Robert McClelland Cavaye: born Port Royal, Jamaica 1808, died Restalrig, Edinburgh 1876


Robert McClelland Cavaye was born in Jamaica and christened in Kingston under the surname Cathcart. He was the son of William Cathcart, a Greenock Jamaica merchant, and Claire Cavayé, a free mustee refugee from Haiti. Their story was recently told in Dorothy Cavaye’s book “Need a Body Cry”


Separated from his West Indian family, Robert was brought to Britain in 1815.  He was placed in a school for young gentlemen in Brixton until the age of 20, when he became apprenticed to James Dickson, a nurseryman in Edinburgh.  Robert seems to have had no real taste for hard work and in 1834 he went to America but, returning within a year, remained idle and in debt in Edinburgh, marrying and settling at Northfield Cottage, Jock's Lodge, where all his children were born.   Successive census returns describe him as an annuitant, born at Port Royal, Jamaica, and record his two wives and changing household.   In 1876, suffering an asthma attack soon after the death of his youngest daughter, he cut his throat, dying from exhaustion and loss of blood after six days.


Robert is perhaps named after a Jamaica friend of his father’s (Robert McClelland was a young tannery proprietor and freemason recorded in a monument in Kingston Cathedral).   Robert’s older brother William had been sent to England in 1808 and his sister Claire had died in 1807, both before he was born. The boy stayed in Kingston Port Royal with his Haitian-born Cavayé mother, aunt and grandmother in the house in Maiden Lane which William Cathcart continued to pay for after he had left Jamaica for good. But Claire the mother died in 1812.  Three years after that event, detaching him from what he regarded as the superstition of the remaining female relatives, William Cathcart arranged with his agents to have the boy brought to England in 1815.  Doctors’ bills in the Cathcart accounts suggest young Robert’s poor health –probably asthma.  He joined his older brother William Cavaye as a boarder at Loughborough House School, Brixton, Surrey. William’s education was by then nearly over, and he left for military service with the East India Company, while Robert stayed on at the school until 1828.  There seems to have been little aptitude for school work, though an easy nature made up for lack of drive.  Robert occupied himself in tending a garden at Loughborough House, his West Indian love of growing no doubt first nurtured in his mother’s household in Jamaica. 


Loughborough House, Brixton in 1825. Demolished in 1854, it stood at the bend in what is now Loughborough Road.



   With Robert was still at Loughborough House, his brother William implored him in letters from India not to let himself be sent into the East India Company's service as he had been.  It was a common fate for young men with a background in the West Indies.   William also told Robert to drop the accent from the final 'e' of Cavayé and to say he was born in Kingston on Thames not Kingston Jamaica. 


In August 1827 Robert’s father died in Scotland.  William Cathcart appears throughout to have avoided the most basic contact or even acknowledgement of the boy, dealing only through his agents and the school proprietor. 


 It is likely that Robert's early nursery work was to the west of Edinburgh (his first wife Mary Black came from Corstorphine parish) and intriguing that a 'Port Royal' place name is found there today beside Edinburgh Airport.   Robert spent time with his aunts, Helen and Isabella Cathcart, who lived in Princes Street, Edinburgh and Windsor Place, Portobello.   They probably supported his early business ventures and paid for his portrait.


In this letter Helen Cathcart becomes Robert's guardian after William Cathcart's death:

Letter to Mr Robt Cavaye at the Revd Thomas Willet's, Loughborough House, North Brixton, Surrey."

The letter is stamped "Nov 1827" and "Paid".

Edin 16th Novr 1827.


Dear Sir,

I received your letter two days ago and shall be very happy to accept the office of becoming your guardian. The legacy left you by Mr Cathcart, you cannot receive till the 15th of next May when you may depend upon my seeing it properly secured for you. But before the legacy tax is deducted and the necessary expenses are deducted you will only receive about £2,200 which at 4pr cent will only give you an income of £84 yearly, and which from your want of experience in the world and never having had money to pay out I fear you may consider this sum to be inexhaustible. But believe me it will not go far in supporting you. Therefore it will be necessary that you should practise every piece of economy in your port [on your part?], and if you will be advised by me, you will put yourself entirely under the guidance & protection of Mr Willet who I think most highly of. He is a truly sensible, respectable, character. The late Mr Cathcart had a high opinion of him, and by a letter which I saw from your Brother to Mr C- soon after his arrival in India, he spoke much of Mr Willet's kindness to him and the justice he had done him in points of education. So I hope you will see the propriety of being advised by him, and in your unprotected state you are most fortunate in having so good a Man to take a little charge of you. I would strongly recommend you to remain with Mr Willet and go on with your education till next May when I hope you will be able to fix upon some profession as your income will not admit of your being idle but with your application to whatever profession you may choose it will enable you to live comfortable. Whenever I can be of any use to you, don't have any hesitation in applying to me as I shall at a[ll tim]es* be happy if it is in [my] power to promote your welfare.


