The Portrait in the Shed

Last month I returned to Scotland again for a short visit. And in a brief sunny two-day window bookended by cold and wet weather, my mother and I headed over to the west coast to visit my younger sister. Since we’d last seen each other, she’d moved into an old quarryman’s cottage in a tiny Ayrshire village. Set on the banks of the river Ayr with a nature reserve at her back door and a welcoming neighbouring pub with great food  it was the perfect location for a weekend away, bringing back memories of our Ayrshire childhood in the seventies.

My sister’s terraced cottage was decorated in her eclectic style with objects old and new. In the entrance porch I was surprised but pleased to see the twin brass eagles that had graced my grandparent’s mantlepiece for all the years I’d know them. They were made by Robert Neilson, my grandmother’s father, who was a brass finisher by trade. As a child they’d always fascinated me – as they obviously did my sister – and they were just as exquisite as I’d remembered, with the strange detail that had intrigued me at the time: the birds’ flat-topped heads and outsized feet; their arched wings and the indentations of their feathers. I automatically reached out to touch them, as I’d always done, and felt that same unexpected coldness and roughness. 

One of a pair of brass eagles my great-grandfather made

In the small room at the front of the house was an even greater surprise: the lost portrait of our Great Uncle Adam that I remember so well from the day we triumphantly unearthed it from my grandfather’s garden shed. That warm afternoon we’d set ourselves the task of emptying the shed of all its accumulated junk in order to make some play room for ourselves. I still can recall the musty damp smell of the tiny wooden building and the wonder as the area outside the shed filled up with all the tools and boxes that had been stored there (looking like it had doubled in amount once freed from its confines). Soon we could see a wooden floor and knew that we were on target to achieve our goal. Except we hadn’t quite worked out how everything would go back in.

With my grandparents in summer 1964 – the shed is behind us

We were lucky that day that my grandparent’s were fairly sanguine about the enterprise, using it as the spur they needed to get rid of some of the unwanted items they’d forgotten about over the years. But I’m not sure what they thought when we came proudly back into the house carrying a large and unwieldy framed photographic portrait of a young smiling man in military uniform. Oh, it’s Uncle Adam they exclaimed. When he was in the war. By that they meant the 1st World War, in which Adam Neilson had enlisted in the Signallers in 1914 at the age of 16 by saying he was older than he actually was. His parents had been furious and tried to get him out of the contract, with Great Grandma seemingly upset about the fact she’d just bought him an expensive new winter wool coat. Yet he had survived the conflict – like my London grandfather he felt it better to choose his regiment rather than be conscripted later – and gone on to become a much-loved uncle and now our oldest great-uncle. 

Adam Neilson, c1915

Uncle Adam was very much alive when we found his dusty portrait (he died in 1982), but according to my mother he did not actually want the photograph after my great-grandmother’s death in 1968. Perhaps it was because he preferred not to be reminded of that time: my mother said that he never spoke about the war to anyone in his family. Seemingly my great-grandmother brought Adam’s picture with her (along with the rest of the boxes of photographs) from her Dumbiedykes tenement when she moved in with my grandparents shortly after being widowed in 1949. It hung on the wall in her  bedroom in their Carrick Knowe house, but once she died it had seemed rather dark and old-fashioned with its thick wooden frame and so had been put into the shed and forgotten about. 

I found it strange that Adam was the only child whose image had been turned into the equivalent of an oil-painted portrait, yet it was perhaps natural as he was the only child who saw active combat in the Great War, and left home while still a bairn (to his mother) and not by the usual route of a twenty-something marriage. And Adam had been (so the family story goes) her favourite son, although this was said more in the spirit of light-hearted teasing. After all, he was the first-born child and a beautiful looking, good-natured boy who looked very much like his father. In fact, as Adam aged he appeared to grow more and more to resemble my great-grandfather, Robert Neilson, and it is easy to confuse them in photographs. 

Adam Neilson c1900

There had also been an Adam Neilson in the family for several generations and Great Uncle Adam shared a name with his father’s older brother, who had been named after his father (who also shared a name with his uncle, who had been named after his father). And so we can trace a line from the original Ur-Adam Neilson, a farm labourer from Athelstaneford in East Lothian, born in the 1770s, to the last Adam Neilson, born over two hundred years later.

Although the next generation was to feature a great number of Roberts, Catherines and Davids (David being the name of the Ur-Adam’s son – the line of Neilsons from which my grandmother had descended) there were to be no more Adam Neilsons after this one. Not only were less descendants being born (four of the nine Neilson children only had one child, including my grandmother and Great Uncle Adam), but the old-fashioned Scottish family naming traditions were dying out. My grandmother had expected me to be called Catherine (and was none too pleased when I wasn’t), even though that would have led to the inevitable confusion caused by four generations of living Catherines. Yet it is many of these ‘modern’ names (my own included) which now sound outdated in comparison to timeless classical names, and can be more of a give-away as to someone’s age. 

Three Generations of Catherines – and a Carolyn – and that shed!

For Scottish family historians, the following  naming patterns (taken from Scotland’s People) can be helpful when tracing a tree farther back. However, it is true to say that many families might have bucked this trend for various reasons:

  • 1st son named after father’s father
  • 2nd son named after mother’s father
  • 3rd son named after father
  • 1st daughter named after mother’s mother
  • 2nd daughter named after father’s mother
  • 3rd daughter named after mother

Adam’s namesake – his paternal uncle, Adam Neilson c1910

And now – and this is where my memory confuses me as to exactly what happened – there was a plan to hang up Adam’s photograph on the wall of my grandparents’ living room/dining room so that he would see it when he next came to visit with Aunt Lily. As usual there would be high tea with sandwiches and cakes on doily-covered cake stands with the best linen and the wedding china. Grandad would be jovial and crack his silly jokes. My grandmother would bustle around anxiously. My mother would become younger than we knew her. And we would shyly wait to be fussed over. 

That Sunday afternoon,  Uncle Adam was wearing a burgundy pullover and his white hair wisped around his shining pate. His round ruddy cheeks and dark lively eyes gave him away as a Neilson. What was it like for Grandma to look into the face of her father every time they did ‘the visiting’? Or for my mother to see her long-dead grandfather in her uncle? It must have been 1974 as Seasons on the Sun was played constantly on the radio, blaring out of houses and cars and back gardens. It was a song that managed to be both heart-breaking and schmaltzy, and defined that year in the way that popular tunes once did. It might have been Easter as I seem to remember there were gifts of chocolate eggs – too many as I later discovered when I was ill in the night. Or was that another time?

Adam with his mother, Christmas in Edinburgh,  c1958

In any case, all I can now recall was that everyone in the family was good-natured about the appearance of the photograph in the place where there had been some seventies pin-art my mother had made for her parents. Then it stayed up on the wall beside the entrance to the kitchenette (the kitschy pin art had had its day) until my grandmother moved into her smaller sheltered home seven years after Uncle Adam died. It never went with her, but instead followed my sister from house to house. And now it was here in this Ayrshire quarryman’s cottage, where it seemed most at home.

It was only when I looked at it closely that I realised it looked more like a painting than a photograph, even though it had clearly been taken with a camera. Some investigating led me to the discovery that enlargements of small studio portraits were often enhanced using artists colours, such as oils or watercolours to make up for the loss of detail that occurred during the process . So that would explained why Adam’s features looked so soft and otherwordly, and why the sepia background seemed to be composed of delicate brushstrokes.

A search through the boxes of albums back in Edinburgh did not come up with the original portrait of Uncle Adam or indeed any other image of him in uniform. However, there was one photograph of Adam from this period that I came across which I found even more haunting than the dreamlike portrait. It showed a group of men – some in uniform, others without – at the end of the war. It would appear to have been taken at the time they were being demobbed, and was obviously in order to commemorate their wartime cameraderie.

Adam Neilson (back right) with soldier friends 1918/9

This the photograph that I would have liked to have shown to my Great Uncle Adam that Sunday afternoon in 1974. It might have been the way to gently generate some memories of his time on the Western Front, if the topic had been handled sensitively enough. Sadly we never got the chance. Yet even without any living voices to tell their tales, the faces of the young soldiers who survived the conflict are replete with their own stories.

The Incidental Genealogist, May 2022

 

 

Walking Pictures

While I was undertaking February’s onerous task of organising the large and jumbled collection of Scottish family photographs, I came across a number of  so-called ‘walking pictures’. So delighted was I with these spontaneous-looking images – like unexpected peeks into unguarded moments in my relatives’ lives – that I almost thought about giving them a separate category. In the end, I reluctantly filed them in their individual family folders, but not before deciding they should at least have their own chapter in my Scottish family story.

