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 the decades. Browsing through old photographs shows this development from his ‘bright young thing’ era in the 1920s to the maturing family man of later years. But 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 twin-less, 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 replaced them.
A trip to the National Trust property The Tenement House in Glasgow certainly helps to dispel some of these myths. When I first visited the museum in the 1980s, I was fascinated in particular 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 I was excited to find 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, a recessed bed behind them. 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 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 interesting about the research that my Scottish family albums ‘forces’ me to undertake. Only once I started searching the Glasgow burial records did I realise that this photograph must have been taken shortly after the twin Mary had died. 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 all the family 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 next month in Part 2.
Wishing everyone a very Merry Xmas!
The Incidental Genealogist, December 2022