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1st/5th Battalion Gordon Highlanders


2212 Private James McNaughton

An 'unknown soldier' revealed 

James McNaughton is representative of a large number of WWI soldiers about whom few if any military records exist.  The CWGC records are sadly sparse on details.  It is shown that he died on 13th November 1916, was a member of the 5th Battalion Gordon Highlanders, he has no known grave and is commemorated at the memorial to the missing of the Somme at Thiepval.  The records of “Soldiers Died in the Great War” database add the information that he was born at Udny in Aberdeenshire.  To the best of my knowledge there are no notices in local newspapers commemorating his passing. 

As happened with so many young men, the War deprived James McNaughton of a future.  Sadly, this lack of records seemed also to deprive him of his past.

Therefore I decided to search civilian records in an attempt to find out more about this 'unknown soldier'.  In the process not only did I uncover something of James’ apparently hard life, but I also made a surprising discovery about another soldier of the Battalion.

James McNaughton appears on the Buchan Observer Roll of volunteers in October 1914.  He was listed as a member of F Company (Oldmeldrum) and his address was given as Boghead, Esslemont - Esselmont being a small community south west of the town of Ellon in Aberdeenshire.

James’ birth certificate shows he was born on 30th November 1895 at Pitmedden Village, Udny, the illegitimate son of a domestic servant, Mary Lunan.  The child’s father is given as James McNaughton, a farm servant at Mill of Ythsie, Tarves.

A check of the 1901 census records revealed that there was no ‘happy ending’ to this affair, as both parents were still single six years after the child's birth.  James McNaughton, aged 26, was employed on his widowed mother’s farm at Mill of Ythsie.  Twenty-six year old Mary was a domestic servant at the Bannerman farm at nearby Raxton and, rather poignantly, her five year old son was a boarder at the farm cottage of William Riddel, a farm servant and cattleman at Shethin.  (Shethin was about half a mile from Raxton.)

Mary Lunan was herself illegitimate.  She was born on 16th September 1874 at Cruden to local woman Jane Craighead, a domestic servant.  The father was James Lunan, a stone mason whose address was given as North Ellis, Drumbreck Udny.

Within a few months of the child’s birth, Jane and James married (19th December 1874) in Cruden, and shortly afterwards moved to Ellon.  Here sons James and John were born.  However by 1881 the family had moved again, back to James’ home of Pitmedden, Udny.  Five more children were born between 1883 and 1893, the youngest, Robert, on 6th February 1893.

Just over a year later, on 29th March 1894, Jane Lunan, aged 42 years, died from a disease of the spine from which she had been suffering for a number of years.

In November of the following year, daughter Mary, who at that time was still living with her father at Pitmedden Village, gave birth to her son James McNaughton.

As was common practise, the widower with young children in the family, soon remarried, taking as his new wife a woman twenty years his junior and only three years older than his daughter Mary.  His new wife was Margaret Dickie, a domestic servant from Foveran.  At the time of her marriage Margaret had an illegitimate son, Henry Alexander Slessor Bruce Dickie, who had been born on 7th June 1896 near the town of Ellon.

It would appear that Mary did not get on with her new step-mother, as by 1901 she was living away from home and her son was boarded out with a neighbouring family.

In 1905 when young James McNaughton was 10 years old, the family’s fortunes took a turn for the better.  Mary, then aged 30 and still listed as a domestic servant living at Shethin, married a 39 year old widowed farmer from Burnside, Tarves, named James Robertson.  The couple were married in Aberdeen, which again seems to show that Mary was estranged from her father.

Unfortunately the good times, if such they were, were short-lived.  Mary died in childbirth on the evening of 14th May 1908.

James McNaughton was twelve and a half at this time.  Whether he was allowed to remain in his stepfather’s home at Burnside of Auchedly is unknown.  When he reappears in the records six years later his address was Boghead, Esslemont and he had joined the Army and volunteered for foreign service. He was to die two years later, a few weeks short of his twenty-first birthday.

When he enlisted in the 5th Battalion Gordon Highlanders on or about 4th August 1914, several members of his extended family were already in the unit and appeared on the Roll of volunteers.

When James McNaughton died at the battle of Beaumont Hamel there were few if any close relatives to grieve for him.  After the War, when the officials of the Imperial War Graves Commission sent out forms to next of kin requesting personal details for their Books of Remembrance, they had either no name listed or received no reply in respect to James.  At least now, his history has in part been restored.

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Carolyn Morrisey