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Some Personal Thoughts on Family History


Mary McGonigal

1 Genealogy versus family history


Genealogy is generally considered to be about names, dates and places. Those who take it up find more than that in it, particularly if they are researching their own family. It is about the entire story of their family, not merely names and dates. It is their history.

They begin to move beyond the names and dates into an awareness of hitherto unknown lands or historical movements, and how individuals or families have been influenced and affected by them, even how their family is still affected by them.

Some examples of these in Scotland are the World War I, its battlefields and cemeteries; the Industrial Revolution with the marked changes it brought to our rural landscape; the enforced emigrations to Canada, Australia and New Zealand arising from the Highland Clearances; or the continuing epic of chronic poverty and famine endured by different generations. All of these involved events where people’s lives were at times cut short, people like us, people displaced, land lost, often way beyond any personal or community control.

All of this and more can be encountered in the course of genealogical research, and it can be harrowing for the researcher to uncover historical horrors and disgraces, particularly when you are attached by blood or marriage to victims. At one time genealogy and family history might have seemed to be separate realities, but now, with their growing popularity, genealogy and family history are like “blood brothers”, so close is their relationship in the practice of many researchers.


2 Research and emotion


Some useful knowledge of history and geography is advisable in researching family background. What affects the family historian most, however, is not merely knowledge of facts but the experience the uncovered facts bring, together with the imagined experience of our family members, even though they are dead and gone.

Once, while on a day visit to Park Circus Genealogy Centre in Glasgow, I witnessed a woman who upped and left, very dramatically, after thirty minutes’ work on the GRO computer site, because one of the records she had accessed had the word “Illegitimate” scrawled in large handwriting across the first column of the birth certificate. Her emotions had just got the better of her.

In nineteenth and twentieth century Scotland the appearance of that adjective “illegitimate” was not an exceptional occurrence. If not typical, it was a fairly routine occurrence, at least for the registrar. I saw the same word written on the death certificate of an elderly man, presumably having been copied from his birth or baptism record, and I remember well the indignation I felt on his behalf at such an unnecessary bureaucratic inclusion. Emotion is an integral part of the family history quest, and the range and depth of emotions it provokes can be surprising.

“Pauper” is another item of vocabulary that can cause strong emotions in people researching their family history. I know now, more precisely than when I started my research, what was actually meant when that word was used in the statutory, census or church records. The word “pauper” meant quite simply “having no income or means of support”. In a pre-welfare state society it was unfortunately not in the least uncommon. Yet the first time I encountered it, linked to a family member, it gave me the kind of shock or jolt that makes you want unconsciously to look around to see if anyone else has noticed. I am from a working class family, and not in any way special, but the word “pauper” carried with it a kind of stigma, a shamed feeling.

When I retold the fact to other family members, I witnessed a similar shocked look on their faces, a saddened, dismayed, even a kind of ashamed-at-a-distance, reaction, as if to say “Pauper?  Pauper?  Oh my! Oh dear!”

The word “poorhouse” can have the same effect. Both words are distressing to most people. They signal unhappiness in our families, hardship and pain. They unlock an awareness in us that these ancestors of ours were indeed really people who for whatever reason fell on seriously hard times.

So when we see them we are alarmed, for them and for ourselves, as well as sympathetic.


3 Search for the unknown


In family history work, our feelings are stirred as we read about and take in the implications of the huge assortment of factual details we have uncovered through our research of records, documents and photographs: the names of our ancestors, the size and location of their dwellings, their age at marriage, the number of children they have or their children’s deaths, their disabilities and causes of death, the fatal accidents and family feuds they experience, and whether they were involved in bigamy or other criminal activity.

Family history does not pull its punches. It can be human life at its rawest. We call the activity of doing family history ‘research’, but there is little coldly objective about it if it is our own family’s world we are researching. You would do well to have a Kleenex or a hankie ready for when it hits you between the eyes.

There are also times of adventure and excitement too: we may come upon pioneers who sailed to a new life in a new country; or famous relatives whose names reverberate through the centuries. If so, we are glad. We rejoice in their moments of acclaim, their war medals, we cheer for their renewed good fortune after all the hard times. We treasure photographs and letters that fill us with affection and warm our hearts. We are often amused at their occupations and occasionally embarrassed at their choices of given names. We go through the roof with triumph when an elusive record is found.

