The Wilkie’s of Errol

Chapter Fifteen: 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.

Lady Menzies Place, Edinburgh where Esther Ann Wilkie was bornFigure 1: Lady Menzies Place, Edinburgh where Esther Ann Wilkie was born

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 entire 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.

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

Perth Station in the time of James WilkieFigure 2: Perth Station in the time of James Wilkie

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

Esther was nine years old when her beloved sister Susan Ann lost her life. Like Robert she had been ravaged by pulmonary tuberculosis, and as if in a 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 ever so vulnerable. The sadness is even more telling through the words of her sister Esther written on the back of the photograph….”Susan the lady of the family”.

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.

Susan Ann Wilkie died 1879

Figure 3: Susan Ann Wilkie died 1879

The poor Wilkies they did not have to seek their troubles. More heartache was to come with the death of Agnes in 1894, just two years short of her thirtieth birthday. Esther had been very close to Agnes, with there only being a couple of years of age between them, and she was clearly devastated by her death. Agnes had also battled pulmonary tuberculosis and was lost to its gruesome resolve like her four siblings before her. When Esther was later to marry and have children, she was to name her first child after her dear sister Agnes.

James Wilkie died 1885

Figure 4: James Wilkie died 1885

The weathered and moss encrusted tomb in Errol, has a carved inscription, with a most touching epitaph to the lost Wilkie children……

‘A few short years of evil past we reach the happy shore
where death divided friends at last shall meet to part no more’

Sure Proof
I can no more describe you
than I can put a thing for the first time
where it already is.

If I could make a ladder of light
or comb the hair of a dream girl with a real comb
or pour a table into a jug . . .

I’m not good at impossible things.
And that is why I’m sure
I will love you for my ever.

Norman MacCaig