Tag Archives: Spence

A Corunna Connection, a Cutlass, and a Centenarian’s Super-Stroll (52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks – 2024 Week 01: Family Lore)

“Grandad told me… we had an ancestor called Danny McIntyre who fought in the Battle of Corunna. Grandad used to show us his cutlass which had a curved blade and was quite rusty.”1

Family Stories

So went one of many family stories I heard from one of my mother’s cousins while sitting around her kitchen table on my first trip to Orkney. While it grabbed my attention then, I later confirmed the details of the tale with her via e-mail.

“Grandad” referred to here (also known as “The Major” or “Major Spence”) was my great-grandfather on my Spence line: William Still Spence, a major with the Royal Army Pay Corps. He was, by all accounts, highly respected and there seemed little reason to doubt the story, though it sounded perhaps slightly fanciful and we had nothing else to back it up, though I did recall encountering a Donald McIntyre in our family tree.

Further, the story goes that, at the tender age of a hundred, Danny McIntyre would walk over the Orcadian hills from Costa to Stromness (a distance of some 13 to 18 miles, depending on the route, one way), knocking the thistles out of his path with his stick as he went, in order to collect his pension!2

Confirming Corunna

I doubt anyone in the British forces would want to be associated with that ill-fated Corunna Campaign in the winter of 1808-1809, when, outnumbered by the troops Napoleon had been amassing, they seemed to spiral into disarray and suffered heavy losses. They apparently rallied, though, and fought courageously in the Battle of Corunna while preparing to retreat from Spain, winning a tactical victory, some may say. Regardless, I was now determined to discover whether there was any truth to the tale that a family member had fought in that battle, and so the search began.

Since, at this stage, only one McIntyre had featured in my research (my fourth great grandfather), I turned my focus to him. Census records were my first port of call as I knew his first wife (from whom my ancestors descend) was Mary Begg, and his second marriage was to Betty Hourston, so their presence on a census record with him would help confirm I was looking at the correct person. It turns out that he appears in every census from 1841 until his death, each time in the registration district of Evie and Rendall, Orkney. Interestingly, in the 1841 census, he is recorded as Daniel McIntyre, an Army pensioner, and appears with his first wife, Mary, as well as Mary, the youngest of his three daughters.3 The 1851, 1861, and 1871 censuses all record him as Donald McIntyre, with his second wife, Betsy, and indicates that he is a Chelsea Pensioner (until 1955, the Royal Hospital Chelsea administered the payment of pensions, hence the name).4, 5, 6 So he was, without doubt, a military man, but that still doesn’t prove he fought at Corunna.

Next, I decided to look for the birth records of Donald’s children. Thus far, I’ve only tracked down one – for Elizabeth, his eldest, who happens to be my direct line ancestor – yay! In this, an Old Parish Record for her birth and baptism on 28 May 1814 in Stromness, Orkney, Donald is listed as a Private Soldier in the 9th R.V. (Royal Veteran) Battalion.7 While this Battalion (formed in 1805) initially served at Edinburgh Castle, a company was later dispatched to Orkney, which is likely how Donald came to be there, since he wasn’t an Orcadian by birth.

Now, with evidence of at least one of the corps to which he belonged, I attempted to track down military records for Donald. This met with some initial success: what appears to be his “Statement of Service”. This, indeed, has Donald serving with the 9th Royal Veteran Battalion between 28 November 1811 and 24 September 1815, aligning with the other evidence unearthed thus far. Then, from 25 September 1815 to 03 July 1816, he served with the 3rd Royal Veteran Battalion, which was reformed from companies of the 6th and 9th Royal Veteran Battalions. Interestingly, before both of these, from 10 April 1807 to 27 November 1811, he is recorded as serving with the 71st Foot Regiment – a regiment which saw action at the Battle of Corunna! He was discharged on 03 July 1816 as being “unfit for further Service” as a consequence of a “Wound on the Hip Joint”,8 leaving the fanciful side of me wondering whether this might have been an injury he sustained in battle that hadn’t healed properly! Perhaps we’ll never know. However, we do now know that Donald McIntyre served with a regiment in Corunna at the time of the campaign there.

It was his death record, though, that provided the most convincing evidence. As reported by his grandson, John Wood, Donald McIntyre died from old age on 28 December 1876 in Evie, Orkney. It was, however, a note scrawled in the margin of the entry that confirmed the tale for me: “Fought at Corunna!”9

And the Cutlass?