Some of my Quigly relatives gave census enumerators a seriously hard time with their surname variations, and me too, come to that, when I was searching for them. On one occasion, at the GWSFHS research centre in Mansefield Street, Glasgow, to my amazement, I found a much sought-after entry which had escaped me for years, but which I knew must be there.

The entry turned out to be in the 1851 census for the parish of Riccarton in Ayrshire. It was for my 3x great-grandmother Catherine Quigly, maiden surname Liness, who had been born about 1800 in Neilston, Renfrewshire of an Irish family. Catherine along with some of her children and grandchildren were living at a place called Chapelyhill in the village of Hurlford. Catherine's name was recorded merely as 'Mrs Sweedley'. Presumably the enumerator had difficulty with the Irish Gaelic pronunciation of Quigley. Once I had found it, I could see it sounded a bit like Tweedley, which is now a recognised variation of the surname Quigley. I no longer know exactly how I came finally to find the entry, but I shall never forget the elation and sense of achievement I experienced to have found my ‘lost’ family.


4 Past and present


Is it the variety or intensity of our emotional response to what we manage to uncover that makes all these dead people come alive for us? For I have no doubt, though some will think me crazy, that I am not the only family historian who considers them, centuries later, to be in some way still, real living, people. I think that there is a sense in which, by seeking out their histories, we extend to them an opportunity to live again - in some way or another - with us in our present lives. Their lives and ours are so intricately linked, that although in the time dimension we are separated from them, we are not totally distinct. We owe them. Their sufferings, their achievements, are ours – at a remove in time. They are not us, but they are ours. They are such an integral part of us that our living attention and focus on them re-energises their lives in turn.

Mention of the time dimension opens up questions about the nature of time itself. I have had some uncanny moments as a researcher. One common experience is to find a birth, baptism, marriage or death record I am looking for whose day and month, when found, turns out to be the day and month on which I am doing my research. Yes, you can laugh if you like, but I have wondered if the people I am researching actively want to make themselves known. My question may seem irrational, and your notions about death may contradict such a thing, but I cannot easily shake off the thought entirely.

I went up to Banffshire for a holiday break away from Glasgow once with my husband. On the A98 between Fochabers and Cullen I saw a signpost for Rathven, a name I remembered from making an occasional find on the Rathven OPR website:

We turned off the main road and up a smaller road out of curiosity; after all we were exploring the countryside. At Rathven church there was scaffolding and we couldn’t get in, so as it was a sunny day we walked down the country road to the churchyard to have a look.  I came almost immediately to a largish memorial. I stood amazed as I read the name in the short narrative: William Gordon of Farskane, a 17th century man whose file was the last piece I had been typing on my PC immediately before I left home in Glasgow several days earlier. He was new to me, but I specifically remembered the name because I didn’t know where Farskane was, and because it had had different spellings:

Was it coincidence? Yes. The two things coincided. Yet it was still uncanny.


5 A quest for who we are


So, researching our family history, gives us information about names, dates and places. It evokes our emotions and empathy as we relate to members of our family who went before us. Most of all we begin to have more of a sense of who we are, of our identity, by travelling backward in time and learning of the people and events that brought us into being. We compare and contrast ourselves with the ancestors we research, enlarging our understanding of the personal qualities and talents they had and the hardships, or happy times, they experienced. Sometimes we are pleasantly surprised, sometimes shocked, but the activity can reveal to us more of who we ourselves are.

It is this focus on discovering who we are that has made the various kinds of DNA-testing increasingly popular in family history research. The time frame in which most researchers work using traditional records and documents is about two centuries before their own lifetime. That might be extended to three or even four centuries, depending on the resources and skills available to the researcher. The Old Parish Registers of Baptisms and Marriages in Scotland date from the middle of the 1500s. The time frame involved in DNA-testing goes way beyond that, theoretically into the realm of unrecorded history. 

Our DNA encodes everything we are genetically or biologically. At our conception our genetic code was established from what we received from each of our parents. Our parents, in turn, had inherited their genes, their DNA, from each of their parents, and so on, back through countless generations. Your ‘genetic family tree’ therefore consists of those direct ancestors who actually contributed to the make-up of your unique combination of genes.

