The 1821 Census

The 1821 Census of South Ronaldsay

New light has been shed on the history of the 1821 census document following Eric Annal’s visit to South Ronaldsay in July 2004

At the time of the 1821 census, Peter Nicholson McLaren, was the Parochial Schoolmaster of South Ronaldsay, Orkney’s southernmost island parish. As the enumerator, it was his responsibility to make an accurate count of the number of people living in South Ronaldsay, Burray, Swona and the Pentland Skerries on the night of 28 May 1821 – just as hundreds of enumerators the length and breadth of Great Britain were doing for their own districts.

This was the third decennial census to have been taken in the United Kingdom, following those in 1801 and 1811. Each successive census asked more detailed questions as the government sought to gather information about the UK’s growing population but there was no requirement to list the names of the inhabitants in this census and there wouldn’t be for another twenty years.

However, for one reason or another, a number of conscientious enumerators decided to make full lists of the names, ages and occupations of the people living in their districts and we are fortunate not only that South Ronaldsay’s schoolmaster was one of these, but also that the fruits of his labours have survived to the present day.

The story of this census is a fascinating one, and discoveries made in the summer of 2004 have shed a whole new light on its history.

I first saw the document in the early 1980s when I visited Orkney and met my cousin Sandy (Alexander Taylor Annal). I say “cousin” but it is a distant relationship, our common ancestor William Annal having been born around 1750. I only got a fleeting glance at the document on that visit but Sandy was kind enough to supply me with a photocopy of the whole census which I then spent hours poring over, transcribing and indexing after returning to England.

Although I consulted the census frequently over the next twenty years and found much useful information in it about my South Ronaldsay ancestors, I didn’t really give a great deal of thought to the origins of the document itself, or to the story of how it had survived for over a hundred and sixty years and now came to be in Sandy’s possession.

Then, a few years ago, thanks to the miracle that is the World Wide Web, I made contact with Lisa Conrad in Seattle, USA. Lisa has a number of South Ronaldsay ancestors and was then in the process of developing her website on South Ronaldsay and Burray Civil Death Registers. Lisa mentioned that she was also working on a much bigger project, researching everyone who was living on the island at the time of the 1821 census. She was planning to make the information freely available on her website, providing an invaluable tool for anyone with South Ronaldsay ancestry. Out of this project came the idea of digitising my photocopy of the census and creating a searchable online database.

Scanning the pages and emailing the images to Lisa in Seattle was quite straightforward and although the same can’t quite be said for the monumental task of transcribing and indexing the names, ages and occupations and creating the necessary webpages, Lisa was able to launch the website in June 2004.

There was now just one problem to overcome. My photocopy of the census had one page missing and since my dad (Eric Annal) was due to visit Orkney in July and would be paying a visit to Sandy I asked if he could somehow get me a copy of the missing page. One evening, a few days after my dad’s arrival in Kirkwall, I got a phone call to say that his mission had been accomplished – not only had he been able to get a good photocopy of the page but Sandy had actually allowed him to borrow the document. And this was where the story of the 1821 census of South Ronaldsay took an unexpected twist.

As far as I am aware, my dad was the first person for years, probably decades, to have been given unrestricted access to the document. And it was this freedom to peruse the volume at leisure that enabled him to consider it in a critical light. I had known from my own photocopy that the original was written on what appeared to be an accountant’s ledger. Indeed, the first three pages of my copy consisted of accounts dating from the 1860’s and 1870’s and Sandy had annotated it with the words, “This cover page is a shop keeper’s credit notes (using spare pages in our census book).”

As my dad looked closer at the document he began to develop a theory that the census had in fact been written onto spare pages in the shop keeper’s book and not the other way round. He also noticed that the handwriting on the accounts pages and the census pages appeared to be identical! He then came across a note on the ‘History of the Manuscript’ written by Sandy at the end of the census, which reads as follows:

This copy of the 1821 census was in the Post Office at Quoys shop kept by Mr Thomson from 1821 until 1923[1] when William Thomson his Grandson[2] died app age 57 leaving his widow and one daughter. Alex T Annal of Stensigarth retrieved this book from a bonfire – it is the only record of its kind in existence. Signed by his son – Alexander Taylor Annal – 1997 at the age of 90 years.

This was clearly something that required further research; who was Mr Thomson and how did the census come to be in the possession of a shop keeper?

A few days later my dad was in St Margaret’s Hope talking to a local historian, George Esson when George showed him a copy of ‘Church Life in South Ronaldshay and Burray’ by Rev. J B Craven[3]. As he looked at the dedication in the book, the following words jumped out at him;


So, was this our Mr Thomson? If so, he was obviously a bit more than just a shopkeeper.

Research into various South Ronaldsay sources provided some basic information about this James Thomson. He was born at Quoys in the South Parish of South Ronaldsay, the son of Donald Thomson, a farmer, and his wife Ann (née Gray) who were married in South Ronaldsay on 22 February 1809. James was baptised on 10 October 1819 and is found in the census returns for 1821 aged 1.

Later censuses provided the following details about James Thomson:


1841 Quoys 20* Shopkeeper * ages were rounded down to the nearest 5
1851 Quoys 31 Merchant
1861 Quoys No.3 41 Grocer
1871 West Quoys 51 Merchant
1881 Quoys 61 Merchant
1891 Quoys 71 General Merchant

This is clear evidence that James Thomson was working as a merchant/shop keeper at the time the accounts in the ‘census book’ were written. Sandy’s story places the document in the possession of this family. The logical conclusion must therefore be that the account book belonged to James. The evidence of the handwriting suggests that James was also the ‘author’ of the census returns themselves – not that he compiled the original data (he was, after all, some five months short of his second birthday at the time!) but rather that at some time, probably in the 1880’s, he copied the details of the census from a document which probably no longer exists into his old account book.

