I’ve been a keen family genealogist for the best part of thirty-five years now, and putting everything I know together, from paper and more recent online and DNA research, it seems that my ancestral background is Scottish, Flemish and Kentish, with a dash of Irish and Scandinavian.
My interest in ancestry began with stories told by my grandmother Jessie, who, from her three Scottish grandparents, provided most of my Scottish DNA. Her maternal family (in which she was raised) were Scottish Presbyterians from Edinburgh who arrived in England in the mid-19th century. Her paternal family name was McCartney, which, I later discovered, descended from a family of west coast covenantors, who in turn descended from the Mac Artaines – ‘sons of the bear’, sometimes translated as ‘sons of the brave.’
Scottish origins and English destinies
My grandmother Jessie’s parents met in England. Possibly, she said, their Scottish heritage had drawn them to one another. Her father was a Scot from Renfrew, an engineer who, she explained, had worked on ships on the Clyde and left for England seeking work.
Jessie’s maternal grandfather, Robert, was a Scot from Edinburgh, who had arrived in England as an apprentice jeweller, worked his way up to master craftsman, and married a Kentish maid. He eventually purchased a business in a small Kentish town, where he became what is nowadays referred to as a ‘community leader’.
His obituary records that his lasting claim to fame was being one of a group of young men who formed an impromptu guard of honour for Princess Alexandra of Denmark when she arrived at Gravesend in 1863 to marry the then Prince of Wales, Albert Edward.
An unfortunate fate meant that the only father figure that Jessie would ever know was her grandfather Robert. She was born in 1891, and her father, John, died from influenza and tonsillitis at in 1893 the age of 26, possibly a late victim of the 1889-1890 pandemic. Experts are now exploring whether the illness should be reclassified as a coronavirus.
Jessie and her mother returned to the maternal family home, a flat over Robert’s jewellery shop in the main high street. Jessie remembered her grandfather Robert as a stern man. Because her mother worked away from home for long periods of time, she was principally raised by Robert and an unmarried aunt.
She particularly disliked the Presbyterian faith in which the household was immersed, and as long as I knew her, would never voluntarily attend church services apart from family celebrations. “I’m not anti-God, I’m anti-organised religion”, she used to say.
Grandmother’s stories and secrets
Jessie died when I was ten. I spent a lot of time with her as a little girl, and she told me some wonderful stories of her childhood. One of my favourites was her request for porridge (the customary breakfast) with milk and sugar, like her friends’ mothers made it. Robert apparently found this amusing and told her that in his house, porridge was made with water and salt, because only ‘Sassanachs’ (the English) added milk and sugar.
Possibly because I was a poor sleeper, she also told me about winter evenings as a small girl who had been put to bed but could not sleep, taking forbidden glances out of her bedroom window to watch people and carriages passing by in the street below. Her favourite sight was the lamplighter, his sooty face smiling up at her, who customarily waved at children peeking through bedroom windows at him when they should have been asleep (“he never told” she said.)
But while she was a mine of stories of everyday life that made her Victorian/Edwardian childhood very real to me, there were frequently blanks when I grew a little older, and asked her more far-reaching questions. She would avoid questions about why she never spoke about her father’s family in Scotland (surely there must have been visits?), or what it was specifically about the religion in which she was raised that she didn’t like. And because she died before I was of an age to more doggedly pursue such a line of questioning, I never found out.
Meet the Scottish ancestors
It was probably the fact that so many loose ends remained that first drew me towards ancestral research. And once I gained access to online archives, I found that what I had been told about my great grandfather John was not entirely true. The birth records turned up the fact that it was actually John’s father who had been the engineer who worked on ships in the Clyde and moved to England in the 1860s where John was born, the first of his line to be born south of the border.
And it also emerged from the census records that John’s parents, brothers and sisters had lived only a few miles from where Jessie lived in her maternal grandfather’s home, throughout the whole period of her childhood. Yet she had no photographs or artefacts from John’s side of the family. She insisted to me, and to her own children before me, that she had never known or visited them, because they had lived far away.
A year of intense research followed in which I uncovered fragments of a story that confirmed a pre-marital pregnancy, barely avoided illegitimacy and further hinted at a whole catalogue of family arguments, schisms and shame that no one in my still-living family had ever known about. And then inevitably, I came to a lot of frustrating dead ends.
A poignant victory and an engraved brick
I decided that the trail was irretrievably cold when I drew blanks in looking for descendants of John’s siblings in the area in which Jessie was raised. This was complicated by most of the next generation descending from his sisters, who had changed their family name upon marriage. I desperately wanted just one photograph of him, but it was not to be.
Although, I did have one poignant victory … visiting the house that John’s father had purchased at the turn of the 20th century (having previously lived in rented property all his life). I was delighted to see a faded engraving – ‘Renfrew’ etched into a brick over the first-floor window.
It was just one little word, but a broad hint to me that leaving his home in Scotland had probably not been a step he had taken without regret. This triggered yet another year of studying the Scottish diaspora, followed by some reading about the Presbyterianism in which Jessie would have been raised by a Scottish family at that time in history.
Eventually these lines of research were exhausted. At one point during some fruitless archive reading, I began idly musing that if only I had a time portal, this would all be so much easier … and this idea went on to become the spark that ignited my basic plot for my first novel ‘On Time.’ Another turn of fate; that of national lockdown, then presented me with an ideal opportunity to weave a wholly fictional story together around events in Jessie’s childhood, within which I could fill in the gaps with imagination.
The novel that eventually emerged touches upon the concept of historical trauma to tell the story of two women who, when suddenly confronted with an unexpected opportunity to travel in time, wrestle with temptation to ‘fix’ things in their ancestral past to prevent family tragedies that shaped the lives of living relatives.
In terms of ancestry research, On Time is the equivalent of a photoshopped ‘ancestral selfie’; I changed all the names and prolifically imagined what I didn’t already know. I hope my ancestors would have forgiven me for what I inevitably got wrong!
Calling all Renfrew McCartneys
But with regard to the living, I think the On Time experience has been very positive. It has enabled me and other members of my family to feel much closer to our Scottish ancestry. It has also enhanced our appreciation of the struggles that our ancestors endured, frequently far more traumatic than those that have been thrown at the present generation over the last tumultuous six years.
Finally: if there is anyone out there who descends from the McCartneys of Renfrew, ancestral covenantors who spawned a family of engineers who left Scotland in the 1860s to make their fortune in England, I’d really love to hear from you. I still haven’t given up all hope of finding that photograph!
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