A ‘heritage Scot’
What does it mean to be a ‘heritage Scot?’ For me, the concept was always present, given that my grandmother had Scottish grandparents on both sides of her family, and told me many compelling stories about being raised in the house of her maternal grandfather.
But until quite recently, it was just one of those family facts that was there in my mind, that I didn’t think about too often, except maybe subconsciously when I was asked about nationality. Then I would say very firmly ‘British’ rather than ‘English.’ I would also frequently describe myself as ‘European’, bearing in mind the Huguenot heritage a long dead Great Uncle had carefully traced along another ancestral line.
Perhaps it was Brexit that brought these ideas further towards the front of my mind. I certainly cared enough about this to blog about my mixed European heritage prior to ‘Brexit Day’ three years ago.
But my deeper interest in my Scottish heritage really took off when I followed my grandmother’s family line through formal family research. It made sense that this would be the first line I’d pursue, because she was such a wonderful storyteller, who would often tell me when I was a child about her life ‘long ago’.
I grew up feeling that I knew the stern Scottish Grandpapa who took such pride in being born in a house on Princes Street in Edinburgh and would only allow porridge to be eaten with water and salt in his house!
I have already told this story, and how the unsolved mysteries it raised eventually became one of the major themes of my first novel in Bylines Scot last year. But the part that I didn’t explore in that article was the effect of diaspora upon descendants, particularly those of mixed heritage, as time goes by.
As a psychologist who views human affairs very much in the context of history, I have always been interested in how human beings define themselves through family stories, both in the construction of identity in childhood, and how this later impacts in adulthood.
Specifically, how do we enter adult life defining ‘who we think we are’? And, in the current generation who have access to DNA typing, how might our later discoveries modify this?
I carried out some focused research on this topic over 2021-22, and discovered the established psychological theory of ‘trauma descendant identity,’ which proposes that where ancestors have experienced traumatic events, diaspora amongst these, that this may be communicated both implicitly and explicitly to their descendants’ sense of self.
A Victorian family melodrama
When I dug into the formal records around my grandmother’s birth and early childhood, I found a long-hidden family trauma. She was the product of a romance between a young woman with an aspirational, Presbyterian middle-class Edinburgh-born father and a young man whose struggling working class parents had migrated to England from Renfrew in search of employment, accompanied by their growing brood of young children.
The historical evidence that I found, added to some of the stories that my grandmother had told me, indicated that this pairing did not meet with approval from Grandpapa Edinburgh. When the young father died tragically early in the influenza pandemic of the early 1890s which also killed Queen Victoria’s grandson, my 18 month old grandmother and her new born baby sister were subsumed into Grandpapa Edinburgh’s household to be raised in the strict Presbyterian tradition, and the paternal side of their family were never contacted or mentioned again.
The search for Grandpapa Renfrew
All my grandmother ever inherited from her father was her red hair, she used to say, although she never spoke openly of the family schism. This was something I uncovered in my archival search, and from that point onwards, I went in search of the great-grandparents my grandmother was never allowed to know, or to mention.
I found that they had lived out their lives in the same town in England in which my grandmother grew up; that her Renfrew Grandfather had become a locally renowned Labour councillor in later life, and that by the time he entered his seventies, he had finally made enough money to buy his own house, in partnership with his son-in-law.
Whether my grandmother ever found any of this out for herself and chose not to talk about it is lost to history. She left the area where she was born to be apprenticed at fourteen, having lived under the shadow of the strict, punitive discipline that directed daily life within her maternal grandparents’ house for as long as she could remember. She would never have been able to gain access to the documents that I found, now fully digitised and freely available on the worldwide web.
Visiting deceased relatives…
In the end, to try and further my research, I visited the small English town in which my grandmother was raised, just wanting to walk around the area in which these two Scottish families which provided an equal contribution to my genetic heritage had co-existed, but never collaborated over the upbringing of their granddaughters. Perhaps I would be able to absorb at least a small part of their story from walking the streets they had once walked?
And, surprisingly, I did. The tiny house in which the huge Renfrew family had lived, and in which my grandmother was born, was still standing. I didn’t feel I could disturb the people living there now, but I stood on the other side of the road and watched for a while, wondering not only how they ever managed to get the relevant number of people in, but also how they found the space and hospitality to welcome their eldest son’s new wife, eight months pregnant, to give birth to her baby there.
I found their graves in the local cemetery, my great-grandfather, twenty-six at time of death, buried next to his parents and one of his younger sisters, who had died as a teenager.
So, finally, after more than a century, one of the little girls they had lost, simply because they were poor, had come back to them, in the shape of her fifty-something granddaughter. It was a surprisingly emotional moment, given that I had never known these people.
But my last stop was the most evocative. The house my great-great grandfather had bought with his son-in-law was a short drive out of the town, and still standing; an unremarkable late Victorian end-of-terrace with a generous corner garden, but a huge step up from the tiny, rented house in which they had arrived, via London, after their migration from Scotland.
Again, I turned up just wanting to look and think about how it might have been, newly built, when my great-great-grandfather moved in. A widower in his early 70s by then, having also buried a son and daughter, perhaps he would have felt that he’d finally come home; a place where he could rest for the time that he had left?
What I didn’t expect was confirmation of that supposition from a simple, white-washed stone placed just under the roof. I initially noticed that subsequent residents had given the house a name, from a sign mounted near the door. However, I don’t remember what that was now; because blotting out everything else in my mind was the word I saw faintly etched on that weather-worn stone: ‘Renfrew.’
And here, with just that one word, I knew I’d found him, and the family that my grandmother lost when she was eighteen months old. As the Proclaimers sing:
Lochaber no more, Sutherland no more; Lewis no more, Skye no more; Bathgate no more, Linwood no more; Methil no more, Irvine no more.
But this time, it wasn’t ‘Renfrew no more’. It was Renfrew re-found
Re-imagining Grandpapa Renfrew
When I came to write the partly imagined story of this family in my novel, I had the little girl finally track down her grandfather in young teenage life (although in reality, I have no idea if that ever happened), to give him a voice in the narrative:
‘”Did you name the house?” asked Mo.
“What, Renfrew? Aye. That’s where I came from, so I thought it should be where I ended up.”
“Didn’t you want to leave Scotland?”
“Nobody wanted to leave, lass. There was no money, no work. I ended up working on the ships, but I didn’t like it. I wanted to be home with Mary and the wee’ans. And then I got a job in London. That’s where James, your father, was born. First MacIntosh of our line ever to be born in England. And then I got the job down here, moved nearer to the sea. It was smaller, quieter, more like the place we had come from. People were going to America, to Australia… we didn’t want to do that. We thought we could move back home later on. But then the days went by, and here we are.”’(from ‘On Time’ by Pam Jarvis)
And this to me, is how it feels to be a ‘heritage Scot.’ It’s a part of yourself that you yearn to reclaim. And in my case, I was lucky enough to succeed, to some extent.
Of course, because I have no family stories to start from, I still know nothing of those immigrants who contributed my other non-English genes; the Scots and Irish ancestors from the other side of my family, and the even more distant Scandinavians and Huguenots.
But for the moment, reclaiming Grandpapa Renfrew, and giving him a chance to ‘speak’ in fiction feels like victory enough. For the moment, anyway!