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: