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Issue 32 - Family ties

Scotland Magazine Issue 32
April 2007


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Family ties

VisitScotland, the Scottish government agency which promotes Scotland as a tourist destination throughout the world has, in recent years, launched a series of genealogy initiatives aimed at expatriate Scots, in particular its website:

This year, of course, has been billed as Highland 2007, and the year 2009 designated as The Year of the Homecoming. Both celebrations are targeted at the estimated 28 million descendants of emigrant Scots in a bid to encourage them to make a trip back to the land of their ancestors. And part of that voyage of discovery, of course, involves their finding out where those ancestors lived and who and what they were.

In this regard, I have to say that I am extremely fortunate thanks to my father who, in his retirement years, did an extensive amount of research into my own family background, tracing our East Lothian roots as far back to 1600. In a way, this was straightforward since East Lothian has always been a prosperous agricultural area where local families tended to marry their neighbours and their deaths are recorded on the tombstones of a series of village cemeteries. The problem arises when you try to reach further back into the middle ages and find, for example, that the county town of Haddington, listed in the 15th century as the fourth largest town in Scotland, was repeatedly battered, burned and destroyed by wave after wave of English invaders.

It began in 1216, when England’s King John pillaged the town. Some years later, his son Henry III did much the same. In 1296, EdwardI rampaged through Scotland demanding that the Scots pay homage to him as their overlord. Haddington again was destroyed, and, in an act tantamount to medieval genocide the National Archive of Scotland, with all its records and charters, was seized and taken to London in a boat which then sank. Everything was lost.

The English were back under EdwardIII in 1329, under Richard II in 1385, under Henry IV in 1400, and under the Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III, in 1482. The greatest amount of destruction to Haddington, however, was wrought by the Earl of Hertfordin 1544, and in the early years of the reign of Mary Queen of Scots, who was over in France to marry the Dauphin Francis, the town was occupied by the English and under siege from a Scottish/French alliance for almost 18 months.

Under such circumstances, it is amazing that anything at all in the form of written record survived. It must have been not dissimilar to living in 20th century war-torn Poland, Croatia or 21st century Iraq.

That said, I have recently been commissioned to write a book on East Lothian, and what has entertained me enormously is that I have discovered that in the 12th century, the Sheriff of Haddington was none other than Alexander de Martine. More preposterously, he was closely associated with the building of a chapel dedicated to Sancto Martine, otherwise known as Saint Martine de Tours.

Well, there you go, you never know what you are going to come up with next once you start trying to find out who you are. Pretty soon I’ll be walking on water.

Of course, St Martine de Tours or, more commonly, Saint Martin, was a Roman soldier who was born in Pannonia (an area which included Hungary) in 316AD. A worker of miracles, he never came anywhere near Scotland but developed a large cult following with the arrival in Scotland in 1068 of the Hungarianborn Queen Margaret, wife of Malcolm III, who for her piety was also made a Saint. Obviously my ancestors somewhere along the line, perhaps through their association with the all-important monastery of St Andrew’s, under whose authority St Martin’s Chapel in Haddington was built, acquired the surname.

At a Burns Supper in January, I sat next to Lady Steel of Aikwood, founder of the Rowan Tree Theatre Company and the wife of one of Scotland’s most successful and distinguished politicians.

“You’re lucky to know who your greatgrandparents were,” she observed as we discussed the subject of ancestry. “Most people don’t.” She too has got the bug and has been tracing her own family on Orkney, finding it very rewarding and strangely emotive. With modern technology, it has never been easier.

The compulsory registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages was introduced in 1855, these are accessible and held by the General Register Office for Scotland in Edinburgh. The GRO(S) also holds parish registers before that. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons), have a religious duty to trace their ancestors, have copied the parish records and included them in their databases. Local libraries in Scotland may also hold copies, as will the family history societies. The last major source of information is the GENIUK project, which collects information and resources on British (including Scottish) and Irish genealogy.

There is an old saying in Scotland that it costs you almost nothing to find out who your ancestors are, but it can cost a fortune to keep it quiet.