This photograph from the April 1969 Millennial Star shows the cottage where David McKay, father of President David O McKay, was born. Said to have been built by David’s father William in 1838, shortly before he married, this is where the McKay family received the restored gospel and became members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In a voice trembling with emotion, David O McKay reminisced about his grandparents on a return visit to Scotland in 1952. He expressed overwhelming gratitude that William and Helen (or Ellen) Oman McKay were found by missionaries in their faraway croft at Janetstown, near Thurso in the extreme north of Scotland. The area has not changed much with the passage of time. It remains sparsely populated, with farming and fishing being important to the economy.
Ellen was the first to embrace the restored gospel, being baptised in September 1848, with her husband following about two years later in November 1850. The baptisms likely took place in the stream, or ‘burn’, which ran close to their home. It would be dammed to give the necessary depth for baptism by immersion.
According to daughter Williamena, “My parents accidentally heard the Gospel from a relative who was converted in the South of Scotland. They investigated and became converted to its truthfulness and obeyed the same by being baptized and being confirmed by Elder William McKay who embraced the Gospel in Edinburgh.”
Another family record states that this William McKay was not a relative. He was born 12th March 1813 in the parish of Farr, Sutherland, the same birthplace as the afore-mentioned William who was born in 1807. He had been baptised in March 1842 and died in 1874 in Utah.
The family lived in a simple stone cottage, with a fireplace and chimney at each gable end. In the 1841 census the young couple were living there with William’s father John who was 66, and their first child Isaac, age one. The address is given as Burn of Geise.
By 1851 they were in the same cottage with an additional four children and an adult male lodger. William and Ellen’s children were christened into the Presbyterian church, where the records show William’s occupation as a farmer. He worked a croft, and laboured as a cattle drover and a carter. His address was given as Geise or Burn of Geise.
Their oldest son Isaac remembered being taught by missionaries. He said:
'I felt the absolute truth of their words, but I wondered how Father William, who had always said “I dinna hold wi thae tee total fouk” [non-alcohol drinkers] would take to such preaching.
While we were wondering, Father William surprised and shocked us by suddenly and completely leaving off drinking. He changed so thoroughly, that mother and I were afraid he would sicken and die. He prayed a great deal and never went near the ale house. We were all extremely happy over this change, and we were so carried away by the gospel the missionaries were preaching that we wondered how it could be that our neighbours and friends were not happy as we were.
Instead of being happy with us and for us, they began to call us names. Isabella and Williamena came home from school in tears, and all our friends turned against us.'
There were many families named McKay in the area. William’s hair and beard were dark. To distinguish him from the others he was known as Black William, and then as the Black Minister, when he began to preach and share his new faith.
The family became members of the small Thurso branch. William was ordained to the office of an Elder in the Thurso Branch in 1852. This took place in Edinburgh, a journey of 300 miles each way over rough roads, before the advent of railways in the area.
Most who joined the Church at that time emigrated to America as soon as they practically could, and this was the McKay’s desire. Just before the family were ready to leave, Ellen’s mother and sisters pleaded with them not to go. They tried to dissuade her from going with the ‘Mormons’, “… for the sake of the innocent children.” Her mother said, “Ellen, you are breaking my heart.” All that poor Ellen could say was, “Mother you will know at some time that I am doing right.”
They left on the ship Thornton from Liverpool in 1856, with Isaac age 16, Isabella 14, David 12 (who would become the father of David O. McKay), Williamena 7, and Catherine 5. Two of their children, Barbara and John, had already died in infancy.
When they arrived in America after six weeks at sea, the family was penniless. They had expected to find money waiting for them at New York to continue their journey west. In Scotland before their departure William had been working for some time for a contractor. William did not draw his wages, but asked the employer, who he felt was completely trustworthy, to send the accumulated funds to New York for their arrival. The promised wages did not materialise. Instead there was a letter from his former employer to say that he had gone bankrupt and had nothing to send.
It was perhaps a blessing in disguise that William was cheated out of his wages. By having to find work in the New York area in order to build up their funds before travelling west, they avoided the disastrous winter hardships of the Martin and Willie handcart companies that took the lives of so many of their fellow passengers on the ship Thornton.
