George Willison, portrait painter (1741-1797)


This is the second of a series of three pages involving people with the surname 'Scheniman' in Scotland and their Willison, Dempster and other relatives in the 18th and 19th centuries:

  1. The strange life of the Reverend Cathcart Leslie, minister of Borthwick

  2. George Willison, portrait painter

  3. The Scottish Schenimans


Irrungen, Wirrungen

Wherever one turns for information about the 18th-century Scottish portrait painter, George Willison, one is likely to find details akin to the following [DNB, 1922 edition]:

George Willison (1741-1797), portrait-painter, born in 1741, was a son of David Willison, an Edinburgh printer and publisher, and a grandson of John Willison.
... his uncle, George Dempster of Dunnichen, sent him to Rome ...

In the two and a quarter centuries since George Willison's death, it does not appear that any attempt has been made to question this [Note]. There is no birth or baptismal record for him, but his age at death is given as 56 years [OPR burials, listed as 'Wilkison' at ScotlandsPeople, though it is far from clear that it is a 'k'] so he may well have been born in 1741. He is usually said to have been born in Edinburgh, which is likely but not certain. However, there are two undoubted errors in the above entry from the DNB:

There were two families of Willisons in Edinburgh in the 18th century. That ought not to be a problem in itself, but we have to do with three fathers called 'David', two mothers called 'Catherine', two sons called 'George' (born the same year or a year apart), both families having a printer in their number and, worse, both living for some of the time in the no-longer-extant Craig's Close off the north side of the Royal Mile.

This page devotes itself to disentangling the delusions and confusions occasioned by these two families of Willisons.

George Willison's career

As regards George's career as artist, there are no particular difficulties, though one might wish for more details. He shared, with a Thomas Donaldson, both in Edinburgh, 3rd prize of two guineas in a competition run by The Edinburgh Society in 1755 for the best drawing by boys of fruit, flowers or foliage [CM 15 May 1756]. That is the earliest evidence found for him. He won further prizes in each of the following years' competitions ["found to have great merit", "George Willison, for drawing from a picture, four guineas", SM 3 Jan 1757 ; "third best drawing after any statue, busto, or bas-relieve, by boys under twenty years of age, two guineas, to George Willison in Edinburgh", SM 2 Jan 1758]. Oddly, he won four guineas in the 1756 competition while failing to meet the exact specifications, but only two guineas in that of 1757.

George headed for Italy in 1759 or 1760. An unnamed author, writing from Rome to Edinburgh on 4 Feb 1764, wrote [CM 2 Apr 1764]

I have the pleasure to inform you, that your young friend Mr. George Willison is just now returned from Bologna and Parma, where he has been for several months past, copying some of the most celebrated pieces of that great master Corregio. Several noblemen and gentlemen connoisseurs, who have seen his studies are charmed with them, and think he bids fair to be at the head of his profession.

The writer took particular note of the high opinion of Willison held by Mr Strange, the engraver. Other admirers were the earl of Ossory and the hon. Mr Beauclerk, grandson of the then late duke of St Albans.

Three years later, we learn of his return from Italy to London [CM 31 Jan 1767]:

By a letter from a gentleman of distinction at London, we are informed, that Mr. George Willison, son to Mr. David Willison, merchant in this city, is arrived there from Rome, where for eight years he has been studying painting, in which he has made such proficiency, that he bids fair to be one of the first painters in Britain.

We merely note in passing that little word 'merchant'.

Willison did not remain in London - in Greek Street, Soho - for long. An artist, James Clerk, visited the studios of Ramsay, Reynolds and Willison there in 1768 [NRS GD248/839/1]. On 7 Feb 1769, Willison issued a receipt to lord Deskford for payment of £13/17s for a portrait of Deskford in crayon [NRS GD248/646/7, no. 11]. Having given "such general satisfaction at the exhibition in Spring-gardens" in London, he arrived back in Edinburgh - possibly only for a short visit - at his brother John's house in Niddry's Wynd on the night of 16 Jun 1769, the brother being a surgeon [CM 17 Jun 1769]. On 8th August that year, he issued a receipt for 12 guineas to Sir Ludovick Grant of Grant for a three quarter portrait of Miss Penuel Grant, Sir Ludovick's 18-year-old daughter [NRS GD248/211/14, no. 5].

