Posted by: pirliebraes | April 15, 2013

George Barnett’s Travels Part 2


A journey to an ‘American Dream’ and back again  (CONTINUED)

At some point in time (before 1923), the ‘American Dream’ started to unravel for George, Maggie and Frances.  Working with leather, in his shoe shop, caused George’s health to deteriorate and he became ill.  The dust caused problems with his respiratory system – he got double pneumonia and pleurisy.  The dust inflamed and damaged his lungs – it is said that one lung even collapsed.   For the sake of his health, George could not cope with working with leather any more.

A doctor told George that he must give up this type of work and move elsewhere – to breathe clean air.   Looking to the future, with no means to support himself and his family in Seattle, George made the decision to return to Orkney.   For Frances, the move was a great adventure but Maggie knew the realities of the two contrasting lives. Frances would talk about hearing her mother crying at the thought of leaving Seattle behind.  It is not known whether George rented or owned their Queen Anne Hill home but he did own his Galer Street Shoe Shop and this was sold to a Japanese gentleman. (7) 

George never took the final step towards U.S. Nationalisation.  When he and Maggie docked at Ellis Island (after they married in 1910), George was noted as a U.S. Citizen (as was Maggie, through marriage) but this was only because he had made the initial step of ‘Intention’.  Research has proved that he never followed through and, as such, it would have been an easy manoeuvre to return to Orkney because he was still British.

Bearing in mind that ‘The City of Seattle’ issued the Barnetts with a copy of Frances’ birth certificate on 31st July 1923, the Barnett family probably began their journey from Seattle to Quebec at the beginning of August.  They travelled by train and it is highly likely that their route to Quebec was north out of Seattle to Vancouver, Canada and then east on a ‘Canadian Pacific Railway’ train to Toronto (perhaps via Winnipeg) – with the final stretch going north-east to the Port of Quebec City and the St. Lawrence River.

Frances thought this rail journey took about a week to do.  Frances was nearly 13 years old at the time and the only one of the family to be officially ‘American’, by birth.

On 17th August 1923, the Barnetts arrived at the port of Liverpool on the ship called the ‘SS Montlaurier’ (Canadian Pacific Steamship Line – the ship was once called ‘SS Prinz Friedrich Wilhelm’).  Perhaps the family had purchased train/ship package tickets? They had travelled as Third Class passengers – the “Proposed address in the United Kingdom” was given as “c/o Post Office, Stromness, Orkney”.  The crossing would have taken about eight days so the ship may have left Quebec around the 10th August.

Frances remembered arriving in Liverpool late at night and the family had no over-night accommodation.  George asked a policeman, who recommended a small boarding house nearby.  In the morning, as the family was leaving, the landlady held Frances back … saying that she had something to give her.   She disappeared and returned carrying a Scottish ‘Tam o’Shanter’ hat.  Frances was fascinated by it because she had never seen anything like it before.

The Barnetts then made their way to Aberdeen, where they boarded a boat to Orkney.  The weather was so terrible that Frances recalled that the family had to stay in Kirkwall for three weeks, before they were able to take a boat across Scapa Flow to the island of Flotta. (8)  George had taken a year’s lease on the Flotta croft called ‘Gowan’ – the owners had left Flotta to go to live in Kirkwall.   Whilst renting ‘Gowan’, George purchased a croft called ‘Newhouse’ (also spelt ‘New House’). (9)  A lot of work and re-decoration had to be done on ‘Newhouse’ before the family could move in.

Newhouse on the left

Newhouse on the left, Hillside in the middle and the Smiddy’s stable on the right

So there they were, George and Maggie, back on Flotta soil.   Daughter Frances had arrived in a world like none she had ever known before.  There was no electricity or gas; no running water; or central heating, etc, etc … a world away from Seattle.  Here, on the island, the family had to be more or less self-sufficient.  Land had to be cultivated and peat had to be cut at the peat diggings, to use as fuel for cooking and heating.


