Wordless Wednesday: faces to names

The Ramsay sisters - and brother with their partners.

The Ramsay sisters – and brother, with their partners.

Marriage doesn’t necessarily introduce new names into the family; my mum and her siblings with their partners.

Back row left-right: James, William, Ron, David, David. Front row left-right: Sandra, Catherine, Elizabeth, Mary, Elizabeth. Missing from photo, Margaret and Erl.



A Ramsay picnic: Miners’ Gala, 1941

The Ramsay family, Ravenscraig Park, Dysart, Scotland. In the foreground, gg grandfather, David Skinner Ramsay

The Ramsay family, Ravenscraig Park, Dysart, Scotland. In the foreground, gg grandfather, David Skinner Ramsay

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.

David Skinner Ramsay and Mary Fisher; their fiftieth wedding anniversary.

David Skinner Ramsay and Mary Fisher; their fiftieth wedding anniversary.

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!

Shoe-down-the-river stories and other backwaters of family history

Bath-times with the boy-child in days gone by.

Bath-times with the boy-child in days gone by.

I saw this and it reminded me of a time in the boy-child’s life when bath-time was a supervised, highly social activity. These days, if I accidentally stray within twenty feet of his bathroom whilst he’s abluting, it’s a capital offence, so you’ll understand that the time I’m talking about is long, long, ago.

Anyway, back in the day, when bath-time involved me sitting on the floor, making sure the boy-child didn’t drown and did actually get washed, we developed a kind of tradition where I’d tell what I hoped were amusing anecdotes from my childhood. He called these the shoe-down-the-river stories, after an incident where my little brother “borrowed” my shoe to use as a boat and floated it off down a river. Retrieving the shoe involved several men – including my father – getting comprehensively soaked and not a little grumpy. And I so hated those shoes.

The boy-child had a fairly endless appetite for such stories, though to be fair, this was probably a stalling tactic to avoid things he wasn’t that keen on. He spent years engaging me in conversation in the hope that by the time I’d finished talking, I’d have forgotten what it was I wanted him to do.


I suppose I’m fortunate to come from a family in which everyday life was sufficiently challenging that even the simplest activities could find us in situations that were at best ridiculous, at worst, slightly tragic. My father’s attempts at household economy alone could probably support a career in stand-up, had they not been driven by the reality of my mother’s spendthrift habits. Instead, my brothers and I have a fund of childhood stories involving useless household gadgets, trailer-loads of sweetcorn and exploding spaghetti.

The actual story-telling tradition comes from my mother. I know very little about my dad’s childhood, except that it was much more impoverished than my mum’s and perhaps it’s never stopped being too raw to joke about. My dad is actually a very sociable person, and quite a good storyteller; it’s just that the stories never cast him or his life in an even slightly negative light.

My mum on the other hand, although always the quieter half of the couple, has a wealth of silly stories which she happily re-tells. When I spent a few days with her recently, I found myself doing a version of the boy-child’s thing. I wanted her shoe-down-the-river stories – and over three nights and a couple of bottles of wine, I got them.

And I am so glad. To me, this verbal ephemera is as valuable to family history as any serious account of people and events. Our funny stories – especially those we share within families – help define us and strengthen the ties to our familial world. And as a family historian, I think collecting and recording the silly and the apparently trivial is absolutely vital.

And if all of this sounds like I’m justifying spending all those bath-time hours telling the boy-child about the time Grandad had to redecorate the neighbour’s bedroom ‘cos Uncle Craig drew all over their wallpaper with Grandma’s lipstick , well hey.

Of course, I hope my son will remember the stories, but even more I hope he will feel them as a blanket, enveloping him in the warmth that is family – past and present. And most of all, I hope that one day he will want to share the little memories of his own childhood.

I also hope that families everywhere collect and preserve the stories of their small, silly moments; the things that connect us and make us human.

Wordless Wednesday: who could say no to that face?

The boy-child aged about seven. He still does that look - just a bit more knowingly now.