In 1772, he applied to the East India Company for permission to travel to India, and permission was granted on 31 December; he arrived in Madras in 1774, where he obtained a post with the Nawab of Arcot. By 1780, he was back in London, and returned to Edinburgh a few years later [Christies]. In Edinburgh, he resided at 8 George Street by 1786 [Female servant tax 1785/6, NRS E326/6/3/107; Edinburgh Directory 1793/4] and died there on 13 Apr 1797 [SM 1 Apr 1797].

In the period 1767-1778, Willison exhibited a total of 26 portraits at exhibitions in London, 19 at the Society of Artists and seven at the Royal Academy [Graves 1895]. Brief details of the seven exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1771 and 1772 are listed in Graves [1906]. Somewhat more detail of 18 of those exhibited at the Society of Artists in the years 1767-1770 while at Greek Street and in 1777-1778 while in India are in Graves [1907].

Though rewarded with a small fortune in jewels for curing one Indian potentate of an ailment, thanks to some medical knowledge doubtless acquired from his brother John or their father, at his death he had still not received payment for some of his art in India; he was owed 3,909 Pagodas (£8,193/13s/- Sterling, when interest due was added) by the Nawab of Arcot (alias Nabob Wallajah) [GI 18 Aug 1808].

In his will, Andrew Willison (1832-1907), a first cousin twice removed of George Willison, left paintings by George to Dundee Council [AJS Writing]. Four of these paintings - John Willison M.D., the Rev. William (not John) Bell, Patrick Fairweather & Mrs Fairweather - are illustrated at ArtUK.

Some further details of Willison's life are in Foster. Interesting information about 18th century Madras, the Nawab of Arcot, and a single mention of Willison, is in Love.

George Willison's family

Willison was never married, but he was father to a son, George Lumsden Willison, who died in Mar 1811 in Dundee [PL 30 Mar 1811] and four daughters.

The eldest daughter, Emira was born in Madras Presidency [her 1855 Edinburgh Death certificate] in Jun 1780 [Casemine], married Ferdinand Scheniman in Edinburgh in 1798, and died in Edinburgh 1855, having had issue three sons; her mother's surname may have been Clark.

The mother of the other daughters was an Agnes Dickson, who lived with Willison in Edinburgh. There are no records of the children's births or baptisms:

On 4 Jul 1811, Emira applied to the Barons of Exchequer for the gift of £500 that vested in her half brother G.L.W. by her father's trust deed and settlement [CM 29 Jul 1811]. That trust deed was to cause a considerable amount of difficulty after his death, but that need not detain us further here. We merely note that by 1828, the value of Willison's estate to be divided between his two then surviving children amounted to £30,000 [SC 17 Sep 1828]. Instead, having summarised his life, we turn to the two Willison families of interest that have been so badly confused until now, and to relevant details of the Dempsters of Dunnichen.

Willisons (1)

As it is generally believed that George Willison's father was a printer, David Willison, we may as well start with the printer's family.

David Willison & Catherine Ramage

A David Willison, a dyer, married a Catherine Ramage in Edinburgh in 1738.

David's parentage is unknown, but irrelevant here. Catherine was baptised in St Cuthberts on 6 Aug 1716, the daughter of Francis Ramage, tanner, burgess of Edinburgh and Mary Adam; Francis was bapt. 25 Oct 1677 in St Cuthberts to Robert Ramage, tanner, burgess of Edinburgh and Elspeth Cairns, while Mary Adam was daughter of a John Adam; Robert Ramage was the son of John Ramage, cordiner, burgess of Edinburgh [OPR baptisms; Edinburgh Burgess Roll].