Most of us with collections of personal photographs from the last century will recognise the walking picture and may even been ‘victim’ of one. These opportunistic snaps were mainly taken in the 1920s through to the 1950s, before camera ownership was widespread. The business idea was simple: commercial photographers set themselves up on busy main streets or seaside resorts, catching pedestrians as they walked and talked and gazed around them. The walkers were often unaware of the camera pointing in their direction – at least until the moment when their wry smiles or looks of quizzical surprise were captured on film.

Walking pictures are a strange anomaly among all the other photographs in my album: they appear more like family snapshots in their informality, although those they portray had little control over them. To me, they almost feel like an invasion of privacy and it is surprising to think this practice was relatively common up until the 1960s. I even remember being caught (so it felt like) by a photographer talking such pictures in my Scottish seaside town in the 1980s. To suddenly have someone jump out of the crowd and point a camera at me was a new and uncomfortable feeling.

Needless to say, my then boyfriend and myself gave the photographer short shrift when he tried to sell us a copy of the image. Perhaps we would have felt differently had we not been penniless new graduates at a time of high unemployment in Scotland, worried about our futures, and discussing how we could raise the funds to get down to London to look for work. (See The Incidental Genealogist is Born for more about this period in my life, which was the eventual catalyst for my unplanned entry into the world of ‘heir hunting’ in the capital). 

For this reason, I did not expect to see quite so many of these walking pictures in the family collection (although possibly many more were never bought). Perhaps in those days people were more grateful to have the chance to be photographed spontaneously! One set from the late 1920s was reminiscent of the stills from the newly popular ‘moving pictures’ and showed my grandmother with her younger sister, Ann, walking along Princes Street.

Catherine and Ann Neilson, Princes St. Edinburgh, late 1920s

What is perhaps most fascinating about the pictures than my relatives – after all, I am lucky to have many images of them throughout the decades – is the small details to be viewed on Edinburgh’s main thoroughfare. The men with their hats and canes; the woman with their dainty clutch bags and leather gloves: the cars and trams, which are almost hooting and tootling their way out of the photograph. Even the dandy strolling along purposefully beside the road, with his hand in his pocket and fashionably shorter trousers, looks like a film extra. Did the Neilson sisters bother to give him a glance a few seconds earlier, or were these swaggering types so common during the period that they did not merit special attention? 

It is also interesting to note the way the Neilson sisters are being ‘photo-bombed’ by the harried-looking woman who seems to be attempting to overtake them on their left. Perhaps their walking speed had automatically slowed down as they realised they were about to be snapped, warily eying the camera. Whether or not they felt they had no choice about the way they had been preserved for posterity on what was possibly a regular Saturday morning shopping jaunt (shops closed at lunchtime in those days), I’m certainly glad they ordered copies of the set.

On the reverse of the strip was the generic name ‘walking pictures’, although no business address is given. I later discovered that the normal protocol was for the photographer to present them with a receipt for their images immediately after he took their picture, which they could then view and order at a nearby booth a few hours later.

Catherine Neilson with daughters Catherine and Mary, Edinburgh, early 1930s

The picture above from early in the following decade shows my grandmother with her mother and youngest sister, Mary, crossing the busy North Bridge from their home in the Dumbiedykes. (The Scotsman building appears to be behind them, indicating they were walking towards Princes Street). Although my grandmother was already married by then, she would be childless for a further seven years and so often spent any free time with her own family. Not only did my grandfather have to work on Saturday mornings at that point, but he did not allow my grandmother to have a career herself (despite her wanting to continue working as a fully-apprenticed dressmaker), too concerned by what that might (erroneously) indicate about their financial situation. Sadly this meant my grandmother turned her energies to housework instead, eventually becoming almost neurotic about the task. Perhaps that is why my own mother is happier living in organised chaos!

In that picture, it is my grandmother’s open smile and the brown paper parcel tied up with string Mary is holding (almost nudging the arm of the older gent in front) which particularly interest me. That carefully knotted package now seems like a throwback to another time, as do the fox fur stoles draped around the necks of my great-grandmother and great-aunt. I hadn’t noticed before how Mary’s fur actually has eyes and a nose, and it seems strange to think of this young working-class girl sporting such a glamorous accessory. However, my mother tells me it that it was relatively common to wear fur stoles in those days – perhaps it had even been a shared item or had been passed onto her from another family member. When I was about eighteen I recall ‘inheriting’ (or commandeering) my grandmother’s old fur coat, it being fashionable then for students to wear such an item. The argument was that vintage fur was better than buying new fur, and by giving these items a new lease of life there was respect for the creatures who’d died. But I always drew the line at something with a face.

I wish I’d asked my great-aunt Mary how she came to be in possession of a dead animal around her neck at such a young age. However, while I might not know that particular family story, I do remember hearing from an early age The Tale of Grandma’s Hat. My grandmother (like most woman of that generation) wore a great deal of fashionable hats in her life, in particular the cloche hats of the 1920s and early 30s. Her round face suited that style, too, and she possibly knew it. In any case, the story goes that she spent a large proportion of her first week’s wages as a dressmaker on a hat she’d coveted. But while crossing Edinburgh’s notoriously windy and exposed North Bridge, the new hat blew off her head and landed onto the glass panes of Waverley Railway Station’s Victorian roof  below. When my grandmother was finally able to retrieve her hat from the lost property office, it had been completely ruined by the elements. I remember when she told us this story, fifty years after the event, she still sounded wistful about the loss of this hat, which had cost the grand sum of four shillings and eleven pence. I also recall being told that her mother was shocked at how much she’d spent on the item. (Possibly her Presbyterian parents regarded this to have been a lesson learned in the twin sins of vanity and over-spending).

My grandparents and great-grandmother, c1945

In the walking picture above, my grandmother – who is now almost forty – has a new style of hat for new straitened times. My mother must have been in the world by then as the fashions indicate that this is the 1940s, as does the Victory Roll hairstyle of the young hatless woman behind my great-grandmother. Perhaps my mother is back at the seaside boarding house on this day, suffering from a summer cold in the unseasonably cool weather.

Neilson and McKay families on holiday, c1946

And then I find her, all dressed up to the nines in her trademark white ankle socks and hair ribbon, with her parents and grandparents and Uncle Adam, Aunt Lily, and older cousin Robert. My grandparents often went on holiday with this combination of relatives (maybe because Adam and Lily also only had the one child) and there are many photographs from that period in our collection, suggesting that someone in the group owned a camera.  Did my grandfather still have his Kodak Brownie from his youthful twenties?

Neilson and McKay families, c1946

In the family snap above – which is from the same timeframe as the walking picture –  the way the adults are looking so indulgently at the photographer (with whom my mother is complicit in her little-girl smile), tells us it is Adam and Lily’s teenage son, Robert, who is behind the lens. My mother and him were great friends, despite the age difference, and she told me this period in his life was the beginning of his interest in photography. This was not such a common pastime in those days due to the expense involved, so those who took it up at a young age tended to take it quite seriously. In fact, his parents allowed him to set up a dark room in the spare bedroom and in his twenties he became so fascinated by his new hobby that his then girlfriend (who would go on to be his wife) had to issue him an ultimatum. This led to them separating for some time, a period in which my mother remembers being invited round to visit more.

My grandmother with a friend and my mother, Arbroath c1953

Now we move into our final decade of my family collection of walking pictures: the 1950s. Fashions have changed a lot in the intervening three decades and my grandmother is noticeably older, as is my mother, who is fifteen and already showing the good looks that she inherited from the best parts of her parents. On the left of this image, taken in the seaside resort of Arbroath, is a family friend in almost identical hairstyle and outfit as my grandmother. She is obviously younger and looks like she might even be an older daughter: it will take a few years before hairstyles and fashion become delineated along generational lines. 

Yet the small clutch bags and sunglasses that all three carry in their hands make them look unfettered and carefree. They could almost be modern women holding close their ubiquitous smart phones: a device which has turned us all into photographers, for better or for worse, but which rarely produces results to match the strange, unglamorous spontaneity of the walking picture.

The Incidental Genealogist, April 2022

 

 

February Fill the Dyke

February certainly lived up to its old appellation of ‘fill-the-dyke’ this year – at least it did in Scotland. It was my first trip home in two years, and while many things in Edinburgh had changed, the late winter weather was just as miserable as I’d remembered, albeit persistently windier. I had never heard the old rhyme February fill the dyke, either black or white before, but my mother told me that it was one of her maternal grandmother’s favourite climate-related sayings, including the rather pessimistic  Ne’er cast a clout before May be out. (Etymologists still cannot decide whether the May in question refers to the spring month or the arrival of the hawthorn – or may – blossom several weeks earlier, but there are compelling arguments for both alternatives).