I remain Dear Sir

Yrs very sincerely Helen Cathcart.



Robert's entry to the profession of nurseryman was referred to in one of the letters from his brother William in India (qv).  This letter from an Edinburgh agent to the schoolmaster at Brixton takes up the story:

Letter to Rev. T. Willet, 

Loughborough House, North Brixton, Surrey

2nd. May 1828


     We were duly favored with yours of the 22nd. ulto regarding the determination of Mr. R. Cavaye now to follow out the profession of a Nurseryman and Seedsman and have communicated its contents to Mr. Dickson of the house of Dickson Brothers here and he says that he is still willing to receive Mr. Cavaye as an apprentice for three years on the conditions mentioned in our letter to you of 9th February last but he has requested us to state again more particularly to the young man that he admits of no distinction of persons in his employment and the same rule is applied to all whether the most common labourers or Gentlemen's sons. They are all while in his employment common Gardners and the slightest breach of duty is attended with instant dismissal. Mr. Dickson says that he thinks he could procure a similar situation for Mr. Cavaye in the Nurseries of his brother and nephew at Chester if he should prefer England to Scotland but there the rules are exactly the same and the apprentices have not the same opportunity of attending classes.

Mr. Dickson further states that he has a family of eleven children and we think he said nine of them sons, three of whom are already bred or breed to his own profession and that he did not doubt more of them will follow their example and he must of course establish gardens in other parts of the Kingdom all of whom must have a certain capital and with so many he will run aground and therefore it will become an objective with him to establish some of these young men in partnership with others who have capital and in this way he says if Mr. Cavaye is attentive and makes himself master of his business his capital may be an inducement to him to make him a partner of some of his sons but in the meantime he is not to look forward to such connection as whatever his fortune may be it will be of no avail unless he is steady - honourable and versant in his business.

     If Mr. Cavaye is to engage in this profession at all he must begin now as this time is the season when having the summer weather before him he will become inured to the open air before the Winter commences which is the trying season for outdoor work to persons not accustomed to it.

     Has Mr Cavaye ever consulted his Brother in India on this subject? and could he wish to do so before farther proceeding. Our own idea is that he should begin in the meantime& if his Brother disapproves & can point out another & better profession he can then adopt his Brother's views.

   We are for your moobd.(?)

          Hunter, Campbell & Cathcart


Eventually Robert Cavaye took up residence at Northfield Cottage, Jock's Lodge on the road between Edinburgh and Portobello near where Cavaye & Dickson had begun a new nursery and almost opposite the Piershill Cavalry Barracks, an excellent source of manure for the horticulturalists. In the words of Old and New Edinburgh: “These barracks form three sides of a quadrangle, presenting a high wall, perforated by two gateways, to the line of the turnpike road. The whole surface of the district round them is studded with buildings, and has only so far subsided from the urban character as to acquire for these, whether villa or cottage, the graceful accompaniments of garden or hedge-row. ‘A stroll from the beautified city to Piershill,’ says a writer, ‘when the musical bands of the barracks are striving to drown the soft and carolling melodies of the little songsters on the hedges and trees at the subsession of Arthur's Seat, and when the blue Firth, with its many-tinted canopy of clouds, and its picturesque display of islets and steamers, and little smiling boats on its waiters, vies with the luxuriant lands upon its shore to win the award due to beauty, is indescribably delightful’’”.   The local churchyard at St Margaret and St Triduana, Old Restalrig has some interesting monuments to the cavalrymen, some of them like that to Toussaint, with West Indian connections.



The first Edinburgh–Newcastle trains via the East Coast route to London, and Edinburgh-Carlisle trains via the Waverley route to London, passed within 100 yards of the house.  It became a very busy line indeed with the coal trains to Granton, the long distance services linking the south to the Granton train-ferries for Dundee, Perth and Aberdeen, as well as all the local passenger services and the London expresses at first to Euston and later to both Kings Cross and St Pancras. The North British Railway Company chose to locate their mechanical engineering centre - St Margaret's Engine Works – on the line at Jock’s Lodge, and locomotives were built and maintained here from the late 1840s.  Perhaps William Cavaye of the Bombay Army, who was almost certainly helping to support Robert financially, stopped by to take an interest.  William’s daughter Felicité was later to marry a prominent Yorkshire locomotive engineer, Edwin Ward.  It’s also interesting to remember that Grandison's tiny Byculla Glass Works, which was named after the town north of Bombay, grew up later almost next door to Robert Cavaye’s Northfield Cottage.


In these Piershill years, Robert may have spent a lot of his time in yarning with the cavalrymen from the barracks.  Whenever he went out, his children recalled, he took great care of his appearance and was particular about his top hat and cane.


