On Death and Dying

The title of this blog pays homage to (or should I say ‘waves at’?) the classic text by the psychologist, Elisabeth Kubler Ross, first published in 1969 and in print ever since, read by successive generations of students of psychology, nursing, medicine, and of course, social work. I first read the book in 1980 when I was a Master’s student at the University of Edinburgh. It is fair to say that this book, along with a very few others at the time, changed how I thought. I understood for the first time that death was, and should be, a part of life; that we needed to open up conversations about death and dying, not leave it to ‘experts’, or hide it away in medical institutions. Many years later, I had the privilege of working with Sally Paul, a PhD student, now Lecturer in Social Work at Strathclyde University. Her thesis, completed in 2015, described her action research project ‘Let’s Talk about Death and Dying’, in which she worked with children to develop tools for death education in primary schools in Scotland. Her work as a hospice social worker had taught her that children needed to be able to talk about the taboo subject of death. She argued that our wish to protect children from hurt would only cause them more lasting harm.

But I digress … (The wonderful thing about writing a blog rather than an academic paper is that you can wonder off the main subject and back again with impunity!)

One of the important messages from Kubler Ross’s book was that loss and bereavement are not one-off events, over and done with in a specific (and probably short) time period. Instead, she pointed to the various stages we go through, and often return to. Death and dying are, in many ways, lifelong processes. And it is this awareness that I now take to my emigration story. In the life of George Robertson Nicoll and his family, there are countless deaths and losses, some remarked on by George in his journal (The Life and Adventures of Mr George Robertson Nicoll), and some not. There is also physical evidence of some bereavements (in the form of gravestones, death notices and obituaries) but not others. And the times when deaths go unrecorded are, to the social historian, as interesting as the ostentatious displays of grief that adorn some of the various memento mori.

So to George Robertson Nicoll’s story. The first, and possibly most significant, death that he experienced was that of his mother in 1831, when he was just eight years of age. This loss devastated him, and changed the course of his life, as his father subsequently remarried and his place as ‘baby in the family’ was usurped by a new, much treasured child to father James and new wife Helen. Listen to how George describes this in his own words:

‘I was very ill about Mother’s death and did not know till afterwards the want of a Mother’s care. I was taken into the room where her dead body was laying stretched out on a broad deal board, her face wore a smile and her cheeks were as red as a rose, as when in life, next night I was called in the room to see her coffined, or as they called it then, chested, the coffin was laid on the floor, and then the body was placed in it. […] I was then eight years and three months old, too young to be left without a Mother, two days after she was buried in the Old Howff, Dundee, in her Mother’s grave, my Grandfather Robertson being twice married. It was a sad day when I saw the funeral leaving the house for I was kept at home, there was a large gathering, no hearses or mourning coaches in Dundee then, to my knowledge. The coffin was laid on two back wooden spokes and carried by eight of the mourners and friends of deceased and an officer, generally one of the sheriff’s men, dressed in a black cloak or gown, with a large black cocket hat, and a long black stick or rod walking slowly and solemnly in front, and the procession of friends following in the wake. […] After Mother was buried, there seemed to be a great want in our house. We missed her very much, as we had no one to advise and direct us.’

It is the detail that is so moving in this account – I am particularly touched by the description of ‘the black cocket hat’, and the fact that George was expected not only to see his mother’s body, but also to watch while her body was placed in the coffin. This seems very far removed from today’s Western expectations of rituals around death. George’s mother died of ‘consumption’, that is, pulmonary tuberculosis (TB). She was only 37 years old. TB was a major cause of death in Scotland in the 1800’s, particularly in the densely-populated parts of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee, where sanitation was non-existent and whole families lived in single rooms in a tenement building. This was not the case for Margaret. She and her family were living in Campbell’s Close, off the High Street in Dundee, in rooms that would have been considered of a decent standard for the time. And yet TB was not only a condition that affected the lower classes. On the contrary, the ‘great white plague’, as it was called, was epidemic in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries and caused millions of deaths (Frith, 2014). Margaret may have been exposed to infection in a number of places, including the many churches she was keen to frequent.