Despite the ambiguity of the aforementioned rhyme, had it been May and not February my mother and I might have actually managed to do some of the things we’d planned (layered up or not): such as exploring the Canongate and Dumbiedykes area of the city where one side of our Scottish family had lived, or heading down the east coast to rural Athelstaneford, from where the Neilsons had originated. But due to the hostile weather we spent a lot of time indoors, sorting out the five messy boxes that contained all the Scottish family photographs amassed over the last 130 plus years. That in itself took up most of the week (and most of the living room), and in fact was a task that I’d still not finished when I was hurriedly packing my suitcase in preparation for my all-too-soon departure.

However, without the dykes being filled (both black and white) I doubt I’d have had the time to even manage to reorganise one of the boxes; so I have February to thank for my achievement. And even though I didn’t manage to digitalise all the photographs, I made at least a stab at sorting out the contents of the boxes into five separate categories. While it had always seemed fun just to prise open the lids and find random photos irreverently juxtaposed inside – my teenage mother playing tennis in flannel shorts in the 1950s next to a cabinet card of straight-backed Victorians – it was not conducive to any easy retrieval of images, something which needed to be rectified for my genealogy project. But therein lay the problem: how should the contents of the boxes be categorised?

In the end, the growing piles of photographs on the living room floor helped to make the decision for me. One small box would be for the paternal side of the family (the McKays), while a much bigger one would house all the Neilsons (sub-divided into the families of the Neilson clan), including my grandparents and mother (even though they were theoretically McKays). Another box would be reserved for all the cards, letters, telegrams and certificates that had become jumbled up with all the photographs over the years. The final two boxes would include some of the most eclectic of the images. One I named ‘The Victorians’ (despite many of the photographs actually being from the early 20th century); the other ‘The Bright Young Things’, as it contained numerous tiny snaps of my unmarried grandparents and their friends and siblings larking about in various beguiling outfits in the 1920s.

What follows is my attempt to describe these two latter categories and to explain the logic behind them.

The Victorians: Finding the oldest of the photographs was the easiest and most enjoyable task and was akin to being reunited with old friends. These were mainly formal cabinet card photographs taken in photographers’ studios, and were the ones most treasured by our family. Although many were actually Edwardian (or even later), I’d once deemed all these people to be Victorians on account of the aged look of the sepia images and the formality of the sitters’ clothes and demeanour.

Unsurprisingly, in those days I was less interested in family history than seeking out images of other children, whether I knew them then as older relatives or not. I was fascinated by the fussy clothes they wore and their funny hairstyles. Yet it strikes me now it was the women whose fashions were the strangest and most distinct from what we wore in the 1970s (the period when I first set eyes on ‘the Victorians’). I shudder to think of how I would get on even trying to ease myself into one of their restrictive, heavy  garments. And when I look at the photograph of the young Catherine Miller Thomson (my great-grandmother) I understand now why my mother and grandmother always commented on the size of her waist whenever we came across this cabinet card, taken to celebrate her eighteenth birthday.

Catherine Neilson (née Thomson), my great-grandmother, 1892

What I find most interesting now, though, is the hint of the smile on her lips. Although there is another two years before she will meet her future husband, Robert Neilson, at a summer picnic for brass finishers where one of her younger brothers would soon be apprenticed, I am sure she is aware of her youth and beauty on that day 130 years ago. Her six daughters would all go on to inherit her dark good looks and shapely figure, as well as her longevity. Despite the fact that my great-grandmother did not quite make the century, I was still lucky enough to have known this remarkable woman as ‘great-grandma’ for the first few years of my life.

Robert Neilson, my great grandfather (c1895)

I might have been able to meet my great-grandfather too, had Robert Neilson not slipped on the ice that bitterly cold January day in 1948, shortly after retiring later in life  (his brass finishing skills perhaps still needed to help the wartime effort). The box that includes all the cards and letters has a bundle of black edged notes to ‘Kate’ (the name by which my great-grandmother was mostly known), commiserating with her on her terrible loss. She’d kept those letters in an old suitcase along with the photographs of ‘the Victorians’ that my grandparents then inherited. I wonder if she ever reread them in the intervening twenty years before her short demise at age 94 from ‘senile decay’, or whether she just could not bear to dispose of them. Perhaps she’d held onto them because – as many of the friends and relatives had written –  The shocking death of Bob was so very unexpected. 

The Burgeoning Neilson Family c1903

The above photograph always seemed rather strange to me – not just because no-one seems to be particularly enjoying the experience of being in the studio – including my good-natured great-uncle Adam (always jokingly said to be great-grandma’s favourite child), but because everyone in the family seems to be looking in different directions with only Adam and the baby actually gazing into the camera itself. I don’t know what the photographer thought he was doing when he set up this scene, but perhaps the presence of three young children put him off his stride. Adam certainly looks wary!

This reminded me of the time when I was photographed at our local playgroup by a man from the local newspaper who hid behind what looked like a black cape affixed to a camera on a bulky tripod (in my mind it looks like one of those Victorian travelling seaside contraptions which I know it can’t be). He told us all ominously to watch the birdie, while a flash went off (in a puff of smoke?), confusing us even more. I’ve never forgotten my disappointment at not seeing a bird come out of the outsize camera, thinking it was part of a magician’s box of tricks. For the Victorian/Edwardian family, photography may have still felt like an act of magic, and so Adam’s quizzical look is perhaps understandable.

*

The Bright Young Things: For some reason I could not recall ever coming across quite so many snapshots (the era of home camera ownership had finally arrived!) of my grandparents from the 1920s before. Perhaps that was because all these images were small and individual faces were difficult to appreciate without the aid of a magnifying glass. In fact, if it wasn’t for my mother I might not have recognised my grandparents in many of the group photographs as their lively poses and swinging-twenties outfits seemed to go against everything they had stood for in my mind (relatively staid respectability).

It was only after carefully observing my doll-sized grandfather in one large group  photograph that I saw he was clutching what looked like a folding Kodak Brownie. This led me to believe that he might have been the one who’d taken some of these photographs, perhaps passing his camera to a friend to use when he wanted to be included in the group. I also wondered if the reason I could not remember these snaps was that they had been stored separately from those we had inherited from my great grandmother, and had only been added to the family collection after my grandparents’ death. But perhaps they just hadn’t interested me so much in those days, being eclipsed by ‘the Victorians’.

My grandfather plus camera, front right, early 1920s

With the aid of a magnifying glass, these tiny photographs became a window onto a lost world of holidays doon the watter in Largs and Rothesay and mucking around with other twenty-somethings in a variety of get-ups, some of which seemed to involve fancy dress in a nod to Cecil Beaton’s original photograph’s of the so-called Bright Young Things. Unfortunately all the snaps were undated, leaving me to guess at which ones overlapped with my grandparents seven-year courtship (from 1924 to 1931), and which ones pre-dated that. As my grandfather was five years older than my grandmother (he was born in 1901 to her 1906), there are possibly even earlier girlfriends of his to be seen. But if there were any, we do not know of them. 

I like to think of these photographs as the century-old equivalent of the ‘instagrammable selfies’ of today’s youth, yet I am fascinated by the fact that in nearly every image everyone is hugging and hanging on to each other in a way that suggests they were relaxed and entirely at ease together. I often wonder if these relationships were especially intense due to the losses sustained during the First World War and the pandemic which followed, giving rise to a generation that wanted to enjoy life in the here-and-now. I’d always rather naively assumed it was the more moneyed classes who threw themselves into the spirit of the roaring twenties, but Grandad’s photographs seemed to prove that you did not have to be wealthy to partake of the excitement of the modern jazz age.

My grandfather (2nd from left) with friends c1925 in Rothesay

It would also appear that you could even have all this fun without the twin horrors of drink or drugs. My grandfather came from a rather religious, non-drinking family (his younger brother became a minister, and a sister married one), and there was a certain innocence about all his galavanting around, with many photographs (such as the one where he is holding the camera) taken at what appeared to be gatherings organised by the church or various clubs. But to the generation that went before, these young people of the modern age with their free-flowing, less formal clothes, short hair (the women) and shaved faces (the men) must have sometimes seemed as alien as the ‘flower children’ who were to follow them four decades later.

My grandmother (on left) with sister and friends on holiday c1925

Perhaps for me the most difficult thing is to imagine my grandparents, who I always saw as being too concerned with societal rules and regulations (what would Mrs so-and-so think?), as ever being young and carefree. One 1920s photograph I do remember from childhood – possibly because it was so incongruous – was one of my grandmother sitting on my grandfather’s motorcycle during an excursion to the Scottish coastal resort of Largs.