David & Catherine had four identifiable children:

The father, David, died in 1748, aged 33. Very soon after his death, Catherine Ramage married a George Mackie in South Leith [OPR marriages, 27 Oct 1748]. She died in 1782, aged 65 [The Willison monument in Old Calton burying ground].


David Willison & Jean Bruce

David, son of David Willison & Catherine Ramage, married Jean, only child of John Bruce, a printer in Craig's Close, Edinburgh, and Mary Warden. No record of the marriage of David & Jean has been found, but they were probably married in 1769. John Bruce's house and the printing house of John Bruce & Co. are both listed in Craig's Close in the Extent Roll for 1763. Bruce died in early 1769, his testament dative being recorded at Edinburgh on 6 Jun 1769, and the following advertisement appeared in the Caledonian Mercury shortly thereafter [CM 12 Jun 1769]:

That John Bruce having lately deceased, the business in the printing way, continues to be carried on at the printing-house in Craig's close, as formerly, by DAVID WILLISON Printer in Edinburgh, Mr. Bruce's son in law, who was bred with him in the printing business, several years ago, and continued under him at his death.

The couple had nine children, of whom six died young, the names of these six being listed on the monument referred to above. The burials at South Leith listed here probably relate to these children:

  1. John, who died young; buried 3 Apr 1771 at South Leith, aged 1 year.

  2. George, born 30 Dec 1771; bapt. (unnamed in OPR) 10 Jan 1772 Edinburgh; buried 1 Feb 1773 South Leith, aged 1 year.

  3. Mary, born 29 Aug 1773; she and Archibald Constable, the publisher, gave in their names for marriage on 16 Jan 1795, she being called 'Margt ' in the OPR entry while the published index is even worse, calling him 'John'; died 24 Oct 1814 at Craigcrook Castle, of which the Constables were then tenants.

  4. David, born 2 Feb 1776; died at Vellore in India, 25km west of Arcot, while a captain in the 23rd Regiment of Native Infantry, on 10 Jul 1806, a victim of an insurrection of native troops there [SM 1 Mar 1807]. The family monument has his regiment as the 8th and his age as 29.

  5. Thomas, born 7 Dec 1777; bapt. 29 Jan 1778 Edinburgh; buried 22 Oct 1780 South Leith, aged 4 years.

  6. Helensis Halkerston [a boy], born 26 Nov 1779; apparently 'Learie' Willison, buried 6 Jan 1781 South Leith, aged 1 year. Did David find the extremely rare name 'Helensis' in a book he was printing?

  7. Christian, born 19 Sep 1782; buried 19 Aug 1783 South Leith, aged 1 year.

  8. Katherine, probably born 1784; died young; only record of her is her name on the monument.

  9. Jean, born 17 Nov 1786; died unmarried in Sep 1870 at Gogar Lodge, Ratho; buried in the Constable tomb in Old Calton burying ground on 29 Sep 1870 [OPR burials].

David is listed as a printer in Craig's Close in Williamson's Directory for 1775-76. On 8 Mar 1781 he was entered as Burgess of Edinburgh in right of his wife, Jean, daughter of deceased John Bruce, printer, burgess. (Bruce was entered on 3 May 1758, apparently as a stranger.) Two years later, he was on the city council, as 4th Bailie, and on 17 Aug 1786 he was admitted as Guildbrother. In 1787, he remained on the city council as one of the Old Bailies.

In 1787, David sought advancement for his only surviving son, David, via "a surgeoncy at Madras for son of Bailie Willison, Edinburgh" [NRS GD51/4/42]. This does not seem to have led anywhere, but 10 years later, "David Willison, printer and sometime magistrate, Edinburgh" sought a cadetship for his son, David [NRS GD51/4/440/1-2, 18 Sep 1797 & 16 Dec 1797], apparently successfully.

