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Issue 31 - Finding your roots

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 31
February 2007


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Finding your roots

Genealogy has grown into big business, but how easy is it to track your ancestry and find out about your relatives? Dominic Roskrow reports in part one of our guide

Have you ever noticed that the more globalised and homogenised our world becomes the more we seek out the small and local? Or that the easier it is to communicate across the planet and dig in to its furthest corners, the greater our desire to find our roots and know ourselves?

Perhaps these trends are linked merely by the metaphysical: easy access to the internet makes the research in to such things that much easier. Cheap plane travel gives us the wherewithal to go and explore our heritage and culture for ourselves.

But it could be that there is something more spiritual going on, too. Could it be that the ubiquity of everything from Coca- Cola to Apple technology, and the unrelenting march of global capitalism, have subconsciously perturbed us and have awoken a deep-buried homing instinct so that we feel the need to seek out who we are and where we come from?

And of course such instincts become all the stronger if we are geographically removed from ancestors and that separation has been fired by tragedy and heartbreak.

A journey in to our past can be an exciting one, and an intriguing one too, as we set out to find out more about the people who once upon a time helped to shape the people we have become. But there can be surprises, too, not all of them welcome. In the recent British television series Who Do You Think You Are? celebrities were invited to trace their ancestry for the cameras. Most found themselves embroiled in a history that was not so ancient as they had thought, and were surprised at how easily old wounds were opened and untapped emotions released.

Doctor Who star David Tennant traced his Scottish ancestry to discover that relatives he remembered as old people when he was a child had been active Loyalists in strifetorn Northern Ireland. And similarly, a friend of mine from Dublin was horrified to discover that he was directly related to the O’Neill family, whose family crest bears the red hand of Ulster – anathema to a Republican like himself.

So is it worth digging in to the past?

In actual fact, we probably don’t have any choice. Our instincts are too strong, and just as a hamster’s curiosity and desire for food will overcome its natural reluctance to stay hidden and avoid being handled, so the tidal force of our instincts drags us in to our past. And of course, such investigation is easier now than ever before. So where to start?

Spend five minutes surfing the internet and you’ll find enough websites to keep you busy for the rest of the year. But as is so often the case with hyperspace, you need an index and some pretty good editing if you’re to avoid expending a lot of wasted time and energy. And over the next two issues, that’s exactly what we intend to do here. In this feature, which is the first of two, we’ll look at how to get started and the basic rules you should follow. In the second we’ll look at specific information sources and organisations that will help your research.

In its purest form genealogy is the study of the descents of families. It has a serious role to play in legal and financial matters but it is also pursued as a hobby. In most cases, though, it provides just a skeleton on which to build a study of a person’s family history. What most people want to know is not that their great great grandparents boarded a ship in 1850, but what drove them to travel, what sort of people they were, and what sort of experience they would have had while making such a perilous journey. In other words, they want to build a story around the genealogy.

If you intend to embark on such an adventure then the first piece of advice is that no matter how casually and lightheartedly you intend to approach this subject, it’s worth learning and adopting the accepted standards applied by genealogists.

This will help ensure that you find what you want from your research and make the experience a more pleasurable one.

Make a plan Decide what you are actually trying to achieve. If, as is likely, you’re interested in your Scottish family history, identify as many relatives and ancestors as possible and if possible, try and put together a family tree. Keep notes and subdivide them in to people, places, and historical events. The more of these you have, the more points of investigation you have. Throughout your research document not just your findings but how you reached them. You’re entering a statistical and factual jungle and not only is it sensible to have a road map but each note you make will be a future piece in a jigsaw.

Be patient Genealogy can be like panning for gold – you might spend many hours panning for information without revealing a nugget. If you approach the task with the mindset that you want information on your relatives and you want it now, you will find this research a frustrating and unrewarding experience.

If on the other hand, you enjoy the journey and take pleasure from learning new information irrespective of its relevance to your family then your hobby will be an enjoyable one, and when the nuggets do come along they will shine all the brighter.

Work backwards If you have been told by Auntie Pat that you’re related to Robert the Bruce then starting with him and trying to plot the route to you will almost certainly end in failure. You need to start in the present, where information is most readily at hand, and work backwards. If one branch of investigation proves fruitless, you can embark on another. To some degree you need to cut out the romance and legend and focus on facts and dates. Wedding, birth and death records can all provide an essential platform for your investigation.

Use the recognised and respected information sources We’ll investigate this further in the next feature but the obvious ones here are the Scottish tourism-backed website; the Archive offices; and the Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons).

This last group keeps some of the best records of anyone, and if you have a Mormon Family History Centre near you this should be an early starting point.

Don’t rely on the internet While the internet is obviously a huge source of information, there are three truisms that apply to it: one, that there’s a lot of chaff to plough through when searching for wheat; two, that just because it’s online doesn’t make it right or true; and three, much of the information you’re seeking just won’t be available online or if it is, somebody has already made the journey you’re making so there’s not much point in you doing it. That said, it may be that someone has researched a non-relative with a similar history or name, in which case their experiences might smooth the path in front of you.

Be prepared to travel The best way to further your research is to travel to Scotland and specialist companies exist to make your trip worthwhile. But you should work hard in advance to plan your journey so that you best use your time. List the towns, archive offices and organisations you need to visit and make appointments to visit relevant people and even distant relatives for during your stay. Most of all, concentrate on people and places you gather new information from – information not available from a computer terminal.

With patience, hard work and a healthy dose of curiosity, your journey in to your Scottish past is set to be a fun, interesting and emotional one. You’re about to discover a lot more of who you are and where you come from. It doesn’t get much more exciting than that.

In the next issue we’ll look more closely at the best organisations to help you on your way. Happy hunting.