They were eventually able to travel overland by wagon and on foot to the Salt Lake Valley in 1859. William returned to Scotland as a missionary in 1875. He was now 68 years old. According to family records he preached for a time in Thurso and had an opportunity to visit the house he had built in 1838. In 1882, His son David became a missionary to Scotland, and he also visited Thurso and stayed at his childhood home for a time.
Following their footsteps, grandson David O McKay also became a missionary to Scotland. In 1899 he visited an old lady in Thurso who had known his grandmother. She remembered when William and Ellen were married and baptisms taking place in the burn.
He had the opportunity to visit the old cottage again in 1953. By this time, it was unoccupied and ruinous. He recalled, “Fifty-four years ago I knocked on this door to inquire if this is the old home. A sweet old lady opened the door, and I told her who I was. She turned into the kitchen and I thought ‘Aha, now that she knows I’m a Mormon she won’t let me in’, but she called out, ‘You’ll come richt in and you’ll sit right doon. Are ye Willie’s grandson? Ach a ne – I’m getting auld. They used tae dip them in the burn. Do ye dae that noo?’”
Speaking to the owner, a Mr McIvor, he discovered that the old lady he had met there before was the owner’s aunt. She had died in 1918. It was Mr McIvor’s grandfather who had taken him to the cottage in 1899. It was still under ownership of the McIvor family in 2019
According to Llewelyn McKay, who was in the company in 1953, his father had explained how there was a hallway at the front of the house, leading to a living room at the left, and the kitchen at the right, with a bedroom in between. Cooking was done over the open peat fire.
He said “I could see that he was reluctant to bid farewell to the old homestead. The farmer was using it to store potatoes. Undoubtedly it hurt him to see it falling into ruins because as we drove away, he called to Mr McIvor, “Please take care of the auld hoose.””
Later that day as they sat down to supper, David O McKay said to his son Llewelyn, “Do you know, I should like to see the old place restored as it used to be”.
Echoing that sentiment, an approach was made to the owner in 2000 by local church members of the small Thurso Branch as to the possibility of restoring the cottage. At that time the owner was not interested. However, when the subject came up again in 2005, he was more amenable. His family has long been aware of the church’s interest in the property. The McIvor and McKay families have been associated over the generations through the connection of the cottage. and very accommodating in showing visitors to the site.
In 2005 a ‘Cottage Committee’ was set up. Thurso Branch members began to tidy up the large stones and debris from the inside of the house and clear up the site. Their hope was to obtain the necessary funding from the Church and possibly private donors, to rebuild the croft house. Research was done to find out as much information about the original cottage as they could. A model was built. The Church History department of the church was contacted to consider if a marker could be placed to record it as a historic site. The members were willing to do the restoration work themselves at a pace they could handle. However, Mr McIvor was not willing to sell the site and, despite substantial efforts by local church members, the project did not go ahead
By the time this photo was taken in 2012 with Mission President Brown and his wife, only part of the front wall was standing. The doorway is barely six feet high.
It should be noted that a similar nearby cottage with a tiled roof, appearing in the Millennial Star April 1969, which has been identified as the home of William and Ellen McKay, is not the same cottage identified by David O McKay. The present owner confirms that the one photographed in 1953 with the corrugated roof was the correct one. It appears wider, with a broader chimney at the left side. It easily accommodates the eight people photographed in front with room to spare between the windows.
This photo on the left is thought to have been taken by James Gunn McKay, son of Williamena and Angus McKay, on a mission to Scotland with his wife during 1915 to 1921.
There is no trace of the tiled roof cottage today.
One may wonder if the tiled roof was replaced by the corrugated roof and it is in fact the same cottage.
This photograph shows Muriel Cuthbert, wife of Derek Cuthbert, president of the Edinburgh Scotland Mission 1975-1978, standing in the doorway of a ruined cottage with a tiled roof, during their mission, purporting to be the McKay cottage.
It seems that a confusion has continued over time.
In 2014 the owner gladly allowed Thurso Branch members to hold a camp at the site. And in 2019 he again expressed interest in the church rebuilding the cottage as a historic site. It is not very accessible due to its distance from populated areas, has no services, and is reachable only by a rough farm-track. But here, miraculously, the restored gospel was brought to a God-fearing family, who demonstrated their faith by crossing the ocean and almost a whole continent, and bringing up their children to lives of dedication to the Lord.