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For years now I’ve been trying to sort out a line of Olivers from Caithness in the Highlands of Scotland. Oliver is my mother’s maiden name, and this is the branch of my family to which I have the strongest ties.

The mystery includes:

  • A great great grandfather, David Oliver, who appears to have been born out of wedlock;
  • Tales of a teenage shepherd from the south fathering a baby and vanishing;
  • A child raised by his grandparents while his mother started a new family;
  • And now a DNA connection to a line of Oliphants who moved from Caithness to Australia.

David Oliver, the son

My 2nd great grandfather, David Oliver, was born in Latheron, Caithness between 1844 and 1848 and died in 1923 in Edinburgh. Although I haven’t found a birth or baptismal certificate for him, his marriage certificate to Esther Henderson (30 Dec 1864, Thurso) listed David’s father as George Oliver, police officer, and his mother as Elizabeth Oliver, maiden surname Sutherland. David’s 1923 death certificate lists his parents as George Oliver (Shepherd) and Betsy Oliver, afterwards Hamilton nee Sutherland.

David Oliver married Esther Henderson, 30 December 1864 in Thurso, listing his father as George Oliver, Police Officer, and his mother as Elizabeth Oliver, maiden surname Sutherland
David’s death certificate refers to his father, George Oliver, as a shepherd, and again names his mother as Betsy Oliver, afterwards Hamilton, maiden surname Sutherland

But…family lore is that George and Elizabeth were never married, that George may have been a young shepherd from the south. There were Olivers who moved to the Highlands from the border counties in the south of Scotland and worked as shepherds. Some may have stayed in the area, while others moved away in a generation or two.

Elizabeth Sutherland, the mother

After giving birth to David about 1848, Elizabeth Sutherland married a James Hamilton in September, 1849, and had eight more children, living in Bower, 20 miles from her parents’ home in Latheron. The 1851 census lists her son, 4 year old David Oliver, living with Elizabeth’s parents (his grandparents), George and Margaret (Sandison) Sutherland in Latheron.

George Oliver, the father?

Meanwhile, the father. There is a George Oliver who fits the general profile. He was born in the south about 1833, and was living in Thurso by 1841. There’s no documented connection I’ve found between this George Oliver and Elizabeth Sutherland other than David’s marriage and death certificates. George married a Johan McKenzie in Thurso in 1853, five to seven years after my David Oliver was born, and four years after Elizabeth married James Hamilton.

Ship Vocalist Approaching the River Mersey, Liverpool, after 1856
George and Johan Oliver arrived in New South Wales on this ship on 10 October 1856.

George and Johan sailed on the Ship Vocalist to New South Wales, Australia, with their first two children in 1856. I’ve found plenty of information about George in Australia (many children, another marriage), and he could be my guy, but nothing confirms that, and then there are the Oliphants…

Oliphants and DNA

I’ve had quite a few DNA matches who are descendants of an Essie Oliphant, born in Adelaide, South Australia in 1879, daughter of a George Oliphant, born in Wick, Caithness in 1848, son of a William Oliphant, also from Wick, born 1821. I can’t find a George Oliphant the right age, and I can’t figure out any connection beyond the DNA.

If it weren’t for the DNA matches, I’d be fairly comfortable with the assumptions I’ve made about George Oliver, but the Oliphant DNA…

The Brick Wall

The key pieces I’m trying to answer are:

  • Who was David Oliver’s father?
  • If it wasn’t George Oliver born 1833, was it an Oliphant?
  • Which Oliphant? (I’ve been making an Oliphant tree, but just can’t connect it to my people).
  • And why does David’s 1864 marriage certificate list his mother as Elizabeth Oliver when she’d been married to James Hamilton for over 10 years by then?

I would eagerly welcome any advice or information!


  • George Sutherland (1791-1873) and Margaret Sandison (1794-1882) – 4th great grandparents
  • Elizabeth Sutherland (1822-1908) – 3rd great grandmother and George Oliver (abt. 1833-1920) – 3rd great grandfather??
  • David Oliver (abt. 1848-1923) and Esther Henderson (1833-1906) – 2nd great grandparents
  • Daniel Oliver (1870-1953) great grandfather
  • Kenneth Oliver (1898-1975) grandfather
  • My mum
  • Me