George Barnett back in Flotta, at Newhouse c 1947

George had to go to sea in his small boat … to fish and tend lobster pots.   George’s boat was called ‘Stella Maris’ (Latin for ‘Star of the Sea’) – he kept it at the water’s edge, below ‘Newhouse’.  Would he have also used his boat to get to the Orkney Mainland?

Grandson Malcolm Johnson, who only ever visited Flotta twice before George died, remembers a story from one visit – of being a three year old and emphatically saying “no” when Grandfather George asked Malcolm if he wanted to go in the boat with him.

Malcolm Johnson visiting Newhouse

Malcolm Johnson visiting Newhouse

If Malcolm could turn the clock back and say “yes” to the boat trip, he would!    In his 66th year, there is a record of George taking part in a Flotta Regatta – in September 1937.  George came 2nd in both the ‘Sprit Sails Class’ and the ‘All-Comers Class’. (10)  Malcolm also remembers him and his family being picked up from Flotta harbour in someone’s van – Grandfather George leaned on the back doors and fell out backwards onto the rough lane, as they travelled up to ‘Newhouse’.

Flottarian Tom Sutherland, whose mother was Flora Barnett (daughter of Daniel Barnett; wife of John Sutherland, of ‘Standing Stones’/‘Standstane’/’Standing Stanes’; and niece of George MacKay Barnett), recalls the following memories:- George was a great gardener, growing all his own vegetables etc (son-in-law Felix Johnson would often admit that the size of his vegetables could not compete with those grown by George).  George and Maggie kept a nanny goat for milk, along with hens and geese (grandson Malcolm Johnson recalls the unforgettable moment of being chased by a fierce Barnett goose!).  In his younger days, George did a lot of shooting and fishing.  George was very good with his hands and was well able to do his own repairs.  George and Maggie kept a cat  at ‘Newhouse’ and also a dog called ‘General Smuts’ – after a WW1 General. (11)  Bearing in mind that Tom was only a boy when George died in 1954, he cannot recall Maggie leaving the house much … he remembers George doing all of the shopping, not Maggie.   Tom also recalls going up to ‘Newhouse’ to get his hair cut by George.

George Barnett at the back of the Smiddy (the shop)

George Barnett at the back of the Smiddy (the shop nearest to Newhouse)

George died on 21st November 1954, and was buried in the ‘New Burial Ground’ at Flotta Kirk.  Daughter Frances came north from her home in Colchester (North Essex) on hearing that her father had died.  She recalled how she was the only female at her father’s burial (24th November 1954), going against Scottish and Orcadian tradition.  Frances wanted to go, so she did and, not only did she attend, she was a pall bearer at the head of her father’s coffin.   Widow Maggie did not attend the burial, but only the funeral service – with the other women mourners. (12)

Because Maggie was not in very good health, daughter Frances took her back to Colchester – to live with her and her family.  What had been the family living room (at the back of the house) was turned around and made into a room for her instead.   There was a limit to the number of things that could be moved from ‘Newhouse’ so very few Barnett possessions travelled south to the Johnson home.

Kist 002

Kist 001

Maggie's kist

Maggie’s kist

Frances’ husband Felix felt that his mother-in-law Maggie didn’t seem to settle in what was a very different environment to the peace and tranquillity she had been used to on Flotta.   During one summer, the Johnson family drove down to the sea at Mersea Island, near Colchester.    Mosquitoes plagued Mersea a lot at the time and Frances’ mother Maggie was bitten on the face so much that she was unrecognisable.  Needless to say, Maggie did not make another visit there.

Grand-daughter Carolyn confirms that her grandmother rarely left her room and recalls finding her grandmother after a fall – which resulted in a broken hip or leg.   This break led to complications, from which Maggie never recovered – she died at the Johnson home (23 All Saints Avenue, Colchester) on 26th November 1959.  Malcolm can remember all the curtains being closed and the television was not allowed to be on, for about a week.

Maggie was cremated and, eventually, Frances was able to take her ashes back to Flotta, to be interred with George.  Thus, a few years later, George and Maggie were re-united.

