The last heir – ultimus haeres records and retours

I had an interesting case to look at last week, where a client contacted me to try to trace the relationship between a John Menzies and James Alexander Playfair MacLaren, with Menzies having been appointed as MacLaren’s heir some two years after his death in 1910. The client had already obtained some solicitor’s records and some sasines (land transfer records) outlining to a degree what had happened to the deceased’s estate, but without the relevant genealogical information. There were mentions of family trees having been drawn up to prove the claim – could I essentially find the other side of the conversation, and work out the relationships by locating the mentioned tree charts?

The deceased was a gentleman called James Alexander Playfair MacLaren, who had passed away in November 1910. He died without any immediate lawful issue, and no claimants were immediately forthcoming as prospective heirs. In Scotland, if no claimants step forward in such circumstances, after a suitable period the estate goes to the Crown as Ultimus Haeres, which is Latin for the ‘last heir’ (see The papers that my client held seemed to indicate that this was what had happened to James’ estate, and so the first step was to first confirm that it had indeed fallen to the Crown. To do this I ordered up the Ultimus Haeres lists for the year in question, and confirmed it to be the case (they are catalogued under E869).

Next up, I then called up the Treasury Report in which the case would have been mentioned. In some cases genealogical evidence can be found included alongside these reports, and it was hoped that the family tree chart might have been included here – sadly this avenue turned out to be something of a damp squib in this case, however, simply noting that James’ unclaimed estate had fallen to the Crown on 14 FEB 1911, with his lands due to be sold off in 9 lots. After any debts incurred by the deceased were paid off, the rest was to go to the office of the King’s and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer in Edinburgh, or KALTR (today it would be to the Queen’s and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer).

My next avenue now was to consult what are known as the Procedure Books, catalogued under E851. These provide a summary of developments concerning the administration of the Ultimus Haeres process, but also any subsequent claims made on the Crown by prospective heirs late to respond to the initial advertisements made by the KALTR for claimants to step forward. In this case I was now fortunate to get a 5 page summary of written conversations held between the agents of John Menzies and the KALTR’s office. This slowly began to reveal some genealogical information. For starters, it noted that James MacLaren was the eldest lawful son of the late James MacLaren, draper of Coupar Angus, who was brother german of John MacLaren of Beechhill, a solicitor (‘brother german’ means a full brother), and that James junior had died at Auchterarder on 3 NOV 1910. In September 1911 the first mention of the name Menzies appeared, with a Jessie Menzies claiming to be the descendant of the deceased’s grandfather’s sister, though no names were provided. An exchange of letters requiring proof followed, and in February 1912 a solicitor was noted as claiming that John Menzies was MacLaren’s rightful heir.

The thing is… the KALTR office was deeply unconvinced. There was a question mark over whether the relevant documents to support the claim had been found as proof, with particular concerns over a marriage document that seemed to imply that MacLaren’s grandfather was aged 13 and a half when he married.

This was useful stuff, but what I really needed was the written conversation from the KALTR, not a summary, and as such, I next called up the letter books for the period from 1910 to 1913, which are catalogued under E854. The first thing to note about these books was the appalling quality of the letters, which had been kept as carbon paper copies. A few were so faded they were close to being illegible, but I photographed them all and was able to enhance some of them when I got home. These not only revealed the genealogical problem causing the KALTR office grief, but also the workaround that led to Menzies being confirmed as heir.

It transpired that the issue causing problems was the fact that Alexander McLaren (Laren or McLaurin), the grandfather, was said to have been baptised in February 1787, but that he had an older brother born in December 1785. This meant that the earliest that Alexander could have been born was September 1786 (assuming his mum fell pregnant again within a couple of weeks, which was optimistic!). This therefore put a question mark over whether Alexander was truly 14 when he married Elizabeth Cochrane in October 1800 – the age of 14 being the minimum legal age for marriage at that point for males. The minimum age for girls to marry back then was 12, but this was far from the KALTR’s concern – the bride in this case was supposed to have been aged 24! John Menzies was said to be the grandson of Alexander’s sister Jean MacLaren, and again there were problems confirming that she was related to Alexander. In short, the KALTR was having none of it, and was of the mind to reject the application of John and Janet Menzies to make a claim on the MacLaren estate that had fallen to the Crown, noting the relationship to be “unsatisfactorily established” in July 1912.

And that’s when it got really interesting! Clearly frustrated with the KALTR’s objections to the claim, the solicitor on behalf of John Menzies went down a separate tack – to have John formally recognised as an heir via the Services of Heirs procedure, and to have Janet Menzies appointed as an executrix dative for the moveable estate. Janet was first recognised as such in January 1913, and a month later John’s application to be served heir went before the court. The Services of Heirs process was the Scottish jury based process by which anyone making a claim on heritable estate had to be first recognised as the lawful heir. There were two types of ‘service’ that could be applied, the easiest simply being a ‘general service’, the process pursued by Menzies’ agents, where a jury simply looked at the evidence put before them and said yes or no as to whether the claimant was who he or she said they were (the other was a ‘special service’ where any land in question was also brought into the proceedings). Against the KALTR’s objections, the Sheriff Court in Perth took a look at the family trees and other evidence placed before it and contented itself that John Menzies had the right to be recognised as MacLaren’s heir-at-law. A last check in the indexes to the Services of Heirs from 1913 confirmed that John Menzies was duly served as heir as “second cousin” to James Alexander Playfair MacLaren. It seems that this move by Menzies’ solicitor to have him recognised by a court as a lawful heir was enough to force the KALTR to release the assets held by the Crown which had been surrendered to it as Ultimus Haeres, to John Menzies, despite its overwhelming objections.

Although there were many references to family trees and genealogical documents being bandied about between the relevant parties, no tree was found in the papers that have survived from the case – but the detail in the records at least provided the information that allowed Menzies to satisfy his claim as understood and believed by a court of law. Unfortunately the Sheriff Court papers from the period have not survived, nor the solicitors’ papers, and so this cannot be pursued further. The question remains as to who was right. Did the KALTR office have a legitimate problem with the evidence it was asked to consider – or did the Jury listening to the services case get it wrong?!

An interesting case!

(With thanks to my client for permission to share the story)