Couple of cuties waiting for Santa?
As 2013 comes to a close, I realise how enormous this year has been for me in terms of my family history research project. I’ve probably doubled the number of people in my tree, but more importantly, I’ve started to really explore the stories behind some of the names.
My approach is far from organised – zooming in on stories I think are interesting, rather than systematically following any particular branch of the family. But that’s the way I like to work; exploring and enjoying the surprises it brings.
Surprises – and mysteries
As all family historians know, the more you learn – the more you realise there is to learn. Every new bit of knowledge brings with it new questions. Sometimes we choose not to look for answers to those questions, sometimes we put them aside for later and sometimes of course we pursue them as they turn into mysteries – or even brick walls against which we beat our heads. I started 2013 off with one great mystery I wanted to solve; now I have considerably more than that – including my original!
So my mission for my time off over the summer is to focus some attention on my “top 10” questions and see if I can achieve some closure.
1. Thomas Boswell Bisset (1831-1902): my 3x great grandfather. I’ve only recently started following the Bisset line and almost immediately hit a mystery. It seems that Thomas Bisset was born Thomas Gordon, the illegitimate son of John Gordon and Elizabeth Grieve. His birth, marriage and death records all name different fathers – making him particularly difficult to pin down. As an adult he seemed to lead quite a settled life – living in the same Fife village for fifty years and fathering at least 13 children, but the mystery of his birth and early life is just begging to be solved!
2. George Leslie (1822-1902): my 2x great grandfather. Like Thomas Boswell, George was illegitimate – the natural son of John Leslie and Elizabeth Robertson (what is it about Johns and Elizabeths)? Also like Thomas, I know almost nothing about George’s early life – except that he was born near Elgin in Morayshire. I know nothing about George’s father, and only a little more about his mother Elizabeth – who died in the Elgin poorhouse aged 83. As her son was still very much alive at this time, I have to wonder how she ended up in the poorhouse. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know that (unless the Poorhouse records still survive and recorded the circumstances of her admittance), but I would like to be able to trace the Leslie name back further for my dad’s sake.
3. Jane [Jean] Morrison Cruden (1887-?): my great grandfather’s older sister who seems to have left Scotland sometime after the 1901 census and probably moved to Middlesborough, England. The reason I regard her as a mystery is simply that my mother, who thought she knew a lot about her grandfather’s family and was familiar with all his other siblings, didn’t know that Jean even existed.
4. Susanna Fowls (1786-?): 4x great grandmother. I’m named after my paternal grandmother, Susan Elder, who was named after her maternal grandmother Susan Forbes, who was named after her paternal grandmother Susanna Fowls. You see where I’m going with this. I’d love to be able to trace the Susannas back just a little bit further.
5. Alexander Cruden (1880 – 1970): my great grandad about whom I know quite a lot. But he was a fascinating man and there is always more to learn. I would dearly like to know about his WWI service; during which he had a leg amputated. I suspect that his are amongst the many WWI records destroyed in the Blitz, so my only hope is that one of my many distant cousins will know more than I. My project for 2014 is to find as many of Alexander’s descendents as possible and ask the question. I’d also like to know about his time as a publican – I think during the 1930-40s. I know the name of the pub, and so will have to find out what sorts of records may have been kept about public houses in Scotland.
6. Alexander Nicholson (1804-1848): my 3 x great grandfather. When he married Mary Todd in 1827, Alexander’s occupation was given as “weaver”. By the 1835 electoral roll, he had become a land surveyor and was entitled to vote, by virtue of his ownership of “houses in Gallatown.” Unlike so many of my ancestors, there are multiple records of Alexander’s existence – apart from the birth records of his 13 children and census records, he was registered to vote and his name appears in his son’s father-in-law’s Will as the surveyor of several pieces of land. He also appears to have been a Freemason. The question is of course, how did he go from weaver to land surveyor in such a short period of time? I did wonder if I had been looking at records for a different Alexander Nicholson – but I’m pretty sure that’s not the case.
7. Elizabeth Penman (1839-?) and William Elder (1845-1933): my great, great grandparents. Elizabeth was born in Dalgety, married in Dunfermline and lived in Dysart – I think the link here is coal mining. I don’t yet know when or where William was born, but I do know that on his marriage record his occupation is given as Colliery Engine Driver and on his son Thomas’s birth certificate as Engine Keeper. On the 1891 and 1901 census records, William is described as a Colporteur, which I assumed until recently was some sort of mining or coal-related occupation. I’ve since found out that a colporteur is a peddler or hawker of books, particularly bibles and devotional literature. This puts a totally new spin on things and now I’m fascinated to find out more.
8. Helen Low Ramsay (1880-?): a great grand aunt. Quite by accident, I found a reference to great grand auntie Nellie in the Minutes of the Dysart School Board for 1894. Apparently she was playing truant from school and her father John Ramsay had been summoned before the School Board. He had failed to show up, and a note in the book says that the Inspector thought John didn’t seem very aware of what his daughter was doing. Her older brother David Skinner Ramsay was my perpetually cheerful-looking great grandfather, and Nellie just sounds like someone I’d love to have known.
