Six word Saturday: getting a telegram from the Queen

On the occasion of their golden wedding anniversary, my great grandparents got a telegram from the Queen. Many thanks to my cousin Lorraine Cruden for sharing this image.

On their 60th wedding anniversary, my great grandparents got a telegram from the Queen. Many thanks to my cousin Lorraine Cruden for sharing this image.

Not bad going for pregnant teenagers

My great grandparents, Alexander Cruden and Catherine Simpson Bisset Black got married on 27 March 1908 in the Manse, Dysart, Scotland. My grandmother was born about six weeks later. Their marriage lasted 62 years, until my great grandfather’s death in 1970 (on growing old together).

Still on the subject of names

First names word cloud: this time only direct ancestors. Created with Wordle.

First names word cloud: this time only direct ancestors. Created with Wordle.

Having collected all the data on family names, I’m keen create some useful inforgraphics. Looks like Thomas and Alexander are the clear favourites.

This time I’ve only included the first names of my direct ancestors and family members.

The power of names: picturing the past

Naming my ancestors; wordle of all the christian names from my family tree.

Naming my ancestors; a word cloud of all the christian names from my family tree.

Once I started thinking about the importance of names as a link to the past (On names as an echo of a long-distant past), I wondered what my family naming pattern would look like. Word clouds are a great tool for this, displaying representing the frequency of any word by size. I used Wordle to generate this picture of the christian names in my family.

The thing that struck me – apart from the high frequency of a small number of names  (which I knew anecdotally anyway) was that although these names were common in Scotland, they are not really Scots names. Apart from a few Andrews and a Donald, most of these names could easily have come from south of the Border. I guess what that tells me is that my ancestors -at least as far as I’ve been able to trace them – are lowland Scots, whose links to England, France and the Low Countries were probably stronger than those to their highland countrymen and women.


On names as an echo of a long-distant past

That our names are central to our sense of identity is clear – just ask anyone whose name is regularly mis-spelt or mis-pronounced. For many of us, our names were chosen to honour ancestors or other family members, and so a link to the past and to our kin becomes a element of our selves whether we like it or not.

One of the things I’ve learned doing family history is that in Scotland, at least until the twentieth century, there existed a formalised pattern of naming children after relatives.

Judy Strachan at Judy’s Family History  has explained this clearly here, but essentially it meant that first sons were named after their paternal grandfather, first daughters after their maternal grandmother, second sons – maternal grandfather, second daughters, paternal grandmother. Third children were named after their parents, and after that it seemed to be a bit more of a free for all with the other names that floated around in the family.

Children were only given middle names when the person they were named after had a different surname to theirs, in which case they usually got the person they were named after’s surname. This avoided people being given the same middle name as their surname or parents having to make something up.

Of course, not everyone followed the pattern, and high infant mortality rates meant that sometimes names one might expect to find a family are missing – or alternatively, there are two children in a family who have been given the same name after the first died.

I have “discovered” dead children by examining the birth order of great, great aunts and uncles and noticing that one was “missing” (On Chasing Ghosts). My feelings about these discoveries are always mixed; it’s difficult to enjoy the success of clever detective work when the result is a small child whose life ended only weeks or a few years after it began.

As a cultural practice, the naming pattern seems to have largely died out – although even in my generation there are vestiges of it.

And like many cultural practices, this one is both a gift and a curse for genealogists and family historians. On one hand it helps verify the likelihood that a person one is researching belongs to a particular family – on the other it can do the exact opposite as multiple cousins can often share the same name – because they share the same grandparent.

My great uncle, Stewart Cruden. Studio portrait c. 1915

My great uncle, Stewart Cameron Cruden. Studio portrait c. 1915. Son of Alexander Cruden, grandson of Stewart Cameron Cruden, great grandson of another Alexander Cruden.

In my family, I have found some branches adhered quite rigidly to the naming pattern over many generations. My Cruden family for example, contains a veritable muddle of Stewarts and Alexanders.

Susan Forbes Nicholson Elder. Kirkcaldy High Street. circa 1940s.

Susan Forbes Nicholson Elder. Kirkcaldy High Street. circa 1940s.

Similarly, my first name – Susan – appears four times (that I’ve been able to trace so far) in alternative generations of grandmothers – back to my 4x great grandmother, Susanna Fowls who was born in 1786.

My mother, as the fourth daughter in her family was named after a great, great grandfather’s third wife, while my father – whose older brother was named after his father and paternal grandfather – seems to have had his first name chosen from outside the family (after a popular film star of the time perhaps?) He does however, have two middle names – one from each side of his family.

