Lizzie Bryce was born to William Baxter and his wife Margaret Wilson in the parish of Mid Calder in January 1776. She grew up like any other poor child of her time: a few years of schooling at the parish school in Mid Calder, then out to work on a local farm.
At the age of 23, Lizzie Baxter married Alexander Bryce, a ploughman who like Lizzie was born and bred in Mid Calder. In the records of the time, the name is always spelled Bryce, not Brice.
Their first son, Alexander, was born in 1800, the year after their marriage, then another three children, one of whom, Elizabeth, died. Their next child was also named Elizabeth – which seems odd to our modern taste, but was very common in those days.
As Alexander Bryce grew older, ploughing became too strenuous, and he got a job as gardener to the Rev. John Sommers at Mid Calder Manse. The minister was their nearest neighbour to the west, and must have thought well of his gardener, for on Alexander’s death in 1854, Mr Sommers erected a gravestone to his memory in Livingston Churchyard.
Now widowed, Lizzie Bryce lived on at Raw Cottage (just northeast of the present Lizzie Brice roundabout). Her widowed daughter Elizabeth Mason had come back to stay with her, and the two women made a living by fostering pauper children from Edinburgh. The 1861 census reveals that Lizzie and her daughter were looking after five girls, all from the poor and overcrowded parish of St Cuthbert’s, so the open fields and woods around Raw Cottage must have been a healthy change for them.
Lizzie Bryce may not have been the gentlest of foster mothers. Folk memory tells that she was tall and angular and would shout at the local children and scare them. In return, they taunted her for being a witch. In the seventeenth century, old women who frightened the local community might have been accused of witchcraft and have been burned at the stake. By the nineteenth century, belief in witches had withered away. The last witch was burned in Scotland in 1727, and the laws against witchcraft were repealed in 1736. Calling Lizzie a witch was no more than name-calling by the local children.
Lizzie Bryce died at Raw Cottage in 1865. She was 89 and the cause of death was entered as ‘senility’. Like the other poor people of her day, she might now be quite forgotten, if her name had not become associated with the strip of ground where she had lived. When a name was being sought for a new pub in Dedridge in 1980, Lizzie Brice’s Strip was found on an old map and the name was chosen.
The famous, the wealthy and the notorious are remembered, but history generally overlooks the poor, so it’s pleasing to have a memorial to a poor woman like Lizzie Bryce. And if your name is Bryce or Mason, perhaps you’re one of her descendants!
If you’d like to find out more about Lizzie Bryce, or your own family history, or any aspect of West Lothian, past or present, contact the West Lothian Local History Library.
Published in Konect May 2009
Author: Sybil Cavanagh