One day at a local auction in Fife, I could not resist bidding for a grandfather clock made by Alexander Ferguson of Cupar. Alexander Ferguson was my father’s name and I knew that he had family connections in Cupar. Unfortunately my bid for the clock was unsuccessful but I did manage to buy another one at a later sale. That clock still stands majestically in my hallway and has become a special treasure.
The first clock had a fine mahogany case and had obviously been made for a ‘posh’ house. I’ve since seen similar valuable specimens advertised in Scotland and even in the USA at huge prices. ‘Grandpa’ – my clock - has a fine brass face but has an oak case, parts of which have been replaced fairly roughly over the years. These signs of wear and tear are souvenirs of the many families who have enjoyed having him, and serve only to enrich his character.
Inevitable curiosity made me trace back through the generations and indeed launched me into the obsessive hobby of genealogical research. I soon established that Alexander the clockmaker was my great x 4 grandfather who stayed, worked and brought up a family in Cupar in the 1760s and 70s. Knowing this made the treasure even more special, as a link to my forebears.
Genealogy is not solely about creating a family tree with a list of empty names and dates. Real genealogy is about putting clothes on the names, learning about the sort of life and surroundings our ancestors experienced. Smith, the authority on Scottish clock and watchmakers, lists three Alexander Fergusons as operating in 1782 in Edinburgh, Cupar and Dundee. These in fact were one and the same man. It was not long before I tracked down his origins.
Alexander was born in Edinburgh c1740 to John Ferguson and his wife Janet. John was a tailor, obviously of good standing, being admitted to the Edinburgh Roll of Burgesses in 1742. The family would have lived in the grimy, overcrowded but beautiful old town, probably in one of the cheek-by-jowl tenements flanking the Royal Mile between the Castle and Holyrood. In 1763 they would have seen the draining of the Nor’loch, clearing the way for what would become Princes Street and the start of the New Town.
Alexander was apprenticed in 1754 to Deacon James Cowan and discharged from his indentures in 1761. He then moved to Cupar where the Parish Records show the birth of 6 children to Alexander and his wife Mary between 1764 and 1773.
He kept up his connections with Edinburgh. In 1771 he presented a ‘bill’ craving to be admitted a freeman clock and watchmaker in the city. In 1772 he successfully presented his ‘essay’, an eight-day clock, to James Cowan and three ‘essay masters’. Then in 1775 he was admitted to the Edinburgh Roll of Burgesses ‘in room of’ his father John who presumably had recently died. We know where Alexander worked, for his ‘master’ Deacon Cowan occupied a shop at the west end of the famous ‘Luckenbooths’.
Built about 1460 the Luckenbooths or ‘Locked Shops’ were Edinburgh’s first true shops, containing a wide variety of trades, and became the market-place of the city. The booths formed part of a row of seven tenements connected to the Old Tolbooth in the centre of the High Street and running parallel to St Giles Church. Many eminent people lived in the tenements and in the flats above the shops. One shop was occupied by a Mr Creech who published books by the principal literary men of the day such as Kames, Smith, Hume, Mackenzie and finally Burns. The flat above had been that of Allan Ramsay who had set up the first circulating library in Scotland.
Just behind St Giles lay the hub of Scottish legal and political activity in the Parliament House and Court of Session. Since John the tailor was of good standing, it is reasonable to assume that he also operated in the Luckenbooths. And so we can have a wonderful picture of Deacon Cowan, John and Alexander Ferguson, providing attire, clocks and watches for the height of Scottish society - the politicians and advocates operating nearby.
Alexander of course also carried on his trade for many years in Cupar, for long the capital of Fife and centre of a rich agricultural area. Here we can imagine my type of oak-case clock being his staple trade for the ordinary townspeople and farmers of the area.
From Cupar he must have seen an opportunity in Dundee and in 1777 he was admitted to the Society of ‘Hammermen’ in that city. ‘Hammermen’ covered various metal working skills and included clock and watchmakers, and he would have had to be a member before being allowed to operate in Dundee.
And so ‘Grandpa’ is a very special treasure, special because of himself, special because he was made by my forebear, and special because he has given us a fascinating window into the life and times of a craftsman in 18th century Scotland.
A recent and modern quality has been added. My son is a writer and uses a website, freesound.org, which enables sound effects to be shared amongst an online community of creative people. He uploaded the sounds of ‘Grandpa’ striking the hour and the ticking of the pendulum. These have been downloaded hundreds of times. Now, whenever I look at him, I can think of ‘Grandpa’ donging and ticking all over the world, and being incorporated into all sorts of stories! So many people will share my treasure.
I don't know what Alexander would have made of that.