Copyright (C) 2021 by Patrick's People all rights reserved
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"Every person's life is a sacred text"

                                                              - Novalis


Family History:

Finding Out Who You Are


1 Genealogy versus family history

Genealogy is generally considered to be about names, dates and places. Those who take it up as an interest often find more than that in it, particularly if they are researching their own family. It can have as its subject the entire story of their family, not merely names and dates. It is the backdrop to their lives, a part of their history.

Would-be genealogists can 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.

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

All this and more can be encountered in the course of genealogical research, and it can be a harrowing experience for the researcher to uncover historical horrors and disgraces, particularly if related by blood or marriage to the victims. At one time genealogy and family history might have seemed to be separate realities; now, with their growing popularity, genealogy and family history are like “blood brothers”, so close is their connection 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 simple knowledge of facts, but the experience the uncovered facts bring, and the imagined experience of our family members, even if 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 exceptional. 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!”

"Poorhouse” can have the same effect. Both words, pauper and poorhouse, 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 experienced, 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 most raw. 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 the impact of it hits you between the eyes.

There are 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 finally found a much-sought-after entry which had escaped me for years, but which I knew had to be there.

The 1851 census entry turned out to be in the return for the parish of Riccarton in Ayrshire. It involved 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 only as 'Mrs Sweedley'. Presumably the enumerator had difficulty with the Irish Gaelic pronunciation of Quigley. Once I had found it, I could see that it did sound a bit like Tweedley, which is now a recognised variation of the surname Quigley, but I had never dreamed of it being such. I no longer remember exactly how I came finally to find the entry, probably sheer determination and persistence in working through the microfilm collection no doubt, but I shall never forget the elation and sense of achievement I experienced to have at last found my ‘lost’ family.

4 Past and present

 What causes that kind of vivid reaction? 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 long-gone family members, decades or 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 one summe. 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 went up a smaller road, just 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 by learning about 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 written records and documents, is about two centuries before their own lifetime. The range 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, however, goes way beyond that, even, 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 genetic material 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 own unique combination of genes.

Individuals 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 was 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. Currently it is:

61% Ireland and Scotland, 36% England, Wales and Northwest Europe, 3% Norway

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, will allow you both to compare ancestors.  

You can see from even this short explanation that family history research using DNA results can require a 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 will 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, in a variety of ways, can contribute meaningfully to our discovery of who we are and what our place in the world is. We gain a greater perspective about the person we truly are, what our place in the world truly is. What was less well-understood before our research is often better understood after it. We sort out what is most important to us; the ongoing narrative of our own life in the context of the lives of our ancestors can illuminate for us what our present priorities are, and help us to formulate aspirations for our future.

If you’ve ever watched the TV programme “Who Do You Think You Are?” you’ll have noticed how emotionally affected the celebrity-subject often is by what they learn of their past relatives’ experiences. Yet not everyone is 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 get caught up in the "story". We love other people’s stories. We learn from them.

A colleague of mine recounted to colleagues at work how her small daughter once asked 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 immediate and ditant past of our family plays an enormous role in making us 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  about who 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 more than 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.

Mary McGonigal

5 September 2020

Copyright (C) 2021 by Patrick's People all rights reserved
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