NATURAL HISTORY SOCIETY
"Our fathers find their graves in our short memories, and sadly tell us how we may be buried in our survivors." This was the gloomy conclusion of Sir Thomas Browne, writing in 1658 as he meditated on the find of some ancient burial urns in Norfolk, but fortunately with the present widespread enthusiasm for genealogy, the knowledge of our forebears is much more far-reaching and long-lasting. The best place to start research on family history is at home. An assiduous search of cupboards and drawers may bring to light an unexpectedly wide selection of interesting documents - old letters, the family bible, legal documents, newspaper cuttings, certificates, medals and photographs. Some often pose problems - letters may lack dates and refer to people only by Christian or nick names, while photographs are too often uncaptioned and have to be identified by fashions in ladles' hats or gentlemen's collars, or by the style of setting of the picture.
It is at this point that the reminiscences and memories of older members of the family can be of great value in building up the knowledge of the family. Some of the stories handed down about earlier generations may be apocryphal - many families cherish traditions of an heiress who ran away with the coachman and was disinherited, or connections with Burns, Flora McDonald and other well-known figures - but sometimes there is a foundation of truth in these tales and they should never be summarily dismissed.
Having collected as much knowledge of the family as possible orally and through material at hand, it is always wise to start systematic research to check the information gained. Memories are always valuable but frequently fallible. In Scotland, statutory registration of births, deaths and marriages commenced in January 1855 and the amount of detail given on certificates is vastly superior to that provided on English certificates. Copies of registers for the whole country are kept in New Register House, Edinburgh, where for a fee, (dally, weekly, monthly or three monthly) one can search the annual indexes and order up any certificate which seems to be of interest.
The best method is to search backwards - a birth certificate, for instance, will in most cases give the date and place of marriage of the child's parents: that marriage certificate will give the ages of the two persons concerned, their occupations and addresses and name their parents, noting whether they were still alive at that time. By systematically working back from generation to generation, it is usually possible to trace a family into the eighteenth century - though there may sometimes be difficulties if they lived in a large city or had a very common surname. On the whole, the information given on certificates is correct but it is always wise to bear in mind that errors did occur - for example, a grandson informing on the death of an aged grandparent might find it difficult to remember the maiden name of his great-grandmother which was required by the registrar, and ages were often inaccurate.
Many interesting details emerge from a study of these certificates - ages at marriage, causes of death which may illustrate the scourge of tuberculosis and ravages of typhus or smallpox - notes of where the family lived, how many children they had, occupations, even indications of literacy in the signing of certificates. The picture of earlier generations can then be filled out further by consulting .the census schedules. The earliest named census which covered the whole country was taken in 1841. This is the least satisfactory of the enumerations as those for 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881 and 1891 - all of which are open to inspection - provide much more information. All members of a household are listed, their relationship to the head of the house stated, and ages, occupations and parishes of birth given. Sometimes the details given are a little surprising - one woman was described as -uninvited guest- and a man was - perhaps truthfully - put down as -card-sharper-. The 1861 and later censuses state how many rooms with windows the family lived in - a note which often illustrates the appallingly cramped housing conditions of the time.
As well as adding to the knowledge of the background of the family, the census entries can be crucial in locating earlier generations and in bridging the gap between the statutory registers and the parish registers. These are as yet - not indexed over the whole country though work is in hand in compiling a county by county index to baptisms and marriages recorded in the parish registers and the northern counties of Scotland - but not Argyll - are now covered. It is therefore essential to know in which parish a 'person was . born or baptised - information which can be found in censuses (except that for 1841) ,
Before 1855, registration of births and marriages (or baptisms and proclamations which were the events more commonly recorded) was not obligatory. These were entered, on a voluntary basis, in the registers of each parish which were, in the main, only concerned with members of the established church of Scotland and particularly after the Disruption a high percentage of families did not record the births of their children there. Marriages (or proclamations) were more often recorded since this provided proof of the legitimacy of subsequent children. Some dissenting congregations did keep their own records; many have been sent to the Scottish Record Office in Edinburgh - others are still kept locally by the churches concerned or are in private hands. The registers of the established church are all in the hands of the Registrar General.
The Old Parish Registers are a source of fascination and frustration to the genealogist. It is not uncommon to find gaps in the records, so due to the forgetfulness or incompetence of the session clerk - in Hawick in the early 1800s many entries were prefaced by the admission "almost forgot ..." Other blanks were caused by the disruption of civil disturbances, the unwillingness of parents to give in the names of their children for baptism or the loss of whole volumes by fire, flood or mice. The starting date for registers in each parish also varies greatly. The earliest is that for Errol, in Perthshire, which goes back to 1553, while those for Skye and the Outer Isles in the main are not extant before the nineteenth century. In Kintyre the oldest register belongs to Campbeltown, commencing in 1659.
There was no standard form for entries and the amount of detail given depended on the whim of the session clerk whose task it usually was to keep the registers. A baptism often only supplied the name of the child, the name of the father and perhaps his place of residence: others, more helpfully, gave the mother's maiden name, father's occupation and details of witnesses who were often relatives. Proclamations were in many cases even less informative and sometimes consisted merely of the date of crying of banns and names of the two parties concerned and the parish to which each belonged.
The pleasure of searching the parish registers, however, comes in the element of surprise in entries - unexpected details of when a child who is being baptised cut its first tooth or a hint at a hidden family drama. In Strontian in 1833 the proclamation for Donald Cameron at Woodend and Mary Cameron was duly put in the parish register but a note was added underneath: "N.B. There has been something very odd about the above parties. They fast contracted and then split. Then agreed and with much regularity married, were not married passing 5 days when lo - the weaker vessel set sail and steered her course for her mammy." Another marriage entry - in Campbelltown in 1726 also arouses one's curiosity as beneath the proclamation of Hugh Thompson and Jean Greenlees was written the terse comment "She rewed".
The death or burial records were the least well kept. Many parishes had none - others only noted the payments made for the hire of the parish mort cloth, while a few records vividly depict the tragedies of the past shipwrecks at sea, cholera epidemics or deaths of children falling through the ice in winter, some entries giving whole obituaries of the dead. One can never be sure what will be found - and sometimes the minister or session clerk took the opportunity to make totally irrelevant comments on the weather, the state of the crops or to enter the cure for the bite of a mad dog in man or beast.
One of the problems of researching ancestry in pre-1855 records is in proving the relevance of any entry found. Lacking information from a statutory marriage or death certificate, which gives the names of parents, one might find several children of the same born in a parish over a period of years, anyone of which might refer to the person being sought. It has been known for over-eager ancestor hunters in despair to shut their eyes and select one of the possibilities at random but in fact there are various clues which can sometimes solve the impasse. Many families followed the Scottish naming patterns, calling the eldest son after his paternal grandfather, and the eldest daughter after the maternal grandmother. in some cases generation after generation remained at the same farm or township or followed the same occupation - or information can be gained from looking at the names of witnesses to the baptism of children as it is very common for the child's grandfather or uncle to be a sponsor.
Deficient, full of errors, tales of the unexpected as they are, the old parish registers remain the major source of genealogy before 1855, and with perseverance it is often surprising how much information can be culled from them. Most families can be traced back to the 1780' s - but many, with additional information gained from a search of the many other sources available can be established back much further.(To be continued)
Copyright belongs to the authors unless otherwise stated.
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ISSN 0140 0762