My grandmother with my grandfather’s motorcycle, late ’20s.

My grandmother was never comfortable with travelling in the sidecar (just glimpsed in the photo). What if it should become detached? So this motorcycle disappeared soon after their marriage, and like many of their generation they never bought a car to replace it. I possibly wouldn’t want to travel in that sidecar now either, but at my grandmother’s age I like to think I would have been delighted at the idea and the freedom it represented. In this photograph (above), I can almost see her thinking I wish Aleck would stop obsessing over this machine!

The Incidental Genealogist, March, 2022

 

 

 

A Tenement with a View

As a child I was always drawn to the set of photographs taken from the balcony of my great-grandparents’ tenement flat in Edinburgh’s Dumbieykes area. Through these images I saw my grandmother morph from a gangly 1920s teenager into a young married woman in the 1930s and then as a mother in the 1940s. Fashion moved on over the decades, but the solid-looking wrought-iron balcony was a constant. I have been told that the views from the flat over Holyrood Park were spectacular, although unfortunately no-one in the family thought to photograph them. My mother credits the fresh air blowing in from Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags for the Neilsons’ longevity – in addition to my great-grandmother’s plain and wholesome Scottish cooking. Even if they did not take advantage of the outdoor space in quite the same way we would today, the family must have appreciated being able to step out onto the balcony on a sunny morning, or to simply have a place to hang up damp laundry or wet overcoats.

My Grandparents on the Dumbiedykes Balcony, c1930

My mother assures me that the ironwork on the balcony was painted dark green, but by the time I was born, the balcony, the flat, the street and in fact the whole area had been demolished. As an article in the Scotsman newspaper on ‘Lost Edinburgh’ (here) points out: By the 1970s the Dumbiedykes of old was all but wiped from the map, with stone and slate switched for concrete and steel. Sadly, a centuries-old community was displaced in the process. Like many so-called ‘slum clearances’ throughout the country in the post-war period, the replacement housing proved to have its own issues as the new high-rise estate was built using continental designs that were not robust enough for Scottish weather. It is also said that the workmen struggled to work with these ‘alien’ designs, resulting in sub-standard workmanship which has blighted the estate ever since. To be fair, however, there has recently been investment in both the buildings and the community (possibly due to the area’s proximity to the relatively new Scottish Parliament), and the views from the high rise blocks have always been an attraction.

The Dumbiedykes today (front) from Salisbury Crags

While I was growing up, my mother and her older relatives often talked fondly of the Dumbiedykes and expressed their sadness that the old stone tenements had been demolished. My great grandfather, Robert Neilson, had spent all his life there, and my great-grandmother, Catherine Neilson (née Thomson), had also lived there with her family after moving from the nearby Canongate, so they were both embedded within the community. The Dumbiedykes was an area built during the industrial boom in the 19th century to house the families who worked in the nearby factories and breweries in the East of the city (all now gone, too), and the tenements ranged from unsanitary and over-crowded buildings to relatively well-kept groups of flats, such as ‘the balconies’ where the Neilsons lived. 

My mother has told me about her grandparents’ flat in such detail that I can almost imagine to have been there myself. One of her earliest memories was sleeping in the recessed bed in the living room-cum-kitchen, and falling asleep to the comforting sound of the grown-ups chatting or listening to the radio. It must have been warm and cosy in that room as great-grandma only had an old-fashioned black-leaded Victorian range in which to heat and cook with, which was always lit from dawn to dusk, and although the floor was linoleum, there was a homemade clippy rug in front of the fireplace. My mother remembers how early in the morning she would hear the brewery workers in their clogs clattering along the cobbled stones, then later she would rise to see her grandmother in her stays, washing in the kitchen corner of the room with its single cold tap. She found it strange that her grandmother always called this sink ‘the well’. but to the Victorian generation brought up in houses without indoor plumbing, it really must have seemed like having your own private well inside the house.

Catherine and Robert Neilson (my great-grandparents), Dumbiedykes c1945

The fact that a family of twelve lived in a two-bedroomed flat with no bathroom (only an indoor toilet – a luxury some others on the estate did not have) and a living-room which doubled as a kitchen and the parents’ bedroom at night, may seem like deprivation to us today and was one of the reason the houses were not deemed fit-for-purpose by the 1960s. But when speaking about their childhood, not one of the Neilson children (many of whom I got to know well in their old age) felt they had lacked anything while growing up. There were the usual squabbles for bed space and bath water, but nothing that hinted at the kind of poverty on which the post-war town-planners focussed; although it obviously did exist, particularly as the 20th century wore on and the buildings aged. My mother does recall one winter in the 1940s when condensation ran down the inside walls, which the family re-named ‘the weeping walls’, although she cannot recall if there was any specific reason for the event. However, it is interesting to speculate what would have happened to the estate had it been allowed to remain intact. Nearby upgraded tenements with balconies which escaped demolition are much sought after today with the outside space often decorated with plants and outdoor furniture.

Dumbiedykes Rd 1950s (c) Edinburgh City Libraries

In contrast, my mother never remembers the balconies in Dumbiedykes Road being used for anything that was not functional. As it was to all intents partly a shared area that ran along the front of the buildings, it would have to have been kept as neat and clean as the stairwell (stair cleaning being a rota that the women in the block shared). This was one of the reasons my grandmother still regularly scrubbed the steps leading to her 1930s ‘four-in-a-block’ house up until she had a stroke in the early 1980s. As a child I always found it strange to see her on her knees wielding a great wooden brush and a pail of soapy water, even in the winter, but it was a hangover from the days when everyone was expected to keep communal entrances clean – perhaps even forfeiting their tenancy if they did not. For that generation of professional housewives it was also important to show your neighbours that you were not slovenly.

I often think this strong Presbyterian streak was also what prevented people from using their balconies for rest and relaxation: they possibly wouldn’t have wanted others to think they were not busy working (if men) or cooking and cleaning (if women). Of course this meant that many housewives were trapped inside for hours on end, and I remember that my own grandmother was always finding things to do in the house, even on summer days. My mother tells me that all her adult life she would never just sit outside in the sun and relax, but only used the ‘back green’ for hanging out washing, despite the fact my grandfather was often to be found outside pottering around in their section of the shared garden.

When my great-grandmother became widowed in 1948, she soon gave up the tenement flat in the Dumbiedykes and spent the next two decades of her life living with her grown-up children. My mother tells me she spent most of the time staying with them in their two-bedroomed house, possibly because it was easier in a family with only one child. However, this meant that initially my mother had to share her bedroom with her grandmother, which was certainly not a long-term solution. Eventually my grandparents gave up their own room and slept on the pull-out sofa bed in the living room instead. This couldn’t have been easy for everyone, especially during my mother’s teenage years, and it seems that her strongest and happiest memories of her grandmother was of the time when she visited her in the Dumbiedykes. My mother’s grandfather was also a comforting and cheerful presence in those days, and my mother recalls his old comfy chair by the fire and pipe stand at the side of the range and that she would always kiss him on his bald head before leaving. 

My Mother and Grandparents, Dumbiedykes c1945

On Fridays, my grandmother would meet my mother after school and they would take the number 1 bus all the way from their suburb of Carrick Knowe, in the West of the city, into Edinburgh’s old town, a place that my mother said always looked rather gloomy and seedy on account of the blackened soot-stained buildings and narrow cobbled streets. They would leave the bus in the Royal Mile and walk down St Mary’s Street towards the Pleasance, then cut down Holyrood Road. Before they went up to my great-grandparents third floor flat in Dumbiedykes Road, they would pick up a pre-ordered copy of The Girl’s Crystal from Miss Yardley’s local shop so that my mother could be entertained when the grown-ups were talking or listening to the radio – something they did a lot in those wartime days.

My mother recalls that when she was very young and it was time to leave her grandparents’ house (if they did not stay overnight in the recess bed) she would be picked up by my grandmother, tucked under her arm like a bag of groceries, and whisked all the way down the three flights of stone tenement stairs. Apart from the injustice of it all, she mostly remembers her mother’s boney hip painfully pushing into her stomach as she leapt from step to step. Knowing my grandmother – a small, nervy, sinewy woman with a vice-like grip well into old age who was always running late – I can just imagine her pounding down those stairs, rushing to catch the next bus to get home to make my grandad’s tea or to avoid the blackout. Yet those three flights of stone steps also used to fascinate my mother as she noticed they were worn into dips at the entrance and ground floor, but became flatter farther up the stairs where there was less footfall. This is, of course, is just the sort of detail that a child would pick out, and I remember being equally taken by the strange undulations in the stones on a section of my grandparents’ front path in Carrick Knowe – the result of a botch tarmac job many years earlier which is still there today.