Before we move on to look at why James Thomson might have done such a thing there are a few more important pieces of evidence to consider. We know that the original enumeration was carried out by the schoolmaster, Peter Nicholson McLaren. As we have already seen, the government did not require official returns of names, ages and occupations so there were no pre-printed forms available for McLaren to enter all the details on. He evidently decided that he wanted to record these details and as a schoolmaster he would presumably have had access to a large selection of notebooks – so why would he choose to use a shop keeper’s account book? Most important of all why would he start writing some distance into the book – the first census page is numbered 23! It’s clear to me that what we’re dealing with is not the 1821 original but a transcription in a shop keeper’s account book which was no longer required for its original purpose and that the handwriting is that of Thomson and not McLaren.

Further research revealed that James Thomson died on 21 October 1900 leaving a substantial will[4]. However, the most crucial discovery was that of a letter written by Thomson to John Gray of Roeberry on 20 May 1870[5]. I am enormously grateful for the assistance of Sarah Jane Grieve and Alison Fraser of the Orkney Library and Archive who were able to uncover this vital document as well as offering my dad support and advice. The letter, which is signed by James Thomson of Quoys confirmed two things; first of all that James Thomson had an interest in the people and history of South Ronaldsay and secondly that the handwriting in the 1821 census was undoubtedly Thomson’s. A comparison of the two documents leaves little room for doubt on this matter.

Letter from James Thomson of Quoys to John Gray of Roeberry, 20 May 1870. Orkney Archives ref: D33/1/22/29
Detail from the 1821 census of South Ronaldsay, showing the Gray family of Roeberry

The final proof that we were on to something significant was the discovery of a lengthy obituary in The Orcadian, covering nearly two whole columns of the broadsheet newspaper[6]. The obituary concentrates on James’s spiritual life and in particular, his involvement with the Free Church in South Ronaldsay which was clearly a very significant part of his life. The ‘obituary’ is in fact a transcript of the sermon preached by the Reverend Alex Goodfellow, minister of the United Free Church in South Ronaldsay, at James Thomson’s funeral service. In it he stated that;

He has been with us from the beginning – since the Free Church was started in 1870. And but for him there might have been no Free Church in this island. He undoubtedly was the main mover…

In ‘The Soul of an Orkney Parish’ there is a short section about the Free Church which includes the following paragraph:

In the official records of the Free Church, reference is made to Mr. James Thomson of Quoys, who assisted the Church early in his life, and continued to collect for its Sustentation Fund until he was well into his eightieth year[7].

Interesting as this may be, it didn’t give us any further clues about Thomson’s possible involvement with the census. However, the ‘obituary’ also provides a fascinating insight into areas of his life which are of more concern to us here;

Let me tell you something more about the life and history of this remarkable and memorable man of God, for undoubtedly he was “above many” if not above all in this island. He has not left his life behind him. His figure and personality were outstanding, for in bodily presence he was neither weak nor contemptible, while his mind was active and vigorous, and his memory was prodigious. His general knowledge was very great, for from his youth up, he was a devourer of books and papers, and all kinds of information. Many, after meeting with him, have declared that he was a “walking encyclopaedia.” All who wished to know about the antiquities of these islands, about the ministers of past and present generations, about the old family histories, and curious stories of bye-gone days, would apply to Mr Thomson. A self-taught man, and one who did not seek after great things, for he was contented to stand behind the counter and to be familiarly known as “the merchant.” He has not written a book, but he has spoken volumes. His shop for long was like a public reading room, and then he was in his element, pouring forth all the news of the political, religious and social world.

Now this was more like it! Surely ‘the merchant’ is a very likely character to have been responsible for transcribing the 1821 census and surely this is as close to absolute proof as we will ever get that Sandy Annal is the proud owner of a document written by James Thomson of Quoys in the 1880’s and not the 1821 original.

I am personally convinced that this is the case. It does nothing to devalue the document in any way. If anything it makes it more interesting, giving it a human touch which is normally lacking in documents like this. Nor is there any reason to believe that it is anything other than an accurate transcript of the original – and remember that this has probably long since disappeared. Without the efforts of James Thomson, his son William Alexander Thomson and two generations of the Annal family, the information would have been lost forever and those of us with an interest in the history of South Ronaldsay would have been robbed of one the most important documents the island has ever produced.

© David Annal, 3 October 2004 – updated, 15 July 2007 & 12 November 2017

Note: following Sandy Annal’s death in January 2007, this copy of the 1821 Census of South Ronaldsay was deposited in the Orkney Archives “on permanent loan, in Memory of Sandy Annal and on condition that the manuscript remains in Orkney.”


[1] William Thomson died on 19 May 1922 (Death Certificate of William Alexander Thomson, GRO-Scotland Ref. 1922, South Ronaldsay 29/21)
[2] William was the son of James Thomson not his grandson (Birth Certificate of William Alexander Thomson, GRO-Scotland, Ref. 1863, South Ronaldsay 29/30)
[3] Church Life in South Ronaldshay and Burray by Rev J B Craven, D.D. (Kirkwall, 1911)
[4] Testament of James Thomson of Quoys, Kirkwall 29 December 1900. Orkney Archives ref. SC11/38/16
[5] Letter from James Thomson of Quoys to John Gray of Roeberry (20 May 1870). Orkney Library and Archive ref. D33/1/22/29
[6] The Orcadian, Saturday November 3 1900, p.5 columns 4 & 5
[7] The Soul of an Orkney Parish by Stuart D B Picken (Kirkwall, 1972), p.102

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