The 1841 Census shows Robert's family as follows:   Parish of South Leith: Northfield Place

Robt. Cavaye aged 30, Independent Means.  Not born in Scotland

Mary Cavaye aged 20                                     Not born in Scotland

son (indec.) aged 9 months                                   born in Scotland

Susan Blackie aged 20, Female Servant

-next door on one side lived Andrew Robertson aged 60, Independent not born in Scotland

-on the other side was Harry Shaw aged 40 an Englishman, late Lieutenant in the Army, with his family including son Byam Shaw aged 5. [Too early for Byam Shaw the well-known artist and illustrator, who lived 1872-1919]


The 1851 Census shows Northfield Place as follows:

-at No 2 Jean Hay Head of Family, unmarried aged 50, Landed proprietor, sempstress, born Kirkcaldy

-then 2 houses uninhabited;   then at No 3:

Robert Cavaye, Head, married aged 42, Annuitant, born West Indies, British Subject

Mary Cavaye, wife, married, aged 30, wife, born Corstorphine, Midlothian

William Cavaye, son, aged 10, scholar, born Edinburgh

Robert Cavaye, son aged 9, scholar, born Edinburgh

-next door at No 4 lived Widow Wood, house proprietor, aged 51, and her family.


The 1861 Census shows the Cavaye house (4 rooms with 1 or more windows) as 2 Northfield Place:

R McL Cavaye, Head, married, 54, Landed Proprietor, Born West Indies, British Subject

Margt. Cavaye, Wife, married, 24, Born Ireland

Robert Cavaye, Son, unmarried, 19, Turner, Born Midlothian (South Leith)

James Cavaye, Son,3, Born Midlothian (South Leith)

Mary Cavaye, Daughter, 1, Born Midlothian (South Leith)

Charles Cavaye, Son, under 1 month, Born Midlothian (South Leith)

James Mac avoy, Boarder or lodger, married, 23, Private, 13 L. Dragoons, Born Ireland

Mary Macavoy, ditto, wife, married, 27, Born Ireland

Isabella Smith, lodger, married, 24, Soldier's wife, Born England

Mary Smith, her daughter, 5 months, Born Midlothian (South Leith)

-next door, at No 1 (same-sized house) lived Wm. Tweedie, 65, a retired baker, and his wife.


The 1871 Census, in the registration district of South Leith, shows

Northfield Cottage (4 rooms with 1 or more windows, 3 children 5-13 attending school) as follows:

Robert McLellan Cavaye, Head, married, 65, annuitant, b. West Indies, Port Royal

Margaret Cavaye, wife 33, annuitant's wife, b. Ireland, Co Armagh

James Cavaye, son, 13, b. Edinburghshire, Sth Leith

Mary Cavaye, dau, 11, scholar, b. Edinburghshire, Sth Leith

Charles Cavaye, son, 10, scholar, b. Edinburghshire, Sth Leith

George McL. Cavaye, son, 8, scholar, b. Edinburghshire, Sth Leith

Margaret Cavaye, dau, 5, b. Edinburghshire, Sth Leith

Robert Cavaye, son, 3, b. Edinburghshire, Sth Leith

Jane Cavaye, dau, 2, b. Edinburghshire, Sth Leith

William H. Cavaye, son, 7 months, b. Edinburghshire, Sth Leith

also Mary Harris, Lodger, married, 23, soldier's wifwe, b. Musselburgh (1 window)

Sarah Horton, Lodger, married, 17, soldier's wife, b. England, Morpeth (1window)

also at Northfield Cottage, but as a separate house, was the McEvoy family, with Patrick, the Head aged 35, an Agent for a Wholesale Artificial Flower and Feather works.

-And on the other side was Margaret Anderson, a Dressmaker and Widow from Kirkcaldy aged 71, and her daughter Elizabeth.

pdf sheet of 4 proofs of this family group click here

The photograph shows Robert McClelland Cavaye with his second wife Margaret Boyd and their children (Robert’s second family) not long after the 1871 census was taken. Two more children were yet to come, Andrew and the short-lived Louisa.  In 1876, suffering an asthma attack soon after Louisa’s death, Robert McClelland Cavaye cut his throat, dying from exhaustion and loss of blood after six days.


Cause of Death: Exhaustion produced from the result of a self-inflicted wound in the throat.  Dr. A H Balfour, Portobello.

Procurator Fiscal's Office 28 June 1876


After Robert’s death, his older brother General William Cavaye oversaw the finances of his widow and helped find positions for his children.  They remembered being sent to wait outside the cottage when the General’s carriage arrived from Royal Circus. 



Robert’s son Andrew Cavaye & his family


Cavayes of Craig Royston & Portobello in the Thirties Dorothy Cavaye remembers


Printable version of Cavayes of Craig Royston




Portobello, Robert Skeldan & the railway emigrants