The Syme and Taylor Families of Dunfermline

In April 2021, an email was received through from Kerrie Poore, a Realtor (estate agent) in Orange County, Virginia.  She was selling a house called Mountain Glen which it was thought had been built in the early 1880s by William Taylor and his wife Robina Syme who came from Dunfermline.  The Realtor was looking for information about this couple for her sales information on the house which had passed through many owners over the years and was badly in need of restoration. She hoped that a purchaser of the house, knowing something of its history, might fall in love with it and restore it to its former glory. It now appears that the house was built much earlier than the 1880s.

The property is situated in almost 225 acres of land and was priced at £2,700,000.

Normally, such an email would receive the reply that the we do not do research.  However, at that time we were in a lockdown and as I had time on my hands decided to do a bit of research and discovered two very interesting Dunfermline families.  William and Robina, despite dying in Virginia, are mentioned on the Syme family gravestone in Dunfermline Abbey churchyard along with many other members of the family, including Robina’s younger sister Marjory who also died in Orange County, Virginia.

East side of Gravestone and West side of Gravestone

Robina’s parents were Henry Syme and Margaret Henderson who had married in 1830 and had 8 children, 6 girls and 2 boys.  Robina was born in 1844 and was second youngest. Her father Henry, like his father before him, was involved in the hand loom weaving of linen but he also owned a grocer’s shop located on the corner of Reid Street and Priory Lane (which is close to the Abbey).  He is best remembered however, for his poetry and songs which were well known and popular in the mid to late 19th century.  Two books of his works were published.

In his later year’s Robina’s father, Henry, went to live in Devonport at the home of his daughter Maggie.  Maggie had married a Royal Navy engineer (David Grant), and another 2 of Henry’s daughters, Elizabeth (Eliza) and Marjory had also married Royal Navy engineers and their homes were in the Southwest of England.  Henry’s son William, also a Royal Navy engineer, unfortunately died in Colombo, Ceylon in 1868. Two of Henry’s daughters – Robina and Janet – had emigrated to the USA and this meant that by 1880, Henry had none of his children living in the Dunfermline area. When he died in 1884 at the age of 80, his remains were brought back to Dunfermline from Devonport and he is buried in the Abbey churchyard.

In 1866, Robina, aged 21 years, married William Gibson Taylor in Dunfermline and in 1873 the couple sailed from Glasgow to New York. William was born in Dunfermline in 1821 which made him more than twenty years older than Robina.  He had however, spent many years travelling.  In 1847, when William was in his twenties, his father had lent him £170 which in today’s money is worth around £22,000.  His father, James Taylor, was a grocer in Dunfermline and he also received income from investments and rents from several properties in and around Dunfermline.  It is not known why William’s father gave his son this money as by 1847 William was the eldest son and heir, his older brother James jnr. having died of consumption in 1837 at the age of 23 – his grave is in the south graveyard at Dunfermline Abbey.  When William’s father, died in 1852 William was living in Melbourne, Australia.  The youngest son, Robert Taylor, was also in Australia at this time.   

James Taylor Snr and his wife Elizabeth Gibson, North Graveyard, Dunfermline Abbey

At the time of his father’s death William was in partnership with a builder in Melbourne.  The partnership was dissolved in 1854 probably on the death of his partner, William Southwood.  In 1858 there was a court case in Melbourne involving some irregularities with Bills of Exchange which had taken place while William had been in partnership with William Southwood.  It was stated during the court case that William Taylor was not present in court as he had returned to Scotland.  It has not been possible to ascertain with any certainty where William was from the mid 1850’s until 1866.  He does not appear to be in Scotland in the 1861 census.  Also, when his mother died in 1862 the reporting of the death and the handling of the estate was done by William’s younger brother, Alexander. It can probably be assumed from this that William was not in Scotland at this time as being the eldest son it should have been his duty to handle the estate.   On the death of their mother, William and Alexander inherited their father’s wealth which seems to have changed their lives. William returned to Dunfermline, met and married Robina.  On their marriage certificate, his occupation is given as ‘property owner’ and on the 1871 census he is listed as an ‘annuitant’.  Before, their mother’s death, Alexander was listed as a grocer (probably having taken over his father’s business) and he lived with his mother.  By the 1871 census he was married, had a daughter and had changed his occupation to ‘property owner and photographer’.  He went on to run a successful photographer’s business in Dunfermline.

