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Issue 31 - Digging into the past

Scotland Magazine Issue 31
February 2007

 

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Digging into the past

Sally Toms has started researching her family tree

In this issue we begin the first part of our guide to researching your family tree, a hobby that has experienced a huge rise in popularity in recent years.

Thanks to the internet and amount of information now available at the touch of a button, it’s never been easier. And it’s exciting because, unless you have an historian in your family, it probably hasn’t been done before. For many of us, we are the first generation of family history researchers, delving in to uncharted territory from the comfort of home.

If you haven’t yet started, I strongly recommend that you do.

I’ve already have. So when the opportunity arose to write something about World War II in Scotland, I took it in the hope that I would unearth some interesting stories regarding my own family.

I’ve always known that my grandfather, an engineer in the Royal Marines, was stationed for a time at Scapa Flow.

I wonder what it was like for him, and the thousands of other soldiers far from home, marooned on a cold, windswept island, isolated apart from being within easy reach of U-Boats and bombers from Nazi occupied Norway.

At the back of my mind I suppose I had hoped to unearth a picture of my old granddad during my research. Of course it would have been highly unlikely, but it was eerie, looking at images of empty buildings he might have walked through, or faces of people he might have known.

He once said that on guard duty in Orkney’s persistent bad weather, the rain would literally run down his collar and straight out of his trouser legs. He also described the blobs of oil that surfaced occasionally from the scuttled WWI fleet at the bottom of the sea. A reminder, I suppose, that history has a habit of repeating itself.

It’s easy to imagine, because things haven’t changed that much.

Rain still falls like that. Little bubbles of oil still sometimes blob up to the surface of Scapa flow.

He also once described a hair-raising journey up the North East coast to Scrabster, where the convoy of trucks he was driving was to board a ship to Orkney. The tiny headlights on his truck did not much illuminate the windy dirt track, which must have been the forerunner to the A9. Going downhill, his breaks failed and the only thing that stopped him disappearing over a cliff edge into the North Sea was the tail end of the truck in front of him.

Alas, these tit bits did not come from me but from my dad, our family’s Keeper of Knowledge. There has to be one in every generation for such stories to survive. The Keeper has a privileged position within the family, other members will always come to you with questions and to hear the stories in later years.

Like many people, I was too young and too easily bored to listen to my granddad’s war stories. Something I now deeply regret. I often think I’d better write some of these stories down to preserve them (oh – I think I just did).

However, digging about in family history has its pitfalls. As Dominic Roskrow explains in his feature, you must be prepared to unearth a few skeletons.

Following a different branch of the family tree, I’m beginning to discover that nothing my grandmother has told us about her side of the family is actually true. I’m reluctant to pursue it, in case she was trying to hide something...

Unless you have a starting point , a name, a date, it can be difficult to get going. But once you’re off, researching your family tree can be as simple as following a paper trail. Piece together the information and stories will begin to unfold before your eyes. And they’re much more interesting than fiction, because these actually happened to people in your family.

As well, it’s a way of honouring our ancestors. Maybe in the future, our descendants will be researching us.