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to suggest that Margaret’s death must have played a part, albeit indirectly, in George’s later decision to emigrate to Australia. At the very least, her death reduced the ties he felt to family, Dundee and Scotland, making more possible the very idea of emigration. Unlike many migrants to Australia, George and Sarah were the first people in both their families to make the long journey to the other side of the world (Richards and Templeton, 1998). They did so as ‘assisted migrants’, paid for by the colonial government of New South Wales.

This was not, of course, the only death that impacted deeply on George. Over the course of the next 70 years, he lost his grandparents, parents, brothers and three more children, including his youngest son, David, who died (also of tuberculosis) in 1885 in Sydney at 18 years of age. Such a catalogue of loss might lead us to imagine that George would have been used to death by now; that death would have somehow become an acceptable part of life, as the historian Philippe Ariès (1974), has suggested. But nothing could be further from the truth, as the anguished inscription on David’s tombstone demonstrates:

My David is laid in his dark lonely bed

And the cold earth now covered his beautiful head

He is gone – gone for ever

No more will I see

The dear loving eyes that look’d kindly on me.

I asked for his life and continued to pray

To my father in heaven by night and by day.

My wish was not granted and we had to part

The pain and the agony sunk deep in my heart.

Oh sad was the parting

His last heaving sign

I kissed his pale lips

And he breathed his goodbye

My pitying saviour

For thine own name’s sake

Oh shelter, uphold me,

Or this heart will break.’

David’s death, far from being routine, was a tragedy for his parents, bringing to the surface other long-submerged losses. Soon afterwards, George’s wife, Sarah herself died in 1897, while George was back in Scotland visiting other family members. She had stuck with him through thick and thin, and by the time she died, she was living with their son Bruce Baird and his family in Sydney. George does not comment on her death in either his book or his journal. And this is what I would now like to consider in a little more detail – why are some deaths noteworthy and others not so? What might this tell us, is anything, either about the status of the person, or the relationship with the bereaved person?

Let us now consider this by comparing two very different presentations of death: George and Sarah’s eldest son, George Wallace, who was buried at Rookwood Cemetery in Sydney in 1906, and their last surviving son, John Baird, buried at the Field of Mars, Rhyde in 1938.

George Wallace’s grave is, as we might expect, a monument to a successful businessman, ship-owner, politician and generally upright citizen; John Baird’s in contrast, is an unmarked grave. At the time when he died, the Nicoll family fortune, in as far as his inheritance was concerned, had disappeared. How could this have happened in the space of just 30 years? Did none of the other family members who were still alive care enough to pay for a stone to mark John Baird’s passing?

So here we have it – the story of family members who prospered and perished, lived and died, supported each another and yet left one of their own to struggle. There are echoes too, of George Robertson Nicoll’s half-brother William, who died destitute and alone, in the Dundee poorhouse hospital in 1900.

Families. We cannot make any assumptions.

But to return to where we began – the impact of loss and bereavement. My preferred story is that George does not write about Sarah’s death in the end because he cannot bear to do so – she was, quite simply, the anchor that held him throughout his 50 years of travelling the globe, and without her, he was lost. Or have I read too many love stories over the years?

Viviene E. Cree

23rd July 2019


Primary Sources

Nicoll, GR. (1899) Fifty Years’ Travels in Australia, China, Japan, America Etc. London: self-published.

Nicoll, GR. (1890) The Life and Adventures of Mr George Robertson Nicoll, unpublished journal.



Ariès, P. (1974). Western attitudes towards death from the middle ages to the present. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Frith, J. (2014). ‘History of Tuberculosis. Part 1 – Phthisis, consumption and the White Plague’, Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health, 22(2) https://jmvh.org/article/history-of-tuberculosis-part-1-phthisis-consumption-and-the-white-plague/ Accessed 23 July 2019.

Kubler-Ross, E. (1969). On Death and Dying. New York: Macmillan.

Paul, S. (2015). Advancing education and support around death, dying and bereavement: hospices, schools and health promoting palliative care. Unpublished PhD thesis, Edinburgh: The University of Edinburgh.

Richards, E. and Templeton, J. (eds (1998). The Australian Immigrants in the 20th Century. Searching Neglected Sources, Canberra: The Australian national University.

A Document of Life? – exploring the memoirs of George Robertson Nicoll

This blog post has been a difficult one to write. I wanted to unpack the process of researching a family history, but I have become so immersed in the story of George Robertson Nicoll and his extended family that, for a time, I have been unable to work out what it is that I am actually doing. Am I writing historical sociology (as I had initially intended) or is this a work of fiction (novel, movie or serial)? Or is it both? What are the implications if this is so?

In a classic text on history, E.H. Carr (1961) reminds us that historians always have an angle; history is never neutral, it is always told for a purpose and from a particular point of view, so that one person’s account of an historical event or situation may be very different to that of another person. More recently, critical humanist researchers have argued that people are ‘active, competent interpreters and theorisers of their own lives’ (Stanley 2013: 5). Because of this, those telling a story do so in full knowledge that others will read what they have written. They choose what should be said and what should not be said, in doing so, present a version of themselves that they wish to share with others.

This is a helpful way into thinking about Fifty Years’ Travels in Australia, China, Japan, America Etc and its accompanying manuscript, The Life and Adventures of Mr George Robertson Nicoll. The author of these biographical memoirs, George Robertson Nicoll, is the hero of his own life story, which is a tale of action, adventure and derring-do; he is also a social commentator and chronicler of other cultures and societies, even though he is at pains to tell readers in the introduction to the manuscript that he is ‘not a scholar’.

Of course, George Robertson Nicoll is not the only active, generative voice in this project. This is equally true of me, self-appointed narrator/ interrogator of George’s memoirs. What I bring to this project is many years of studying history and sociology, as well as a life lived as a self-confessed feminist and socialist, mother, and most recently, social work academic. I inevitably see George’s story in a particular way, and the things that interest me most may not be the same as those that capture the imagination of others, family members and external readers alike.

But there is another complicating factor. This isn’t just any old historical memoir that I have come across and found fascinating. It is the journal of a distant relative of mine, my great great great great-uncle, and all the stories that he tells, and the people who came after him, have a real connection with me. This brings a whole extra dimension to the project, because this becomes not just a biographical study, but, in many ways, an autobiographical one too. What will I do if I come across a story that places a family member in a bad light? Will I be tempted to skip over this, or look for alternative explanations that I would not have done if George had not been, in a sense, part of ‘me’ and me of ‘him’? The need for reflexivity will be no less in this historical project than in any more conventional social science research project.

One example of something that currently perplexes me relates to Blog 2, in which I suggested that George’s last surviving son, John Baird Nicoll, probably died before he had been able to retrieve the manuscript from the National Library of Australia in Canberra, after he had tried (unsuccessfully) to sell it to the librarian. Further research (thanks to my very distant cousin John Macvean from the Gold Coast) proves that John Baird did collect the manuscript after all. His wife Gertude (Cassie) subsequently went on to sell it to the library following John Baird’s death in 1938 because she needed money to pay for doctor’s bills; what can only be described as a begging letter to the library demonstrates that this was indeed the case. But why were they so short of money at this time? We know that John Baird and Gertrude went on a cruise in 1901, presumably paid for with John Baird’s share of his father’s estate (his account of the trip is attached to the manuscript of George’s adventures). We also know that George was a wealthy man when he died in 1901. His elder sons, George Wallace and Bruce Baird, also died wealthy, as did his daughter Mary (they all died in their 50’s, in 1904 and 1906).  So was John the ‘black sheep’ of the family, the one person who had not inherited an aptitude for business and for making money? Or is there another explanation, one that is caught up in the relationships within the family, and which may emerge at some point over the course of this biographical/autobiographical journey? Time – and further investigation – may tell. Then again, it may not. This might become one of the very many questions that remain unanswered, even after the genealogical digging has ended, and the story has been put to rest.

This short scenario illustrates the way I hope to use this blog as an opportunity to practise the ‘uncomfortable reflexivity’ that Pillow (2003) urges on all researchers. It will be a place to ask questions, try out ideas and share vulnerabilities in a way that might be less possible within the confines of a more formal academic paper (Guerin et al., 2015). Through this process, I hope others may bring their own observations and inquiries, here or on my new Facebook site, and that this then may lead to more questions and more insights, and with luck, a deeper understanding of this personal, social and cultural journey.

Viviene E. Cree

24th June 2019


Carr, E.H. (1961). What is History? London: Pelican.

Guerin, C., Carter, S. and Aitchison, C. (2015) Blogging as a community of practice: lessons for academic development?  International Journal for Academic Development, 20(3): 212-223.

Pillow, W. (2003). ‘”Confession, catharsis, or cure?” Rethinking the uses of reflexivity as methodological power in qualitative research’, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 16(2): 175-196.

Plummer K. (2001). Documents of Life 2. An Invitation to a Critical Humanism. 2nd edition. London: Sage.

Stanley, L. (2013). Documents of Life Revisited Narrative and Biographical Methodology for a 21st Century Critical Humanism. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

Fifty Years’ Travels in Australia, China, Japan, America Etc.

This emigration project has been in my thoughts and dreams for more than 20 years. After my sisters and I cleared our family home in Dundee, Scotland, in 1997, following my parents’ deaths, my mother’s cousin asked me if we had come across a “little red book” written by one of our forebears about his travels around the world. I had never heard about this before, but set out to see what I could find, and I have been on the case ever since, most recently following retirement from the University of Edinburgh.

The book, Fifty Years’ Travels in Australia, China, Japan, America Etc. was written by George Robertson Nicoll and printed in 1899 in London by Hazell, Watson & Viney Ltd. In the Preface to the book, G.R. Nicoll writes:

‘At the request of numerous friends I have decided to print only a few copies of this book – a narrative dealing with fifty years of my life spent in Australia, and travels to other parts of the globe. The book has been written, and is intended, for private circulation only. It contains no exaggeration, but is simply a plain statement of the varied experiences I have met with.’

Fifty Years’ Travels

George Robertson Nicoll was a distant relative from my mother’s side of my family; his eldest brother James Robertson Nicoll was my great great great grandfather. George was born on 11 October 1824 in Dundee.  Like his father before him, he was a time-served block, mast and pumpmaker. He married Sarah, a power loom weaver in one of the city’s linen mills, on 17 August 1846.

The starting-point of George’s autobiographical narrative  is 17 March 1848, as he leaves London on the Royal Saxon, bound for Sydney. He tells us that the ship carried three hundred passengers; it stopped off at Plymouth to collect provisions before heading out to sea. From here on, we read about George’s experinces over the next 50 years. So we learn that he initially worked as a shipwright on boats at the docks in Sydney, but soon after, headed for the gold-fields in California and then later Australia, first north of Sydney and then north of Melbourne. He tried his luck at farming, then shipping, and latterly, house-building. There is brief mention of the presence of a wife and also of children being born, as well as stories of a trip back to Dundee in 1858 and subsequent return to Australia. By his early 60’s, George, now wealthy, began to travel the world, not as a migrant, but as a tourist. The remaining two-thirds of his book (almost 150 pages) is a tourist’s recollection of all the places that he visited in the period between 1887 and 1897, sometimes travelling with other family members, but often travelling alone.

Twenty-five copies were printed of Fifty Years Travels.  A copy given to my great grandmother (inscribed ‘to my niece Christian’) has disappeared; all I have is a photocopy of the title page, which was found in papers after my mother’s death. Three copies are held in libraries in Australia: at the National Library of Australia in Canberra, at the Mitchell Library in Sydney and at the University of Melbourne Library. The National Library of Scotland has a microfiche copy of the book, inscribed ‘to my niece Maggie’, and I paid for a photocopy of this for myself and my mother’s cousin in 1997. I read the script with amazement, and began the process (mainly online) of finding out more about this previously-unknown family story. I also tried, without success, to locate a copy of the book for myself. In tandem, the husband of my mum’s cousin spent many hours in local history archives in Dundee, as he set about the job of identifying the family tree.

I visited Australia twice in the years that followed. On my first trip, when I held the ‘little red book’ in my hands for the first time at the Mitchell library in Sydney, I felt nothing but admiration for this skilled craftsman who had had the self-assurance to write down his story for others to read. On my second visit, I travelled to Paddington in Sydney to see the houses that George had built; sadly, they no longer exist. I also looked up the Sydney phone book, finding many Nicolls to whom I might be related. I accessed the book again, this time at the University of Melbourne library, and took notes about gold digging and Mount Alexander. I then put the story to one side, for a time., as I told my family and friends, when this would become my ‘retirement project’.

I finally started again in earnest in early 2019. I re-read the little red book, and did another (unsuccessful) online search for copies that might have turned up for sale. While doing so, however, I was reminded that the National Library of Australia also has a copy of a manuscript, The Life and Adventures of Mr. George Robertson Nicoll. The library catalogue records that this as follows:

Manuscript of “The life and adventures of George Robertson Nicoll”, which was published as “Fifty years’ travels in Australia, China, Japan, America, etc. 1848-1898”. Also included is a 40 page journal of a cruise through the Pacific Islands in 1902 by J. B. Nicoll.

I had initially taken this description at face-value, thinking I would check it later on a visit to Australia. Then I wondered: what if it contained information about George’s early life that would be useful to me now? I therefore paid for a copy to be sent to me by email. When it arrived six weeks later, I found that, attached to the manuscript, was a copy of a letter, dated 16 June 1938 and written to Mr. J.B. Nicoll by the Mitchell librarian, Ada Leeson. In this letter, she acknowledges receipt of the manuscript and says that she has compared it with Fifty Years Travels, which was already in stock. She writes that because the one follows the other ‘pretty closely, there does not seem to be sufficient extra material in the manuscript to warrant my making you an offer for it’.

So this letter gave two new pieces of information. Firstly, we have the source of the suggestion, repeated in the library catalogue, that this was, in effect, a manuscript of the book, Fifty Tears Travels, with the addition of an extra tourist journal written later by J.B. Nicoll. But more intriguingly, there is evidence that George Robertson’s only surviving son (John Baird Nicoll) had tried to sell the manuscript to the library. The fact that it is still in the library today indicates that he was unable, on receipt of the letter of rejection, to go back to retrieve the manuscript. John died in August 1938, which presumably explains why the manuscript is still in the library’s possession today.

When it arrived, the manuscript, in contrast to the catalogue description, turned out to be a real treasure. Although much of the its 368 hand-written pages are indeed a slightly extended version of Fifty Tears Travels, the first 30 pages or so tell us about George Robertson’s early life in Dundee, answering many of my questions about his upbringing, schooling etc. It was therefore a real gift to my project, and an important reminder of not taking other people’s views for granted.

What we have in Fifty Years Travels, and in the manuscript, The Life and Adventures, is an amazing first-hand account of travel. Reviewing the book in the NLA News in July 2003, Judy Cannon applauds its vivid accounts, written at a time when only the ‘wealthy and leisured’ could travel. She reminds us that very few travellers reached China and Japan at this time, then known as ‘the Far East’. But the book and manuscript are much more than this. This is a ‘real life’ account of someone who lived through a time of major social, economic and personal change between 1824 when he was born and the end of the nineteenth century. George and Sarah epitomise the two pillars of Dundee in the 1840’s: shipbuilding and linen weaving. Their story is one of bravery and struggle, success and failure, achievement and disappointment. It is also a story of loss: loss of status, money, gold, and also cherished family members – parents, siblings and children.

