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.

A Glasgow Boy: Part 1

My Scottish grandfather would have been the ideal candidate for one of those You Can Take the Boy Out of Glasgow, But You Can’t Take Glasgow out of the Boy type t-shirts, except that such things were not around in Alexander McKay’s day. And he certainly never possessed a t-shirt – which was a later American invention – but simply wore a seasonal variation on the archetypal vest (sleeveless for summer, thermal for winter). However, in retrospect my grandfather’s sartorial choices were very much in line with his age and decade. Browsing through old photographs shows this development from his ‘bright young thing’ era in the 1920s to the maturing family man of later years. By the time I knew Grandad, he had moved on to knitted waistcoats, tweed coats and soft hats which he still tipped when passing females in the street.

The twenties ‘look’: my Grandparents ‘courting’ on the West Coast

When this Glasgow boy was courting my grandmother in the 1920s, he was certainly making an effort to impress her. They met at ‘the dancing’ when my grandfather was working as a newly qualified electrician in Edinburgh and lodging with his maternal aunt. While Edinburgh and Glasgow are today so closely connected that commuting between the two of them is a fairly regular occurrence, moving from Scotland’s largest city to Scotland’s capital was much more of a wrench a century ago. Grandad certainly never forgot he was a Glaswegian at heart and had even hoped to return there once retired. Well, you’ll be going back on your own then! my grandmother quipped. Given the stubborn nature of my grandmother, there was certainly no imminent move planned to the friendly city on the Clyde with its proximity to the islands and lochs of the west coast, even though it would have been closer to our own family home in Ayr.

As a child I loved Edinburgh for all the things that I believed Glasgow did not possess: a castle, an old town, a mountain, a palace, a zoo on a hill, a beach. When I did finally get to know Glasgow on my own terms during its later renaissance, which started with the 1988 Garden Festival and culminated in the 1990 title of City of Culture, I realised it was a mistake to try to compare the two cities. Glasgow had many fascinating parts, albeit more scattered, but because my grandfather had few living relatives, there wasn’t the familial connection we had with Edinburgh. The capital also had the excitement of being farther away from our home on the west coast and thus regarded as being more exotic, although secretly I preferred the wild damp landscapes of the west. 

A rare image of my McKay Great-Grandparents c1920

Grandad was unfortunately the sole survivor of his direct family, bar one older sister, and all that was known about the McKays was that most had died relatively young. Neither of his parents was alive by the time of his marriage to my grandmother in 1931. Perhaps that was why Grandad had a thing about graveyards (see last month’s post here). In fact, he grew up on the edge of the Gorbals, just down the road from the large Victorian Southern Necropolis, so possibly the graveyard was a place he visited as a boy. Yet none of the McKay family was buried there, although an infant sister, Mary, was placed in an unmarked communal grave at the Eastern Necropolis, on the other side of the city, when she died from meningitis in 1906. This might have been because there were no communal graves in the Southern Necropolis, with families having to pay several pounds for a ‘lair’ as opposed to the several shillings for a simple burial.

However, two decades later, when the family were obviously better-off, Grandad’s parents and some of his siblings were buried in a family plot at the newer Riddrie Cemetry on the northern outskirts of the city. I discovered this fact when I came across the ownership certificate for the ‘lair’ that my great-grandfather had purchased in 1924 at the time he was burying his wife. Perhaps he’d always felt guilty that he could not afford a plot for his little daughter all those years ago. 

Riddrie Park Cemetery ‘Lair’ Certificate

Despite his love of cemeteries, Grandad was a cheery soul who did not dwell on past misfortunes and never seemed to be grumpy or angry. His placid nature sometimes irritated me, but I see now that my mother has inherited his temperament and how much easier her life is because of this tendency to focus on the positive. The few stories my mother heard about her father’s childhood paints a picture of a happy, stable and loving one, albeit in a crowded sandstone tenement flat in Rosebery Street (demolished in 1997, and one of the last in the district to remain).

Rosebery Street, Glasgow, prior to demolition in 1997

Similar to my grandmother’s tenement childhood in the Dumbiedykes area of Edinburgh, the children in my grandfather’s family mucked in together at home and spent their free time playing outdoors in the street. My grandfather was one half of the first set of twins born to his parents in May 1901. Alexander and his twin sister Margaret were exactly in the middle of the mostly female family: they had three older sisters and later two younger sisters who were also twins. This second set of twins was born two and a half years after the first and must have been quite a surprise to them all. A year after the infant twin Mary died, leaving Edith twinless, a little brother finally arrived, and was adored by the whole family.

However, on searching through the records, I was surprised to discover that Mary’s place of death was not actually the family home, but at a nearby address that did not appear to be a hospital of any shape or form. Perhaps she had been sent away because her parents wanted to avoid the risk of the other children becoming ill. It was at least a comfort to read on the certificate that her father had been present at her death.

The First Twins: Alexander and Margaret McKay, age 16 (1917)

When we think of 19th century tenements today, it is often in conjunction with the post-war ‘slum’ clearances and associated ideas of poverty and squalor. While this is not to deny that such areas existed, many of Glasgow’s sandstone tenement flats – like their counterparts in Edinburgh – were places where ordinary working-class families lived quite happily, enjoying a community spirit which was lost in the modern high towers which came after.

