one line of descent index home

Gilbert and probably Christian, his wife, lived their lives in the Duncansbay neighborhood of the parish of Canisbay in Caithness, Scotland. Gilbert's parents may have been William Laird and Janet Grott. The traditional way of naming children locally was to name the first child after one of the father's parents, depending on gender, then the second after one of the mother's parents. If there were three boys or girls born consecutively, the third was often named for an uncle or aunt, but usually the four names of the grandparents were eventually used when possible. There were exceptions, especially in the 19th century, when the tradition started to wane. Gilbert and his wife Christian Dunnet named their first daughter Elspeth and their first son William. The second daughter was Isobel and their second son was John. The Canisbay parish records appear to be complete from 1747 onward, and there are only two Gilberts born there who could have married Christian Dunnet in 1783. One the son of William and Janet (Grott) and the other the son of Andrew and Jean (Steven). Barring the unlikely case that Gilbert married when he was older than 36, he was most logically the son of William and Janet. Gilbert and Christian named their fourth daughter Janet. The name Andrew doesn't appear at all.
     There were three Christian Dunnets born in Cansibay who could have been the wife of Gilbert. Their parents were George and Jean, Thomas and Christian and Thomas and Isobel. The names George and Thomas don't appear among Christian (Dunnet) Laird's children. John and Janet Laird had a daughter Christian at the right time in the parish of Dunnet, which bordered Cansibay to the west. When Gilbert and Christian married, their "contract" and marriage record says it was in Canisbay, inferring they both lived there. Gilbert and Christian had a daughter Christian, who went by Christina, and she was their sixth daughter. All three of these sets of parents could possibly have been Christian's.
     Gilbert and Christian's daughter Christina married James Dunnet, also of Canisbay, and the tranditional naming pattern was more obvious among his siblings and his parents' generations. His father, James, was either the son of Thomas and Isobel (Williamson) or Thomas and Isobel (Miller). They had sons with that name born only months apart in Canisbay. If Christian (Dunnet) Laird was the daughter of Thomas and Isabel, her mother was Isabel Miller. This makes it possible that James Dunnet and Christina Laird were first cousins. Since there is no other evidence to go by, the parents of Christian (Dunnet) Laird can't be guessed confidently. However, the evidence is stronger to say Gilbert was the son of William and Janet (Grott).
On an 1817 map of Duncansbay, William and Gilbert Laird have adjoining homesteads.1 If William was a close relative he was most likely Gilbert's brother.

The 1817 map overlaid on an Ordnance Survey map of about 1870. The blacked-out house shapes are from 1870. Many of the crofts had been taken down by 1870, including the Lairds' and new ones built along what would become the main road through Duncansbay.

The red dots are the Laird house locations

The view is across the Pentland Firth with Orkney in the distance. The red dot is where Gilbert and Christian's house stood. The relative barrenness of the land in most of Caithness has been that way for hundreds of years. Vegetation other than what could be eaten or shipped as grain-product was a luxury, and the harsh weather negated growing trees for lumber of any significant use. The house in the background is modern. The boundary ditch on the right side of the photo, with marsh grass, and many others in Caithness, have been there at least as early as the Ordnance Surveys were taken, and mark the strips of land allotted to the crofters that were laid out long before.

Gilbert Laird and Walter Dunnet, whose croft also appears on the above map, were paid by their landlords, the Sinclairs of Freswick, for burning kelp on the Duncansbay shore in 1807.2 Kelp-burning created the potash used to make soap and fine quality glass, and the landowners capitalized on this to enhance their dwindling income. The 1807 account shows they were paid £7, 6 shillings. They were likely the foremen of a crew that could have included whole families from the area, and they would have disbursed the money among all the families involved.
     An account of heads of families in Canisbay parish has a Gilbert Laird in Duncansbay up to 1836, not after. Another two generations of Gilbert Lairds in the later 19th century rented the croft lands William and Gilbert had on the 1817 map and were surely descendants. The name Gilbert Laird is in the earliest entries of the Canisbay parish register in the 17th century (a long gap in the records makes it impossible to connect the generations), and these families, the Lairds, Dunnets and many others, surely lived in the north part of Caithness for centuries before this. These strips were further divided during the 19th century, but originally they ran all the way north to the shore.


children of Gilbert Laird and Christian Dunnet:

i. Elspeth, b. 14 September 1783
ii. Isobel, b. 22 April 1786
iii. William, b. 30 April 1791
iv. Margaret, b. 26 October 1792
v. Jean, b. 31 August 1795
vi. Catherine, b. 16 June 1798
vii. Christian (Christina), b. 13 August 1800
viii. John, b. 1 March 1803
ix. William, b. 22 March 1806

1. image at

all text and photographs © 1998-2023 by Doug Sinclair unless where otherwise noted