Author Archives: The Incidental Genealogist

About The Incidental Genealogist

From September 2015 to 2021 I blogged monthly about my genealogy project  A London Family, describing my quest to discover more about the elusive paternal side of my family - The Skeltons. My story started in Thatcher's London when, as an unemployed science graduate, I fell into the job of 'heir hunter' then followed my research to date. The project was a journey of discovery on many levels, and now with my new blog A Scottish Family Album I'm delving into the lives of my maternal ancestors through the family photograph albums. Having learnt so much more about blogging a family history over the last few years I'm hoping this project will build on some of the strengths of the previous one.

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.

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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.

My Grandmother 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.

My Neilson Grandparents 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.

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To be continued in Part 2 next month, when my mother will focus on the latter half of her grandmother’s life and the memories she has of spending time with her grandparents in their Dumbiedykes tenement.

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