Death divided friends

Chapter Fifteen of ‘This is Not yesterday’


Death divided friends – The Wilkies of Errol
At 43 Lady Menzies Place, near to the volcanic crags of Edinburgh’s Old Town, Esther Ann Wilkie was born. She arrived into this world at 8.20pm on the last Thursday of September 1870. Esther was my father’s Granny.

Esther was born into a large family and had a balance of siblings: five brothers and five sisters. Her parents, James Wilkie and Ann McIntosh, both hailed from the banks of the Tay, in the hamlet of Errol, just east of Perth.

All of Esther’s older brothers and sisters were born in Perth; in-fact Esther was the first of the family to be born in Edinburgh just after the family flitted there in 1869. Esther’s father, James Wilkie (1828-1893), worked for the Caledonian Railway where he served as a passenger inspector. It may be that James moved to Edinburgh to improve his job prospects with the Caledonian Railway. However the tragic Wilkie family was to suffer deeply from endemic illness which may offer more morbid reasons for their relocation from Perth to Edinburgh.


Figure 1: Esther Wilkie pushing her grandson Stuart (my father) in the pram

The story of Esther’s elder siblings is dreadfully heartbreaking. They were to be victims of tuberculosis at a time when there was no effective cure.

Little John Alexander, aged just three years, was the first to succumb, dying on Christmas Eve 1871. Just three years later Robert Mackintosh, the second oldest child, died of pulmonary tuberculosis. He had just celebrated his eighteenth Birthday, and his father was called for a second time to register the death of a child.

Esther was nine years old when her beloved sister Susan Ann lost her life. Like Robert her lungs had been ravaged by tuberculosis, and as if in a dreadful sororal mirror she had also just turned eighteen. A photograph of Susan survives, taken just before her death. In it she appears pale, graceful and vulnerable. The sadness tells through the words of her sister Esther who had written on the back of the photograph….”Susan the lady of the family”.


Figure 2: Susan Wilkie died a few weeks after this photograph aged 18 years

James, who was the eldest child, and worked as a telegraph Clerk in Edinburgh, died in early August 1885. He had endured a seven month battle against the rigours of the deadly disease. He was nursed by his parents and wife. His insurance policy, honoured on his death, was to be entirely consumed by the debts for medical & nursing care, and by the cost of transporting his body by train to Errol, for internment in the family grave.


Figure 3: James Wilkie died August 1885 aged 29 years

The poor Wilkies they did not have to seek their troubles. Further heartache came with the death of Agnes in 1894, just two years short of her thirtieth birthday. Esther (my father’s Granny) had been very close to her sister Agnes, especially as there only being a couple of years of age between them, and she was devastated by her death. Agnes had also battled in wheezing, breathless gasps, pulmonary tuberculosis. When Esther was later to marry and have children, she was to name her first child after her dear sister Agnes.

Tuberculosis, before science brought cure, had no mercy and most unspeakably it had not finished with Esther’s siblings. David Ritchie Wilkie succumbed to the bacterium in April 1893 he was 21 years of age. Not much more than a year before he himself had lost his infant son to this Nebuchadnezzar.


Figure 4: The Wilkie tombstone greets you to the churchyard

At the entrance to Errol churchyard, and the first to greet the visitor, is the tombstone to the Wilkie family. I have visited myself many decades after any family. I laid flowers for this my forgotten family and in the name of science. With my interest in the medical humanities sometimes others have seemed confused as to what matters to me. I have no such confusion. As an atheist it is written for me on the Wilkie tombstone: ‘death divided friends.’ 


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