Correspondence of the MacLarty Family of Greenock

This blog post will be the first installment of a series of monthly posts about interesting collections we hold here at Archive Services. We will be writing about any particularly noteworthy records within our collections, interesting uses of them by our readers, and anything topical. These are just some of our favourite collections and we hope you enjoy them just as much as we do!

“Send in course of post a long letter with all the news stirring and let me know who is that gentleman married to Miss B…”


The above quotation is taken from a recently acquired collection of correspondence between various members of the MacLarty family of Greenock, ranging from the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries (our reference ACCN3893). This collection of family gossip is surprisingly insightful, owing to the in-depth discussion of everyday matters. The MacLarty family were an interesting bunch – father, Alexander MacLarty, served as captain on a number of merchant ships, travelling across the globe; and brothers Colin and Alexander MacLarty were part of a tide of Scottish medical professionals migrating to Jamaica in the latter quarter of the eighteenth century. This collection corresponds well with our wider collections both due to the period of the letters and the maritime involvement of the family. Furthermore, Alexander MacLarty began his studies here at the University of Glasgow, matriculating in 1791.

Our knowledge of the family is somewhat patchy. Details of Captain MacLarty’s working life can be seen in newspaper advertisements for the trading voyages he sailed on, and his sons’ ventures in Jamaica remain in records for the practices they worked for.[1] As ever for this period, our knowledge of the women of the family is quite limited, and largely restricted to this collection of letters. From the letters we can gather that Captain MacLarty and his wife – who remains unnamed – definitely had two sons and two daughters, as well as a potential third son.

Family Tree (ish)

The case of this potential younger brother, Archibald (or “Archy” in the letters) is an interesting one. It is stated in the Edinburgh Magazine of July 1794 that a “Mr A. Johnston MacLarty, youngest son of Captain Alexander MacLarty” died of the malignant fever soon after his arrival in Jamaica that year.[2] A letter from our collection, dated 7th January 1794, mentions that Archy is to travel to the Caribbean.[3] This information, together with our knowledge that Alexander – another A. MacLarty – was alive and writing to his sister in 1796, suggests that Archibald MacLarty was indeed the younger brother of Colin and Alexander.[4]

Many Scottish migrants, like Colin and Alexander, travelled to the Caribbean to earn their fortune as doctors. Alan Karras, in his book Sojourners in the Sun, has detailed the experiences of Colin MacLarty in Jamaica after 1787 and how he encountered great difficulty in finding respectable work.[5] He finally became a partner at a practise in 1790 and seemingly encouraged his brothers to follow suit – by the turn of the century Alexander was also working as a doctor in Jamaica. Although there is no explicit information about the MacLarty’s links to Jamaica within the collection, there are certainly some hints. For example, one letter from a friend, John Rankin, to Colin MacLarty in November 1822 discussed the purchase of the Grove Plantation in Manchester, Jamaica.[6]

More notable than these brief references to Jamaica, this ACCN3893collection has all the quaint family drama of a Jane Austen novel; with constant gossiping about marriage, dances and men’s fortunes. In terms of the women of the family, we gain most of our insight into their lives from the conversational information in this collection. From Colin’s instructions to his sisters to “get good husbands as soon as you can for… it would be rather too much to have two old maids [in the family]”, to discussions of gifts of household goods being sent between the two sisters whilst living apart later in life, we gain a clear view into the lives of these women and others like them.[7] A consistent theme in the correspondence is discussion of marriages in Greenock society. In one letter from Colin to Margaret in 1781, he comments that “matrimony seems to be quite the fashion in Greenock at present”.[8] Indeed, whilst the men of the MacLarty family write of their studies, work and travel, their sisters remain home, focused on “getting good husbands”.

Whilst this collection does not necessarily shed a great deal of light on the wider historical significance of Scottish migrant doctors like the MacLarty brothers, it does provide a great insight into the everyday lives of a fairly archetypal middle class family in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The real charm of these letters lies in their sincere expressions of familial fondness and concern. It is fantastic to have a collection of material of such a personal nature within an archive largely made up of accounts and business transactions – as integral to the historical record though they are, you simply cannot beat a good tale of family gossip! It just goes to show how varied the collections of the University of Glasgow Archive Services are: you never know what you might find when you open the next box.