A trip to the National Trust property The Tenement House in Glasgow helps to dispel some of these myths. When I first visited the museum in the 1980s, I was most fascinated by the recessed bed as I remembered my mother’s stories about sleeping in one at her grandparents’ flat in Edinburgh, and her telling me how safe and comfortable it felt. So it was with great excitement that I scrutinised an extremely rare informal photograph of my grandfather and some of his family sitting at the table of their two-roomed apartment in Rosebery Street. No one in the family knew who took it or why – inside photographs were rare occurrences in the days before instant flash photography (which explains why all those Neilson relatives had to step out onto their Dumbiedyke’s balcony to be snapped at home).

Alexander McKay (aged about 5) and family at home in Rosebery St. c1906 

Not only does this image show my grandfather and his twin sister Margaret, and the remaining second twin, Edith, in his mother’s lap, but behind the table set with dishes is clearly an unmade recessed bed. My surmisal is that it was a Sunday morning breakfast and that they were eating their morning porridge as there appears to be a sugar bowl and a milk jug on the table. The children might be dressed for Church or Sunday School – the McKays were active members of The Church of Scotland – as they look relatively smartly dressed and the girls have ribbons in their hair.

It is such a remarkable image and is possibly the one I treasure most in the collection due to its window on a domestic setting from another time. I feel I can always scrutinise it anew and find something else I hadn’t noticed before. That is what I find so fascinating about the research that my Scottish family albums ‘forces’ me to undertake. And it was only once I started searching the Glasgow burial records that I realised this photograph must have been taken shortly after the twin Mary had died. But then I wondered why my great-grandmother was smiling so naturally, while at the same time the three children look so serious (just as the unknown photographer is presumably telling them all to lift their spoons).

Such a rare glimpse of real family life in a working-class home from 1906 is a treat to behold but slightly unsettling, too. Perhaps this is because I already know that there are some unexpected and unpleasant events lying in wait for the McKay family over the next few years.

To be continued in Part 2 next month.

Wishing everyone a very Merry Xmas!

The Incidental Genealogist, December 2022

 

 

The Queen’s/King’s Park: Part 2

When I was growing up, my Scottish grandfather, whose real name was Alexander McKay, had a series of lame jokes he would often repeat at certain times and places – what we might refer to now as ‘dad jokes’ (or ‘grandad jokes’). For example, if we were upstairs on the number 1 double decker bus going into Edinburgh – and we always travelled on the top deck for the views – we could see over the wall into the cemetery at Dalry. That’s the dead centre of town he would quip, a statement I never found funny on two accounts. Firstly, as a solemn little girl I didn’t think we should be making fun of the dead; and secondly, it was clear to me that this graveyard was not actually in the centre of town at all.

Grandad liked graveyards though, and I feel sure that this joke was one he used to better effect at Greyfriars Kirkyard. Not only is it actually in the centre of Edinburgh’s Old Town, but it’s also famous for the statue of Greyfriars Bobby, erected outside the entrance to commemorate the loyal dog that is said to have refused to leave the grave of his master for many years. Now the statue is always crowded by tourists rubbing its shiny nose (said to bring good luck) and taking endless photographs, but fifty years ago Edinburgh’s Old Town still looked dark and gloomy, and Bobby seemed sad and alone on his pedestal. I remember then feeling quite upset by the story of that little terrier and trying to imagine what kind of a life Bobby would have had in such a bleak place.

When Grandad himself died a few years later – much too young, in retrospect – there was no grave for him. Just an entry in a memorial book and ashes in the rose garden at Warrington Crematorium. I’ve only ever once been to view the spot, and that was when it was the turn of my grandmother’s cremation two decades later. Unlike in the case of my grandmother, I did not attend my Grandad’s funeral, even though I was already a teenager by then. All I remember was being taken to the zoo, along with my sister and our visiting English cousin, and then my father bringing us children back to my grandmother’s house for tea and cakes. There I met a sea of unrecognisable elderly relatives who were mainly distracted by the bright red curly hair and strange accent of my cousin, leaving me mostly in peace to wonder whether it had been disrespectful to go to the zoo on such a day and why the guests were not all in floods of tears.

But Grandad’s ‘mysterious illness’ had started several years earlier, not long after that trip to see the statue of Greyfriars Bobby. We had gone on a rare outing to Holyrood Park. I’m not sure now whether the plan had been to climb Arthur Seat or just to meander on the many paths that go through the area and have a picnic – as my grandparents would have done in their courting days, fifty years previously – but I do remember we’d not got too far up the hill behind the Palace before my grandfather took ‘a turn’ and then collapsed on the grass. At the time I didn’t understand what was going on, and at first thought he was just larking about, until my grandmother’s agitation and the fact that a taxi was called for to take us straight home, made me soon realise it was serious. There were strangers, too, that day who aided and comforted us and I have the feeling my sister and myself were in matching summer dresses, as if it were a more formal occasion. 

Paths Behind Holyrood Palace

The same Grandad never returned to us after that time. Maybe that was why I never wanted to go back to Holyrood Park until long afterwards when I lived in the Canongate and the memory of that frightening event had almost been forgotten. Then I could no longer easily recall the arrival of the blacker-than-black cab and shrinking back from the life-size doll that had replaced Grandad, and which was carefully helped into the back of the taxi.

