In the beginning ..

I started out with a piece of foolscap paper.

Some time ago my father, William (Bill) Ford, prevailed upon me to seek out our family roots.  When talking about such matters, my father maintained that the Ford patriarchal lineage originated in the Western Isles of Scotland and recalled his aunts, Janet, and Molly (Mary), talking about the past and using the word ‘Cumbrae’.  While my father was aware that his grandfather, James Ford, had married Elizabeth Muir, he did not know that James was working, or was in fact married, in New Zealand.  Nor did know anything of my great, great grandfather, Samuel Ford who lived in Millport.  

William (Bill) Ford 1932

My own recollection when talking with my father over such matters was that he was adamant that his family came from the Western Isles of Scotland.  Despite the fact that Janet Muir Ford was born in Dunedin, there was no indication that either of his aunts ever mentioned ‘New Zealand’ in any conversation with my father.

Handing to me his own construction of the family tree, perhaps thinking my computer skills might work to the good, he asked me to continue the search.  With little more to go on, I searched for Cumbrae without success.  The maps I had access to at the time did not bother to mention Cumbrae so I turned to my computer.  Typing in the word ‘Cumbrae’ I waited expectantly.  Nothing.  Google Maps, again I was disappointed and found nothing.  Not knowing how to spell the word exactly inevitably returned something with ‘Cumbia’ in the title.  I pressed my father for further information; could recall anything further than his aunts may have said which might narrow down the search parameters.  Unfortunately, all I got was a shake of the head.  With nothing more to go on, I let the matter lie.  

Following my father’s death in 2011, I decided to make another effort in locating our ancestors and the elusive Cumbrae.  This time when I used my browser search engine did the job and I was landed squarely in the middle of an island in the Clyde estuary clearly marked ‘Greater Cumbrae’. 


The Cumbrea islands lying in the Firth of Clyde. 18th century military map from National Library of Scotland.

Then I realised why I had not early discovered this speck of an ‘island’ earlier.  I had been searching the larger islands and groups of islands that surround the Scottish coast.  I had failed to look closer at small islands tucked away in estuaries.  Cumbrae was so small and insignificant that it failed to register on large maps.  In the meantime, thankfully, greater advances had been made in mapping, the use of satellites and software technology that the illusive Cumbrae became readily identifiable which demonstrates how quickly and efficiently the internet had changed.  It is sad that I could not share this information with my father before he died.

With a secure point of reference, I now scoured the Scottish records and began to fit the pieces together.  But again I quickly drew a blank.  James Ford did not appear to exist in the record.  

However, the birth certificate for my grandfather, Robert Muir Ford, contains valuable information, including the fact that his father, James, was born in Millport in Ayrshire in Scotland.  But, as it turned out, this information is misleading.  No doubt James was of the opinion that Millport, on the island of Cumbrae, was attached to Ayrshire, reflecting perhaps the tendency of Cumbraeians to identify their local allegiance to that shire.  It was not until I discovered that Cumbrae was not part of Ayrshire until 1975 and that prior to date Cumbrae was part of Buteshire that I made progress.

Now using Scotlands People website I changed my search parameters from ‘Ayrshire’ to ‘Buteshire’ and I quickly found James and Margaret Ford and identified their ten children.


Official Scottish birth certificate of James Ford

James Ford was born on 27 December 1834 in Millport on the Isle of Cumbrae in Scotland. He was the youngest son of Samuel Ford and Margaret Wright.  James Ford initially migrated to New Zealand where he married Elizabeth Muir and raised two daughters.  He then sailed to Australia where a son was added to their family.  James lived in the Ballarat and Bendigo area until his death in 1914. 

James’ father, Samuel Ford married Margaret Wright and together raised ten children in Millport.  Samuel and Margaret’s children in order of birth were, Janet b. 1816, Mary b. 1818, Robert b. 1820, Margaret b. 1822, Peter, b. 1824, d, 1825, William, b. 1826, Susannah, b. 1828, John, b. 1830, Samuel, b. 1832, and James, b. 1834.  Apart from Samuel, his wife Margaret, and one daughter, Mary who remained on the island living with her mother until her death in 1902, and one child, Peter, who died in his first year, all Samuel’s and Margaret’s children left the island.  Most of them never returned.  Janet, Robert, and Margaret moved to the mainland and the nearby heart of the Industrial Revolution, Glasgow. The remaining five children, William, Susannah, John, Samuel, and James all immigrated to Australia

The Emigrants

Page 396 of the Statistical Accounts of Scotland Vol 11, 1791 with respect to Cumbrae.

