According to the official record of his birth, he was born 17 July 1870, to an unmarried needlewoman: Alexandrina Leith Miller, who lived on Bridge Street in the Caithness village of Halkirk, in northern Scotland. His father was Charles Dunbar of Halkirk (known from a family letter).
Though Alexandrina Miller was poor, she was sufficiently educated to teach Charles to read, and she made sure he attended the Parish School. In later records, he used the name Charles Dunbar and, subsequently, Charles Davidson Dunbar, perhaps to honor his half-brother, Alexander Davidson. He gave his father’s name as William Dunbar on both his entrance records to industrial school and his marriage license.
Only one William Dunbar appears to have lived in Halkirk at the time of Charles’ birth, the lessee of Braal “Brawl” Castle. But there are no documents that directly link this William Dunbar with Alexandrina Miller or her son Charles. No baptismal record has been found and William Dunbar’s will does not mention Charles or his mother.
When Alexandrina Miller died on 8 September 1876, in Halkirk, she was identified as a single woman aged 48. Her parents were James Miller, a crofter, and Margaret, whose maiden name was Henderson. The cause of her death, certified by John Craven, physician and surgeon, was: phthisis pulmonary (tuberculosis), seven months, and chronic rheumatism. Her daughter, Charles’ half-sister, Margaret H. Budge, was present at her death.
Charles was then just six years old, and the only child still living with his mother. It appears he then stayed with at least one of his half-siblings in Halkirk for several years before being taken to Edinburgh and registered at the original Ragged School by his half-brother, Alexander Davidson, who had recently become a policeman in Edinburgh.
He entered the school on 13 September 1879. He was then nine and a half and, according to the school’s records, he could read but could not write. He was to be detained at the school until he was turned 16. The Rev. Dr Thomas Guthrie’s original Ragged School — later called the "Industrial School" — had been established in 1847 in Ramsay Lane as an orphanage, primarily for boys. The building still exists, in the tiny street at the top of Castlehill on the Royal Mile, near Edinburgh Castle, and is now part of the Camera Obscura attraction.
Thomas Guthrie, a preacher and reformer, had been a leader in the formation of the Free Church of Scotland and a keen advocate of "Ragged Schools". His Edinburgh school educated, fed and provided a home for 45 of the Old Town's most destitute children. Boys were also taught how to make shoes and clothes; the girls, to be 'thrifty wives for working men”. Here, Charles Dunbar learned to write and was trained as a carpenter and it appears that it was during his time at the school that he learned to play the Bagpipes.
Not all of the school’s records are available for public review and it is not known whether the school provided piping tuition. Perhaps some benevolent piper took the young orphan under his wing and taught him to play.
Read more about this topic: Charles Davidson Dunbar
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