Sue Cook presents the series that examines listeners' historical queries, exploring avenues of research and uncovering mysteries.
John Taylor, the ancient lead miner - could he really have been 137?
"While on holiday in Scotland I came across an extraordinary gravestone in Leadhills in Lanarkshire. The man buried there was a miner, John Taylor, who was said to be 137 when he died. What do you make of this?"
The grave in Leadhills churchyard is that of Robert Taylor, overseer of the Scotch Mining Company, and also of his father, John, said to have been 137 years old. Two factors seem to have led to this calculation of his age: his supposed memory of a celebrated eclipse of the sun in 1652, and the age at which young men were allowed to work underground. Given these factors, it was worked out that when he died in 1770 he was 137. John Taylor was said to be already working down the pit at the time of the eclipse, known as Mirk Monday. He described how he had been called up to see how "a curious cloud darkened the sky". Taylor had worked in lead mines in Durham, and also worked on Islay, in Argyle and in Yorkshire, moving to Leadhills in 1733 when he was already, supposedly, 90 years of age. And he worked as a labourer for another 19 years. There are stories that when he was 100 he was put outside his door one night "in case God had forgotten him". Another tale is that, at 116, he went off on a fishing trip in winter, got lost, stuck his fishing rod in the snow and walked back to a point from where he was rescued.
John Taylor lived outside Leadhills and was still walking the two miles into the village at the age of 128. A 19th-century account of him at the Leadhills Reading Society - the oldest subscription library in Scotland, founded in 1741 - says:
"He was a thin spare man, about 5 ft 8 inches high, black-haired, ruddy faced and long visage. His breakfast was usually oatmeal porridge, dinner meat and broth, and his chief drink malt liquor. At length having been sometime craddled in a second childhood with hardly any remains of either bodily or mental facilities, this veteran expired in the month of May 1770."
One interpretation of this is that, without the constant preoccupation now with the time and date, rule-of-thumb calculations of how long ago something happened could go badly awry.
Mary Hamilton, President of the Leadhills Reading Society
Guthrie Hutton, Lanarkshire's Mining Legacy (Stenlake Publishing, 1997)
Vanessa has presented science and current affairs programmes for BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Discovery and has presented for BBC Radio 4 & Five Live and a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday, Scotsman and Sunday Herald.
Contact Making History
Send your comments and questions for future programmes to:
BBC Radio 4
PO Box 3096 Brighton