The emigrants of Samuel Ford’s family had a number of things in common.  It is apparent they were all well educated in the there ‘Rs’, reading, writing and arithmetic, uncommon for the vast majority of those living in the early 19th Century.    The immigrants are also not listed among those who made the passage to colonies as ‘assisted’ passengers.  It would appear that their mother made sure that her family was given the best of opportunities from an early age in order that they could ‘pay’ their way in the community.

Of those who immigrated, William Ford married Sarah Clark in Scotland before migrating to Australia.  We don’t have a record of his death but his wife, Sarah, died in Ballarat on 18 October 1866. 

Susanna Ford married James Purdie in Scotland before immigrating to Adelaide on the SS Emily with their infant daughter, Margaret on 8 Aug 1849.

Samuel Ford and his wife Euphemia also immigrated on the SS Clyde arriving in Adelaide with their children, Georgina, Samuel, Margaret, and William, on 21 Dec. 1876. 

John Ford worked his way to Australia as a purser perhaps.  He first landed at Port Phillip before sailing to Adelaide where later married Mary Ann Hyde.

James Ford worked as a ‘wright’ in Kilmarnock before following his siblings in setting out for Australia.  But his story takes a different tack.  James initially migrated to New Zealand where he married Elizabeth Muir, herself an immigrant from Greenock near Glasgow, where they raised two daughters, Janet and Mary, before moving to Australia where their son Robert was born in Ballarat.

A Little of Cumbrae’s History

The two islands, Great and Little Cumbrae, are situated in the middle of the Firth of Clyde.  Blink and you would almost miss them. The word Cumbrae is said to come from the word Cumaradh, “Place of the Cymric people”, referring to the Brythonic people of Strathclyde, ‘The Kingdom of Ystrad Clud’ (the people of the Clyde).

Armstrong’s map of 1775 with the red line indicating the boundary of Buteshire until 1975.

Yet their strategic position effectively guards the entrance to the interior of the landmass that is Scotland.  And it was here that the Scots finally wrested the western coast from Norse control.

Despite victories over the Vikings on the mainland during the mid-1100s the Scottish ‘Kings’ had no control over the Isles or Argyll.  To dispel any further attempts by the Scottish overlords to assert their influence over this territory, the Norse, led by King Haco, and assisted by the King of Man, sailed with some 200 ships scavenging the west coast of Scotland as they came thereby giving the Scots advanced warning of their intentions.  In 1293 they anchored on the eastern shore of Great Cumbrae in preparation for an attack on the Scottish mainland the following day.

Unfortunately, during the night a storm caused a number of ships of the invaders to break their moorings and be swept across the narrow channel that separates Cumbrae from the Scottish mainland.   As the Vikings beached on the Largs coast triggering the battle with the waiting Scottish forces, Haco was forced to dispatch his main force in difficult and otherwise unplanned circumstances. In the ensuing melee, (Scotland history records a ‘battle’) the Scottish forces prevailed which had subsequent political significance when three years later the Norse relinquishing all claim to the western islands of Scotland. 

Another map showing the position of Cumbrae to the surrounding landmarks of Largs, Greenock and Kilmarnock.

In the ensuing years, Pigot & Co’s Scottish Directory (1837) reports that in the 1760s only a fisherman’s dwelling stood on the Isles.  This report has to be read in light of Armstrong’s (1775) map of the area which clearly shows something of a settlement at Millport.  Despite these idyllic visions things were about to abruptly change.  During the latter quarter of the 18th century, the British Government stationed the revenue cutter Royal George at Cumbrae in order to maintain some control over the smuggling industry which had grown exponentially since the imposition of a burdensome tax regime needed to pay for the continuing wars in Europe. 

The 225-ton brig Royal George carried 20 canons and was captained by James Crawford and crewed by sixty men.  From this time, both Cumbrae and the Royal George are historically linked.  The influx of so many seamen along with their families turned the sleepy island into a town of substance.