Ann, Catherine and Mary Neilson, with nephew, Dumbiedykes, c1930

As the middle child, my grandmother had four older and four younger siblings: the photograph above shows her with the two younger sisters, Ann and Mary. These little girls (who I got to know well in their old age) learnt to slip notes out the coal cupboard in the tenement hallway to my grandmother when she was canoodling on the stair with my grandfather. The cupboard opened at both ends so that the coalman did not need to enter the house and was an ideal way to send out messages from the living room to tell my future grandparents when tea or supper was ready and they had to come inside.

The Neilsons’ childhoods were full of such stories about the ways they would help and support each other, in particular the girls. They learnt to let in late night returnees from ‘the dancing’ and share clothes and make-up and trade allotted household tasks with each other. It must have been a very intensive way to live, which makes me wonder how my grandmother felt when she left home after her marriage, with no job or child (for the first seven years) to keep her busy.

I was always fascinated by my grandmothers’ tales of growing up in a family of nine children that the evenings with the photo album seemed to prompt. And yet I naturally assumed that my life with my own bedroom and private back garden was far superior, and possibly even said as much. For years I believed my grandmother’s childhood must have been full of deprivations and boring chores and responsibilities, when I now believe it would have been an upbringing that in many respects was richer in experience than my own. 

The Incidental Genealogist, February 2022

An Ordinary and Unremarkable Woman: Part 2

This month, I am publishing the second part of an essay my mother (born Catherine Thomson McKay in 1938) wrote about her namesake maternal grandmother – Catherine Miller Thomson – the great-grandmother who I remembered from my early childhood. With my mother’s permission, I have edited and updated her text slightly, without removing the spirit of the original. This potted biography was originally an assignment for a course in family history, a subject my mother took up after I returned home from London and recounted my exploits as an heir hunter in Holborn in the 1980s (see The Incidental Genealogist is Born). When my mother wrote the article, she was younger than I am now; which is a sobering reminder of how time has a habit of overtaking us all. But this can also be a spur to action, as it is never too late to start working on a family history and interview living relatives.

Part 1 last month focussed on my great-grandmother’s early years and this post will move through the years of her marriage in the Dumbiedykestenement flat in the east of Edinburgh. It is a house which no longer exists, being torn down during the 1960s ‘slum clearances’ that destroyed many solid housing in its well-meant quest for social change during the post-war period, but was a much loved family home. Not only did the balcony from the top floor flat afford the Neilson family wonderful vistas over Holyrood Park and Arthur’s Seat, but it was fairly central for the rest of the city, in particular the south side. Despite my assumption that the moves to the suburbs or farther afield were something the subsequent generation had aspired to, I later discovered that most of the Neilsons liked their life in the city. And during my time living and working in The Canongate – the eastern end of the Royal Mile – in the mid-90s, I grew to appreciate the benefits of being in the heart of the old town, but with parks and hills and a palace on my doorstep. 

*

       The Neilsons on their balcony in Dumbiedykes Road c1940

In the years after my grandmother’s marriage to Robert Neilson in 1897, the outside world was changing. Queen Victoria had died; there followed the short reign of Edward the Seventh, and then George the Fifth ascended the throne. Great ships were being built in Scotland at Clydebank, but for the working man the fear of being out of work was omnipresent. There were no family allowances or unemployment benefits and the one dread of a family was to go ‘on the Parish’ or into the workhouse – known locally as ‘the Poorshoose’. Fortunately, through the thrift of my grandparents, this did not happen to their family. Good genes were also a strong factor in their favour as they all remained in remarkably good health, despite the relatively crowded conditions of their living quarters. The dreaded spectre of tuberculosis, which wiped out many families in those days, was fortunately absent from their household. 

Although my grandfather was allowed to vote, my grandmother had to wait until 1918 for that privilege. She followed the activities of the suffragette movement with great interest, but it had no real significance for her, absorbed as she was in the up-bringing of a large family. In 1917, when her last child was born, Grandma had other worries. The First World War had been dragging on for three long years, and her eldest son Adam was in France in one of the most dangerous occupations – a signaller in the trenches. He had not been truthful about his birth year and enlisted at the tender age of 16 in 1914 to enable him to enter the regiment of his choice instead of waiting for conscription. My grandparents were upset of course, and informed the authorities that he’d lied with regard to his age in an attempt to get him out of the army, but to no avail. However, unlike that of many of his contemporaries, his story has a happy ending in that he returned home at the end of the war without the proverbial scratch; although he had narrowly escaped death when a trench he had left only seconds before was blown up with no survivors.

Signallers on the Somme

When the Second World War came in 1939 two of the youngest children were in uniform. Robert was in the army and Mary, the baby of the family, enlisted in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAFS).  By a tremendous stroke of good fortune, they too came back home unscathed. Grandma had achieved a hat trick – three children returned from wars which had decimated many families in the land.

Grandma ruled the family with a rod of iron. Her sons were expected to work as message boys for local shopkeepers to earn their own pocket money, and the girls all had specific household tasks to carry out, as well as having to queue at the butcher’s, grocer’s and baker’s before school in the morning. Their tenement home had no bathroom, although the family were luckier than many others in the area in that they had an inside toilet and did not have to share with others in the block. On Fridays the menfolk went to the local public baths to wash and the women bathed in a tin bath in front of the fire, the water heated in pots on the black-leaded range.

Anne and Mary Neilson in the Dumbiedykes c1920 with older friend.

Food was plain and wholesome with plenty of soups and stews and they never went short. The miracle was that Grandma managed to feed and clothe them all and even save a little for a rainy day on an income of which, in the first decade of the 20th century, could not have been much in excess of £2.10s per week. One thing that might sound strange to modern ears is that although Grandma made bars of Scottish tablet for the children, she sold it to them for a small amount of their pocket money and then used the money to buy ingredients for the next batch. Later she would make tablet for her grandchildren – but without charging them of course. My mother learnt this recipe from my grandmother, and made the same tablet for my own children who loved it, although we now all find the taste very sweet and do not make it ourselves!

Traditional Scottish Tablet

The first week of July in Edinburgh is always the local trades’ holiday. My grandparents and some of their younger children were on holiday in Burntisland in Fife on that week in 1920 when they heard the news that grandma’s beloved baby brother, Charles, had been killed in a horrific accident at his work’s annual outing. Edinburgh had been in a festive mood on that date, the 7th of July. It was warm and sunny weather and the degree ceremonies were taking place at Edinburgh University. Queen Mary was also visiting the city. Charles Neilson was a van driver for a local grocer’s shop, Elliott’s, in the Royal Mile, and it had been his task to transport his colleagues to and from their picnic. They’d all had a happy day and were returning home in the evening when at Bilston, on the outskirts of the city, the horse took fright at a waterfall and reared up, unseating Charles and throwing him to the ground. Unfortunately the wheels of the heavy cart then passed over his body and although he was not killed instantly, he died the following day at the Royal Infirmary from internal haemorrhaging. He was only 28 years old, small and dark like Grandma, with rosy cheeks and curly hair. He left a widow Susan, and three young children.

Charles Thomson c1910

Even in the luckiest of families, untimely death is inevitable. Although my grandmother went on to die of old age in later life, my grandfather was not so fortunate. In January 1949, at the age of 77, Robert Neilson went out to the shops and slipped on some ice on a particularly steep flight of stone steps in Edinburgh’s hilly Old Town. He suffered a brain injury, and although he was operated on by the famous Edinburgh neurosurgeon, Professor Norman Dott, his life was unable to be saved. On the day of his funeral the first great-grandchild was born into the family.

In her stoical way Grandma soldiered on, still keeping her watchful eyes on all her brood. They were mentioned in her bed-time prayers each night, but she often fell asleep before she reached the end of the list! She died as she had lived, quietly and with dignity, at the age of 94. She had no disease – indeed she had undergone a successful gall-bladder removal at the age of 90 – but just seemed to quietly wind down at the end of a busy life.

My Neilson Grandparents in the 1920s (baby unknown)

Wishing everyone a very Happy New Year!

The Incidental Genealogist and her Mother, January 2022

An Ordinary and Unremarkable Woman: Part 1

This month, I am publishing the first part of an essay my mother (born Catherine Thomson McKay in 1938) wrote about her namesake maternal grandmother – the great-grandmother who I remembered from my early childhood. With my mother’s permission, I have edited and updated her text slightly, without removing the spirit of the original. This potted biography was originally an assignment for a course in family history, a subject my mother took up after I returned home from London and recounted my exploits as an heir hunter in Holborn in the 1980s (see The Incidental Genealogist is Born). When my mother wrote the article, she was younger than I am now; which is a sobering reminder of how time has a habit of overtaking us all. But this can also be a spur to action, as it is never too late to start working on a family history and interview living relatives.