So …… what became of George & Maggie’s only child, daughter Frances?   Frances embarked on her own travels – she left Flotta and Orkney at the age of 17 years old …… but that’s another story …

Frances Johnson revisiting 405 Galer Street in 1975

Frances Johnson revisiting 405 Galer Street in 1975

**   ***   **


(1)     William MacDonald, with wife Elizabeth MacKay and their family, ‘emigrated’ to South Ronaldsay from the Newlands Township in 1820.  A family history written by one of the daughters states that the family were Glencoe MacDonalds, who had moved north as the years went on – till they finally ended up in Orkney.  They had lived in Strathalladale, Farr and were cleared three times till they arrived at Newlands.  Finally, in 1820, the family went to Orkney to live.  They had no croft to go to and had to live in a boat on the bay until they could acquire one. All members of the family spoke only Gaelic – no English.  (Acknowledgement to

(2)     Sutherland S. Taylor : born 1877 to George Taylor and wife Joanna Esson.

(3)     James Simpson : Maggie’s uncle (born 1858 to James Simpson & Catherine Isbister) and brother of Maggie’s mother, Margaret Simpson.  James was a shoemaker and he taught George Barnett the trade whilst they were out in Seattle.

(4)     John Barnett : born 2  June 1872, was probably a second cousin to George.  He was a son of James Barnett (who was born 1836 and living at ‘New Pan’ in the 1839 Flotta Collecting Book) and wife Moriah Esson.  John married Margaret Thomison Rosie and lived at ‘Hungerhimout’.  He died in 1957.

(5)     The Three Flottarians : It was said (by Frances Barnett, daughter of George MacKay Barnett) that the three Flottarians who were out in the U.S.A. with George in the U.S.A. – James Simpson;  “James” Taylor; and John Barnett but, perhaps, the aforementioned 1909 passenger list has proved that the Taylor first name was actually “Sutherland”.

(6)     1920 Census : In this census, George has a ‘Pa’ against his name, in the ‘Nationalization or alien’ (citizen) column.  The definition of this abbreviation is “Papers filed”.  Papers = ‘Declaration of Intention’ document to become a US citizen has been filed. Maggie has ‘Al’ against her name = ‘Alien’.  There is no note in the column for Frances because she is a ‘Natural Born Citizen’. 

(7)     Japanese : The city of Seattle had a large Japanese immigrant community. There were even several newspapers printed in the Japanese language. 

(8)     Flotta is one of the 70 islands that make up the Orkney Islands, which lie off the further-most north-eastern coast of Scotland.   It lies at the southern edge of ‘Scapa Flow’ and covers approximately 2000 acres – mainly low lying and consists of cultivated fields of rich soil and heather moorland heath. During both WW1 and WW2, it was a base for the Royal Navy.   In 1974, the construction of an oil terminal began on Flotta – linked to the Piper and Claymore oil field in the North Sea.  The terminal was up and running by December 1976.  Flotta did not have a mains electricity supply until 1977, although most households had had their own generators providing electricity for many years prior to that.

(9)     ‘Newhouse’ – said (by local researcher Miss M.A. Sutherland*) to have been built by Mary, Barbara, Catherine & Ann Sutherland (previously of ‘Whome’/children of Harry Sutherland & Mary Flett).  The croft was, whilst in the aforementioned Sutherlands’ time, called ‘Fingairs’.   (N.B. The croft is one of the highest properties on the island of Flotta).

(10)  Sprit Sail : A quadrilateral sail extended by a spar running diagonally to the sail’s peak.   Acknowledgements to Sheena Hewitt, for posting ‘The Scotsman’ regatta article on  (with permission from The Scotsman Publications Ltd).

(11)  General Smuts : General Jan Christiann Smuts, born 1870 South Africa. 

(12)  Orcadian/Scottish Funeral Custom :  No women, not even a grieving widow, would take part in the burial proceedings.  In Flotta in the 1950s most funeral services were held in the deceased’s home and only women of that household attended the service.  Women did not attend the burial in the churchyard.

Written by Heather Anne Johnson  :  August 2012

*  Acknowledgment to Mr. David Sutherland for recording his research and to Miss M.A. Sutherland for copying said research.


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