Why is Holyrood? Grandad used to say in the time before his fall. I don’t know Grandad, why is Holly rude? we would say in return. Because it looks up Arthur’s Seat! This was a most un-Grandad like joke, and the first time I heard it I remember feeling almost shocked that my religious, non-swearing, tee-totalling grandfather could even think of such a thing. The joke’s impact was also lessened by the fact that the first time I heard it I did not understand what ‘seat’ meant in this context. Like many of Grandad’s rather lame jokes, which my mother had also heard growing up, it wasn’t really designed for the very young, missing the mark either linguistically or culturally. 

But Grandad told us, too, that Arthur’s Seat was both a lion and an extinct volcano. And that Holyrood actually meant holy cross and was the place where the Queen stayed when she visited Scotland, as well as the scene of many hundreds of years of bloody Scottish history. So now when I think of Grandad and Holyrood Park, it’s not that day when I sat upon a lump of rock at the side of the path with my little sister and the comforting strangers, but the time we were ‘guests of honour’ at the palace after hours. And all this was because Grandad had once been a magic man who’d brought light to places where there was once darkness, and who’d reportedly carried out secret war work while working as an electrician for the surreal-sounding Ministry of Works.

My Grandfather (far left) with Work Colleagues, c1940

On that afternoon we met one of Grandad’s old colleagues at the side door of the Palace (the tradesmen’s entrance) and were taken through each of the rooms in turn, allowed to romp free while Grandad chatted to his friend. I remember pretending the palace belonged to us – which it did that day when it was closed to the public – and feeling quite grown-up at the fact that I knew better than to expect to meet the Queen. That absurd notion had been disabused when we’d gone to Buckingham Palace a couple of years previously. Not only was I disappointed that we were unable to take tea with Her Majesty, but we weren’t even able to get beyond the main gates! My father’s pleasure at being back in London and seeing the changing of the guards again, encouraged him to quote the first lines of the A.A. Milne poem They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace, Christopher Robin went down with Alice a book he remembered from his own pre-Blitz childhood. But his excitement was not infectious, such was my disappointment in the fact that we were left to stare at an ugly, un-palace like building with hundreds of other people. No wonder Queen Victoria had reputedly never liked it, I thought to myself, years later.

But Holyrood at least resembled a fairy tale palace from the outside, if a little austere and Scottish, and while the ropes strung up against the treasures in the rooms might have been off-putting to the general public, I seem to remember (although I could be wrong here!) that while alone in the palace we were able to slip under them as long as we did not touch the artefacts as well as visiting rooms the public never got to see. After that afternoon, my grandfather became elevated in my mind from the humble electrician whose byzantine underfloor wiring in our own house made my father swear in frustration, to someone entangled with royalty and secrets and the blood of David Rizzio.

Grandad, thank you for giving me one of the best days of my childhood!

The Incidental Genealogist, November 2022

The Queen’s/King’s Park: Part 1

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

Back to School

September is a month traditionally bound up with that ‘back-to-school’ feeling: updated goals for a new season, and the chance of a fresh start blowing in on the cooler air. Even if our schooldays were decades ago, the change from summer to autumn brings with nostalgia for a time when reinventing yourself simply by dint of getting older and moving up a year was deemed possible. Perhaps it still is? I’d like to think so.

Back to school for my mother was the smell of leather satchels and sharpened pencils; while I recall scratchy wool blazers chafing on sunburnt shoulders which had been free for several weeks, along with a vague sense of excitement in knowing I’d soon be learning new things. Even now, I’ll sign up for courses at this time of year, believing somehow that they will make me a better person. While that might sound like a noble aspiration, I often think that endless studying can sometimes be an excuse for inaction – just one more class before I can crack on with a new career plan!

But back in the simpler days of obligatory education, there was something comforting about the rhythm of the seasons and the knowledge that, although many aspects of our lives were out of our control, there was an enjoyment to be had in the freedom to manipulate other things within those constraints. Choosing new season school shoes or deciding that this was the year to finally audition for a part in the school play, for example. And knowing you’d be meeting up with old friends, as well as making new ones, was enough to beat the alarm clock that first week back.

As a schoolgirl myself when I first became interested in the family photograph albums, I was always amazed that my mother could recall the names of most of the pupils in her primary class photograph, as well as remembering the things they got up to all those years ago. Most thrillingly of all, she was sometimes able to tell us what happened to these children in the decades afterwards. The pretty popular girl (there’s always one) who became dowdy with motherhood and housework, or the quiet boy who became a famous musician. I used to wonder whether I’d be able to do the same thing with my own class photos, and of course – surprise, surprise – it turns out I can! 

Alloway Primary School, Class 1, 1969 (I am on the far left)

Our family collection of primary school photos is, for some reason (which possibly involves both world wars), incomplete: there is only one of my grandmother, two of my mother, and four of my own class. While that limited the opportunity to see our schoolgirl selves developing across the years, it did mean we could compare ourselves across three generations at roughly twenty-five year intervals.

The thing that surprised me most of all about my grandmother’s school photograph was the absence of uniforms. Even my mother’s wartime photograph shows some children in school uniform while others – like my mother – are without. As rationing made it difficult for all pupils to obtain the right clothes, uniforms were not enforced during that period. Yet by the time my first primary school photograph was taken, the high watermark of strict uniform codes for state schools appeared to have already been passed, and only a few pupils (often those with hand-me-downs from older siblings) went as far as to wear school hats and matching gaberdine coats.

Murrayburn Primary School c1945 (My mother is in the 2nd row, 4th girl from right)

A second photograph of my mother and her class taken a couple of years later (below) shows her in the traditional gymslip of the day; although as rationing was in place for several years after the war, many of the children are still not in uniform. In fact, this outfit was made by my grandmother, who sewed all my mother’s clothes herself, even her winter coats.

Murrayburn Primary School c1948 (My mother is in the centre front row – the tallest girl in uniform)

When my mother instigated a move to James Gillespie’s – a fee-paying school on the other side of the city, made famous by ex-pupil Muriel Spark in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, she not only left behind her local friends but had to take on the strict uniform rules of a private school. She can still recall the bugbear of having to wear uncomfortable hats, even while off the premises, while my memories of secondary school uniform rules in the late seventies were rather different. Like all state school secondary pupils, I customised the parts of the uniform I could – the school tie was first short and fat, then later long and slim, as the seventies gave way to the eighties. Going up through the school years, I grew more daring and began to exchange my white nylon shirt for a denim one the moment I was out of the house. (Years later my mother told me she kept putting this shirt to the bottom of the wash box, so I’d have less opportunities to wear it!)

Thus, it was with envy that I use to gaze at my grandmother’s uniform-free sole school photo (below), taken around 1918 shortly before she turned twelve. She left school a couple of years after this, something I was certainly not envious about as I was a bit of a study geek who preferred the idea of books to going out to work. I’m ashamed to say that I felt my teenage self to be superior for staying on at school longer than both my mother and grandmother, although in retrospect, age seventeen was still relatively young to be cast out into the world, particularly as this coincided with me having to leave home to study in another town and thus was a steep learning curve in terms of looking after myself!

Milton House School c1918 (my grandmother is standing directly below the girl in the top row, far left) 

The school photograph of my grandmother at Milton House School (which was erected in 1888 in front of the site of Milton House, built earlier in the century) in the Canongate, and now the Royal Mile School, is one that used to always intrigue me. Not only did we have no other images of my grandmother as a child, but to see her as a schoolgirl – as I was then – was particularly revealing. My grandmother did tell me about some of the other pupils in the picture, but the memory of these girls and their stories unfortunately eludes me. Now working in the field of education myself, there are so many questions I’d love to have asked her: about the teachers and their style of teaching, the curriculum they had to follow, the amount of discipline that was enforced.

From looking at my grandmother’s school photograph, I would assume the man is the headmaster, the two women on either side of the children are the class teachers, and the woman in white uniform with the cap is the school nurse. It is interesting to note that even though only unmarried women were allowed to work as teachers up until the 1940s, when the war made teacher shortages inevitable, there were still more women working in the profession than men once the Education Act of 1872 came into force and all children had to attend school from the ages of five to thirteen. However, it would appear that the more prestigious positions were given to men, and at the time there was a concern that too many female teachers – at least in the board schools – was demeaning the profession. 

When I compare this school photograph with the street one (below) that I featured in last month’s blog (see The Children in the Street), the difference between the regimented official class photograph, complete with teachers and ‘best clothes’ is very different from the one taken in the Dumbiedykes, not least because there is a mix of ages.  Yet even that street photograph has been put together in a style reminiscent of a more formal setting, and the more I scrutinise it the more it appears that many of the children have put on their Sunday best for the photographer. In addition, they seemed to have been lined up in a semi-official way that ensures each child is clearly visible. Perhaps it really was a photograph taken to sell to their parents, on the off chance that even if only a few parents ordered copies, it would still be commercially viable. That was certainly the reasoning behind many of the group photographs taken at workplaces in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Dumbiedykes street scene c1920 (Great Uncle Bob is the 2nd boy on the left, back row (striped tie); Great Aunt Anne is the front row (next to the boy with the striped tie)

One interesting thing I learnt from comparing my schooldays with those of my grandmother and mother was that, as we grow up, we often have regrets about our schooling, whether it be leaving too early or not choosing the right subjects. As each generation is faced with more post-school choices, the more complex the decisions seem to have become. For many people, dreams about returning to school to ‘complete’ their education seem to be a recurring theme and may have their roots in nobler aspirations to make up for unfulfilled promise rather than those awful nightmares about sitting exams without preparation – or even clothes. 

My mother left James Gillespie’s High School for Girls at the earliest opportunity – too early, she now thinks, but she’d not enjoyed attending the school as a day pupil as much as she’d expected. Perhaps because she’d arrived only for the secondary education and many of the girls had been there for years before she arrived as a ‘newcomer’. The boarding-school books she’d read as a girl had fired up her imagination with their tales of derring-do, but her experience of school was very different, and the strict discipline was in contrast to her local primary school.

At age fifteen she decided to take a year-long course in secretarial skills: it wasn’t a difficult choice as teaching, nursing or secretarial work was the main professions girls were encouraged to enter in the 1950s. This would, however, still have been seen as a ‘step up’ from the dressmaking apprenticeship my grandmother undertook with an Edinburgh department store in the 1920s, while my university education was a more standard path in the 1980s. Yet even though researching and writing essays and shorthand and touch typing are certainly worthwhile skills, it was the exquisite hand and machine sewing that my grandmother was able to do that my mother and I now consider the most impressive achievement among us. 

Torphichen Street Commercial Institute, Edinburgh, 1954. My mother is the middle row, far right.