Through editing this post, I came to realise how much of my Edinburgh ancestor’s lives were based around The Canongate – the eastern end of the Royal Mile, and a place I knew well. In the 1990s, not only did I live and work in the heart of the district, but on summer evenings I would lean out of the flat window, surveying the busy thoroughfare below, musing on the fact that citizens hat done this for centuries (although I did not go as far as to throw out the contents of my chamber pot, as was once commonplace!). Ghost tours stopped in the centuries old courtyard behind the tenement, spooking the residents with their shrieks and howls. On quiet Sundays I’d explore all the hidden closes and gardens of this most historical street. I became enchanted with some of the nooks and crannies that the majority of visitors overlooked, including White Horse Close, where unbeknownst to me, my great-grandmother had lived as a girl in the 1880s. In fact, I even took my husband there on our first date – and we’ve been back many times since without ever being aware of the family connection.

In the months that follow, I look forward to sharing this remarkable district of Edinburgh with you. As my mother says below: All history passed that way.

*

Catherine Miller Thomson age 18

My maternal grandmother, whose name I share, was an ordinary and unremarkable working-class woman, typical of her social standing and the times in which she lived. But in retrospect, three facts about her life now appear remarkable to me today: she lived through the Boer and the 1st and 2nd World Wars; her lifetime coincided with the reign of six monarchs, spanning Victoria to the present Queen Elizabeth 2nd. And she produced eleven children with predictable regularity from the time of her marriage in 1898 until shortly before her 43rd birthday in 1917.

Catherine Miller Thomson was born in Glasgow on February 9th, 1874, the eldest child of Daniel Thomson, who was a soda water bottler, and Jane Thomson (neé Queen), a reeler in a cotton factory. Her parents were only teenagers at the time of their marriage in 1871, yet her father’s parents were already deceased by that time, so she never knew her paternal grandparents – only that her Grandfather Thomson had been a watchmaker and that she bore the name of her dead grandmother.

Her maternal grandparents, John Queen (a bootmaker) and Jane Queen (neé Gallacher) were of Irish parentage, and it may be assumed that, like many of their generation, they emigrated to Scotland to escape the famine and poverty of Ireland which afflicted working-class families at that time. Although my grandmother was brought up in the Protestant faith, it is said that she was taken by her Irish grandmother to be baptised in the Catholic Church shortly after her birth. At that time there were a great number of Irish living on the west coast of Scotland who had exchanged their life in Ireland for an only slightly less impoverished life in Scotland.

Jane Queen (Catherine’s mother), c1870

When grandmother was six years old, her family moved across Scotland from west to east, a distance of some fifty miles, to the capital – Edinburgh. Here Daniel Thomson continued his employment in a local lemonade factory. This was possibly one attached to one of Edinburgh’s many breweries, established over centuries due to the wealth of underground springs in the city. By this time Catherine had three little brothers for company: Edward, Daniel and Thomas. In the ensuing years, three more siblings followed: Margaret, Jane and Charles. The family initially lived in the old Canongate district of the city, which is to the south side of the Royal Mile, an area that was being increasingly industrialised due to its location close to the main railway terminus. At the time of the the 1881 census, they were living in the atmospheric White Horse Close off the Royal Mile (a much sought-after address today).

The Canongate district close to Holyrood Palace had seen many changes over the centuries. The Royal Mile (although not quite a mile) was the spine of the old town, running from the castle to the palace. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots had ridden up and down it’s cobbled street, passing the house of John Knox, the Protestant zealot who berated ‘this monstrous regiment of a woman’ (meaning an unnatural female ruler). Interestingly, White Horse Close – which once had a stabling inn on site – is believed to have been part of the Royal Mews in the 16th century. Mary, Queen of Scots’ white palfrey (a high value riding horse popular with nobility at the time) is said to have been stabled there, and so gave the courtyard its name Although the dwellings in the Royal Mile were crowded and congested, in those days it contained the homes of the gentry, who lived cheek-by-jowl with the ordinary folk.

All history passed that way. In 1736, the Royal Mile was the scene of the Porteous Riots, when the local citizens, enraged at the hanging of a smuggler who had won popular sympathy in Edinburgh by helping a friend escape from the hated Tolbooth Prison, began to protest and were subsequently shot at under the orders of the notorious John Porteous, captain of the City Guard. After Porteous was tried for murder, some of the citizens took the law into their own hands and broke into the prison to drag out Porteous and hang him for themselves, (a barbaric incident, graphically described in Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Heart of Midlothian).

Several years later, in 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie, at the head of an army of 2,000 Highland clansmen, marched down the Royal Mile and remained for six weeks in the city before undertaking his ill-fated invasion of England and the final debacle of Culloden. The Jacobite officers’ headquarters at that time was said to be within White Horse Close, and I sometimes wonder of my grandmother ever knew about these historical connections to her family’s first home in the city. However, by the time the Thomsons arrived in Edinburgh, the New Town, with its imposing crescents and squares of Georgian and neo-classical buildings had long since been completed, taking the wealthier residents to the other side of town, while others moved out to mansions in the ever-expanding suburbs. Despite its name and location, the Royal Mile was thus left to house the poor, in particular the south side, where my grandmother and her family lived, and the White Horse close of the 1880s was very different from the twice renovated ‘fairy tale’ version that exists today.

Whitehorse Close, Canongate, Edinburgh, late 19th C

From what I know, my grandmother’s childhood passed happily and uneventfully. As the oldest of the family she was responsible for looking after her younger brothers and sisters. Her maternal grandmother, the Irish Jane Queen, lived with the family at that point and Grandma was constantly being called in from playing with the other children in the street in order to thread the old lady’s needle for her hand sewing. Her grandmother had trained as a seamstress and liked to keep up her skills but had become very short-sighted. Thus to enable her free time not to be curtailed, Grandma would thread a very long length of sewing cotton through the needle. But despite the chance to play outdoors, in Victorian times childhood was short and she left school at twelve to become a warehouse worker in a local sweet factory.

By the age of 18, Catherine Thomson was a very attractive young woman, with dark eyes, full lips and soft dark hair fashionably coiled up and curled. She was short of stature with a neat waist and curvaceous bosom. Her carriage was very erect, and her legs were slim with very slender ankles. Even in old age her hair retained much of its colour, her ankles their neatness, and her back its straightness.

Catherine Neilson in old age

The year 1892, when Grandma turned 18, must have been an eventful one for the family as, at the age of 40, my great-grandmother Jane gave birth to her seventh and last child – a little boy named Charles Queen Thomson. My grandmother had a special place in her heart for her smallest brother; the gap in years between them meant that she could have been his mother. In that summer, too, she was invited to go on a picnic where she met the handsome, dark-eyed young man who was to become her husband and my grandfather. The twenty-year old Robert Neilson worked as a brass finisher and lived in the same district of the city. Physically the young courting couple were very similar – both dark-eyed and dark-haired and small in stature. But whereas Catherine’s features were full and rounded, Robert’s were sharper with an aquiline nose. In personality, too, they were very different. Robert had a twinkle in his eye, was laughing and affectionate by nature, whereas Catherine was rather shy and found it difficult to show her emotions.

Catherine and Robert Neilson in middle age

The couple were married in 1897 in Robert’s tenement home in the nearby Dumbiedykes, a custom which was common in Scotland at that time. Within a year, their first child was born: a boy named Adam, after his paternal grandfather. Ten more pregnancies followed at roughly two-yearly intervals over the next two decades, one of which ended in a stillbirth and another in the death of an infant daughter (Margaret) from childhood pneumonia. Decades later, the surviving nine children were to depart the world almost exactly in the same order as they arrived in it, with most of them – like their mother before them – miraculously reaching their nineties.

To be continued in Part 2 next month.

The Incidental Genealogist and her Mother, December 2021

Foxed Mirrors and Fairy Tales: Part 2

My Scottish grandparents had a past – I knew that – but it was not one that I could readily imagine. It was as if they had been brought into the world solely to be Grandma and Grandad, and false teeth, glasses and greying hair had been their lot since the beginning. Even if the photograph box yielded up images of them as a young ‘courting couple’ in the 1920s or as thirty-something parents in the following decade, this was not the same people I knew . Something had happened along the way to separate them from their youth – an irreversible split that I dreaded experiencing myself and which I planned to do everything in my power to prevent. And often their memories were fleeting or muddled, or were of things about which they no longer spoke, as if they had become unmoored from the people they once were before they met and married and had my mother.