[1] See profiles of the MacLartys in Alan Karras, Sojourners in the Sun: Scottish Migrants in Jamaica and the Chesapeake, 1740-1800 (1992, Cornell University Press, USA).
[2] ‘The Edinburgh Magazine, or Literary Miscellany’ (July 1794) p.319.
[3] Letter from Alexander MacLarty to Captain Alexander MacLarty (7th January 1794), our reference ACCN3893/1/18, University of Glasgow Archives Services (hereafter UoGAS).
[4] Letter from Alexander MacLarty to Margret MacLarty (28th December 1796), our reference ACCN3893/1/21, UoGAS.
[5] Karras, Sojourners in the Sun, pp.55-58.
[6] Letter from John Rankin to Colin MacLarty (21st November 1822), our reference ACCN3893/1/44, UoGAS.
[7] Letter from Colin MacLarty to Margaret MacLarty (c. September 1781), our reference ACCN3893/1/4, UoGAS.
[8] Letter from Colin MacLarty to Margaret MacLarty (22nd October 1781), our reference ACCN3893/1/6, UoGAS.

Many thanks to the University of Glasgow PhD researcher Stephen Mullen for offering some wider context to the family’s past, and pointing us towards Sojourners in the Sun.

Stay tuned for more of our collections blog posts on the second Tuesday of each month!

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4 replies

  1. I have McLarty descendants from Kingston, Jamaica notetably my great grandfather Colin Alexander McLarty, born 29 Sept 1859 in Saint Andrew Parish in County of Surry; my GG grandfather Colin Rankin McLarty, born 3 Apr 1831 with a brother Alexander Rankin, born 1837 and GGG grandfather Alexander Rankin McLarty (wife Sarah Cornwall). Are the McLartys spoken of here my descendants? I haven’t been able to go back farther than my GGG grandfather. Thank you.

    • Hi Anne Marie,
      I have just checked my family tree, and I don’t have these names and dates. However, it does seem possible that your ancestor Alexander Rankin McLarty is related – any of Captain Alexander McLarty’s sons would have named their first-born son Alexander, and the Rankin might be after John Rankin, husband of Elizabeth McLarty in the tree above. I will see if I can find any connection or information. Do you have any dates for Alexander Rankin McLarty?

  2. Thank you very much getting in touch with this fantastic information! Its great to find out so much about the MacLarty family to add to our understanding of the records.

    You are more than welcome to visit us when you are next in the UK to read the correspondence. You can e-mail the duty archivist to make an appointment on:

    We do provide a copying service- information available here: and price guide available here:

    Thanks again for getting in touch!

  3. I am very excited to find this – and to discover that there is a collection of McLarty letters, including, it seems, at least one from John Rankin to his in-laws! (John Rankin was Colin McLarty’s brother-in-law, Alexander McLarty’s son-in-law.) I am descended from three of John Rankin and Elizabeth (Betty) McLarty’s daughters, and have done a little research into the McLarty family. Alexander McLarty’s wife was Jean Johnston – her name appears in family trees passed down through the family, and I have confirmed it through looking at the Campeltown Parish Register, where I found entries for the baptisms of Elizabeth McLarty and her sister Jean: “September 1763 Elizabeth Alexr McLarty & Jean Johnston in Town had their child born 23.” “January 1767 Alexander McLarty and Jean Johnston in Town had a child born 20th + Baptized 22 the child’s name is Jean”. I have recorded more children, 4 girls (though I am not sure what happened to Ann and Jean), and possibly another son. I have some letters of John Rankin’s to his wife Betty McLarty, a scan of one of Alexander McLarty’s to his daughter Margaret (the original is owned by a postal history collector), several letters written by some of the Rankin children, and I have read other Rankin letters which are owned by another Rankin descendant in Canada. You may be aware that Aberdeen University holds a collection of letters and other documents by John Rankin’s son-in-law William Shand (and some by another of his sons-in-law, Dr Hinton Spalding of Edinburgh and Jamaica). I would be very interested to read the McLarty letters – are you able to provide scans? I hope I’ll get to the UK again (I am in Australia), but I don’t know when that will be.
    Rebecca Green

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