aka Annie).

They also now have a boarder - John Cameron, 24, teacher of English, who would marry his landlord's daughter, Catherine, in 1878 and become "The Master", headmaster of the school at Ullapool for 43 years from 1868 to 1911.

Isabella's son, John Macphail, became a pillar of the Ullapool community. He was a successful merchant, elder of the Ullapool Free Church and member of the school board. His epitaph on the monument commemorating his death in the Mill St cemetery in Ullapool is "a man greatly beloved".

Her granddaughter, Catherine, married John Cameron, headmaster at Ullapool school for 43 years.

Her grandson, George Ross, completed an Master of Arts degree at Glasgow University, and became a minister of the church, serving at Albert Square Church, Dundee for 40 years.

Her granddaughter, Isabella, married Neil Morison, a highly respected Free Church minister on Lewis.

Her grandson, Willie, became a successful businessman and philanthropist. The Macphail Centre in Ullapool is named after him.

Isabella McLennan died in 1876 in Ullapool at the age of 75. We do not know where she is buried.

Isabella's death certificate


Isabella's story only came to light because of some brilliant genealogical detective work by one of her descendants, Katharine Cameron. In the text that follows "K" refers to Katharine.

George (K always refers to George Macphail as "naughty" George) married Anne Ross the same year that his second child to Isabella was born. All this was happening at the same time in little Ullapool. Why did he marry Anne and not Isabella? K's records show the date of birth of Anne's first child, James Calder, as 1820 in Morayshire. This does not match the age that James Calder Macphail claimed in later life. However, K's records were very specific about this - giving both the year and the location, Morayshire, which was different from most of the subsequent births which took place in Ullapool. It doesn't look like a simple typing error but I have not been able to find the source for the information. If K's records are correct, then George was responsible for two pregnant women in 1820. He could not marry both of them, and he chose Anne. It is possible that James Calder modified his age in later years to save family embarrassment.

Also, in later years there was some confusion about exactly who was the father of John and Bessie. This confusion may have been deliberate to save embarrassment to George Macphail and his legitimate offspring. George Macphail is clearly recorded as John's father on his wedding certificate. However, the death certificates of John (1883) and Bessie (1902), both with John's son George Ross Macphail named as informant, record their father as "John Macphail, Fishery Officer, (Reputed father)".

John Macphail's death certificate
Bessie Macphail's death certificate

There is a memoir entitled "Memories of the MacPhail Family as told by a local resident" which also claims that John's father was named John. However, while the memoir is interesting, it is often inaccurate. It makes no mention of any illegitimacy - in fact it implies the opposite - and many of the dates mentioned just don't make sense. In particular it appears to suggest the relevance of a marriage between a John Macphail and an Isabel MacLennan in 1802 (which did take place). However, our Isabella McLennan was only born in 1801.

So that leaves the mystery of the death certificates. George Macphail did have a brother John Macphail who was 15 years older than him. But we have no record of him being a Fishery Officer. If it was this John Macphail, he would have been 43 years old when he had the first child by the 17 year old Isabella. Certainly possible, but perhaps less likely.

K's research also turned up other evidence confirming that young George's early years were a bit wild. Unfortunately, I can't find the records that K showed me at the time, but I recall that he had been in trouble with the law and had gotten himself into debt.

Whatever his early years were like, George appears to have settled down after his marriage to Anne Ross, and he raised a very respectable and well regarded family. In particular, his first born by Anne was Rev James Calder Macphail D.D. who had a long and distinguished career. I suspect that the name of John was supplied to the registrar of deaths in place of George in the interests of preserving the respectability of that branch of the family. I find that a more convincing scenario than supposing that the name of the father was incorrectly entered on John and Lilly's wedding certificate.

It is also worth noting that John and Lilly named their first born son, George, presumably after John's father, just as they had named their first born daughter Catherine after Lilly's mother.

If the father was George, it is hard not to judge him. Isabella may have been a willing participant in their affair - after all she did have not one but two children by him. Nevertheless, George was much older and a professional man in a position of authority while she was a local crofters daughter, and not much more than a child when he made her pregnant. He should have known better, and he should have married her. However, there is strong evidence that George behaved well in later years, perhaps under the good influence of his wife Anne. Certainly John and Bessie seemed to have forgiven him. So maybe this is essentially a story of forgiveness and redemption.


John Macphail
Lily Macphail.
The Macphail family: L-R: Catherine, George Ross, Lily, Abigail, Willie
Catherine Macphail with Catherine McLeod and Katharine Cameron
George Ross and Abigail Macphail flanking Katharine, Margot and their father John Cameron
Willie Macphail
Isabella Morison (nee Macphail) and family - she is seated left

Full Family Tree

Descendant Chart for Isabella McLennanFull.jpg


Any comments, corrections, suggestions would be most welcome.

In particular, we know so little of Isabella so it would be wonderful if someone has any information on her.

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