In my generation, I’m named for my paternal grandmother, while each of my brothers was given a first name my parents liked and a family-related middle name.

My only child was born before my obsession with family history, but even back then, I knew I wanted his name to locate him within both sides of the family. We agreed he’d have his father’s surname and that we wouldn’t lumber him with a name we didn’t like just for “family” reasons, but the boy-child has ended up with both first and middle names that have a very long pedigree in virtually every branch of my family.

My recent research into my Elder family has thrown up a very long and virtually unbroken line of Thomas Elders – stretching back to the early years of the eighteenth century (and almost certainly beyond that).

This is the farthest back I’ve traced any part of my family, and while I’ve come to a dead-end with the Elders, I have managed to trace the earliest Thomas’s wife back another generation – ironically to another Thomas.

Marriage record, Thomas Thomson and Cecil Sibbald, 17 May 1694 in the parish of Kennoway, Fife. Source: Scotland's People.

Marriage record, Thomas Thomson and Cecil Sibbald, 17 May 1694 in the parish of Kennoway, Fife. Source: Scotland’s People.

Thomas Thomson and Cecil Sibbald – my 7x great grandparents – were married on 13 May 1694, in Kennoway, Fife. To put that in perspective; in 1694 Scotland was still a sovereign nation – albeit one that shared a monarch with England. It wasn’t until 1707 that the Acts of Union were passed, combining Scotland and England (and Wales) into an entity called Great Britain. This was later changed to ‘The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’ – or the UK as we now call it.

This year of course Scotland is having a referendum on whether to leave the UK. If this is successful, my son’s Scottish cousins may be the first generation of the family to marry within an independent Scotland since their 8x great grandparents 320 years ago.

Our names are central to our identity. The Scottish practice of naming children for family members means that for many of us, part of our identity is our place in a long history of men and women who lived, worked, raised children, laughed, sang, told stories, and dreamed of a brighter future for their kids.

But it’s not just our personal names that identify us. The name of our homeland can also be an important statement about who we are. I grew up calling myself “Scottish” even though – or perhaps because – I lived half a world away. I am a New Zealand citizen these days, but I think of myself as “British” or “Scottish” – pretty much interchangeably – rather than “Kiwi.” I’m too far away from the debate to know what the feeling is amongst Scots in Scotland. Will the majority choose to re-name themselves in a political sense – or continue to call themselves “Brits.”

Come the 18th September, I guess we’ll know.

This post was written for the Daily Post Weekly Writing Challenge.

Six word Saturday: toddler on the run in Rothesay

Me and my dad's legs; Rothesay Bay, Scotland, probably summer 1963.

Me and my dad’s legs; Rothesay Bay, Scotland, probably summer 1963.

Catch me if you can Dad

Sometime before my brother was born in 1964, my mum, dad and I went on holiday to Rothesay, on the island of Bute. I’m guessing it was in summer, probably August, and almost certainly 1963 – which means I was almost two years old.

I think I have memories of that holiday – although it may be that what I “remember” is what my parents have told me. The memories are hazy – being on a boat (the ferry from Wemyss Bay?), eating breakfast in a huge (to me) dining room with lots of other people around, and this jaunt down the pier. What I think I remember is a sense of freedom – no-one holding on to my hand or restraining me. What my dad remembers is a sense of panic – I was apparently heading for the harbour.

I’ve been conscious of this photo for most of my life, but it’s only when I scanned it yesterday that I noticed a name and address on the back in handwriting that belongs to neither of my parents. And that makes sense. My dad (or at least lower half) is in the photo; my mum wasn’t the family photographer – and would hardly have been idly snapping pictures while her only child toddled towards the water. Someone must have taken the picture and somehow sent it to my parents. The name and address on the back is Mrs C. Galbraith, 22 Hillside Avenue, Kilmacolm.

Kilmacolm is a village in Renfrewshire, about 15 miles from Wemyss Bay, from where the Rothesay ferry departed. I don’t know if Mrs Galbraith was a professional street photographer, or someone staying at the same hotel as us who had got to know my parents.

Guess I’ll be asking next time I talk to Mum or Dad.

This post was written both for Six Word Saturday and as part of the Word a Week Photographic Challenge: Run at A Word in Your Ear.