Jean died on 7 Oct 1790 [CM 11 Oct 1790] and was buried in Old Calton burying ground:

On Thursday last, died at her house here, Mrs Jane Bruce, spouse of Mr. David Willison printer.

The Extent Roll of 1794-95 lists David Willison as a proprietor and occupier in Craig's Close, and the Post Office Annual Directory for 1814-15 lists him as a printer there.

In 1816, David erected an imposing memorial, with a Latin inscription in the Old Calton burying ground:


The inscription, flanked by Ionic columns, is well preserved, and to each side of it, older, badly worn monuments give details of his parents, brother, wife and the six children who died young. On the basis of available photographs and Mitchell & Scott's published summary reading, the inscription on the left is:

Here lye the Remains
Father of the Erector of
this Stone
who died in 1748,
Aged 33;
of his Relict,
and the best of Mothers,
who died in 1782,
Aged 63;
their dutifull Son,
and kindest of Brothers,
who died in 1780,
Aged 39;
and of their
other Son and Daughter,
who died young.

The inscription on the right is:

Daughter of
the late JOHN BRUCE
Printer in Edinburgh
and Spouse of
also Printer there
who died in 1790 aged 43.
Six of their Children,
only other Son who reached
Manhood was
of the 8th Regt. Nat. Inf.
who died in 1806,
aged 29.

In the autumn of 1818, a Mrs Ibbottson (who was she?) was a visitor at the publisher Archibald Constable's home in Park Place, Edinburgh. Writing under the pseudonym 'A Country Curate' in the first volume of his The Living and the Dead, a collection of anecdotes, Erskine Neale recorded details of Mrs Ibbottson's meeting David Willison there [CP 17 Apr 1827; Neale]:

A day or two afterwards, I met ... at Park Place, old [71!] Mr. David Willison, father-in-law to Constable, printer of the Edinburgh Review from its commencement [in 1802]. He was one of the most intelligent, amusing old men I ever met with.

Mrs Ibbottson went on to give David Willison's comments on the editor Francis Jeffrey's illegible handwriting, which would make one wonder how much of the content of the Edinburgh Review was not merely printed by Willison but also written by him. Or perhaps Willison, a Tory, was just poking fun at Jeffrey's Whig principles.

David Willison, printer, died at his house in Craig's Close on 27 Mar 1821 [SM 1 May 1821], and was buried at South Leith on the 30th [OPR burials].

See also Brief Notes.

Having introduced one of the Willison families, we turn to some details of the Dempsters of Dunnichen.


Mr John Dempster & Anna Maule

The Rev. Mr John Dempster (c.1640-1708), minister of the parish of Monifieth from 1676, married Anna Maule (d.1722), an illegitimate daughter of George Maule, 2nd earl of Panmure, and widow of Alexander Erskine. Their eldest son, George, born at Monifieth in 1678, became a prosperous merchant in Dundee.


George Dempster, 1st of Dunnichen & Margaret Rait

George married Margaret, daughter of the Rev. Mr William Rait of Pitforthie, minister of Monikie, and Isobel Yeaman, on 20 Oct 1699 at Monikie. There are two full baptismal records at Dundee of children born to them:

There are two records, dated as follows, that would seem to be for the baptisms of other children but merely name the parents:

While it is not impossible that the John born in 1700 died young and that the 1703 record is for the baptism of George's heir, John Dempster, 2nd of Dunnichen, as John died in 1754 "in his 49th year" [Monument in St Vigean's kirk, with year of death as 1753 in error], it seems more likely that the 1703 record is for Ann Dempster who married a merchant, John Guthrie, in 1722 in Dundee [See Guthrie Genealogy which very helpfully provides baptismal witnesses' names and identities, sufficient to prove Ann Dempster's parentage]. The 1714 record is almost certainly that of George's daughter Katharine [see below]. A further unrecorded daughter, Isobel (d. 1772), married Thomas Blair of Glasclune (c.1705-1771). Likewise, daughters Margaret [see below, baptism of Margaret Willison in 1740] and Elizabeth [baptismal witness of Elizabeth Guthrie in 1735] also have no baptismal records.

George Dempster purchased the lands and barony of Dunnichen in 1727. He died in 1753 [CM, Monday 11 Jun 1753]:

On Thursday last, the 7th current, died, at his House in Dundee, Mr. George Dempster, an eminent Merchant, and of a fair Character.

He and his wife were both buried at Monifieth, and there is a monument to them in the kirk there, but the date of George's death on that monument is wrong, the date of his father's death is different from that given in the Fasti, and Margaret Rait's date of death, Apr 1740, is a year earlier than that given in the Fasti. And George's burial record is dated 2 Jun 1753! [See details at Jervise: Epitaphs, p. 108]


John Dempster, 2nd of Dunnichen & Isobel Ogilvie

John Dempster married, firstly, in 1730, Isobel Ogilvie (1705-c.1738), a daughter of Patrick Ogilvie of Balfour. Their eldest son George, born in Nov 1732 (according to himself in his will), inherited the estate of Dunnichen on his father's death; he became an advocate, provost of St Andrews in 1760 [CM 1 Oct 1760], burgess of Dundee in 1761 in right of his grandfather George Dempster [Dundee Burgess Roll], and a director of the East India Company in 1769. The younger sons were Patrick (b. 1733), who died young, and John (b. 1735), who died at Dunnichen in 1803 [TB 30 Nov 1803].

Charles, another son of John Dempster of Dunnichen, who died in Bengal in 1772 [SM 1 May 1772], may have been a son of this first marriage, but the absence of a birth record for him makes it perfectly possible that he was a son of John's second marriage.


John Dempster, 2nd of Dunnichen & Stewart Hamilton

John Dempster married, secondly, in 1740, Stewart Hamilton (c.1720-1780), a daughter of Philip Hamilton of Kilbrachmont (1669-1750), by whom he had at least three daughters, and a son John Hamilton Dempster of Pulrossie, a captain in the navy of the East India Company, who went down with his ship in 1800, along with some "valuable lives" [CM 7 Oct 1802]:

We have received authority to state to the public, the loss of the Earl Talbot East Indiaman, commanded by CAPTAIN JOHN HAMILTON DEMPSTER. This ship encountered a violent storm in the China seas about the end of the year 1800, in which the ship was lost, and every soul on board perished. Among the valuable lives lost on that occasion was Sir James Dalrymple, [4th] Bart. of Hailes, the second officer.

Captain John Hamilton Dempster's only son, George, died as a child in 1801 [CM 7 Oct 1802].


As George Dempster, 3rd of Dunnichen, survived until 1818 and died without issue, he was succeeded by a sister, Helen, third daughter of John Dempster; she died in 1831, "in the 88th year of her age" [MP 31 Aug 1831], so it would seem, if her age at death is correct, that she was the eldest daughter of Stewart Hamilton.

We now turn to the second family of Willisons.

Willisons (2)

John Willison & Margaret Arrott

John Willison was born in 1680 in Stirlingshire. He was ordained as minister of the 1st charge at Brechin on 3 Dec 1703 and married Margaret Arrott [Arrat(t), Arrot(t)], daughter of the Rev. Mr William Arrott of Dumbarrow, minister of the 1st charge of Montrose, on 4 Dec 1704 [OPR marriages, Montrose]. He did not have things easy in Brechin. Although he had the full support of the united presbyteries of Brechin and Arboath, the city councillors and many of the citizens were dyed-in-the-wool Jacobites and Episcopalians and favoured the intruding minister there, John Skinner. Willison, by contrast, was a rather strict Calvinist. Skinner was finally deposed in 1709 and Willison remained at Brechin until 1716, when he was translated to the 2nd charge, Dundee. Only with considerable difficulty did he find a Brechiner willing to assist his move [Black].

