The ever-popular Jimmy Osmond
The ever-popular Jimmy Osmond

The long-haired lover from Lanarkshire

Bursting into British consciousness in the early 1970s, Jimmy Osmond remains the youngest performer to have a number one single in the UK charts, with his 1972 hit Long-haired Lover from Liverpool taking the top spot when he was just nine years old.

From there his career snowballed. Later working with his brothers Alan, Wayne, Merril, Jay and Donny, plus their only sister Marie, The Osmonds’ career took them from singing barbershop music as children to achieving success as teen-music idols, from producing a hit television show to continued success as solo artists and TV personalities.

The youngest of the family of performers, it was perhaps inevitable that little Jimmy would follow his older siblings into the world of showbiz. But he believes his musical talents stretch back much further – both in years and geography – than that, with his great-great-great grandparents hailing from Lanarkshire.

‘I have always believed we got our musical talent from the Scots and Welsh side of the family,’ Jimmy says. ’My friend who is a genealogist confirmed it and it’s cool to know we have family who are Scottish.’

The ever-popular Jimmy Osmond

The singer strongly believes he has Scottish characteristics and proudly embraces his Caledonian ancestry. ‘I think the Scottish people are fun-loving and disciplined people, which we are too,’ he insists.

‘Scottish people know how to have energy and give back to performers. I love it there. It’s great to know we have family who are Scottish and we would love to meet other members of the clan.’

But it’s not just their musical talents that hail from Scotland. The Osmonds’ Mormon faith, which has played a central role in their lives, can also be traced back to Scotland.

Reflecting on a career which hit such a level in America that young Jimmy was given a panic button to wear and taught how to leave fingerprints in case he was kidnapped, with the Osmonds accompanied everywhere by 15 bodyguards at the height of their fame, the singer credits the family’s religious values for keeping him on the straight and narrow.

’If my dad hadn’t been so strict, we would have gone off the rails big time,’ he admits. ‘We were offered everything. Thank goodness we had our Mormon belief, which gave us a code to live by.’

It was Jimmy’s Scottish great-great-great grandparents, William Birrell, born in 1818, and Mary Neil, born in 1820, who brought their faith to America. Arriving in New York in the 1860s, both William, a Lanarkshire miner, and his wife Mary are listed in the Mormon Migration Database.

The Osmonds, pictured in 1971

The 19th century saw a mass exodus of Scots from their homeland, with emigration the result of both force and persuasion.

The notorious Highland clearances, which peaked between the 1840s and early 1850s, forced emigrants to leave because of evictions; while in the Lowlands the decision to move abroad was born from a desire to improve living standards, with many leaving for the New World.

While Highland crofters headed for Canada, to places such as Ontario and Nova Scotia (New Scotland), where they could work the land and maintain their lifestyle, this was not a consideration for Lowland urban emigrants like William and Mary. But while many from the Lowlands were moved to leave their birthplace by a combination of low wages, poor housing and unemployment, the Birrells were drawn to settle with their fellow Latter-day Saints stateside.

Beginning around 1840, many Scottish Latter-day Saints emigrated to the United States, with most settling in Utah – the home state today of all but one of the famous Osmond siblings.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were pioneer settlers of Utah and have always accounted for a high percentage of the population.

The first wagon train of pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. By the time the railroad reached Utah in 1869, more than 69,000 Mormons had made the trek across the Great Plains. Early pioneers came primarily from New England, mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states, as well as Canada and Britain, with the population of the early settlements growing due to missionary work overseas; British converts formed the largest foreign-born immigrant group.

Agnes Van Noy, Jimmy’s great-great grandmother, was born in Glasgow

William and Mary Birrell’s daughter Agnes was the first of the Osmonds’ Scottish ancestors to make the journey to America. Born on 17 January 1841 in Barony, Glasgow, Agnes joined the Church of Latter Day Saints as a young girl and was baptised in October 1852 in Irvine.

As the Birrells’ eldest daughter, she was sent to America ahead of the rest of the family to prepare for their arrival. On April 11, 1859, aged just 18, Agnes boarded the William Tappscott in Liverpool.

After arrival in New York 31 days later, Agnes and her fellow Mormons – 700 Britons, Scandinavians and Swiss – sailed up the Hudson River to Albany, then travelled by train to St Joseph, Missouri. They took the steamboat St Mary to Florence, Nebraska, where they arrived on 25 May.

Three weeks later the company started west. Six ox-drawn wagons initially accompanied them, but most pulled handcarts piled with their possessions and provisions. The Saints endured many hardships on the way. Hungry and weary, they quickly ran out of food and the Oxen were killed for meat. The surviving members of the group finally reached Emigration Canyon, a township near Salt Lake City, Utah, on September 4 1859.

Agnes Birrell, Jimmy Osmond’s great-great-grandmother, walked, pushing a hand cart, the entire way across the Plains. She had endured much for her religion; leaving her family in Scotland, traversing the sea and crossing the desert.

Shortly after her arrival in the Valley, Agnes went to work for William Thomas Van Noy, and on 25 December 1859 she became his second wife under plural marriage. They had 11 children and lived in Salt Lake until 1864 before moving to an abode house inside a newly-built fort in Richmond, Utah. William and Agnes worked extremely hard to raise their family, giving them an education and providing all their own food from their garden and orchard.

Agnes passed away in 1879, aged 38, just hours after the birth of her 11th child. Her children spoke of her as their ‘angel mother’ and William called her his ‘angel wife’.

Agnes’s faith, classic Scottish hard work ethic and determination are characteristics that have been retained through the generations, with Jimmy and the rest of her great, great grandchildren, The Osmonds, all displaying such traits.

This feature was first published in January 2016.