Ah, yes – the cutlass. Well, it has been seen personally by relatives still living. As we already know, my mother’s cousin was shown Donald McIntyre’s cutlass by her grandad, Major Spence. My uncle, too, wrote to my Mum and I in 2017 saying, “But there is no doubt that swords existed. I remember ‘sword fights’ at Fountainhall Road. At least I remember an old cutlass and a more ‘swish’ modern sword with a sheath.”10

What we don’t know is how Donald came to be in possession of a cutlass. Was it issued to him? Did he purchase it? Sadly, this seems to have passed out of living memory. What has now also become a mystery is what happened to it. In the same e-mail confirming the story she had been told about Donald fighting at Corunna, my mother’s cousin said, “I don’t know what happened to the cutlass after Grandad died but Auntie Margaret might have got it.”11 Sure enough, my uncle is in possession of a letter dated 04 December 1971 and signed by late Auntie Margaret which reads as follows:

The following two swords are to be given to Morag (Mrs M B Spence) or to her son [NAME FOR PRIVATE USE].

1 old fighting sword of Donald McIntyre

1 ceremonial sword (Queen Victoria) with case

which belonged to my father Major W Spence12

Attached to the letter was a second page relating to two more borrowed swords:

Borrowed from Morag (Mrs M B Spence) the two swords as follows:

1 ceremonial sword (Edward VIII) with case

1 Nigerian sword with brass head

To be returned to Morag on request.13

Intriguing – now we’re not only looking for a rusty old cutlass from the 1800s, but at least three other swords, too! We have tried in vain to find out what became of them by contacting cousins, piecing together memories, stories, and letters, and yet they appear to have vanished without a trace. One theory is that they may have been sold at some point, but there is no indication that the letters recording provenance were updated or cancelled (perhaps just an oversight?), and so the mystery remains.

A Centenarian’s Super-Stroll

Is there truth to the tale that Donald McIntyre regularly covered the distance between Costa and Stromness at the age of a hundred to collect his pension? Well, the census records alone all agree he was a pensioner.14, 15, 16, 17 His death record states that he was 104 years old when he died, so it certainly seems he lived to be a centenarian.18 His home was in Evie, a couple of miles from Costa. All these facts support the story that this man, beyond the age most of us will live, made the 26 – 36 mile roundtrip on foot to collect his pension on a weekly or monthly basis.

While there is still much to learn about (and from) the life and times of Donald McIntyre, a.k.a. Dan/Danny/Daniel, it seems quite plausible and probable from the evidence gathered that he did indeed fight at Corunna. It also seems possible that he walked between Costa and Stromness to collect his pension at the age of one hundred. What is certain is that he left a legacy still remembered by his descendants and, for now, his fascinating story lives on. As for the cutlass and the other swords, perhaps they are still “living on” somewhere but, for now, they do so disconnected from their stories.

#AncestorChallenge2018 – Quarter 1 Roundup

Being a little behind the times (yes, as usual 🙄), we were already midway through January before I stumbled across the #AncestorChallenge2018 hashtag while meandering the Twitterverse.

Used with the kind permission of David Allen Lambert. Follow him on Twitter at @DLGenealogist or his blog, thepastfinder.wordpress.com.

The challenge resonated on many levels. Firstly, it’s true that memories and stories quickly begin to fade, unless they’re recorded. Secondly, a tweet is a whole lot more manageable than an entire blog post, right? That’s not to say that the challenge excludes blog posts – quite the contrary – but it doesn’t dictate the format or medium or length for the content of the tweet (or what it links to), and there’s a freedom in that. Thirdly, the challenge could just help move my research (and organisation of it) forward, baby steps at a time. And, by the end of it all, I’d have 52 ancestral tidbits “published”, in a manner of speaking – more than I would have otherwise. So I decided to take up the challenge.

To stick to it, though, I needed a plan and so I chose to pick an event from an ancestor’s life that fell during the week scheduled for each of my tweets (not that I’ve managed to tweet on the scheduled day every time, or even in the appropriate week, but, as “they” say, better late than never!)

However, it occurred to me that many friends and family members aren’t Tweeple and, furthermore, my #AncestorChallenge2018 tweets could end up sandwiched in a mini-melee of other, unrelated tweets, so I figured a quarterly roundup of them in a blog post was the way to go and, voilà, a new blog post (or four) was born 🙂

Week 1

Week 2

Week 3

Week 4

Week 5


Week 6


Week 7

Week 8

Week 9

Week 10

Week 11

Week 12


Week 13

And, so, there you have it: my #AncestorChallenge2018 tweets for January to March 2018. Until next quarter…