I love the fifties’ fashions in this photo – which obviously suited some of the girls more than others. By that time my mother was learning to make her own clothes, too, including the long tartan skirt she is wearing above, made from unpleating a childhood kilt. But perhaps what is most enjoyable about this image is the variety of expressions on the faces of this first generation of teenagers and the subtle differences in the poses they each strike. Many of them look like they can see the irony in a school-type photograph (at their age!), although the two boys look understandably less comfortable with the whole event. 

Most of these young people probably will have been – like my mother- relieved to have their formal schooling behind them and ready to start out in the serious world of work, a topic I intend to explore in a later post.

The Incidental Genealogist, September 2022

P.S. For Those interested in Muriel Spark’s experiences at James Gillespie’s there’s a link to an article she wrote for the New Yorker about her schooldays here. My mother confirmed that twenty years later several of these teachers were still at the school and were well-known to her.

The Children in the Street

It’s been particularly hot where I live in Switzerland this summer, and so early mornings and evenings are often the best times to be out and about. But as a self-confessed ‘owl’ (with another of my species as a house guest) it has sometimes been difficult to achieve much before sundown. Thus it was a treat to be able to enjoy a quirky British film at our local open air cinema last month, taking advantage of the cool evening breeze from the lake. Set in a gloomy, early 1960s Newcastle, The Duke was a rather incongruous choice for our location, yet despite that – or perhaps because of that – the mainly Swiss audience seemed to love the film, even if the subtitles did not convey all the nuances of the dialogue.

Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren played a suitably dowdy middle-aged, working class couple from that time; and although the period details seemed to be spot on, I couldn’t help but feel that the street scenes seemed rather contrived. Were there really that many children playing that many different games outside the terraces of Newcastle in 1961? Sometimes it was difficult to know where one game ended and the other began. Later, when my mother and I compared notes, we agreed that it had almost felt like watching one of Michael Palin’s Ripping Yarns, a 1970s comedy TV series set earlier in the 20th century, where British customs of all classes were parodied.

My mother did, however, recall that it had been common for her to play with friends in the streets in the 1940s, despite my grandmother’s lamentations that many more children were to be seen outdoors in her day. And while my own childhood had also been as relatively unstructured and technology-free as that of the previous generation, one of the main differences in the intervening decades was the increasing number of cars on the road. Yet because I grew up on the outskirts of a village and my mother in a city suburb, then it was difficult to really compare our experiences. Nevertheless, both of us came to the conclusion that the philosophy of our childhoods was mainly the same: to be able to explore our environment freely in the company of other children. Of course it was that same spirit which brought my grandmother and her siblings out of their crowded Edinburgh tenement and onto the car-free streets of the Dumbiedykes and beyond to the grassy freedom of Holyrood Park, which abutted the neighbourhood. 

Mary Neilson (top left) with friends, Holyrood Park c1924

In the above image, my grandmother’s youngest sister Mary (b1917) was snapped playing with local childhood friends on the slopes of Arthur’s Seat, the extinct volcano which dominated the view from the balcony of the family’s tenement flat (see A Tenement with a View). Only a few years later, Mary would be taking the children of her older siblings across to the same park on sunny days.

Mary and Anne Neilson, with nephew Jimmy, c1930

In this photograph of my two great-aunts as teenagers dressed up for a day out in Holyrood Park with their fashionable thin wrist watches and lisle stockings, they are flanking their much-loved nephew, a child the whole family adored due to his sunny disposition. There is rarely a picture of Jimmy without a grin or laugh on his face. In contrast, his two young aunts never seemed to smile for the camera as children and were always captured with slightly wary expressions. When Mary and Anne posed with a neighbourhood child for a street photographer ten years earlier, they certainly did not look as if they were particularly enjoying the occasion.

Anne and Mary Neilson with a neighbour, Dumbiedykes c1920

I have always wondered who took that photograph of my great aunts. Was it the same person who also managed to assemble the large group of Dumbiedykes’ children out playing in the street (shown below)? The standard of the photographs would indicate it was a professional photographer who took pictures of local children whose parents would possibly then buy the copies. There were certainly other such photographs of groups of children in the city taken during the same timeframe, which I came across on a historical Edinburgh photography website. However, as one contributor who posted a similar street scene of Edinburgh children from the early 1920s pointed out here: I can’t imagine why this photo would have been taken. The frame is completely plain with no photographer identified. Who would bother? I doubt it would have been for payment that would have to be collected from numerous parents. Could it be a Sunday School photograph?

Dumbiedykes Children, c1920

The more I look at the details in our own family photograph above, the more I think that the Sunday school theory could be the best one. The children seem too smartly dressed just to have been playing in the street. In the back row, my Great Uncle Bob is wearing one of the narrow woollen striped ties of the period and in the front row my Great Aunt Anne (5th from right) is wearing gloves and a fashionable coat. I also know that the Neilson children were regular attenders at their local Sunday school at St. John’s Street Church on Holyrood Road, but that they were also members of the Band of Hope, a temperance organisation for children, based on Christian principles. However, given the small size of the group, I believe it more likely to be a Sunday school class, taken outdoors due to the technical limitations of the equipment at the time. Yet the domestic background and lack of adults remains a problem. Perhaps it really was just a street photograph and the parents had been forewarned, making sure the children were turned out neat and clean for the occasion. But whatever the reason for its creation, it’s certainly one of my favourite photographs in my Scottish family album.

The Incidental Genealogist, August 2022

Toy Stories: Part 2

In last month’s post, I described my search for pictures of children and their toys in amongst my Scottish family photograph collection. I was surprised to discover there were not as many of these as I’d expected, surmising that the grown-ups who’d taken the photographs had most likely decided in advance how the children should be photographed. Possibly they did not want any toys to be a distraction. In contrast, the formal studio photographs often showed children with wooden or classic toys, which may have been given to them by the photographer to create a naturalistic setting or to relax the young sitters. 

I remember my father hadn’t been keen to encourage us to line up our dolls and stuffed toys for the rare times he had his camera ready, regarding it as a waste of good film, and I recall sneaking my ‘teddy-bear cat’ into family photographs. When he did give in to my demands for a portrait of my favourite toy, I proudly posed him on the back steps of the house for the occasion, dressed up in an outfit belonging to my younger sister.

Pussy Willow, c1970

Like many children, I adored my stuffed animal toys more then plastic renditions of babies or functional items such as building blocks and Lego sets. A soft item which can be cuddled obviously has a much greater chance of being loved and even improves with age as its battered parts are a reminder of all the hugs over the years. That’s possibly why my mother preferred Panda and George to her French bisque doll Margaret, who by dint of her antique status was only ever allowed to be played with under supervision, and never outdoors.

It is also the reason why I did not have many dolls myself, and those I did possess tended to be treated cruelly. The only doll I can really remember (and still have) was named Linda, after my mother’s much younger teenage cousin who seemed exciting and glamorous. Unfortunately, she (the doll) was often forced into doing the sort of activities that the cuddly stuffed animals would never have to endure.

Abseiling Linda Doll, c1971

So like many children, my dolls’ pram was actually full of a menagerie of animal toys, all tucked up safe inside, whatever the weather. While there are no photographs of that pram – I can barely remember it – one does survive of my mother with her own toy pram from around 1941. Almost bigger than my mother and charming in its old-fashioned style, it is not clear what toys (if any) the pram contains. My mother’s rare scowling face might indicate that she is having to share her beloved Panda and George with her baby cousin Alan who was staying, along with his mother, with the family at the time to escape the bombing raids of London (see Toy Stories: Part 1).

My mother with her doll’s pram, 1941

Another photograph from that period shows my mother and Alan with a cousin from an older sister of my grandmother’s. The doll my mother is holding was named ‘Robert’, after her favourite older cousin, indicating that not only did she have a surfeit of cousins, but that children’s naming patterns for their toys are almost as predictable as the ones previous generations used for naming their offspring. It would appear that many dolls and stuffed toys are named after the person who gave it to the child or a favourite relative. There is also the obvious names, such as Panda or Woof Woof, or in my case once even an amalgamation of both styles with the tongue twisting Mrs Holland’s Spotty Dog.

My mother with ‘Robert’ doll and two of her cousins, 1941

Yet in the larger working class families of the past, toys were most likely hand-me-downs, and a favourite teddy may end up being someone else’s within a few years. Although my grandmother told me about the metal hoops they would all chase in the street, courtesy of the neighbourhood’s brewers’ barrels and the Dumbiedykes ideal hilly situation, I never asked her about any soft toys she had – the kind she might reach for in the dark if having a nightmare. Perhaps this was because trying to imagine my grandparents as children was beyond me at the time, and to some extent still is. Frozen in sepia photographs, their old fashioned dress and hairstyles puts them beyond our reach, despite all the intellectual protestations to the contrary.

One of my favourite photographs from our family collection is of a younger brother of my grandmother’s. Although my mother and I cannot work out if it was Great Uncle Bob or Great Uncle Dave who was brought to the studio that day, we know from the boy’s clothes that it was most likely taken between 1915 and 1920. Yet his outfit seem to be rather informal for the occasion, lending the photograph its period charm. As Jayne Shrimpton points out in Tracing Your Ancestors Through Family Photographs: Casual sweaters had been common wear among poorer children since at least the beginning of the century; however, only in the 1910s do studio photographs begin to portray small boys from ‘respectable’ families wearing the soft, comfortable jersey and shorts set, with socks and shoes or boots.

My great uncle with wooden horse, c1915

What interests me particularly about the image is the wooden pull-along horse on which my great uncle is resting his foot. To me it looks like a studio prop that was used to give the boy a more natural-looking pose in the same way that books and flowers and furniture were used with adult sitters. I doubt such a toy would have been brought along to the studio, given the need to negotiate Edinburgh’s busy streets on foot and public transport. I often wonder if my great uncle had not wanted to keep this wooden horse after his photograph had been taken. After all, most children crave the ‘forbidden toy’ by dint of the fact that they are not allowed to play with it, whether it be an antique or belonging to someone else.

Stuffed animals and dolls are noticeably absent in the photographs of children that I possess in my collection, perhaps because they were regarded to be too babyish for the camera. However, there was one picture of unknown relatives which I came across that shows a little boy clutching what looks like a stuffed rabbit. As un ‘unbreeched’ infant i.e. still deemed too young to wear boys’ clothes, he was possibly allowed to bring his beloved toy along to the studio and his shy demeanour, clutching his rabbit, is in contrast to the more confident stance of his older ‘breeched’ brothers.

