James was born and raised in Gills, on the north coast of Caithness. Records give him two occupations. He was a journeyman shoemaker in the 1841 census and a fisher in the birth record of his son Gilbert. He was probably brought up in a crofting and fishing household, so likely had several skills. James married Christina in the kirk at Canisbay and they started a family in that area. Original baptism records need to be checked to find where they lived. Son James' baptism says their residence was in Mey, which is next to Gills. The Canisbay kirk served a number of communities around it.
The Dunnet family moved to Wick on the southern coast of the county about 1834. The 1841 census places them in the Whitehouse neighborhood on the north side of the town. Family tradition has it that James and his older sons drowned while on a rescue mission. Here is the recollection of his granddaughter Margaret (Dunnet) Sinclair:
James Dunnet married Christina Laird, whose mother's maiden name was Coghill. They were people who lived by the sea. Their livelihood was fishing, boating, etc. Their oldest son was James, Jr. and the youngest was Donald and there were two sons in between...James Sr., the father, and three sons were drowned in the North Sea. The mishap occurred when they were trying to rescue people in a large vessel, sinking in a bad storm. They were employed in emergency by the government as coast guard assistants. Donald, my father, was the only male left. He was too young to be of help in the occasion of life saving, so he was left with his mother.
No evidence of this has been found, but Margaret's memory was sound enough to assume that there is some truth to the story. It's unlikely that any of his sons met that fate, though. There were five sons of record, and all of them were living with their widowed mother in 1861. It's likely he was the James Dunnet who was among a group of men on a Wick-based fishing boat who were caught in a sudden gale. The boat capsized and only some of the men were saved. That James reportedly left a wife and nine children. The event was reported in the 7 November 1847 issue of The Scotsman newspaper in Edinburgh, quoting Wick's John O'Groat's Journal. James and Christina had eight children who were living at the time, but the circumstances, including the oral history, make this a reasonable match. The next two censuses tell us that Christina opened a coffee house on High Street. Sometime after 1861 she moved to the Kinning Park district in the southern part of Glasgow, where she died in 1879. She hasn't been found in the 1871 census.
children of James and Christina (Laird) Dunnet: