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Letter from Joseph Alexander Gilfillan (1907)

This letter from Joseph Alexander Gilfillan to A. Spencer Hogg dated November 6, 1907 was given to me by the Killough Patrick family of South Carolina. It is taken from the forward of a book published by Mr. Gilfillan shortly after the turn of the century—but we are not sure which book, or what the title may have been. Mr. Gilfillan lived in Minnesota, and published a number of books on American Indian tribes and his missionary efforts. The letter has been in the Patrick family possession for years. I have made a few explanatory notes in bold brackets where needed. (Carlton A. Gilfillan, Jr.)

A. Spencer Hogg, Esq.
Altrincham, near
Manchester, England

My Dear Nephew:

You request me to give you what information I have about the Gilfillan & related families, and I am pleased to find one who is not so occupied in the present as to forget the past, and therefore I gladly do so. We should not forget those who have lived, loved and struggled before us; even as we would not ourselves wish to be utterly forgotten. It is a pious duty we owe to them to rescue their names and lives from being utterly lost.

To begin with the Gilfillan branch:

In the preface to Robert Gilfillan’s poems occurs the following, which gives the origin of the Gilfillan family as far back as it can now be ascertained.

East Hermitage, Leith,
14th March, 1848

The few families of Gilfillan in Scotland almost all count kin, the history of the clan being as follows. Originally it belonged to the Island of Mull [on the western coast of Scotland], but during the feudal wars was overpowered by a more powerful clan, & completely extirpated. Two of the widows, however, by a coincidence, bore twin sons each, from whom we all are sprung. My great-grandfather rented a small farm in Stirlingshire. His only son, Robert, my grandfather, chose the sea life as a profession.

The book from which the above is taken has the following printed on the flyleaf:

Poems & Songs


Robert Gilfillan

Fourth Edition
Sutherland & Knox, George Street


Robert Gilfillan, the above poet, was born 7th July, 1798, and died 4th December, 1850, unmarried. Of his poems, the one "Oh, Why Left I My Hame?" is most admired. Dunfermline [a town 5 miles north of Edinburgh, Scotland] was his birthplace. He died in Leith, I think. But if Mull [on the western coast of Scotland] is the remote, Stirlingshire [12 miles northwest of Edinburgh on the River Forth] is the real, home of the family; the place where they first emerge into the light. By the bye, the name is Gillie Fillan, or "Servant of Feelan" as it is pronounced, said Fillan or Feelan being a local Highland saint, and the first "Gillie Fillan" must have had some office in relation to him, probably taking care of some holy well dedicated to the saint.

Sir Walter Scott, in "Waverly," describes one whom he calls "Gifted Gilfillan." That is a true description of the family. The Gilfillans are "gifted," but unbalanced. Those that I have known in the United States were very often so, as I believe they are also in Scotland and Ireland. My mother [Elizabeth McCutcheon Gilfillan] told me that, when first married, she went to visit the Gilfillans of Balinamoor [County Derry — now Londonderry — Northern Ireland]; a lady of whom told her that no illegitimate child, for instance, was ever laid at their door, but that whiskey was their bane, the only thing that could be charged to them.

Gilfillans are known to have owned or rented lands in St. Ninian’s Parish, midway between Stirling & Bannockburn [near Edinburgh, Scotland], for 320 or more years. There George, the most famous for his "Bards of the Bible," "Literary Portraits," etc., was born, and his brother James, author of "The Sabbath," a standard work. Thence also came James, late Chief Justice — the highest law officer — of the Supreme Court of the State of Minnesota, U.S., who was a most excellent judge, and whose decision in the Minnesota Bond Cases has been accepted the world over as the authoritative pronouncement on that subject, and as a "great" legal decision.

In the old town of Edinburgh there is a court called Gilfillan’s Court. About 100 years ago there was a very prominent lawyer there called Michael Gilfillan.

Our first ancestor of that name who came from Scotland was my great-grandfather. His Christian name is unknown [there is some evidence to think that it was Alexander Gilfillan]. His son, my grandfather Joseph, was born in 1757. How long before that his father came I do not know. I have heard my mother say he was a millwright. Joseph, my grandfather, was born in Ballinamoor, about four miles from Derry [now the city of Londonderry, Northern Ireland], on the Clady Road. Three or four families of Gilfillans lived there, farmers, all related.

Joseph married Miss Rebecca Cochrane, of Gorty Cross (or Gorticross) [southeast of Londonderry], and moved there, living on a piece of land, perhaps only about twenty acres, which he got through her. He was a most excellent man, an elder in the Second Presbyterian Church, Glendermott.

Strange to say, in 1905, in the house in which my mother was born, a Mr. Henderson, a retired merchant of Derry, told me that he remembered well Mr. (Joseph) Gilfillan; that he was an elder and took up the collection; that he was very tall, about six feet, etc. Considering that he died in 1838, this was remarkable. He was a very excellent man in every respect, and a very thrifty one. My mother told me he made & saved five thousand pounds from those few acres of land by farming. It was done mostly during the American War, 1776 to 1783, and the Napoleonic Wars, by the sale of hay to the Government, for which it paid enormous war prices, for the troops. This hay, mother said, was packed on horse’s backs from the meadow, Gorticross, into Derry, as the roads were very poor in those days for carts and wagons. In his latter years he was irascible (this was no blame to him); one moment he would be expatiating on the sufferings of our Saviour, the next a fit of anger would come upon him and he would be trembling with rage against some person whom he thought had misbehaved, and looking for a stick to use on them. Altogether he was a deeply religious and truly excellent man. He thought my mother (Elizabeth McCutcheon) was the best woman, as he expressed it, "in the ring o’ Ireland."

I now come to say a few words of the Cochrane family into which he intermarried. The Cochrane’s home was Lanarkshire, Scotland. One evening, in the troublous times about Episcopacy there, three brothers Cochrane jumped into an open boat to escape from the soldiers and at the great risk of their lives crossed the sea in the night, entering Lough Foyle [the large lake north of Londonderry which opens on the sea] . One brother landed at Carrowkell, and took land there. Another, our ancestor, came to Gorticross & got that townland for his portion from the authorities; the third somewhere else. In a list of settlers, taken in 1663, the name of John Cochrane appears in Gorticross.

Rebecca Cochrane was eminently pious and good, but she was sort of lightheaded, and did not have the good sense her sister, Miss Sally, who lived with them, had. For instance, she would go off visiting, for weeks or a month, to one friend or another: Moores of Molenan, or McCauslands of Lismacarrol, or Miss Levisons of Burt. Miss Sally had a far better understanding. She was quite stooped in her old days. My father, Alexander, was very kind to her, would always shake hands with her when he came down in the morning, and she called him "Alexander, sir." She was nearly eighty when she died. I have heard my mother say that, in the short winter mornings, she would take her Testament to the window, and she would not leave that window nor her reading till too dark to read.

One anecdote of her that I have heard is that, when a young woman, she saw all the other young women of her age getting married one by one, while she was left. This did not seem right to her, so she prayed over it, and finally determined, as many have done, to pray, and then open her Bible, and the first words that she saw would be her direction. She did so, and the first words she met on opening her Bible were these: "Thy Maker is thy husband." From that moment she resigned all thought of marriage, as not being the will of God for her. Another time, the men had all gone to "the moss" (the peat bog) to cut turf, leaving at two a.m., and their dinner was to be sent to them by the two sisters, Miss Sally & Mrs. Joseph. Dinner time came, but no dinner. They got very hungry and inpatient, and finally dispatched a man on horseback, post haste, to see what was the matter. He found the two sisters, with their arms round each other’s necks, dissolved in tears. They had got to reading the story of Joseph and his brethren, and the dinner was all forgot in their grief over his sorrows. Mrs. Rebecca died about six years before my mother went to Gorticross, say in 1825 [we do not know where she is buried — presumably in an unmarked grave near Gorticross].

Here, I may observe, that all history of any branch of the family before coming to Ireland has utterly perished. We neither know the localities from which they came, the time of their coming, what caused them to come, nor even their names. History tells us that the English and Scotch settlers began to come from 1606 to 1609, but many came between the years 1660 & 1688, the times of great trouble in Scotland, described by George Gilfillan in his "Heroes & Martyrs of the Scottish Covenant." It is plain that the Gilfillans came last of all, the father of Joseph having apparently come along before 1757 [there is evidence which shows that there were other Gilfillans (probably distantly related) in Northern Ireland in the 1600’s — a Robert Gilfillan married Mary Wark there in 1699].

In the list of English and Scotch settlers of the parish of Glendermott of the years 1663 and 1740, the name Gilfillan does not appear, another evidence of their late arrival [the name Gilfillan does appear in some nearby parishes, however].

(He then goes on for several pages about the McCutcheon [his mother’s maiden name] side of the family. — CG)

Having thus traced back the McCutcheon side of the house, so far as known, let me revert to Joseph Gilfillan & Rebecca Cochrane. Besides the above-named Rebecca and Sally Cochrane there were two other sisters, Jane and Mary, and a brother who went to America at a very early date, unmarried. The four sisters were great belles, and rode on horseback, and created quite a sensation when they went into "meeting" with their high beaver hats, which were the great thing in those days. There was a rhyme about them, current in my young days, which I well remember:

"Bouncing Bee and bonny Sally,
No’ forgetting Jean and Mally."

Joseph Gilfillan & Rebecca Cochrane had two daughters and two sons. The former were: Mary, married to Mr. Patrick, about whom my father, Alexander, used to talk a great deal and thought a great deal of. Mr. and Mrs. Patrick went to South Carolina [to Sharon, in York County, about 1817], where, my mother thought, they had a boot and shoe store. The other, Isabella, also married and with her husband went to Miramichi, Province of New Brunswick, Canada. After a few years she came back with two or three children with her, while my father was away, and before he was married, and stayed a year. Mr. Joseph Gilfillan gave her money & she took nearly everything there was in the house and went back to Miramichi. The two sons were Samuel and Alexander. Samuel was a prodigy of goodness and of cleverness in his studies. He went to Glasgow and studied for the ministry of the Presbyterian Church & died there of consumption, and is buried there in an unknown grave. But it was many, many years before the old women got done with talking of the goodness of Samuel.

Alexander, the remaining son, was not intended for a profession, but he was worked so hard by his father on the farm that he thought he could not possibly be worse off in any other lot, so he began to study for a doctor. The first step towards this was to study Latin, to do which he went to a teacher at Carn, perhaps a mile and a half on the top of the hill directly opposite Gorticross. The Faughan River lay between, and crossing it the first time of going, dry shod, he looked on it as a good omen. I need not give his subsequent career. He sailed with Sir John Franklin, in the Trent, as surgeon, for the North Pole, in 1819, I think, as related in "Barrow’s Arctic Voyages of Discovery." There was one most frightful storm up there, from which none of them expected to emerge alive. He lost an eye in the Arctic regions from the glare of the sun on the snow and icebergs. Afterwards he was for many years at the Naval Hospital at Kingston, Jamaica, and brought from there the wood for his coffin, which after lying in the grave for 61 years, appeared again when the grave was opened for my mother. He was at first a strict temperance man, and the other officers used to ridicule him for his abstemious habits. It were well for him had he continued so.

Sitting at the opposite of the fire from his father (Joseph Gilfillan), when in liquor, he often told him that the same horse would carry them both to the grave at once, which singularly enough turned out to be true [they both died on the same day, only hours apart, March 27, 1838, and were buried in the same grave at Enagh Burying Ground north of Londonderry]. "Old man," he would say, "that old white horse will carry you along with me to the grave at the same time."

The family name of the Gilfillan’s is Alexander. Every Gilfillan family has an Alexander first of all. Robert & Joseph are the family names of the McCutcheons. After the American war, several families of Gilfillans settled in New Hampshire, Vermont, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and in other parts of the U.S. especially in Charleston, South Carolina.

James Gilfillan was, about 1884, Treasurer of the United States, and his signature was on every banknote in circulation. Gilfillan is a rare and unusual name in the United States. A John B. Gilfillan from Scotland, lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, an ex-member of Congress. James Gilfillan was Supreme Judge in Minnesota. I think a Gilfillan was one of the first finders of oil in the oil regions of Pennsylvania. They have had rather more than their share of eminent men in the U.S., but none of national or world-wide reputation.

One was a soldier in the rebel army at Charleston, U.S.A. [John McCully Gilfillan and his brother Robert both served in the Civil War] Two very old maiden ladies lived and died there, members of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, the old original Church of Charleston. I have not been able to place them exactly. Another, a Mrs. McMillan, a Derry Gilfillan, was living a few years ago, at Greeleyville, South Carolina, at the age of 78. In Charleston, South Carolina, the following persons were buried:

6th May, 1842, Alexander Gilfillan,
in St. Michael’s Churchyard.
23rd February, 1843, William Lindsey Gilfillan,
in St. Michael’s Churchyard.
16th May, 1868, William J. Gilfillan,
aged 36 years, 3 months.
28th May, 1869, Alexander Gilfillan,
aged 28 years, in St. Michael’s Churchyard.

[Then he talks about the Riddle family — CG]

In Enagh burying ground [north of the city of Londonderry] is a stone with the following inscription:


Here lie
The remains
Alexander Gilfillan
Surgeon R.N.
who departed this life
at Gorty Cross
27th March 1838 aged 45 years.
He had been surgeon in H.M. Ship
Trent in Sir John Franklin’s
First Arctic Expedition.
Also the remains of his father
Joseph Gilfillan of Gorty Cross
who died on the same day
27th March 1838 aged 81 years.
Also his son Joseph
who died in January 1836
aged 3 years and 4 months.
Also of Eliza, wife of
Alexander Gilfillan
who died at Bowdon Cheshire
February 21st 1897 aged 88 years.

All of the branches of the family have been mostly farmer folk, middle class, neither poor nor very rich, but comfortably off. No member ever committed any offence against the law. I am aware that the above details are uninteresting, that there was nothing very startling or sensational about any of them, that these are "the short and simple annals of the poor." None of them attained to any great distinction. "Along the cool sequestered vale of life, they kept the noiseless tenor of their way." They are now nearly all lying in two churchyards, Old Glendermott and Enagh. Peace be to their ashes!

While in life they nearly all attended the Second Presbyterian Church of Glendermott, were married there, and many of them christened there, and by the ministers of that Church they were laid to rest.

In the 1870’s or 1880’s, Rev. George Gilfillan, of Dundee (Scotland), was the guest of Mr. Adam Hogg, and lectured in Derry. All who remembered Alexander Gilfillan were struck by the very strong resemblance between him and George. Another illustration of how the family likeness persists, in distant countries, and across oceans, even the manner of tying the necktie was the same.

The Carnegie’s must at some very remote time have been intimately associated with the Gilfillans, for their coat of arms, crest and motto, "Armis et animus," are the same and I believe their tartan also.

Not only the McCutcheons, but, I believe, all the other ancestors, except the Gilfillans, were in the siege of Derry, for Miss Margaret Cochrane, my cousin, told me that when the Cochranes had to flee into Derry for refuge before the siege, they put all their silver plate, etc., in a bag and sunk it in a deep pool on their farm about a quarter of a mile in front of my mother’s house in a spot that I know very well, in the bosom of a hill fronting Gorticross House named Tinley. After the siege was over and they returned to their homes they fished it out. The Gilfillans arrived in Ireland subsequent to the siege, I believe.

A characteristic of the Gilfillans is that they are irascible. Joseph (Gilfillan) was so, his son Alexander was so, his son William was so, and I feel that I am so myself, though I keep it under control, I hope.

It will be observed every ancestor mentioned above ... has a Scotch name. There was a small proportion of English settlers among the arrivals from 1606 onwards, but not one of them intermarried in our line. The difference of religion accounts for this.

In Ireland and Scotland, the Gilfillans and all branches of the family are Presbyterians, but in this country, so far as I have been able to observe, many Gilfillans join the Episcopal Church. Witness the two old maiden ladies in Charleston, South Carolina, members of St. Michael’s Church, also the other Gilfillans buried in that churchyard, and Judge James Gilfillan, of St. Paul, and all his family were ardent churchpeople. As an instance of the "unbalanced" Gilfillans, I find two men of that name in the list of the Roman Catholic clergy of the U.S.

George Gilfillan is the great literary genius, and the large "George Gilfillan Memorial Hall" is built in Dundee (Scotland) to his memory.

I am informed that the typical Gilfillans have red cheeks and dark or black hair, a survival of the Highlands, and that the little boy Joseph [this was his deceased younger brother who had the same name] who was scalded to death [at age three] was such a typical Gilfillan. They are also large, sturdy men, nearly or quite six feet tall, gifted, but unbalanced, describes them.

It is just possible that their coming to Ireland about 1745, later than any of the others, may be accounted for by their having been "out" with "Bonnie Prince Charlie," in 1715 or 1745, and that they thought well to put seas between them and the scene of their participating in what the Government would have punished as rebellion. Theirs having been originally a Highland clan & not Lowland Saxon (Scotch), adds color to this.

1328 Twelfth Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C.
6th November, 1907