Boy with Rabbit Toy c1900

Unfortunately we have several other photographs in our family collection of unknown relatives and friends that I may be able to identify once I am further into my genealogical research. I am forever grateful for the times my mother sat with my grandmother and youngest great aunt and labelled up the majority of the older photographs – the ones I still call ‘the Victorians’ (see February Fill the Dyke) – in pencil on the reverse. This was a tip she learnt on her family history course in the 1980s and has helped so much in my bid to catalogue all those messy boxes.

Of course some of our photographs were already inscribed with names and dates, usually indicating they’d been sent to my great-grandmother (the original holder of the collection) or grandparents from various friends and family scattered around the country. One of these shows a younger cousin of my mother on the paternal side of the family playing with a friend in his back garden in Glasgow. I always loved this image as the piper which steals the scene looks like a miniature ghost, striding out of the tent and across the lawn, playing his ethereal bagpipes. Yet a closer inspection with a magnifying glass reveals the piper to be nothing more than a cut out advertisement for the company for which Alistair’s father worked as a sales rep (Wylie, Barr and Ross Ltd, a biscuit manufacturer). No doubt there was more fun to be had from repurposing that piper than from any expensive toy his father’s salary might have afforded.

Boys and Piper, 1951

Cousin Alistair’s life in the affluent suburban Glasgow of the 1950s was a far cry from that of the generation which had preceded him. Growing up in overcrowded tenements in Scotland’s two largest cities, the youth of the early 20th century did not have the luxury of a private back garden that most of their own children would have by the middle of the century. For them, the relatively car-free streets of their Glasgow and Edinburgh neighbourhoods were their playground. And in the case of my grandmother’s family in Edinburgh Dumbiedykes the proximity to Holyrood Park (see A Tenement with a View) meant acres of free space on their doorstep.

And it it is to this topic that I intend to turn to in next month’s post.

Wishing everyone a Happy Summer!

The Incidental Genealogist, July 2022

Toy Stories: Part 1

While researching and writing the story of my ‘lost’ London ancestors in my blog A London Family, I published a post entitled Of Lost Toys and Mothers which compared the childhood of my London-born father with that of my Scottish mother. My father’s experience of being a wartime evacuee in Surrey then Somerset (see East Coker) was very different from that of my Edinburgh-born mother, ten years his junior. Even though my mother went to live in the countryside outside Edinburgh with my grandmother for a few months early on in the war, she was an infant at the time and thus has no memories of that period. Not only that, but my grandmother had simply to take her baby daughter several miles out of the city to the village of Roslin, where her older sister Bessie lived with her miner husband and two young sons. It was certainly much less of an upheaval than the four years my father and his siblings spent with their mother in East Coker, living with strangers, with my English grandmother trying to eke out a living by undertaking odd jobs in the locality.

As I pointed out in Of Lost Toys and Mothers, my father and his siblings ‘lost’ their childhood toys when their London home was partially damaged in a bombing raid and the contents stored with relatives who lived nearby. When my paternal grandfather later went to retrieve the items, he quarrelled with that branch of the family and never spoke to them again. Later my aunt told me she suspected they had been using the furniture in their own home, a fact which had angered my grandfather, who was prone to irascibility.

When writing Of Lost Toys and Mothers, I also mentioned my Scottish family, stating that: I remember once when I was staying with my Scottish grandmother after she had been widowed, and my mother had helped her clear out a cupboard built into the floor of the cloakroom in the hall (or lobby press, as we called it). This had always been my grandfather’s domain (being dark and dusty and full of spiders), and when my mother took it upon herself to rummage about in the space she found a cornucopia of old toys, many of which she’d been bequeathed from older relatives, including a bisque doll given to a soldier uncle by a French family in France during WW1, a metal spinning top, and a couple of strange wooden objects we had to be taught how to use! This also spurred my Scottish grandmother to reminisce about her favourite childhood games – including the metal hoops that she and her siblings played with in the street (which seem to be the ubiquitous image of turn of the century childhood). I vowed then that I would never let my favourite childhood toys languish in an attic or basement space.

The French bisque doll called ‘Margaret’ from WW1

While I have kept my promise to myself and held on to some of my toys for over half a century, my mother was quite content to let her two favourite stuffed animals, Panda and George, be discarded when she became a teenager, something I find hard to fathom. She of course finds my special attachment to my very ancient stuffed cat rather strange. Yet I am comforted by the knowledge that the poet John Betjeman had a lifelong bond with his much-loved ‘companions’, Archie and Jumbo, and even went to so far as to have them close beside him on his deathbed. He was in fact holding them in his arms when he died in 1984. 

Pussy Willow and Me (when both of us were young)

Searching through the collection of Scottish family photographs I find very few where toys play a major role. But perhaps this is mainly because it is the adults who deemed what was worthy of being photographed. I do remember having to ask my father to include my dolls and stuffed animals in photographs (such as in the image above) and he was often reluctant to do so, unless it was some kind of prop that I’d been given as a distraction. That seems to be the case with the older studio portraits, where either the photographer had a wooden toy that the child could pose with, or a personal play object was brought along by the family.

Great Uncle Adam with wooden toy (c1900)

It’s hard to make out the exact details of Great Uncle Adam’s wooden toy but it appears to be a replica of a steam locomotive, replete with a chimney and boiler, which can be pulled along on wheels. The poor wee lad was probably torn between playing with the object or looking at the photographer, as he would have possibly been aware that both tasks were expected of him. I often think that being taken to a formal photographer’s studio must have been quite an overwhelming experience for a young child at that time.

