Friday flip through the archives

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Originally posted as part of my 100 Days project. Kirkyard at Kirkmichael, Perthshire, Scotland. Resting place of James Wallace and Ann Cunnison. Image: Su Leslie, 2013

Reading Amy’s account of visiting her Seligman family members’ burial place in Santa Fe, (My Ancestral Town, Santa Fe, New Mexico in Brotmanblog: A Family Journey) made me think about a wet and cold afternoon I spent in a tiny churchyard in rural Perthshire, Scotland, looking for the resting place of my 3x great grandparents James Wallace and Ann Cunnison.

I originally wrote about this in a post called On Stilled Voices and Visualising Silence.

Yesterday my 100 days project word was ‘silence’ — and I have to say it was possibly the most challenging to date.

Partly that might be because I’m away from home, without access to my normal work tools and archives and reliant on my iPad. Partly it’s just because silence is something I find difficult to visually convey.

Eventually I realised that the most profound silence is not an absence of sound, but an absence of communication. Last year, on my trip to Scotland, I visited a number of cemeteries and kirkyards, looking for the headstones of ancestors. I found more than I’d expected and will always treasure those moments with those tangible symbols of my lineage.

But alone in those bleak, quiet places, I also felt the profound loss of lives stilled. I come from ordinary folk who don’t in general leave traces of themselves in recorded history. Once those who knew them stop sharing stories, their lives are silenced.

If I learned anything from my kirkyard visits, it is to speak to family members now; record their stories and share them with the next generations.

Once upon a time, I wouldn’t have seen the point in visiting places just because my ancestors had lived there. But as I have become more and more interested in my family history, I’ve realised the power of any tangible reminder (photographs, objects, places) of those long gone. I’ve learned to listen to those echoes of past lives, and to hear traces of my own voice there too.

Stretching back into the 18th century – ancestors who would remember Culloden.

Seems I've had family living in Dysart, Scotland since at least the mid 18th century.

Eight generations: seems I’ve had family living in Dysart, Scotland since at least the mid 18th century.

My hunt for Nicholson ancestors has made significant progress since I found Mary Todd, wife of Alexander Nicholson and my 3x great grandmother – in the 1851 census.

Between the 1841 and 1851 censuses Mary gave birth to five more children, including twin girls. who both died in their first three years. She also buried her mother Margaret, in October 1846 and her husband of twenty years, in November 1848. On a happier note, her eldest living daughter, Ann, married Alexander Campbell, a Railway Overseer, in April 1848.

At the 1851 census Mary Todd was living at “Country Road, East Side, Dysart”. Her household included her children Joanna, 18; Jemima, 15; Alexander, 16; William, 14; Andrew, 12; Isabella, 10; Jean, 9; Christian, 6; and Mary’s father James Todd – a retired Carter aged 74 (according to the census).

There was also a lodger called Robert Greig, who went on to marry Jemima Nicholson in July 1854.

The presence of Mary’s father James Todd in her household at that time gave me my first ancestor I could firmly place in the 18th century, and told me that he was born in Dysart. Mary’s birth and death records also tell me her mother’s name was  Margaret Sinclair (death record)/ St. Clair (birth record).

OPR burial: "1846 October 24th Margaret Sinclair spouse to James Todd, Carter in Gallatown was interred in the middle grave of Alex Nicholson's stone."

OPR burial: “1846 October 24th Margaret Sinclair spouse to James Todd, Carter in Gallatown was interred in the middle grave of Alex Nicholson’s stone.”

I also have James Todd’s death record from Scotland’s People. It shows his parents as James Tod and Margaret Stewart. This is a wee bit at odds with the birth record I found (the only James Tod born at around about the right time), which show his parents as James Tod and Helen Stuart. The different spelling of Stuart/Stewart is to be expected, but the first name difference bothers me a bit.

I’m sure the death extract from Scotland’s People is for the correct James Todd – because his occupation and address are consistent with other information I have, and because the informant of the death is given as his grandson Andrew Nicholson (my 2x great grandfather). I’m guessing that Andrew (who was unlikely to have even been born when his grandfather’s parents were alive, may have mistakenly given the wrong name – his grandmother’s rather than his great-grandmother’s?

There is a wee bit of evidence for this hypothesis of a mistake in the reporting. James Todd and Margaret St Clair had three children together – Helen in January 1798, Jean in February 1802 and Mary (my 3x great grandmother) in June 1803.  If James’ mother’s name had been Margaret, I would have expected to find a daughter with that name.

James Tod senior and Helen Stuart were married on 21 November 1767 in Dysart. I don’t yet know how old they were at the time, but assuming they were at least 18, that means they were alive  – albeit children – at the time of the Battle of Culloden. It’s also possible that their parents were born before the Act of Union of 1707 and thus were born citizens of Scotland, not the United Kingdom.