A Shetlander in the British Army


1. Magnus Winwick

by Robyn Hukin © All rights reserved
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I cannot help thinking that when Magnus Winwick left the family croft at Muness on the island of Unst and entered the Royal Artillery he may have been a victim of the press gangs which were harassing Shetland in the early years of the 19th century.  On 7 May 1808 Magnus stood before Corporal Taylor and watched as the soldier filled in the spaces on the sheet in front of him: 5'7", fair complexion, fair hair, labourer, can read but not write, aged 16. The form did not mention his mother's grief at the possibility her youngest son may not return.

Magnus was born in 1792 the fourth son of John Winwick and Catherine Anderson. They baptised him on the 7th of October. He grew up in the shadow of the forbidding Muness Castle, long abandoned by the Bruce family.

The army taught him discipline, gave him a position as gunner, and threw him into battle. During his eight years of service Magnus served at the Peninsular Wars in Spain and France, initially under the command of Captain Adjutant O'Hara Banes of the detachment of the 4th Battalion.

Fortunately other soldiers have left records of what life was like on the battlefields of the Peninsular Wars. One was Thomas Pococke who served in the 71st regiment [1]. Magnus would have shared some of his privations. Winter was bleak and the majority of men were ill prepared for the conditions they had to encounter. Men wore their hair long and tied it at the back of their necks. After particularly bitter nights soldiers often woke to find that this knot had been frozen to the ground. Thomas described the experience as feeling his "blood had frozen in the veins"[2] .

He also witnessed birds of prey feeding off the dead bodies strewn over the battle field, and local peasants seen killing the wounded and stealing from the corpses. Indeed, even the able bodied were not safe from the attentions of the local populous, causing soldiers to travel in larger groups for safety. The armies often fought knee deep in clay, mud oozing between their toes when their boots wore through. Men lay down from sheer exhaustion to die by the roadsides. Following a battle, everywhere was the sound of the ghostly moans of the dying. In winter there were bloody footprints in the snow and the loss of feeling in the fingers and toes. Some lost their sight through malnutrition and most went days without food. In Corunna, where Magnus was stationed for a time, Thomas witnessed the beach covered in dead horses, and the frantic screams of those still living as they tried to break loose and escape the sound of pistols shooting the wounded animals. Some galloped along the beaches, manes erect and mouths wide open.

Only at night was Magnus to experience the peace of relative silence. There was no gunfire after dark. During the day when he was part of an assault on a town there was the bewildering sounds of rockets and bombs, of falling chimneys, the shrieks and wails of townspeople, and the howls and yelps of dogs. Rain also afforded some respite as the gunpowder became wet and would not ignite.

Magnus was wounded and pensioned out as a result of losing two toes on his right foot. As yet I don't know the circumstance of his injury. His discharge papers add only "yellow eyes and brown complexion" to his previous description. Gunner number 43, Magnus Winwick, had served in the Royal Artillery for seven years and 275 days before being discharged and as a result of his wound he received a pension of 6d per day.

After leaving the army he returned to Shetland to resume a crofting life on Unst and on Tuesday 22 October 1822 my three times great grandfather Magnus Winwick married Catherine Peterson, daughter of Peter Edwardson and Marion Irvine of Muness. After their marriage in Muness Catherine and Magnus set up home about three miles away, in the croft of Meall in the district of Colvidale. Their first child, John, was baptised on August 14, 1823, shortly after the local men returned from the haaf fishing. Here in Meall, where only the solid walls have survived, my great great grandmother Marion was born in 1825. She was baptised on June 16 by the Reverend Ingram who lived until the age of 103, and became the world's oldest practicing minister.

The Winwick family steadily increased with the births of Margaret (1827), Agnes (1831), Catherine (1834), Andrew (1836), Gifford (1839) and Gifford (1842). Not long after the birth of their last child, life on Unst, as in many areas of Shetland and Scotland, began to look especially grim. Not only was the population faced with crop failures and poor fishing seasons but local lairds were clearing their lands of crofters in order to run sheep. The Winwicks may have fallen victim to the whims of their landlord.

Some time during the late 1840s the family left Meall and travelled to Lerwick where Magnus and Catherine remained until their deaths. Only their son John, a fisherman and shoemaker, remained on Unst, marrying his cousin Margaret Winwick and having two children before his untimely death in 1854 at the age of 31. As yet I don't know what happened to Magnus's daughter Margaret. Of the other children: Catherine remained with her mother and never married and Gifford briefly operated a draper's shop in Lerwick before "disappearing" in the late 1860s. Marion, Agnes and many other Shetlanders emigrated to South Australia in 1851 (embarking at Gravesend), arriving in that colony in April 1852 on board the Charlotte Jane. A few weeks after her arrival in Port Adelaide, South Australia, Marion married a seaman named Joseph Brans. They had seven children, including my great grandmother Maria (born 1867), before Marion died of hepatitis on 27 May 1876.

Magnus Winwick took his little boat out on Bressay Sound on Tuesday afternoon, 22 June 1858, to gather mussels. A party of returning fishermen noticed an empty boat at anchor between the Scaup and the Point of Scotland. On investigation they discovered that it contained: an empty spirits container; a pile of freshly dredged mussels; and a hand line ready for use - the owner no-where to be seen[3]. The fishermen took the boat ashore and inquiries revealed that the boat belonged to Magnus Winwick. His body was washed ashore near Cruister the following Saturday with his watch and some money still in pockets[4], and, according to his death certificate, he was taken for burial in the Old Lerwick Cemetery. Unfortunately there is no headstone.


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Sources and Notes

[1]  Pococke, Thomas. A Soldier of the Seventy-first: The Journal of the Highland Light Infantry, 1806-1815. New Edition published in London by Cooper. 1975.

[2]  A Soldier in the Seventy-first. Ibid.

[3]  The Orcadian Monday 5 July 1858.

[4] The Orcadian Monday 5 July 1858.

Last Updated on Sunday, 06 October 2013 10:37