9. Isabella Westwater (?-?): my 2x great grandmother, and Nellie’s mother. I know almost nothing about Isabella except that she married John Ramsay at the Manse in Portobello, Edinburgh, on 9 July 1875. Both gave their address as Gallatown, Fife, so theirs was an irregular marriage (without benefit of Banns being read in their local church). Isabella signed her marriage record with a ‘X’ – which suggests she may have been illiterate. There is no father named on her marriage record and her mother is listed as Isabella Westwater, deceased. Why did John and Isabella have an irregular marriage? What can I find out about her family?
10. Christina Thom (?-?): my 3x great grandfather’s second wife. After my 3x great grandmother, Jean Alison died, her husband Alexander Cruden married Christina Thom in Rattray, Perthshire in 1877. I haven’t been able to find a birth or death record for Christina, or any record of children born to her, but I assume she died before 1892 as that’s when Alexander married Elizabeth Reoch Brown (after whom my mother is named). I would like to learn something about Christina, to bring her to life as – an albeit fleeting – presence in my family tree.
11. Just to avoid being cryptic –the first great mystery. I’ve spent quite a lot of this year being curious about who fathered my great grandmother Anne Nicholson‘s first child, Andrew Scott Nicholson. There is no father named on his birth certificate, and I knew I could never be sure who he actually was. However, I did think I’d found a “clue” in the Will of my great, great grandmother (which I wrote about here). That led me to the Fife Archives where I spent a morning poring over the Dysart School Board Minute Books to try and confirm my hypothesis that Anne Nicholson – a teacher – may have been having a relationship with the school’s Headmaster. What I discovered was that the Minute Books for that time period were missing and so this is a mystery that is unlikely ever to be solved.
Finding a home for the stories
Even more important to me than researching my family history is being able to tell the stories I find, so perhaps the biggest development in 2013 has been this blog. In 2012 I posted nine times – in 2013, 116. Shaking the Tree has become such an integral part of my project, that sometimes I have to remind myself to actually put information into the tree – because once I’ve blogged about it, it seems “done.”
So thank you to everyone who has visited, read, commented. By taking an interest in my family stories you have given me the most amazing support and encouragement. And by sharing your own stories, you give everyone in our community inspiration, advice, reasons to smile and keep going – and a sense that through sharing our individual histories we better understand our common humanity.
So to all my cyber-whanau:
Since I got Gran’s old recipe book from my mum (which I’ve written about here) I’ve been thinking about making tablet – that terrifically sweet Scottish concoction that resembles fudge, but with more bite.
Growing up, tablet-making was my dad’s preserve. It only used to happen when Mum was out and was quite a ritual. Like most sweet-making, it’s very time-consuming and labour-intensive. The mixture has to be watched over carefully and stirred often, to stop it catching and burning. I remember the anticipation as my brothers and I hung around the kitchen waiting for the glossy, golden sweet to cool down enough to cut and eat.
A few years ago, when a few neighbours and I began to exchange home-made goodies as Christmas tokens, I decided that tablet-making should become part of our Christmas ritual. Realising that I didn’t have a recipe, I searched the internet and found a few variations on what I remembered my dad doing. The results were ok – definitely edible – but never up to Dad’s standard. For whatever reason, the tablet I was making was always too soft and a bit chewy – not crunchy like it’s meant to be.
So I was really excited to find – on the tattiest, most stained page of Gran’s book – the tablet recipe my dad always used. And it differs in one significant way from all the other recipes I’ve seen in that the condensed milk is added only when the basic sugar and butter mixture has boiled for 10 minutes.
Since it is Christmas, and I needed something to box up as little gifts, the boy-child and I decided to give it a go.
And it all started really well. I got the butter, sugar and milk boiling away nicely then added the condensed milk. So far, so good.
At this stage, the mixture is meant to boil for 20 minutes. I don’t know whether I had the gas turned up too high, or just needed to stir it more, but it began to catch and when I did stir it, there were little flecks of over-caramelised sugar (ok, burned).
Feeling a bit dejected, I was ready to throw it all out when the boy-child intervened.
Having been promised his grandfather’s legendary tablet, he was a bit reluctant to let me abandon the project. After letting a spoonful cool in water he announced that it wasn’t actually burned and tasted ok.
Problem was it looked pretty awful and I couldn’t help feeling it would only get worse with more cooking. But the boy-child is nothing if not pragmatic. He suggested adding cocoa to disguise the discoloration and finishing the cooking process – as an experiment.
We did, it worked and the resulting chocolate fudge went down well at the skatepark apparently.
While I love chocolate, I’m not so fond of chocolate flavoured things, so although I’ve tried some to test the texture (definitely more like the tablet I remember), I’m going to have to make another batch sometime to satisfy my need for that little taste of my childhood.
