52 Ancestors #1 – It’s all his fault.

This entry is part [part not set] of 2 in the series 52 Ancestors

I’ve decided to join Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge this year so, to kick things off, I’m re-publishing an article I wrote back in 2009.  Since it’s about the man who triggered my interest in genealogy over 25 years ago I think it’s appropriate that he should be number one in the series…

I got interested in family history because of this man.

Robert Dunlop
Robert Dunlop

I never met him – he died in 1921 – but I’d always been aware of him because his portrait was propped against a wall in my parents’ bedroom and he was the only member of the family I’d ever seen who shared my red hair.  His name is Robert Dunlop, he was born in Ayrshire in 1848, the oldest of seven children born to a colliery engineman and his wife, and he was my great-grandfather.

In 1988 my mum received a letter from someone who had come across his papers in the National Museum of Scotland.  She had written an article about Robert and thought that his family might be interested in reading it before it was published.  My father had died two years before this and we knew very little about his side of the family, so that letter was the trigger that set me off.

Robert’s mother didn’t want him to follow family tradition and go down the mines so, when he was 14 she had him apprenticed as an iron moulder in Kilmarnock.  Five years later, in 1867, the iron master had the existing apprentices locked out and took on some new ones.  A disgruntled Robert persuaded the foundry clerk to show him his indentures and promptly burnt them.  He then ran away to the big city and a couple of months later his new foreman in Glasgow told him that “a lame man with a tall had and a policeman” were waiting to see him.  Robert jumped over the wall and fled.

He moved to Airdire and, on 1 March 1870, he married my great-grandmother, Ann Hunter.

Ann Hunter
Ann Hunter


Robert took up photography and fossil collecting, started going to chemistry evening classes and even won the Queen’s Prize for Scotland, later teaching evening classes himself.  By 1884 Robert had been appointed manager of the Stanrigg Oil Works in Airdrie.

Between 1872 and 1882 Robert and Ann had had nine children, including a set of twins, unfortunately only three of these children survived to adulthood.

In 1899, Robert was employed by the Pumpherston Oil Company – a forerunner of BP – to set up a new oil shale plant in New Zealand.  Some time round about then, this family photo was taken.

The Dunlop family about 1899
The Dunlop family about 1899 Robert and Ann (seated centre-left), daughter Elizabeth (left), sons David and Walter (right), Walter’s wife Janet and their three children – Robert, Agnes and Annie. The youngest child in this photo – Annie – was born on 31 January 1898.

Robert was to set up this oil shale plant in Orepuki, in New Zealand’s Southland and on 8 February 1899 the family left London aboard the SS Kaikoura for the 90-day trip to New Zealand.

From local accounts, the oil shale work seems to have had a huge impact on the area.  Robert obviously had faith in the new works as he bought 260 shares in the New Zealand Oil & Coal company which had been set up to finance the enterprise.

However the oil works was not a commercial success and in 1902 it closed suddenly with very little notice.  The official reason given for the closure was the government’s removal of the import duty on kerosene – locals blamed it on a conspiracy by the American oil companies.

Robert and his family returned to Scotland in 1903.

In 1911, when he was 63, Robert was appointed caretaker of the Pittencrief House Museum in Dunfermline.  He died on 21 April 1921 and his will shows that he had kept his shares in the New Zealand Oil & Coal Company until his death.

Robert Dunlop as an old man
Robert Dunlop as an old man

This is the last photo I have of Robert and we don’t know when it was taken.  If anyone knows anything about old scooters – I’d be grateful for your help.



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