Here are some other “Run” posts I’ve enjoyed:

Wordless Wednesday: the family christening gown

Wordless Wednesday: the family christening gown

I think all the Ramsay babies – at least in my generation – were christened in this gown. Eighteen children – and only two with the Ramsay surname.

Here are some other Wordless Wednesdays I’ve enjoyed:


The Elder family: a new clue

The latest edition of the Fife Family History Society Journal arrived, and with it a chance to find out more about my Elder ancestors – a branch of the family I had – co-incidentally – been focusing on lately.

A snippet in the journal indicated the existence of an article from 1864 about my 4x great grandparents Thomas Elder and Agnes Thomson.

Thanks to the efficient and helpful Librarian at Kirkcaldy Galleries, I now have a copy of this article.

Fifeshire Advertiser, 3 September 1864. An article about my ancestors Thomas Elder and Agnes Thomson. Reproduced courtesy of Kirkcaldy Galleries.

Fifeshire Advertiser, 3 September 1864. An article about my ancestors Thomas Elder and Agnes Thomson. Reproduced courtesy of Kirkcaldy Galleries.

And it’s fascinating. Apart from revealing quite a lot about 19th century journalistic style (at least in local newspapers) —  “On Sunday last this worthy couple had in their humble domicile …” — it confirms a few things I already knew about these ancestors and gives me a new line of research to follow up.

The article suggests that Thomas Elder – who was born in Buckhaven, Fife on 22 November 1783 – served in the Napoleonic Wars. This is the first time I’ve had an indication of an ancestor involved in that very distant conflict, so it’s a whole new avenue of research for me.

Thomas Elder’s birth record is one of the earliest I have. It shows him to be the “lawful son” of another Thomas Elder (this story has squillions of them – elder Elders, and younger Elders and … well, you’ll see) and Isobel Dryburgh.

I know nothing about Thomas’s early life or military service, but I do know that he married Agnes Thomson, originally from Cults (also in Fife), 17 December 1805, in Buckhaven. Agnes seems have been the child of Thomas and Agnes Thomson, although I don’t have enough information yet to verify that.

I know very little about my great x 4 grandparents, except that they had at least eight children. The first record of their lives is the 1841 census. It shows them living in Gallatown, Dysart, Fife with their three youngest children; Isabella, 15, John, 14 and Orr, 12. Thomas’s occupation was given as agricultural labourer. Gallatown is about six miles from Buckhaven, and in 1841 a large proportion of the population worked as handloom weavers. Also living in Gallatown at the same time were two of Thomas and Agnes’s sons – David and James, both with wives and young children.

The 1851 census shows that Thomas’s household had shrunk to himself and his wife and his occupation had changed to carter. His older sons still lived nearby with their growing families. By the 1861 census, 78 year old Thomas was still working as a carter.

The 1864 article shown above finishes with the following lines:

At present this aged couple are in wonderful health considering their years, and may yet see another generation.

Sadly, that wasn’t to be.

Agnes Thomson died on 22 October 1870. She was 85 years old and a resident of the Markinch Poorhouse (Dysart Combination Poorhouse). The Poorhouse Governor, who was the informant of the death, described her as “wife of Thomas Elder, worker, latterly pauper.”

It is clear that after Agnes’s death, Thomas left the Poorhouse; the 1871 census shows him living with his son (also Thomas) – and his son’s family – back in Dysart.

But his respite was short-lived. Eighty eight year old Thomas Elder died on 17 February 1972, once again an inmate of the Poorhouse. Again, the informant on the death record was the  Governor, who described Thomas on the register as “labourer, latterly pauper.”

I don’t yet know whether admission records for the Markinch Poorhouse have survived and whether they might tell me how this elderly couple – who seemed to have such a large family living close by – ended up dying in a Victorian institution that was designed to provide relief from destitution without ever letting those who needed it forget the prevailing ideology that it was all their own fault.

It may be that the answer was simply widespread poverty. The younger Thomas, in whose home the elder was living in 1871, was himself 61 at the time of the census. He worked as a linen weaver, while his two adult daughters who also lived there, were described as factory workers. Not an affluent family, and one that could perhaps have been tipped into destitution of its own by sickness, loss of work or some other – perhaps minor – misfortune.

So often in my search for understanding of my family I find events that make me incredibly sad. The death of small children is one such tragedy – residence in the Poorhouse is another.It seems that Thomas Elder fought for Britain over a 12 year period in his youth, raised a large family and continued to be a productve, working man until his old age. His death, and that of Agnes, makes me feel very sad.