When I was growing up, our small market town possessed one old-fashioned department store which dated from the final years of Queen Victoria. The shop had always been known as Hourstons but at some time in the seventies it changed its name to Arnotts. However, everyone of a certain age continued to call it Hourstons. Many years later it reverted back to its original name, a change which confused a new generation of shoppers who’d grown up only knowing the store as Arnotts. This was confounded by the fact that some of the original Hourston-callers (who might have been able to quickly adapt to the new/old name) had eventually ceased to have such worldly cares as shopping. By then, calling the shop Arnotts marked someone out as being of a certain age, rather than the reverse.
And so it was for the British population last month, as we moved seamlessly from a queen to a king, while wondering about the names and faces and pronouns that would have to change on our money, stamps and passports, amongst other things. My mother remembered that same change seventy years ago when she was fourteen and in her final year at school. It was an era when most people under fifty had only known a series of kings, although the older generation still had fond memories of ‘the Old Queen’. Even by the time I was old enough to become aware of the whole business of monarchy, there were still plenty of elderly people around who had lived through the last years of Victoria’s reign, albeit mostly as children. Much like the presence of First World war veterans pottering on their allotments while silently carrying their war stories, this did not seem out of the ordinary.
Yet, only last month, as I was discussing my Scottish family’s connection to Holyrood Park, my mother confused me by calling it The King’s Park (the park’s other name when she was growing up). It was only later when I questioned her about the anomaly, as I was sure it was actually The Queen’s Park, that I discovered that the name changed along with the monarch. Thus, for my great-grandmother (b1874) it was possibly always The Queen’s Park (after Victoria); and, in a parallel with today, I can imagine how the name might have lived on while everyone had to adjust to the idea of an elderly king with very few people having any memory of the last time a male monarch was on the throne
I wonder how long it will take for the new name to slip easily of the tongue now? However, just like the previous time Holyrood Park took on the alternative appellation, it will possibly remain as The King’s Park long enough for everyone to eventually become used to the title, even if the idea of calling the park after a monarch does seem an outdated one. For those of us born in a less deferential age, Holyrood Park has always been the more commonly used term, in any case.
Arthur’s Seat, Holyrood Park, Edinburgh
This summer, I spent a happy afternoon in Holyrood Park (I cannot call it anything else), climbing Arthur Seat and exploring the ruins of the late medieval St. Anthony’s Chapel, built close to an underground spring. The royal park was once the hunting ground of monarchs and would have been a welcome view to those living in the crowded tenements which abutted the space, as well as a source of fresh air and a recreational space for the residents. These cheek-by-jowl tenements had sprung up in the 19th century to house the workers of the many surrounding factories and breweries, including my grandmother’s family. The Neilsons rented a top storey tenement with their own indoor toilet and a small functional balcony which overlooked the park (see A Tenement with a View), so lived in relative comfort, despite their lack of indoor space.
Catherine Neilson, Dumbiedykes Balcony, Edinburgh, c 1910
This photograph of my great-grandmother on the balcony of the Neilson’s tenement in the Dumbiedykes is one that I only came across recently, hidden at the back of the cupboard in an album belonging to my great-uncle Adam which had somehow become separated from the rest of the photograph boxes (see Messy Boxes). Too late to be included in my original post about the tenement balcony, it has found the ideal niche in this month’s story. And while it might not be of the same quality as the later photographs taken on the balcony (between 1930 and 1945), this informal image of a much younger great-grandmother is a rare find. It was probably taken when she was in her mid-thirties and had finally become used to a king on the throne, after having known only a queen for almost the first three decades of her life.
Adam and Margaret Neilson, Holyrood Park, Edinburgh, c1925
Another spontaneous photograph I treasure is of a great-great uncle and aunt in Holyrood Park in the days when people still dressed up to walk and picnic there on a Sunday. It’s one of the only pictures we possess of my great-grandfather’s older brother, Adam, and his wife Margaret. Adam Neilson was a blacksmith by trade – like his namesake father – and had grown up locally with his brother Robert (my great grandfather) and their five other siblings. Their parents had come to the city from the Borders region after their marriage, and like many new immigrants from the countryside had settled in the Dumbiedykes, near to the industrial centre. Adjoining steps near the bottom of the ladder of the seven Neilson children, the brothers appear to have remained close all their lives and no doubt would have sometimes met up on Sunday outings to the park in fine weather.
On the way to Arthur’s Seat, Holyrood Park, Edinburgh
As I walked up Arthur’s Seat on that dull August day this summer, welcome glimpses of sunlight lighting up the gorse bushes which scattered the hillside, I was aware that my Edinburgh ancestors had been ‘taking the air’ in Holyrood Park for the last 150 years and I was simply following this tradition. A piece of ‘wildness’ in the city that has changed little over the centuries, the park is described on its website as such: Holyrood Park is a rare example of unimproved grassland. Effectively unchanged since its enclosure as a Royal Park in the 16th century, it is rich in plant species and also provides a home to a variety of important invertebrate, amphibian, mammal and bird species. To find such a wildlife haven in the heart of a capital city is remarkable.
It is perhaps no coincidence that my grandmother’s family all lived well into their eighties and nineties. In comparison to my London ancestors (many of whom died young of bronchitis or tuberculosis) they seemed to be less afflicted by respiratory diseases. While ‘good genes’ are obviously important in determining longevity, proximity to such a large area of ‘wilderness’ must have played a role in keeping the Neilsons disease-free, as well as helping to promote a healthy lifestyle.
When my great-grandmother died in 1968 at the age of 94, the family were told that she had just reached the end of her natural life. Like the late Queen, her cause of death was put down to ‘old age’. And she had also simply wound down after a lifetime of being busy.
To be continued in Part 2 next month.
The Incidental Genealogist, October 2022