Category Archives: Photography

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 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

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

Messy Boxes

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

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

The Photograph Boxes

I remember the first evening my grandmother brought out the photograph boxes, their outdated look already exciting me with the intimations of a yesteryear of which I was not a part.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

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

Ann and Mary Neilson and Friend, Dumbiedykes, Edinburgh c1920

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

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

The Incidental Genealogist, September 2021