Found at last - Wyllie's birthday By Chris Reekie

For more than a century, draughts and checkers enthusiasts have wondered when James Wyllie, the Herd Laddie, was born. I will reveal the answer to the mystery here. Wyllie dominated the game for more than 50 years but he died on April 5, 1899, without the question of his birthday and exact age being settled. Websites on both sides of the Atlantic have offered a choice of two dates, July 6, 1818, and July 6, 1820, with no certainty of which is correct. Experts can favour one or the other, but this amounts to guesswork. Both of these dates emerged in draughts literature during the 1890s when Wyllie was a revered veteran and they were quoted in his obituaries. The Glasgow Herald, the Glasgow Evening Times, and the Scotsman all stated July 6, 1818. At the same time, the Draughts World (in May 1899) gave July 6, 1820.

These conflicting details have persisted to this day. Stearns's Book of Portraits (1898) gives 1820. Albert Belasco gave 1820, which was the first date I saw after becoming attached to draughts. New Draughts World in 1941 gave 1820. Others have gone for 1818. Wyllie himself provided no guidance and I think he was unsure. His death certificate records his age as "81 years". This suggests he was born in 1818, but it is not necessarily conclusive. I carried out considerable research at New Register House in Edinburgh, the General Register Office for Scotland, where records of births, marriages, and deaths are kept and where visitors from abroad, including many Americans, go to trace their family history. Despite prolonged efforts, I found no evidence of Wyllie's birth. The late John Love, who wrote a draughts column in an Edinburgh paper for over 30 years until 1990, evidently covered the same ground, because he told me Wyllie's birth certificate had not been found. Wyllie's death certificate names his parents as "Hugh Wyllie, handloom weaver", and "Jane Lawrie, previously Wyllie, m.s. Baird". The term "m.s." means "maiden surname". So his mother's maiden name was Baird. Her last surname was Lawrie, apparently because she remarried after Hugh Wyllie died at some point. In my searches I found a record that Hugh Wylie (spelt with one l), soldier, married Jean Baird at Kilmarnock on June 10, 1811. Also that a Robert Lawrie and Jean Baird were married at Kilmarnock on February 26, 1835. Now let us look at the standard account of the Herd Laddie's life. Draughts World published a biography over a number of issues in 1893-94. This says he was born at Piershill Cavalry Barracks, Edinburgh, the son of a trooper in the Royal Scots Greys who had fought at Waterloo (1815) and later became a sergeant major. After his father left the Army in 1826, James was brought up at Kilmarnock, his family's native place.

I made inquiries with the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, the successors to the Royal Scots Greys, and learned that the muster roll for Waterloo shows a Hugh Wylie, then a corporal. Wyllie evidently believed he was born at the Barracks. Presumably his mother would stay with her husband, wherever he was stationed. So Wyllie must have been born at Piershill when his father was there. I was told that the Greys left Piershill in July, 1818, and moved to Ireland for three years, then on to England in 1821. In 1822 they went to Scotland for the visit to Edinburgh by King George IV. This was a historic visit, the first time a British monarch had set foot in Scotland since Charles II in 1651. The Greys arrived north of the border in July, 1822, and marched to the Edinburgh area. They attended the King when he disembarked at Leith, the port of Edinburgh, on August 15. Readers may ask: why question Draughts World, which is probably the best-ever magazine on the game and a principal source of its history? Published by Alexander Bryson's printing firm in Trongate, Glasgow, it ran from 1892 to 1913. The trouble is that for what had happened in the 1830s and 1840s, it had to rely on reminiscences by old men. Hence, details, although broadly accurate, became indistinct and perhaps confused. It remains unexplained why Wyllie's birth date varied between 1820 and 1818 near the end of his life and why 1818 gained more support. If we look at draughts literature before then, however, we will see that another date was given. The first magazine devoted to the game, the Draught Board, had in its edition of June 1, 1869, a biographical sketch of Wyllie by John Hedley. He said that Wyllie was born in 1822. Much earlier, the Illustrated London News of October 14, 1843, which I saw in the Mitchell Library, in Glasgow, carried a report and picture of "James Wylie, (one l), the celebrated draught player", who had defeated opponents in England and had met Anderson twice. This stated that he was born on July 8, 1822. I looked up Census records. Wyllie married in December, 1851, and lived with his wife and family at Leven, Fife, for many years. Both the 1861 and 1871 Censuses give his age as consistent with birth in 1822, in 1861, 39, and in 1871, 48. After finding these details, I tended to think that 1822 was the correct year. It was a plausible theory, but I was not satisfied. I decided to research Hugh Wyllie's military career, and found that the records of the British Army were not in Scotland, but in the National Archives of the United Kingdom at Kew, London.

With the help of a professional researcher, Bob O'Hara, I traced Hugh's service from 1815 to 1826 (documents WO 12/522 to WO 12/525). In 2005 an entry for the 2nd dragoons was found in the Army Register Book of births, baptisms, and marriages. I have a certified copy (SA 065972) issued by the General Register Office for England. It shows that a child, James, was born on July 8, 1818, at Piershill and baptised on July 12, 1818. The parents were Hugh and Jean Wyllie and the rank of the father was Sergeant. The chaplain who performed the ceremony was M. Russell, LLD. The true date of James Wyllie's birth is July 8, 1818, and is given here for the first time. It varies by two days from July 6, 1818, one of the alternative dates from the 1890s. It appears that July 6 was thought to be the day and 1818 gained ground as the year. It seems that efforts were made then to establish the truth - perhaps by his family, friends, or journalists. The Illustrated London News in 1843 gave the correct day, July 8, but the wrong year, 1822. This means that Wyllie in his early career was believed to be four years younger than he was. Why? It is my belief that there was a crisis in his boyhood. It has been said that his father was discharged from the Army in 1826. In WO 12/525 in the National Archives, I found a record that Hugh Wyllie, then a sergeant major, died on service in Ireland in December, 1826. Young James must have been brought up by his widowed mother, and she could have gone back to Kilmarnock. This could explain why his birthday was given as 1822 when, as a youth, he began to travel about as a packman. Permission for the above details was kindly given by the National Archives and the Registrars of Scotland. Thanks are expressed to the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and the Mitchell Library. The writer has been a member of the SDA and the EDA since the mid-1980s.

Copyright O Chris Reekie 2007.