Swiss Milk Tablet
2 lbs granulated sugar
1/4 lb butter
1 tin Swiss Milk (sweetened condensed milk)
1/4 pt milk
2 tsp vanilla essence
1. Melt butter and sugar in milk, then boil for 10 minutes.
2. Add Swiss milk and, stirring carefully, boil until a little hardens when it is dropped in cold water (20 mins).
3. Flavour, stir well and pour into greased tin.
4. Mark when almost cold.
Long ago summer; sisters for ever.
My mum showed me this photo for the first time recently, and I was first of all struck by the fact that the man in the front – my great grandfather David Skinner Ramsay – always looks incredibly cheerful in photos. Great grandad was about 64 when this photo was taken. He was born in Dysart and seems to have spent his whole life there, working as a coal miner and dying in 1948 at the age of 71. He and his wife Mary Fisher were married for 50 years and raised seven children – six sons and a daughter.
He was a coal hewer – one of the men who worked at the face, cutting coal from the seam. Even by mining standards, it was considered a dangerous job.
His sons, including my grandfather (also called David Skinner Ramsay), followed him in to the pit, and it is my grandfather who is also in the picnic photo. He too looks happy – holding court with his family.
I recognise some of the others in the photo. My grandmother (holding the baby – my Aunt Sandra) is next to the pram and my great grandmother is the lady in the had with her back turned. I don’t know who the lady in the patterned dress or the girl on the far right are, but I’m sure the two little girls are my mother and Aunt Margaret and the girl in the dark dress holding the cup could be my Aunt May.
The other thing that stuck me about this photo is that the family is having their picnic in the middle of a field, surrounded by passersby and people just milling around — and they seem totally unselfconscious. Off to the left there are three women; hats, gloves and possibly a fur — obviously staring — and the Ramsays just carry on with their picnic.
It made me think about my childhood picnics and wonder what my parents were thinking.
My father loved picnics and even built a very clever portable table out of ply and timber. When opened out, this was large enough to seat our family of five and when folded away it had space inside for the little camp stools he also built, and the whole thing fitted in the boot of the car. Ingenious; but not exactly the wicker basket and tartan rug that other people seemed to manage with. I think at one stage we also had a little camp stove and kettle, so our picnics more resembled children’s tea parties than the “real” picnics” we kids had read about in stories.
Of course the other problem with the table-thingy was that it was really heavy, so we always had to picnic very close to where the car was parked (often actually in a carpark), with a consequent lack of atmosphere – not to mention privacy.
I think the era of the fold-out picnic table co-incided with my brother Craig and I entering our teen years, when family outings are a source of unendurable embarrassment anyway. I suspect that my mum really didn’t like picnics (sitting on the grass, bugs in the coleslaw, germs generally) and that they were a result of it being too expensive to take us all to eat in a cafe. The table was probably my dad’s attempt to make the experience better for Mum. For us it was social death.
During the “shoe down the river story“ sessions with the boy-child, amongst his favourites were my stories of family picnics. I suspect he thought I was making them up. After all, how many families really picnic right outside the Thames Fire Station – just in case an engine comes out? Or on the edge of a field where a game of cricket is in progress (because that’s where we could park the car – not because any of us was even slightly interested in cricket).
So looking at the Ramsay family, happily enjoying their sandwiches in the middle of the field, I found myself admiring both their lack of self-consciousness and the fact they seemed quite contented just sitting on the grass.
But for me, the best picnic ever was on top of Mt Hobson with the Big T; a bottle of wine, baguette, cheese, grapes and some very sticky chocolate cake. And not another soul in sight. Perfect!
Hurry: Roy Rogers waits for no-one
Since I agreed to become the family archivist, my mother has been sending me photos and objects that are somehow associated with our family. Given that her flat is scheduled for re-modelling soon, I suspect her motives are more about de-cluttering her place than preserving the past, but I’m grateful that she’s not just chucking everything into a skip.
The latest parcel to arrive included a cookbook that belonged originally to my maternal grandmother. I remember it being used when I was a child – mostly by my dad for making tablet. For anyone who doesn’t know, Scottish tablet is like fudge only much, much better.
I have no idea what the book is called or when it was published. For as long as I can remember, it’s been missing the cover and probably a few other pages. From the look of the illustrations, it’s probably from the 1940s.
I love old cookery books and this one is an absolute gem. I doubt I’m ever likely to make Potted Hough (a hough is the leg or shin of an animal), and I doubt the Big T would appreciate the recipe for Fried Steak which recommends cooking the meat for 15-20 minutes (until tender!), but judging by how stained the jam making pages are – these recipes are obviously really reliable.
Like a lot of old books of this type, it’s not just about cookery. There is a section on laundry – including care of your mangle, wringer and boiler (Chocolate Fish to anyone who can remember what a mangle even looks like), and even instructions on how to iron knickers (as if).
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this book is that it is completely devoid of “personality.” It contains no illustrations of the food, no anecdotes about the recipe and even without a cover to tell me its origin, it feels institutional – not personal. This is not a book which celebrates food; and that more than anything places it in more utilitarian times.