My McKay grandparents as a young engaged couple

Your mother should have been called Rachael my grandfather said, a reference to the seven years they waited before their only child came along, when they had all but given up hope of starting a family. The biblical allusion passed over my head. All I could think was that my mother wouldn’t be my mother if she was called Rachael instead of Catherine – or Cathy as everyone called her. Years later I found out that, like my grandmother and great-grandmother before her, she’d also been called Kate. It was there in the teasing nickname my grandfather had given her as a child whenever she spilled food or drink on the table or herself (a trait I unfortunately share). For years I thought that ‘Slaister Kate’ (spelled slaistercait in my mind) was a proper Scot’s word until I found out that it was a combination of slaister  (the Scots expression for making a mess) and my mother’s childhood name. Yet in that one expression was all the affection that my grandfather had for his beloved daughter.

My mother as a flower girl at her Aunt Mary’s wedding, 1946

In contrast to my English grandparents, who I’ve described at length in A London Family, it was my Scottish grandfather who was the soft, cuddly one and my grandmother who was the thin, nervy ‘nippy’ one. Yet my mother tells me that Grandma was so much more relaxed with her grandchildren than she was as a mother herself, even though my own mother was – to all accounts – a model child who was incapable of telling a lie or doing anything she knew to be wrong. Years later, my grandmother would tell me how my mother had been a Godsend, looking after her in her long years of widowhood and declining health: a situation which my grandmother stoically accepted in a way that almost made me think that old age was just another passing phase of life (rather than terminal) and nothing to get too concerned about. I had not realised at the time that she was most likely protecting me from things I would later discover for myself.

After a stroke in her seventies, my grandmother moved into a local sheltered housing scheme, where she was happily ensconced in a bright and compact ground floor flat overlooking the shared gardens. Once when I was visiting her at New Year and went to have a nap on her bed, I came across a slightly creepy-looking object in the drawer of her bedside table. It was a tiny, squashed doll she kept in an old matchbox, and was one of the few objects (along the with the boxes of photographs) that she’d brought with her to the new flat. I vaguely remembered playing with the little plastic figure as a child and finding it deliciously strange and spooky – as I did with many things in her old house, including the heavy mirrors which hung from chains high up on the walls, and whose foxing seemed to be hinting at secrets hidden in the glass.

Although the mirrors stayed put until the move in 1989, at some point the little doll disappeared (possibly to avoid being lost or broken by curious fingers) only to resurface when my grandmother was in her last decade. It was almost as if it were some sort of talisman, the symbolic embodiment of my mother who had done so much to ease her into the latter part of her life. This queer disjointed baby doll was not actually a plaything at all (as I had once supposed) but had been centre piece of my mother’s christening cake in 1938. For over sixty years my grandmother had kept it, and when the sealing wax, lavender bags and milk tokens which had clogged up the drawers in the old house for years were all gleefully disposed of by my mother, the little doll moved house too, protected by its outdated matchbox.

The Christening Doll from 1938

I cringe now to think of some of the things I initially asked my grandmother about aging and loss in those early years of her widowhood. Do you miss Grandad? Have you seen his ghost? What does a stroke feel like? Are you afraid of death? Will you come and haunt me when you die? Grandma answered as best she could – but always from the heart – and I realise now how lucky I was to have her in my life for so long because as I matured (up to a point – it’s an ongoing process with me!) our conversations changed, too.

After she left us, the baton was passed on to her youngest sister, Mary (my mother’s favourite aunty), who became like a surrogate grandmother to me for another decade and told us stories of her own youth. As Aunty Mary – or Manty as we called her – was not as prudish as my grandmother, we were often freer with her and discussed different topics. Having served in the woman’s forces in WW2, Manty was a whisky-drinking, chain-smoking kind of women who worked fulltime after the untimely death of her husband and was thus wise to the ways of the world: she could certainly cackle over a double-entendre or an ‘actress-bishop’ joke in a way that my grandmother never could.

Aunt Mary (far left) with my Mother (as a baby) and Grandmother (far right) c1940

Now I realise that Grandma and Grandad were perhaps better suited than it would seem as my grandfather came from a religious Glaswegian family who were all good church-attending protestants and eschewed drink and any form of swearing. The only alcohol I remember touching my grandparents’ lips was the odd sherry or egg liqueur on special occasions and even the word ‘liar’ was deemed to be an unsuitable expression for young ladies; and so, just like politicians in parliament, we had to come up with more palatable ways to hint at this character defect. Unfortunately, my father had inherited a colourful list of swearwords from his own WW1 veteran father – many of which sound outdated today and conjure up images of Pathé newsreels of blitzed London. Thus it was with a certain dismay that my grandparents heard me hunting for ‘my bloody shoes’ at two years old! (How my father managed to keep the f-word from us for the first twelve years of my life, I’ll never know. He certainly made up for it in the years that followed).

Do I look like a child who would swear?

Perhaps that was one reason why my father never accompanied us on visits to our Scottish grandparents. He drove us from coast to coast, came in for a cup of tea, paced around the flat, then headed back west again. Sometimes he came to pick us up at the end of our stay and the process was reversed. Other times we went back by various complicated ways of public transport via Glasgow which always made my mother extremely stressed and prone to telling us and anyone who’d listen that she hated making the trip. If we did go back by rail from Haymarket in Edinburgh, rather than take the bus (Beeching had axed the local branch line into town several years earlier), then Grandad would stand in the garden in Carrick Knowe waving his outsize handkerchief at the Glasgow train as it thundered past the bottom of the garden through the tall stands of purple lupins, which a neighbour had planted at the side of the tracks

Sometimes other people in the carriage would wave back to Grandad either thinking that they knew him or that he was simply a lonely pensioner with an addled mind, trying to get the attention of passing trains. Often I’d miss seeing him: we flew by so fast and all the houses looked the same from the back. Just sometimes the train would slow down as it neared the signal box and we tried to catch a glimpse of Grandma at the kitchenette window, where she would most likely be rolling dough or making mince in the silver contraption bolted onto the fold-up Formica table, her fingers as red and shiny and cold as a scullery maid, like mine always are.

My grandparents in their garden beside the railway signal box c1961

Grandma used those bony hands to scrub and clean the house and the outside stairs and to tickle us until we thought we could no longer breath and my mother had to intervene. She always had a dark side to her ‘fun’, although it was not intentional, and my mother recalls her using this to cajole her into good behaviour. Born with a vivid imagination, my mother grew up believing that orange trees would grow from pips in her stomach and people would come along to pick them, or that she’d be dumped at the door of the children’s home if she did not behave (sometimes my grandmother would even pretend that was why they were taking the bus into town). Luckily, the next generation were spared all this, yet there were other horrors which lurked unchecked.

For some reason, my grandmother – who like me had a fear of hospitals – often watched a daytime medical television programme that involved a lot of blood and gore. That and Crown Court, and later televised snooker, appealed to her in a way none of us quite understood. And so, as a young child, I inadvertently witnessed a live hospital birth (thankfully only in black and white) which gave me an absolute fear of childbirth. When I asked Grandma why the woman was screaming so much, I was told in no uncertain terms why. And she made it clear that not only had she been very ill herself after giving birth, but my own mother had nearly died in hospital with me and was forced to endure 48 hours of agony before an emergency caesarean was performed (considered a last resort in those days). I’m not quite sure how much that contributed to my decision not to go through the process myself, but for years after I was haunted by the images of that film and the things my grandmother told me.

Like most couples, my grandparents had their daily and weekly rituals. Tea and biscuits round the fire before bedtime; Grandad doing his football pools on Saturday afternoons when Grandma and Mum came back from shopping in town, complaining about their feet killing them; ‘mince and tatties’ on Fridays – and always with dessert and custard. When we were very young, Grandad read us nightly stories from my mother’s big red fairy tale book or made up tales about two naughty little girls who only years later I discovered actually existed (they were his great-nieces). He had a range of Grandad-jokes that were brought out with the digestive biscuits, often involving cultural references that passed us by – his Harry Lauder impression was one of these. However, the thing that drove us most crazy was his sayings. A place for everything and everything in its place, and You’re going to the right place for tired girls were particularly subject to our groans. I sometimes wonder how he could have been related to my mother, who has never followed those maxims herself.