The Cumbraes were blessed with two resources which enabled the construction of supporting infrastructure; water and stone.  The water was provided by ample springs feed by surrounding snow-capped mountains from across the Clyde which was needed by the growing population and for farming.  Ample stone supplies allowed for the construction of dwellings, a harbour, and protective seawalls and for farms buildings, a corn mill, and gasworks.  In turn, both these resources underpinned further employment for farmworkers, millers and bakers and butchers as well as quarriers and stonemasons.

A section of Pigot & Co relating to Millport. The importance of stone and quarrying is significant given that Samuel Ford was known as a quarrier.

Millport, showing the site of the church (kirk) at Mid Kirkton and the location of the Ford and Wright memorials.

Millport showing the position of Crichton, Cardiff and Stuart Streets. The red line indicates the boundary when Millport was a Burgh.

In 1793 a Friend of the Rev. Mr Henry Graham records that the Isle’s population totalled 509 people (108 families), consisting of 247 males, 262 females, 4 weavers, 5 tailors, 3 loiners (possibly butchers), 16 masons and quarriers, 33 horses, 350 black cattle and 347 sheep.

A brief history of Cumbrae and Millport which I copied [and corrected] from a website Welcome to the Isle of Cumbrae, Scotland the original of which you can find here

Sometime around 500AD the Cumbrae Isles were part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde and they were referred to as “The Isles of the Virgins” in the Annals of Ulster in 714AD.

They became the property of the King of Norway in 1093 but Alexander the Third defeated the Norse King Haco at the Battle of Largs in 1263 and many of the dead from that final battle were buried on Cumbrae along with their weapons. Centuries of feuding over these islands ended three years later at the Treaty of Perth. In 1539 the island was divided into a number of small baronies whose names survive to the present day. Kames was a small village. Brechoch (Breakough today) and Penmachrie were baronies whereas Balloch, Portrye and Figgitoch were holdings from the Crown. Balleykellet (Ballykillet farm today) was the largest.

By the 1850s the island’s ownership was divided between the Earl of Glasgow in the east and the Marquis of Bute in the west. By the start of the twentieth century Bute estate had become the feudal landlord of almost the whole island. These feudal links persisted with the Marquess having final say over developments on most of the island till 1999. At this point, the present Marquess, who prefers to be called simply Johnny Bute, put the island up for sale allowing tenants to acquire land which had been held in feudal tenure by his family for 800 years. The only exception to this sale of land was Garrison House in the centre of town and its surrounding grounds. It was held by Millport Town Council on a 99-year lease which started in 1947. After some years of neglect, the Garrison House was destroyed by a fierce fire in 2001.

As a result of heroic efforts by the local community along with support from The Heritage Lottery and other funders, the Garrison was returned to its former glory in a £5.5m scheme which was completed in Feb 2008. The Garrison originally housed the crew of a revenue cutter the Royal George. The first vessel ‘The King’s Boat’ in 1634 was established to deal with smuggling. Smuggling was rife and well supported by islanders. At one point church communion had to be postponed when the appropriate wine had not been smuggled ashore in time. The ‘Royal George’ Revenue Cutter was of 250 tons and had a crew of 60 men. Officers gave their names to streets in Millport, Crawford and Ritchie were Captain and Mate respectively.

Millport took its name from the grain mill at the top of Cardiff Street. Unquestionably the best and most authoritative text on Millport history is that written by J.R.D. Campbell ‘Millport and the Cumbraes, a history and guide’ published in 1975 by Cunninghame District Council, printed by Gilmour and Lawrence Ltd, Glasgow G3 8EL [which is out of print and a copy of which I have been unable to find].

In the 20th century, Millport became a tourist destination with thousands of families taking the “Doon the Water” trip from Glasgow, Greenock and other Clyde towns. Some would stay in Millport throughout the summer with fathers taking the boat to join their families at the weekend. At this time there were hundreds of pleasure steamers linking all the Clyde costs towns. Today, the paddle steamer Waverley (last seagoing paddle steamer in the world) continues this tradition with regular visits to Millport in the summer months.

The following aerial photographs of Millport and Cumbrae are kindly supplied by Canmore, National Record of the Historic Environment, part of Historic Environment Scotland.

Cardiff Street extends onto the pier. At the extreme left facing the estuary is Crichton Street. To the right facing the estuary is Stuart Street.

Cumbrae from the West. The small clearing towards the lower centre surrounded by trees is the Mid Kirton Cemetery wherein lies the Ford and Wright memorials. (Cranmore)


Copyright John Ford 2018.


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