Perhaps that is why I love the very natural looking photograph of my mother’s younger cousin, Alan, laughing while propped up on a rug in my grandparent’s back garden in Carrick Knowe flanked by Mum’s favourite toys. Alan and his mother Anne – a younger sister of my grandmother who’d moved to London after her marriage – had come to stay with my grandparents in Edinburgh to escape the dangers of the Blitz. (By then it was clear that the neighbourhood in West Edinburgh was relatively safe and the stay in Roslin had been abandoned). Although baby Alan seems rather disinterested in the toys, the photograph almost seems to have been taken with Panda and George in mind, possibly due to the pleasing composition of the image

Panda and George with a younger cousin of my mother c1941

A later photograph sent out as a family Christmas card shows an older Alan with his younger brother looking decidedly underwhelmed at their meeting with a beatific-looking Santa Claus in Selfridges Toy Department in London. We can only guess at what the old man is saying to them, but they are perhaps wondering whether his stuffed panda is just a prop or whether they’ll get to take it home with them. Whatever or whoever they are fixated on out of the frame, they don’t look as if they are particularly enjoying the experience (which was no doubt a money-spinner for the department store and the photographer). As rationing was still very much in place at this time, Xmas might have promised more than it delivered.

My mother’s younger cousins, Xmas c1947

My mother recalls an earlier straitened wartime Xmas where her mother made her a handsewn doll from a kit that was on sale at the local Co-op. A few weeks earlier my mother had been helping my grandmother with the shopping when they passed the ragdoll display in the shop. Do you like that doll? My grandmother asked my mother, hopeful in her tone. No, it’s horrible!  my mother replied petulantly, tired and fed up at  being dragged round the Co-op after school. Needless to say, when it turned up in her stocking on Xmas Day (customised by my grandmother, a qualified dressmaker) she promptly named it Betty – the ugliest name she could think of at the time. Now of course she cringes at the memory and to this day still hopes she hadn’t hurt her mother too much with her outburst. As my grandmother was rather thin-skinned, I’m surprised that doll actually did turn up on Christmas Day. I should add that this was also the year my mother realised that there was no Santa Claus. (For obvious reasons no photographs exist of Ugly Betty).

But perhaps my mother would have been more appreciative of her gift had the wonderful and quirky Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile been established during her own childhood, rather in 1955 when she turned 17. In the 70s it was one of my favourite places to visit as a child and I’d go with my mother and sister whenever we went to stay with our Edinburgh grandparents. At that time the museum was housed in an old soot-blackened tenement building (since much expanded and modernised) with dark, steep winding staircases and small cramped rooms. This of course was itself all part of the experience, lending the museum a slightly spooky lost-in-time feel. Display cases of glassy-eyed Victorian dolls vied with straw-stuffed bears for our attention, alongside cabinet curiosities and creepy automated doll-sized shows (such as the one of Sweeny Todd disposing of his clients with a cut-throat razor). Many of the exhibits were in fact the stuff of nightmares, which is why the museum held such a macabre fascination for me.

 An old collectable postcard of the ‘shoe doll’ (c) Museum of Childhood, Edinburgh

But perhaps the display that exerted the most pull on me was the one which housed the ‘make do’ dolls. There, a sad metal-faced female doll made from a discarded shoe nestled beside a barely-there doll composed of nothing but a rag wrapped round a mutton bone. I collected postcards of these objects – which to my mind were beautiful – and wondered at the children who had owned and loved such things seventy years previously. Yet as an adult I am more interested in the idea that the shoe doll was most likely made by impoverished parents for their daughter, and it is that sentiment that moves me, rather than the doll itself.

There is a more modern ‘interactive’ image of the doll (shown above) in the Edinburgh Capital Collections that can be directly accessed here. With the wonders of technology we can zoom in to see the detail on the clothing and limbs – even the individual stitching. I had always wondered how such a doll came to be in the museum (was it abandoned or stolen?) but the accompanying text to the digital image (below) has now cleared up the mystery for me.

This is part of a collection of over 600 dolls which belonged to Edward Lovett (1852 – 1933) who was a cashier in a London bank. He was a member of the Folklore Society and became an authority on ethnographic dolls, particularly makeshift, or emergent, dolls made for poorer children who did not have commercially made toys. He travelled extensively collecting these dolls from children in exchange for new ones

So now I know that somewhere in the East End of London, in 1905, a little girl was unexpectedly presented with a brand new, possibly relatively expensive, doll in exchange for an old pre-loved improvised one. I’m not sure, had I been that child, that I could have willingly given my homemade doll away. But I’m glad she did just that, as the shoe doll is an item which has intrigued and fascinated generations of children (and adults) in the Museum of Childhood for almost seventy years, and along the way gained an importance that its original maker could never have expected.  

To be continued in Toy Stories: Part 2 next month.

The Incidental Genealogist, June 2022

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.

In Grandma’s Fur Coat c1982

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 also find interesting 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 will 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 icy cobblestones 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 quick 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 about my grandfather’s fall and subsequent blow to the head –  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 seemed 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 thus Adam’s quizzical look is perhaps understandable.

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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’d 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 excitement of ‘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: 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 ‘instagramable 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