When the truth contradicts the “family folklore”; treading carefully around the relatives

One of the unintended consequences of becoming the family historian – as opposed to just collecting and handing down the family stories – is that realities exposed by searching the records don’t always match up with the sometimes cherished stories. While this is really exciting for me, I think it’s proving a bit stressful for my parents who have lived most of their lives with the family folklore.

I started thinking about this a while ago when I was researching my Cruden great grandparents – my mum’s grandparents. I’d discovered that my great granddad, Alexander Cruden, was one of seven kids so I set about finding out what happened to them all. My mum knew about a couple of his sisters and his younger brother who died about the Arctic Convoys in World War II, and told me that one of the sisters had died young “of a broken heart, because she wasn’t allowed to marry the man she wanted to.”

What I discovered wasn’t quite as romantic. Mary (May) Balsillie Cruden, my great, great aunt; died of eclampsia in the Royal Edinburgh Maternity Hospital in February 1921. She was nineteen, worked as a children’s nurse – and was unmarried. Frustratingly, I don’t know for sure if the baby died as well, but I have to assume so because I haven’t been able to find a birth certificate.

My family tree is full of marriages that precede births by only a few weeks, and I’d like to think that the father of her child was ready to “do the right thing”. But, mindful that family stories usually contain at least some truth, I can’t help wondering if the “broken heart” story would have taken hold if May Cruden had left behind a lover or fiancée mourning her death and that of their unborn child.

I don’t have a picture of May Cruden, but have always liked this photo of May’s mother Isabella (nee Wallace) and niece (my grandmother).