John & Margaret had six children while he was minister in Brechin:

Four further children were born in Dundee:

Some of the children remained in Dundee, including Andrew, who became a doctor there. At least two - David and Samuel - were later in Edinburgh and it is to them we now turn.


David Willison & Katherine Dempster

John & Margaret's son David married a Katherine Dempster in Dundee. The record merely provides the information that David Willison and Mrs Kathn Dempster were contracted on 27 May and married on 21 June 1738 [OPR marriages, Dundee]. Note 'Mrs' as a sign of her social status.

Two baptisms of children are recorded in Dundee. The first identifies David's father as the minister, Mr John Willison, and also has John Dempster, 2nd of Dunnichen, as a witness. The second is even more informative:

So David is confirmed to be the son of the Rev. John Willison & Margaret Arrott. Katherine is confirmed as the daughter of George Dempster, 1st of Dunnichen & Margaret Rait, and Katherine has a sister Margaret. The wording 'in commemoration of' relates to all three persons and merely means that Margaret is being named after all of them, just as her brother is named after three Johns.

David next appears in Edinburgh, when he advertises himself as a druggist [CM 22 Jun 1756] and is entered as a merchant Burgess & Guildbrother as a stranger on 14 Jul 1756 [Edinburgh Burgess Roll]. In the Extent Roll of 1759, "David Willieson Apo:rie [apothecarie]" is occupier of a property in Craig's Close, the owner being a James Davidson, bookseller. On the same page of the roll, apparently at the foot of Craig's Close, near the Nor Loch, is an entry for "Samuel Willieson & Mathew Jervie House & printing house".

In 1760, there is the only other record discovered of the baptism of a child of David & Katherine. It is in the Registers of Old St Paul's Scottish Episcopal Chapel, Edinburgh [Old St Paul's Baptisms]:

1760. Jany. 17, f. 5. h. 5. v. In Craigs Close, baptized a son of -- Willison, Druggist, & -- Dempster, named Samuel. Miss Dempster, Lady (Dowr.) Dunichan, Mrs. Ramsay, Leith, Mrs. More, &c. &c., pnt.

That is, on 17 Jan 1760, the 5th day of the week (Thursday), at 5 p.m., Samuel, son of David Willison, druggist, & Katherine Dempster was baptised at their house in Craig's Close, the witnesses including a Miss Dempster, presumably one of Katherine's sisters, and the dowager lady Dunnichen, i.e. Stewart Hamilton, John Dempster, 2nd of Dunnichen's second wife. The officiating cleric was William Harper. The boy died in 1765 and was buried in Canongate kirkyard on 9 Mar 1765 [OPR burials]

The Extent Roll of 1760 has David at the same address as in 1759, but with "Apo:rie" replaced by "Druggist". He had also taken possession of the neighbouring property, previously a surgeon's dispensary, and a property at the foot of the close. In addition to the house and printing house of Samuel Willieson & Mathew Jervis, the latter, designed 'printer', now also had a property higher up the close.

There are references to "D. Willison Druggist" [CM 5 Jan 1761]; also [CM 23 Dec 1761]:

the Laboratory of Mr. David Willison, opposite to the Cross, north-side of the street, Edinburgh

and [CM 5 Jan 1763]:

Catalogues to be had at Mr. Willison's laboratory, where all sorts of drugs, chemical, and medicines of the best kinds, are to be sold at the lowest market prices

The 1763 extent roll has David Willison still occupying James Davidson's two properties, but the printer John Bruce has moved into a house in the close and John Bruce & Co. have taken over the printing house formerly occupied by Samuel Willison & Mathew Jervis.