In 1872 a number of newspapers in Virginia advertised the auction of a house and tract of land in Orange, Virginia.

The Daily Dispatch, Richmond VA, August 26, 1872

William and Robina purchased the land in Virginia before they left Scotland.  On 1st February, 1873 a deed of trust conveyed 424 acres to William Gibson Taylor for the amount of eight thousand dollars which is worth almost two hundred thousand dollars today.  However, William and Robina did not arrive in the USA until 11th June 1873!  It has not been possible to know for certain how William new about this land sale and that it was worthwhile bidding for it.  Perhaps, he spent the missing years from the mid-1850’s until the mid-1860’s in the USA.  Or did he have a relative in Virginia who sent him the information?  According to the advertisement, one of the neighbours of the land he purchased is a Col George F Taylor – could this be a relative? Unfortunately, William Taylor is a very common name.  When William died, he not only left money in the US but there was also probate in Australia and London – everything being left to Robina.

 In 1885 William deeded everything “For the sum of love and affection and one dollar …” to Robina.  Then, in 1888 Robina deeded all 425 acres, farm equipment, animals and the house to her brother-in-law William Hair, who was married to Robina’s older sister Elizabeth (Eliza).  Robina visited Scotland on a few occasions in the late 1880s and 1890s and she seems to have had a liking for a ship called ‘SS State of Nebraska’ where she usually occupied a first-class cabin.

Life for William and Robina changed in 1898 when Robina’s niece, Ada, came to live with them.  Robina’s older sister Eliza died in Weymouth, Dorset in 1893 and her husband died 5 years later in 1898.  Eliza had 2 children and on the death of her husband, the younger of the 2 children, Ada, was only 14 years old. Upon the deaths of Eliza and then William it has to be presumed that the property would revert back to Robina as Ada and her older brother, George, were minors at the time of their father’s death.  Later in 1898, Ada sailed from Glasgow to New York on the SS State of Nebraska arriving 1st June 1898 and went to live at Mountain Glen with her Aunt Robina and Uncle William.  Robina’s younger sister Marjory was living in Greenock at that time, so it is possible Ada stayed with her before boarding the ship for the USA. 

Robina’s husband, William, does not appear to have returned to Scotland at any time between 1873 and his death in 1909 when according to his death record, he was 86 years old but being a farmer, it would probably have been difficult to leave the property for any length of time.

Orange Observer, Jan 29, 1909 

“Mr William G. Taylor, a most highly esteemed citizen of this county, died at his home near Rapidan on Tuesday afternoon last, (Jan 26, 1909), after an illness of only a few days past, from a natural decline, aged about 86yrs.  The interment was made in the Waddell Presbyterian Church yard at Rapidan on Thursday afternoon last at 3 o’clock, the Rev. P.L.B. Cross of that place officiating. There was a very large attendance.  The following were pall-bearers:  Capt. W.J. Farrer, Messrs Stuart, W.S. Trimmer, R.J. Farrer, James Duncan and Marshall James.

The deceased is survived by a wife.  He was a native of Scotland, but came to this country many years ago to live.  He was very well off, owning considerable valuable property.  He was a whole-souled, kind-hearted gentleman, and his charitable deeds were many.  The Observer staff extends the deepest sympathy to the greatly bereaved widow in her terrible affliction”.

The same year as Robina became a widow, her sister Marjory’s husband also died.  At the time of his death, he was the Governor of the Mariners’ Asylum in Greenock.  Three years later in 1912, Marjory also emigrated to the USA to live with her sister and niece at Mountain Glen. In 1918 at the age of 74, Robina died and in her will she left everything to her niece Ada.  Ada continued to live at Mountain Glen with her Aunt Marjory until Marjory’s death in 1926 at the age of 78.

William, Robina and Margery all buried in Waddell Presbyterian Church Cemetery, VA

Ada never married and spent the remainder of her life dividing her time between the USA and England.  Her older brother had remained in England, living in Portsmouth, where he worked as an engineer at the Royal Navy dockyard. He died in 1967 at the age of 88. She also had cousins living in England.  Ada sold Mountain Glen in 1935 but she must have had friends/connections in the US as she continued her transatlantic journeys into the 1950s including one trip on the Queen Mary. There are no photographs of Ada or her aunts but Ada applied for US Naturalization after her Aunt Marjory’s death and on her application, she states that she is 5feet tall with dark hair, dark complexion and brown eyes.   She died in Surrey, England in 1980 at the age of 96.