The blogs that follow will focus on George’s autobiographical narrative, and place this, as far as is possible, in its economic, social and cultural context.  I will draw on the findings of my own research and also the research undertaken by the husband of my mother’s cousin, Neil Munro. I will also include new insights from Australian friends and relatives shared with me via the social messenging site Facebook. So… onward!

Viviene E. Cree


Cannon, Judy (2003). ‘For the love of travel. China and Japan through the eyes of a nineteenth century Scot’, NLA News, 3rd July, Volume XIII No. 10, available at: http://www.nla.gov.au/pib/nlanews/2003/jil03/article1.html First accessed 29/10/2004

Emigration: a personal, social and cultural journey

This website is devoted to understanding the experience of emigration through the story of one Scottish family.

Emigration is one of the world’s biggest challenges. Thousands of people are on the move, fleeing war, terror and ecological disasters. There are also thousands more who are looking for a better life: an education for their children, and an opportunity to advance financially and socially. The distinction between ‘economic migrants’ and ‘refugees and asylum seekers’ is made each day by immigration officials, and this differentiation can make the difference between life and death for some. But these labels are misleading, masking as they do the very real crossovers that exist between forced and unforced migrants, as this study of emigration to Australia will make clear.

Richards (1989) argues that migration to colonial Australia was ‘the longest and the most difficult mass migration in human history’. More than 1.6 million migrants came to Australia in the nineteenth century, a large number of whom were escaping urban and rural poverty in Scotland and Ireland; ‘their history’, Richards asserts, ‘has yet to be written’ (page 7).

This study takes as its starting-point the story of one such migrant, George Robertson Nicoll, a shipwright from Dundee, who travelled on an assisted passage to Sydney in 1848 with his wife Sarah Baird (a linen power loom weaver) and their infant son, George Wallace Nicoll. Over the next 50 years,  George (senior) kept a journal of what he called his ‘life and adventures’, and he also self-published a short book in 1899 with the wonderful title, Fifty Years Travels in Australia, China, Japan, America Etc. Through George’s first-hand account, we learn about the Californian gold-rush, about gold digging in New South Wales and Mount Alexander, about farming in Victoria, and about shipbuilding in Sydney. We also hear about family life, and about the births and deaths of children and close family members. And we discover, perhaps most significantly, that emigration was not a one-off experience. On the contrary, George kept his Dundee connections alive through visits ‘home’, in spite of the 90-day passage from Sydney to London.

What I have done so far is a close read of George Robertson Nicoll’s 368-page hand written journal and 224-page book. I have also researched more widely: primary sources (newspaper reports; genealogical sources; other histories) and secondary sources (academic research and fictional accounts in relation to emigration, Dundee history, Australia, shipbuilding and weaving etc.). I have visited places of interest in Scotland, including the archive and local history rooms in Dundee, and three former mills in Dundee and Perth. And I plan to visit Australia in the autumn to follow the Nicoll trail there. I have also set up a community of interest on the social networking website, Facebook, as a way of connecting with individuals and sources in Australia, and this has already generated contacts that were previously unknown to me.

And this is where I have to admit a personal interest in this story – George Robertson Nicoll’s eldest brother James is one of my forebears. I will set out the family tree in more detail in a subsequent post, but for now, it is fair to say that I feel a closeness to George, Sarah and all the Nicolls that followed not least because in uncovering their story, I begin to see my own in a new light.

The biggest challenge I now face is how to manage the huge amount of data that this amazing story will uncover; my intention is that this website will allow me to share as I go along, and so allow others to have an input into this developing project. So if you have information about the Nicoll family, or have carried out a similar project, please get in touch with me through Facebook or Twitter (@VivCree).

Viviene E. Cree

Reference: Richards, Eric (1989) ‘Annals of the Australian Immigrant’, in Richards, E., Reid, R. and Fitzpatrick, D. (eds) Visible Migrants. Neglected Sources for the History of Australian Immigration, Canberra: Department of History and Centre for Immigration and Multicultural Studies, Australian National University.