Exactly 125 years ago my Great, Great Uncle Duncan Kemp died in a bicycle accident. He came off his bicycle while travelling along the path at the side of the River Leven and was swept away in the current.

River Leven near the site of Duncan Kemp's 1891 bicycle accident. © Copyright Lairich Rig and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
River Leven near the site of Duncan Kemp’s 1891 bicycle accident. © Copyright Lairich Rig and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence.

Duncan Kemp 1871-1891

Duncan Kemp was born on the 28th of January 1871. His father James Kemp registered the birth (on 17th February) as have happened at a private residence (something Cottage) in Stewart Street, West Calder. He also recorded that the mother was his wife, Ann Kemp (maiden surname, Dewar). They married in Edinburgh in 1864 according to Duncan’s birth certificate.

The 1871 census a few months later shows Duncan living with two parents (James & Ann) in a house with a single room in Stewart Street in West Calder. So far it is all consistent. The census lists James as a 29-year-old general blacksmith who was born in Enzie, Banffshire. He’s married. Ann, his wife, is 26 and she was born in Lochalsh, Rosshire. She doesn’t have a profession, but seeing as Duncan is only a few months old, that’s not surprising.

1881 Census

In the 1881 Census Duncan is still living with his parents, and four younger siblings. They’re living in ‘Wee Dublin’, Mackenzie Street, East Greenock. His father is a Shipsmith, and his birthplace is Elgin. His mother is shown as Ann, she’s 37 (suggesting an error, the census dates in 1871 and 1881 2&3 April). Her birthplace is now shown as Kintail (could be variations on the same place, they’re not far apart).

1891 Census

In 1891 Duncan wasn’t living with his parents. His mother had died the previous year. His father was living in Drummonds Land in Faifley. He had five of his children with him in a single room. The two oldest were working, Marion as a millworker and Elizabeth as a housekeeper. Duncan was living at 68 Back Street, Renton, Dunbartonshire. About ten miles away from his family.

Lennox Herald Article on Duncan Kemp’s Death


On Tuesday morning, about seven o’clock, a very sad drowning fatality befell a bicyclist named David Kemp, aged 21. The young man was a painter to trade, in the employment of Mr Campbell McGregor, Renton. It appears that Kemp had got instruction to go to Kilmaronock to do some painting work, and, to expedite the journey, decided to take his bicycle. He proceeded from Renton up the west bank of the river, intending to cross Balloch Bridge. When opposite Levenbank Works, at a narrower part of the road, the rider seems to have lost control of the machine, and a sudden spill followed, and both were plunged into the river. The poor fellow was carried away with the heavy current and drowned, and the body has not yet been recovered, although a search was made the same day. The bicycle was trawled out of the river soon after. Deceased was a very responsible youth, lodging in Renton, but belonging to Clydebank district, where his father is employed. This sad fatality is a warning to cyclists – specially inexperienced ones – not to risk practising on the river bank, where a very alight accident or sudden jerk by the machine may lead to a lamentable result.

Duncan Kemp’s Death Certificate & Fiscal’s report

On 20th October 1891 it had been raining heavily for several days. Duncan was a house painter working in the vale of Leven. He was cycling and lost control of his bicycle on the approach to the Forth & Clyde railway bridge over the river Leven. He didn’t manage to stop in time and was pitched into the river opposite the Levenbank Works. The river was in spate and he was swept away. His body wasn’t recovered until 1st November. His death certificate reports him as 21 years old, however he wasn’t quite 21.

On the death certificate the death was reported by Donald McKay, an acquaintance. His father is shown as James Kemp, a journeyman blacksmith at the address used in the 1891 census. His mother is shown as Elizabeth Kemp, maiden surname MacDonald. This is a bit different, and if not for the father and the address being correct might make me think this was the wrong death record. There’s also a note in the margin that there was a procurator fiscal’s report on the death (which is where some of the additional detail comes from).

The procurator fiscal’s report shows the place and circumstances of death (shown above). It also records his address and his parents. Both parents are shown as deceased. Other than his father not being dead the details agree with all the other sources. His mother is listed as Annabella MacDonald or Kemp. So far we’ve got three different names for his mother, Ann Kemp (nee Dewar), Elizabeth Kemp and Annabella Kemp (nee MacDonald).

Duncan Kemp’s Mother

I’ve written about this before, in the Family Mystery post and its follow-up article in 2011. Duncan’s mother wasn’t his father’s wife. He seems to have left her shortly after their first child was born and taken up with another woman. This woman was my great grandmother and the mother of six children before she died in 1890. My great grandfather registered the birth of their children with his wife’s name. I think because he wouldn’t have been legally allowed to register them otherwise. He also registered their mother’s death as if she was his wife.

I think she was called Isabella MacDonald, daughter of Donald ‘Roy’ MacDonald of Keppoch from Lochalsh, Kintail. However I cannot really prove that with certainty. Here are her names

Event date Name
OPR Baptism 5th Sept 1844 Isabella (born August 1844)
Duncan’s birth cert 28 Jan 1871 Ann Kemp (m.s. Dewar)
Census 2 Apr 1871 Ann, born Lochalsh, age 26
Census 3 Apr 1881 Ann, born Kintail, age 37
Duncan’s death cert 7th Nov 1891 Elizabeth Kemp, (m.s. McDonald)
Procurator Fiscal’s Report 16th Nov 1891 Annabella McDonald or Kemp

What you see is that where James Kemp, Duncan’s father, reports it she is given his wife’s name. Where her name differs it is where other people have reported it. Clearly it was no secret how old Duncan’s real mother was, nor that she was a Keppoch MacDonald. As a west highlander she would no doubt have been a native gaelic speaker. She would have sounded quite different to Ann Dewar, who was a native of Cupar in Fife.


Thanks go to my cousin Graeme Kemp, who supplied many of the certificates from Scotland’s People, and also to my mother Liz who searched the Lennox Herald archive for the press report of Duncan’s death. I couldn’t have done the analysis without the facts. All the errors are mine though.