And so it was that I found myself discussing this topic with my mother a few days ago. What have we inherited from our ancestors and what did they in turn inherit from those who went before them? Grandad loved making up stories (which is why he ditched that fairy tale book), as well as looking after his plants (I remember him showing me how snapdragons got their name), and unbeknownst to me was fascinated by Japan. So is it more than a coincidence that storytelling and gardening are two of my passions and that I used to live and work in Japan? And is my mother’s work as a textile artist due to the fact that my grandmother was a qualified seamstress who was able to do the most beautiful detailed work, skills which she also imparted to the next generations? 

My Mother with one of her creations

Yet my mother also loves history and storytelling – although gardening is just ‘outdoor housework’ to her! So next month I will be publishing a potted history of the life of my maternal great-grandmother, which my mother researched and wrote after I’d returned from London in the mid-eighties, full of my discoveries as a genealogist working for a firm of heir hunters (see The Incidental Genealogist is Born).

I look forward to sharing it with you!

The Incidental Genealogist, November 2021

 

 

 

 

Foxed Mirrors and Fairy Tales: Part 1

My Scottish Grandparents, 1920s

Grandma and Grandad were plastic milk tokens and sealing wax, Valentino and Houdini, foxed mirrors and fairy tales. Their interwar four-in-a-block house in Edinburgh had things we did not possess in our modern sixties’ bungalow – a wireless and a kitchenette, a lobby and a press – and every drawer and cupboard and bookcase held remnants of the last fifty years. I was fascinated by the scraps of rich velvet containing rustling dry lavender, the ornate hat pins in the button tin, the old books with their in-plates commemorating regular attendance of school and Sunday school in the earlier part of the old century. And if those dark and sombre books were opened, the strange and alluring perfume of the past slipped out like a genie from a bottle. Then it was possible to imagine the house spinning back through time until the garish red and yellow carpets were replaced with rugs and linoleum and the ugly electric bar fires spirited away to allow the empty fireplaces to return to the more glamorous task (to my mind) of burning coals.

I don’t possess any specific memory of my grandparents and their house until sometime in the late sixties, when I was around three or four and they were knocking on the door of early old age. The first concrete image I have is of sitting on the sofa with my grandmother’s mother and of using a long-handled brush as an oar in a pretend boat in which we were sailing away. I remember, too, that I had no idea of the purpose of this brush which lived in the bathroom and was presumably a back scrubber; but I loved its transparent turquoise colour, and this was what had possibly put me in mind of boats and the sea.

Four Female Generations in my Grandparents’ Garden, 1964

Perhaps more interesting now is the memory of Great Grandma, who was born in 1874, and who I remember vaguely as small and stout, and often dressed in dark shapeless clothes, her grey hair in a bun. By the 1960s she’d already had numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren, so I was possibly nothing to get excited about, although I still retain a feeling of love and safety emanating from her solid frame and the knowledge that she was enjoying being part of my boat fantasy that day.

Although I loved the watery look of the turquoise brush, which looked like something Neptune might possess, I hated the rest of my grandparents’ spartan bathroom with the tiny, frosted glass window set up high in the outside wall, and the cold enamel bath which dominated the narrow space. But to be fair, as an indoor bathroom had been luxurious in 1935, they had possibly not wanted to tempt fate by making it any more appealing than it had to be. This might explain why they both still washed daily in the kitchen, scrubbing their armpits with flannels over the large Belfast sink, bathing only weekly, as if they were still in the wartime business of conserving water.

As a relatively spoilt child of parents who’d benefited from the post-war economic boom, I also could not understand how my grandparents were able to happily share their garden with the family upstairs, and never felt truly comfortable playing outside in this space, watched by the elderly couple from their back windows. However, I did love the fact that I could just jump over the low fence and play with the children next door – and jump over their fence to reach the next set of children, as well as the fact that we could then all play out together in the quiet streets. This was mainly because at that time so few of the neighbours owned cars, but also that there was a large cul-de-sac at the top of the road where we could set up elaborate skipping games. In the quiet neighbourhood in Ayr where I grew up, everyone lived more sedately behind their hedges and fences and there was not the shared feeling of community that I sensed in the suburb of West Edinburgh where my grandparents lived.

My McKay Grandparents in early old age

Today my mother lives a ten-minute walk away in a  ‘posher’ suburb. Yet when I visit her we rarely walk to the house where my grandparents lived for half a century and where my mother grew up and spent all her pre-married life. When we occasionally do go, we always end up noticing what has remained and what has changed in the neighbourhood. Front gardens have been swept away and superseded by utilitarian car parks; the original thirties doors and windows have been replaced with a hotchpotch of modern equivalents ; the shared gardens are now divided into distinct halves by boundary markers.

Whenever I happen to pass my grandparent’s old house, I look for the botch-job tarmacked stones on the front path which used to fascinate me as a child. Just one strange ugly section of lumpen molten tar over rocks, but to me it is a link with the days when I used to strut from the house to the street in my grandmother’s old-fashioned court shoes, or when I used to drag out the old turkey rugs from the lobby press to play on. Laying them over the misshapen path I used to pretend they were magical flying carpets, transporting me back through the years rather than to distant lands, and I could almost see my mother sitting on the outside coal bunker (which by then held only wood scraps) on the day she tore her dress jumping off for a dare.

I knew this story because I’d been told it many times whenever I asked about the naughty things my mother had done when young. I felt sure there must have been much worse, perhaps kept hidden from me, and one day I would find out the truth. But it seems in the naughtiness stakes, my sister and I were the outright winners, not having endured the same kind of strict 1940s upbringing of my mother (despite her being a long-waited for, only child).

To be continued next month.

The Incidental Genealogist, September 2021

 

 

Messy Boxes

Nowadays, thanks to the internet, there are collectors around the world who try to find the descendants of long-lost family albums and ‘orphaned’ photographs. I am not sure if they have a particularly high success rate, but they persevere in the belief in the intrinsic value of the project. The albums and photographs are unearthed in junk shops, garage sales and house clearances, the family keeper of memories (for there is always one, and it is usually a she) having no doubt passed away without a worthy heir to inherit the role. The images, which are posted on the web in the hope of reuniting with their descendants, are sad and silent. They are sepia reminders of our own mortality, and the fact that we too in turn will soon be forgotten about. Many of the photographs come from the heyday of the studio Cabinet Card, where the sitters’ expressions were rigid from the immobility that was necessary for the length of the exposure, unaware that future generations will simply judge them to have been grim and stern. These images can usually never reflect the reality of the period, and often confer on their subjects a grandness that would have been absent in their daily lives.

A further limitation of these photographs is that they mostly only cover a certain time period. It is unusual to find a picture of the father as a child, and then later as a grandfather. For that you must have a chronological album spanning decades – a luxury denied to most of us. Or even a big messy box still waiting to be catalogued. I am lucky that my mother has the latter. Several messy boxes, in fact. Most of them started out life containing now defunct brands of goods from the 1940s, and for the last half a century have housed an eclectic mix of photographs from the Scottish side of the family, spanning well over a hundred years.

The Photograph Boxes

I remember the first evening my grandmother brought out the photograph boxes, their outdated look already exciting me with the intimations of a yesteryear of which I was not a part. I must have been around seven or eight then – the perfect age to be initiated into the delights of the family album, particularly for such a morbid child as I was. After that visit, it became a ritual: every time we went to stay with our Scottish grandparents there was always one evening set aside for the albums and the endless questions they generated. At first I couldn’t quite believe that it was possible to possess photographs that were so old. Surely cameras were too modern an invention to have been around during the century before I was born? And those strange clothes looked terribly stiff and uncomfortable. I hadn’t quite made the connection that the outfits I saw on the BBC’s Sunday afternoon children’s period dramas had actually been worn by normal people, some of whom were related to me.

My sister and I always had our favourite pictures that we searched for first: one of these was of our two ‘youngest’ great-aunts (whose Christian names were now our middle names), outside their tenement flat in a cobbled street in Edinburgh’s Dumbiedykes area, around 1920. They are both in grubby pinafores and tackety-boots – in contrast to the smart look of their older neighbourhood friend, with her lace collar and cuffs. 

Ann and Mary Neilson and Friend, Dumbiedykes, Edinburgh c1920

It was hard for us to reconcile these wary-looking little girls with the strong characters they had become, over half a century later. Thus through such photographs, we were able to see our relatives in ways we’d never imagined before, and learn about the others who had gone before, but who still touched the lives of those who’d once known them.

In the coming months, I hope to investigate some of the photographs in those messy boxes and discover more about the people they portray, as well as the times in which they lived. In this way I will put together the history of a Scottish family which encompasses much more than just a genealogy. Indeed, I intend its scope to include an investigation into the very nature of photography itself, something that grew out of my interest in discovering more about my London family (see A London Family).

The Incidental Genealogist, September 2021