Individual people take a DNA-test for different reasons, including concerns about health. Some take a DNA-test in a spirit of fun and curiosity, maybe just to find more about their ethnicity estimate for example. My own ethnicity estimate is reported as:

65% Ireland and Scotland, 32% England, Wales and Northwest Europe, 3% Norway

That descriptive summary has already changed since I first received my report. As Ancestry tells me: my DNA hasn't changed but as scientific knowledge grows with every test done, our understanding of who we are in DNA terms does change.

If, like me, you are an adopted person, an autosomal DNA-test may well be the only way to uncover information about your identity, not otherwise available. Documents and records alone may not be enough. Ancestry autosomal test results will list for you other people who have been DNA-tested, with whom you share DNA.

It does this in the form of how closely that person is matched with you: the closer the match, the more recent the common ancestor you share, though there is some latitude in what the exact relationship might be. ‘Close family’ means parents or grandparents in common. 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 6th, 8th-cousin relationships mean your common ancestor is further back. A 4th-6th cousin identified for you can mean that the common ancestor you share lived about 200-250 years ago. Finding who that common ancestor will then require more traditional research methods: an accurate genealogical tree for both people tested, to allow you to compare ancestors.  

You can see from even this short explanation that family history research using DNA results requires a different skill-set beyond traditional genealogical research skills. Many people do not realise this, and are consequently disappointed with their results. DNA-test results, as with many sources of information, can be very useful, even essential in certain cases, but it can usually only give a fuller and more complete picture if linked to other types of family research. To find more about who you are, about your true identity, using DNA can be rewarding, but the effort, time and money needed are considerable.


6 Family history and self-development


No-one - so far at least - is born into the world without parents. We have a genetic history, and even when we don’t know it, a genealogical history.  Who we are is defined in relation to other people.

As well as our personal remembered or unremembered story, we have a place in a particular society, a specific culture or combination of cultures: Scots-Irish, African-American, Chinese, French, whatever. If we are fortunate, our parents recall for us what happened before and after our birth, when we ourselves might otherwise know nothing of these events or the people involved in them.

Out of narratives told to us by others, and from the memories we ourselves have of significant past experiences, we forge a sense of self, of who and what we are. We find our place in the world.

Researching our family history contributes to our discovery of who we are and what our place in the world is. We gain a great perspective about the person we truly are. What was less well-understood before our research is often better understood after it. We sort out what is most important to us, what our priorities are.

If you’ve ever watched “Who Do You Think You Are?” on TV you’ll have noticed how emotionally moved the celebrity-subject often is by what they learn of their past relatives’ experiences. Yet not all are moved in exactly the same way by the same facts. Their individual reactions are as important to the audience as any of the genealogical facts. We love other people’s stories. We learn from them.

A colleague of mine recounted her small daughter asking her “Where are all your DVDs, mummy, from when you were a little girl?” We older ones laughed when she told us this because in my generation’s childhoods there was no DVD machine, no digital social media, no laptop, no Wi-Fi. So it is with each generation. The world in which human beings exist is constantly changing. The challenges they face, however, are still human challenges. Their successes are human successes. We are not entirely defined by our past, but what has happened in the past does play a part in the people we are and the people we become.

Most researchers have some personal motivation in embarking on our quest to find our family’s past. At its most simple this might be curiosity alone, or a family mystery, or time on our hands. As we travel, however, into the facts of the past, our horizon expands. We enter to some extent the worlds our ancestors lived in. By some strange chemistry the research experience reveals not just facts about others in our family, past and present, but also about the people that we ourselves are in the present.

Through the research we do we develop and change; I know I have changed since I began researching my family history about twenty years ago. The process of working on our family history can make us more tolerant, or more energised. Different individuals are affected in different ways. We then, in turn, carry our ‘stories’ to those we know and meet.

Family history research is a form of self-education that influences our personality and character, and enables us to grow. It enriches our understanding and advances our personal development. It introduces us to the unknown in the past and, literally, makes it ‘familiar’. Armed with a greater sense of identity, and a sense of solidarity with those who have gone before us, we are better placed as individuals to face an unknown future.

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