Friday, 23 January 2015

Could Andrew Burton read and write?

On the occasion of his wedding to Agnes Cameron (on 28 October 1887), our 2xgreat grandfather Andrew "signed" the documents by making his mark. Younger brother James and John Renfrew counter-signed to confirm that the groom was who he claimed to be. The Registrar, Mr Barrowman, duly recorded this in the Statutory Register. This was a distinct role for James apart from being a witness to the ceremony as a whole, which duty he shared with Agnes's sister Isabella (as recorded in another part of the Register).

Universal literacy is a relatively modern idea but Andrew's status is puzzling. He grew up in Ireland in the 1870s (when their school system was regarded as a model for the colonies in Australia) and moved to Scotland which also was justifiably proud of its educational provision. Apparently James, just 4 years younger, was able to read and write effectively. What could be the reason for Andrew's inability to sign his own name?

The situation is complicated when the birth records of Andrew's children are considered. The 1889 entry in the Register for Sarah Anderson Cameron Burton (also overseen by Mr Barrowman) includes a signature, apparently made by the father. The 1893 entry for eldest son Robert (once again recorded by Mr Barrowman) includes the very same signature.

It is not a stylish hand, but the penmanship is consistent and serviceable. (It is possible to think of one or two modern descendants whose handwriting is no better!) Had Andrew learned to read and write in the years following his marriage or at least been trained to make a more sophisticated "mark" that would avoid embarrassment in a society where literacy was expected?

An alternative explanation might be that Andrew's action on his wedding day was the result of a temporary condition. Might he have injured his fingers while working in the quarry so that he was unable to control the pen? Or was he suffering from another ailment on that day that impaired his faculties? Was it significant that the ceremony was conducted at the bride's home (42 Rosendale Road) rather than in the kirk?

The absence of conclusive evidence is often a source of frustration for family historians. On the other hand, it does leave room for speculations that are imaginative, amusing or outrageous (according to your point of view).

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