Samuel Willison, David's brother born in 1724, had been apprenticed to the Edinburgh printer, Thomas Lumsden, on 15 Nov 1738 [Edinburgh Apprentice Roll; "Samuel, son to Mr John WILSON, minister"]. Samuel Willison & Co. printed some of Samuel's father's religious works, including A Sacramental Directory in 1755. Samuel died on 3 Sep 1762. The inventory of his estate was given up by "David Willison druggist in Edinr and Mr William Bell minister of the Gospel at arbroath husband to and as having best knowledge in name of Bethia Willison his spouse Which David and Bethia Willisons brother and sister german to the said defunct are only exec[uto]rs dative qua nearest in kin", and valued at £181/8s/2½d Sterling [Testament dative, 28 Sep 1762, Edinburgh; NRS CC8/8/119 pp. 336-341].

David Willison was not only a druggist, as shown by an advertisement in 1764 [CM 14 Jan 1764]:

Garden seeds entirely fresh and newly imported, to be sold by David Willison, at his shop, opposite to the Cross, north-side; also, grass seeds, flower seeds and roots, tree seeds, particularly beech mast, very good and cheap, and garden utensils.

Also in 1764, two advertisements appeared for pills manufactured by Cluer Dicey & Co. that seemed to cure every conceivable ailment to judge by the recommendations of those who had taken them. One of them has [CM 3 Sep 1764]:

And they [Cluer Dicey] appoint the above pills, and their other medicines to be sold by the following Merchants, viz. Paul Husband, facing the Tron church; D. Willison, at the laboratory by the Cross ;...

On 20 Aug 1764, Isobel Willison, an otherwise unrecorded daughter of David & Katherine, was buried in Canongate kirkyard, aged 10 years [OPR burials].

In 1768, David Willison announced his intention to adapt his business [CM 23 Jan 1768]:

David Willison, at his Ware-house, opposite to the Bridge, being desirous to extend his business in the wholesale drug way, and on terms more advantageous to his employers, by selling for a small profit, either for ready money, or on shorter time, ...

and, the next year, to close his retail business [CM 3 May 1769]:

DAVID WILLISON, Merchant in Edinburgh, proposes to employ himself in doing business for others on commission ; and in the bill way, &c and to dispose of his whole stock of druggs, utensils and fixtures.

He probably moved out of Craig's Close at that time, and there is an entry for a "Mr Wellison" in the 1785/6 tax roll for female servants in the parish of St Cuthberts, but without any address [NRS E326/6/2/256]. Unfortunately, we hear nothing further of David Willison before his death in 1798 [SM 1 May 1798]:

April 13. Mr David Willison, late merchant Edinburgh, in the 86th year of his age.

He was buried in Canongate kirkyard on 18 Apr 1798 [OPR burials]. Katherine Dempster died on 27 Mar 1804 and was buried in Canongate kirkyard on 31 Mar 1804 [CM 5 Apr 1804]:

At her house, George Square, on the 27th March, Mrs KATHARINE DEMPSTER, relict of Mr David Willison, late merchant in Edinburgh, and daughter of the late George Dempster Esq. of Dunnichen, in the 90th year of her age.

David & Katherine's youngest daughter, Miss Ann Willison, died of a decline at her home, 39 George Square, aged 74, in May 1825 and was buried in Canongate kirkyard on 16 May 1825 [OPR burials]. The inventory of her estate was given up by her sister, Mrs Katherine Willison or Mitchell, widow of William Mitchell, of Buccleuch Place, Edinburgh, and valued at £623/1s/1¼d Sterling [NRS SC70/1/34 inventory, disposition & settlement, 3 Dec 1825; NRS CC8/8/150 pp. 997-999 inventory, 8 Dec 1825, with date of death wrongly given as 17 May].

Mrs Katherine Willison or Mitchell died on 30 May 1827 [CM 7 Jun 1827]:

At her house, 39, George Square, on the 30th ultimo, Mrs Katherine Willison, relict of William Mitchell, Esq. of Buccleugh Place, and formerly of Peep-o'-Day, Dundee, aged 81.

Her testament testamentar was recorded on 14 Jun 1827 [NRS CC8/8/151].

Katherine Willison's husband had been a captain in the H.E.I.C.S., almost certainly in their navy, as his brother David, commander of the "Fox" East Indiaman [mar. 1782 Westminster to Mariana Stert; d. 1790 London] had been. William died at his house, 16 Buccleuch Place, on 20 Jun 1805 and is buried in Greyfriars kirkyard; Peep o Day House, his former residence, stood on the old shoreline (before the building of the docks), just east of Dundee's east toll house. He left a son William, also in the H.E.I.C.S.; daughters Katharine, Margaret and Agnes; and an illegitimate son William Mitchell Harper [Testament, NRS CC8/11/1, pp. 688-736, 3 Mar 1806].

William & Katherine's contract of marriage, dated 7 Oct 1769 [recorded NRS RD 9 May 1804; also engrossed in William's lengthy 1806 testament] identifies Katherine as the eldest daughter of David Willison, merchant in Edinburgh. In addition, it mentions her brothers John and George (in that order, the older brother first).

The couple's monument in Greyfriars kirkyard reads:

To the Memory of
Died 20th June 1805, Aged 70.
And of
his Spouse,
Died 30th May 1827, Aged 81.

Their daughter Margaret married Dr William Reid Clanny, inventor of the safety lamp.


This page was written using two booklets on the monumental inscriptions in the Old Calton and Greyfriars burial grounds, and otherwise only online resources. Which makes it seem all the more strange that George Willison has not previously been correctly identified as:

Summary of known children of David Willison & Katherine Dempster

  1. John, b. 1739, living 1769

  2. Margaret, b. 1740, died young

  3. George, b. 1741, died 1797

  4. Katherine, b. 1746, died 1827

  5. Ann, b. 1751, died 1825

  6. Isabel, b. 1754, died 1764

  7. Samuel, b. 1760, died 1765


John Evans, in his biography of George Dempster of Dunnichen, The Gentleman Usher, correctly identifies the relationship between George Dempster and George Willison, but only mentions David Willison in passing, without reference to his occupation.


NRS - National Records of Scotland Catalogue

NRS RD - Books of the lords of Council & Session (Register of Deeds) in the NRS

OPR - Old Parish Registers of the Church of Scotland at ScotlandsPeople

Newspapers (at British Newspaper Archive):

--- - Brief Notes on the origins of T. & A. Constable, Ltd (Edinburgh, 1937, pp. 3-5)

Black, David Dakers - The History of Brechin to 1864 (Edinburgh, 1867, pp. 115-119)

Casemine - George Dempster and Others v Sophia Willison and Others, Court of Session, 15 Nov 1799

Christies - sale of Portrait of Eyles Irwin (c.1751-1817), half-length, in a mauve fur trimmed coat, in a feigned oval

Foster, William - British Artists in India, 1760-1820 in The Volume of the Walpole Society, vol. 19, 1930-31, pp. 78-80

Graves, Algernon - A Dictionary of Artists who have exhibited ... 1760-1893 (Henry Graves, London, 1895, p. 305)

Graves, Algernon - The Royal Academy of Arts; a complete dictionary of contributors ... 1769-1904, Vol. VIII (Henry Graves, London, 1906, p. 301)

Graves, Algernon - The Society of Artists of Great Britain, 1760-1791 ... a complete dictionary of contributors (George Bell, London, 1907, p. 282)

Love, Henry Davison - Vestiges of Old Madras (1640-1800), vol. 2 (John Murray, London, 1913, pp. 616-620)

Mitchell, John F. & Scott, Sheila A. - Edinburgh Monumental Inscriptions pre 1855, vols 1 & 4 (Scottish Genealogy Soc., Edinburgh, 2003)

Neale, Erskine ("A Country Curate") - The Living and the Dead, vol. 1 (1827), pp. 286-292

Old St Paul's Baptisms - The Scottish Antiquary or Northern Notes and Queries, vol. 6, no. 22, 1891, pp. 69-81

This page updated 6 Oct 2023