The boy-child aged about seven. He still does that look – just a bit more consciously now. I know this because it’s nearly the end of the school holidays and he hasn’t done much (any) of the revision he promised to do, but still has time to shoot video and go skating.

Family or lineage? (Happy Birthday Great Grandad)

I hadn’t thought about it too much until recently, but I am definitely a family historian rather than a genealogist. While I’m interested in tracing and recording my lineage, I’m much more interested in understanding the lives my ancestors led and the societies that shaped them.

This realisation has come about in part because of a conversation I had with my dad a couple of days ago. It’s a major source of disappointment to him that, to date, none of his grandchildren have his surname. Although I’m not married – so still use the “family” name – my partner and I chose to give our son his surname rather than mine.

uncle toms back garden001

A rare Leslie family photo. My dad is on the left holding my brother. I’m seated on Uncle Tom’s knee. My favourite uncle ever, Tom Leslie was my grandfather David Leslie’s younger brother.

I also have two brothers. One of them changed his middle and surnames years ago so his three children don’t meet with Dad’s approval either. My other brother has recently adopted a child and my father was jubilant because he finally has a grandchild with the “right” name.

My relationship with my dad is prickly at the best of times, and I have to admit to feeling quite pissed off with him. He probably didn’t mean it, but it really sounded like his biological grandkids were somehow second-best because they won’t carry on “the name.” Our conversation reminded me that when I first talked to him after my son’s birth, he was decidedly sulky  over the naming of my baby.

I was wondering if that’s maybe why I haven’t made much of an effort to trace the Leslie branch of my family, so I went back to my family tree and noticed that it is 146 years today since the birth of my great grandfather David Leslie.

David Leslie was born on July 23td 1867 in Auchtermuchty, Fife, to George Leslie and Janet Trail (who sometimes appears in the records as Jessie, and with her surname sometimes shown as Traill or Jrail).

Birth extract: David Leslie (my great grandfather), 23 July 1867)

Birth extract: David Leslie (my great grandfather), 23 July 1867)

David appears to have been the fifth of seven children born to George and Jessie, although it seems that Jessie also bore a daughter, Christina Trail, the year before her marriage to George.

The 1871 census shows the family living in Auchtermuchty, with Jessie as the head of the household.

I found this record a while ago, and had assumed that George must have died. Since then however, I’ve found his death certificate – dated 1902. George also appears alongside Jessie in all the subsequent census records up until his death.

A search on Scotland’s People shows sixteen people called George Leslie in the 1871 census, and given what I know about George, six of these are possible matches. At the moment, I’m not keen to use up credits trying to find him, so until I can get to the library and use Ancestry, his whereabouts on census night will have to remain a mystery.

By the 1881 census, the family had moved to Kirkcaldy. The family consisted of George and Jessie, plus Jessie’s daughter Christina, George jr. William, Elizabeth, Isabella, David, John and Jessie jr. The three younger children were all at school, though it’s likely that my great grandfather would have left at fourteen to go to work. George seems to have spent his working life as a labourer.

By the 1891 census, David was working in one of Kirkcaldy’s potteries as a kilnsman. This is the occupation also shown on the extract of his marriage certificate in 1892, when he married Isabella Gourlay. David’s mother Jessie was one of the witnesses to the marriage, along with Isabella’s brother Thomas Gourlay. I know that Isabella’s father Rankine Gourlay would not have been at the wedding, as he was a patient at the Fife and Kinross Lunatic Asylum at the time.

David and Isabella had six children; my grandfather David being the fourth.

David Leslie sr. died in 1940 when my father was eight years old. My great grandmother Isabella died in February 1961, just months before I was born.

As always, the more information I have about ancestors, the more I want to know. But I can’t say that I am any more interested in the Leslie family than any other branch of my tree. I do want to know why George wasn’t at home on census night 1871, and I’d like to know when he made the move from Elgin to Dundee. I’m curious about whether he had siblings and who his parents were, but I’m not driven by any need to prove some sort of lineage. My research will, I think, always be guided by how interesting I think characters are and how much I can learn about their stories.

I can’t help thinking my dad would probably disapprove of this too.