An Illustrated Family History Archive

The Horsburgh Family

19th Century Pioneers of Road Transport

© 2014 Garen C. Ewing. Last updated: Jun 2016
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Lost origins

William Reekie Horsburgh, one of ten brothers and sisters, had his beginings in the parish of Carnbee where he was born to James Horsburgh and Janet Denholm in 1839 - his mother being a descendant of Sutties, Steadmans and Chapmans from St. Monance. There is more mystery surrounding his father's origins. Certainly William's middle name came from his grandmother Agnes Reekie, who brought up his father, James, in Arncroach. James was born illegitimately in 1806, inheriting his reputed father's name with the only other clue being that this James Horsburgh had the occupation of shipwright. In fact, this shipwright can be found - he later married Mary Watson and his children became the other major branch of Dundee Horsburghs.

Carnbee Church. The gravestone of John Horsburgh lies near the gate, also dedicated to his wife Agnes, and their 14 year old son, Robert.

A local family

William's father was an agricultural labourer of Arncroach, but also became beadle there and worked as a tailor towards the end of his life. Of William's siblings, most stayed locally and remained in farming and other outdoor labourings. One, David, became a shoemaker and moved his family to Edinburgh. One of his descendants, John James Horsburgh, became a professional footballer for Oldham Athletic in the early 1960s. The youngest child, Robert (1855), had two sons who took the Horsburgh name to New Zealand - one before and one after the Great War, whilst older daughter Jenny went to Australia.

The Horsburghs in Dundee

William married Margaret Mitchell Birrell at Crail in 1859, and the couple had their first three children there by 1863. Margaret was the daughter of John Birrell who had drowned at the age of just 21 while working as a ship's carpenter; her mother was Peggy Auchterlonie, herself born in and a resident of Crail. Sometime between 1873 and 1876 the family (now with 8 children) moved to Dundee and by 1882 three more had been added to the clan.

What's left of the Victorian North Erskine Street in 2002, with a view down to the Tay.

Carters and contractors

In the mid 1960s, a Dundee man remembered his father's carting experience to Angela Tucker in 'The Scottish Carter':

"Mine was a typical country family, which came into Dundee to get work in the jute mills. Like many agricultural labourers and crofters driven by economic necessity off the land, the only adaptable skills of my father and brothers were horses. So they became town carters. When my dad went out carting, I was about 10 or 12; that would be about 1887 or 1889. He went out at 5 a.m. and I never saw him back till 8 at night."

William was certainly working as a carting contractor in 1877, and a lorry man in 1881, and by 1895 ran his own carting contractor business with his son, David, from North Erskine Street with just one horse-drawn lorry. The business seems to have grown in strength, by 1898 operating from Raglan Street, though William and David's partnership was dissolved in Feb 1900, nine months before William's death - he fell down some steps at Harriet Street and died a few days later in the infirmary. David continued in the carting business from Trades Lane and then from Albert Street in the 1930s. The Horsburgh's would later be described as 'pioneers of road transport'.

My great uncle Peter Cameron remembered them around Dundee from about 1929 when he was 9 years old: "... the name Horsburgh was a very well known name in Dundee... They had a large fleet of lorries (I think they had solid rubber tyres at the time) and also a fleet of carts drawn by Shire horses. Their main function was the transporting of bales of jute from the docks to the various mills and factories for processing."

John Horsburgh (1892-1969), carting contractor for Tough Bros., with his Clydesdale, Darkie. Both served in the Great War.

David's son Norman took over upon David's death (in 1943 at the family home, Travebank) and the firm was nationalised, not necessarily to the comapny's liking, in 1950. Norman was a very well-liked Dundee figure and had his fingers in many local business pies, from farming and insecticide to taxis and car-dealing. He was something of a racer himself, and in a race at Monifieth in 1929 his car capsized on a sharp corner, sadly resulting in the death of his co-driver and mechanic. He was also involved in showing and judging ponies, the Half-Holiday Football League, curling and was even a tenor in his younger days.

David's other son, William Gordon Horsburgh, branched off to form the Dundee Contracting Co. that was in existance from 1943 until the late 1960s. While the older company was responsible for such Dundee landmarks as the Labour Exchange and part of the City Square Underground, William built Balmossie Reservoir and the roads at Stracathro Hospital with the Horsburgh name.

Many other Horsburgh children were also involved in the haulage industry, including Andrew Birrell Horsburgh. Andrew seems to have been something of a troubled soul and was well-known to the Dundee police, often due to violence - sometimes against his own family. In January 1886 he and some friends indulged in a number of assaults and he found himself in court faced with either a £2 fine or 30 days' imprisonment. Whether it was on the cards already, or due to a stern ultimatum from his father, just a couple of weeks later Andrew enlisted with the Royal Artillery. He lasted as a gunner for three years before buying himself out and entering the family carting business, but it didn't stop his run-ins with the law.

Fleet of red and blue 'David Horsburgh' Albion lorries, c.1930s/40s.

Andrew's son, William, was a 7-year old in June of 1900 and was playing on a construction site at a jute mill in Cunningham Street where his father had employed a contractor to supply sand and gravel. William climbed the gravel heap up onto a wall to play, but there he fell into the jute mill pond and sadly drowned. Forty-two years later another of his sons had a tragic end when 45-year old dock labourer Andrew Birrell Horsburgh (junior) fell 30 feet into the hold of a ship and was instantly killed. Andrew (senior) died ten years later at the age of 83.


My great great grandmother, Margaret Auchterlonie Horsburgh, was William Reekie Horsburgh's eldest child (b.1860) and she married Peter Cameron in 1881. The family moved to Glasgow where Peter tried his hand at the grocery trade. This was not a success and the Camerons moved to Dundee where Peter also became carter. His son would stay in the transport business too, working as a vanman, and later a chauffeur.

Research into the Horsburgh family is ongoing. Special thanks to Dr. David Horsburgh for his tireless work on James Horsburgh, shipwright, and also to Thomas McGill.

If you have further information, stories or photos, or are a family member who would like to know more, please get in touch.