Tuesday, 29 May 2012

What's In A Name?

I wanted to write a follow-up to my previous post about names. The reason for this additional post is that names are so important when researching your family tree that they merit discussing in more detail. 

Your ancestors' names will be found on any vital records, and this is what allows us to further our research using other resources. There are several difficulties that can arise when researching using names, any one of which can bring your research to a stop, or send you in the wrong direction. Some dangers to be aware of include:-

  • It is much harder to research a common name than an uncommon one. If your ancestor had a name such as John Smith then you will need other pieces of information in order to narrow down your search. A year and place of birth is a good place to start.
  • Spellings can vary between vital records. Many search engines on genealogy websites have a wild card function to allow you to check different spellings of a name.
  • Names will often be shortened on census returns. An ancestor you know as William could be listed as Will, Bill or Billy, and a name such as Elizabeth has many different variations.
  • Prior to the nineteenth century a woman would not necessarily take the name of her husband when married.
  • When a child died the parents would often give a subsequent child the same name.
  • If your ancestors were from the Scottish Highlands be wary of the fact that as usage of the Gaelic language declined some Gaelic families Anglicized their names.
As mentioned in my previous post, the Gaelic prefix 'Mac' means 'son of.' It is also sometimes written as 'Mc.' Therefore if your surname is 'MacDonald,' for example, then at some point in your family history an ancestor named Donald had a son, starting the name. This would have occurred many centuries in the past, most likely outside the scope of your genealogical research.

Perhaps a more useful naming pattern to be aware of is the Scottish tradition of naming an eldest son after the paternal grandfather. The second son was then named after the maternal grandfather. A third son would then be named after the father. The eldest daughter would be named after the maternal grandmother, the second daughter after the paternal grandmother, and the third daughter after the mother.

These rules were often followed quite strictly, and I have personally found this to be the case. Since families historically were often large, it is possible to discover the names of grandparents if you have the names of the grandchildren. There is no guarantee that these rules will have been followed, so names always have to be verified, but this naming pattern can provide important clues to past generations.

The names of our ancestors gives us a fascinating insight into our history. I love finding ancestors whose names are unusual in modern times. Jamesina and Brownlow stand out. On the other hand, I also like the fact that I have five generations of ancestors called George Cruickshank. It shows a very definite link stretching back for almost two hundred years.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Nazi Descendants

I've just read a fascinating and thought provoking BBC website article on the subject of Nazi descendants. The articles explores the opinions and feelings of modern day Germans whose ancestors were prominent Nazis such as Himmler, Goering, Goeth, and Hoess. 

The events of World World II are still relatively recent in historical terms, and as a result the wounds caused by the atrocities perpetrated by these men are still fresh. What I found so interesting and moving about this article was the guilt felt by the subjects based on the acts of their ancestors - acts that they personally had no involvement in.

I imagine it is the same sort of feeling as when a genealogist discovers that their ancestor was a slave owner. The guilt is irrational due to the time that has elapsed, and yet completely understandable. I have not as yet found an ancestor who has done anything particularly heinous. I am sure that if and when I do, I will feel exactly the same way.

The descendants of Nazis in the BBC article all speak of guilt, shame, and carrying a burden. For one woman and her brother, the descendants of Hermann Goering, that burden was so great that they had themselves sterilised to ensure that the Goering name would end with them. It is chilling that the Holocaust continues to affect lives in this way seventy years after it occurred.

Although fascinating from a genealogical perspective, ultimately I found the article to be uplifting. These people feel guilt, and yet they do not share the sins of their forefathers. They struggle to understand how people who are related to them could be so completely wrong about humanity. This, to me, shows the advancements that we have made since the time of the Nazis. 

My favourite part of the article related to Rainer Hoess, who was the descendant of Rudolf Hoess, the commandant at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Rainer had been prevented from going on school trips to Auschwitz as a result of this association, but as an adult he felt it important for him to witness the former camp firsthand. While there he met an Auschwitz survivor, who embraced him and told him that the burden was not his to carry. 

His response was to let go of the shame, and to feel inner joy.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Extending Your Family Tree

When you first start your genealogical research your family tree will naturally be very limited. It will most likely include only brothers and sisters, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. As you carry out your research your family tree will grow, or even blossom! As a result, it is important to be able to keep track of all of the links between ancestors.

Your genealogical direct line extends with every past generation that you discover. Your parents and grandparents are simple enough in the way that they are displayed in your family tree, but each successive generation has the prefix "great" added to it. As you research your ancestry you might discover your great-great-great-great-great grandfather. This is obviously quite a cumbersome way of recording an ancestor, and so it is common to write great (x5) grandfather. 

If you are anything like me your main interest will be trying to find ancestors going back as far as possible. I started my ancestry research by working backwards from my father, and then my mother. It was only when I started to struggle to discover a further generation that I turned my attention towards extended family members, such as my direct ancestors' brothers and sisters. When you are using pay to view websites such as Scotland's People it can be very expensive to research these extended family members. It is much more efficient to use subscription websites, or to spend a day at the Scotland's People Centre or the National Archives.

When it comes to cousins there is a slightly confusing method of recording relations. It is well known that the children of your aunts and uncles are your first cousins. Your child, and your first cousin's child, are second cousins to each other. However, your first cousin's child is your first cousin once removed. Your first cousin's grandchild would be your first cousin twice removed, etc. When describing the cousins of your direct ancestors it is common practise to write, for example, "great-grandfather's second cousin."

Marriages and remarriages due to bereavement can add a further complication. It is quite common to find ancestors with step-siblings or half-siblings due to their parents remarrying. One thing to be wary of is that nineteenth century census returns often list children in this situation as a son-in-law or daughter-in-law. This simply means step-son or step-daughter.

When all of these factors are taken into account it can be seen that extending your family tree can be a complicated business, but I find that that is what makes it so interesting.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Using Libraries for Family History Research

Research takes many forms for genealogists. Increasingly it can be done from the comfort of home, as more and more records are digitised and put online. There is much to be said, however, for making use of the printed resources available in libraries.

I have to admit that I love visiting my local library. Along with numerous others, my library has an extensive local and family history section, with staff who are only to happy to help with searches. There was even a local history week back in March. The promotion of historical resources is an indication of just how popular genealogy has become. 

My local library has a large amount of interesting information, including census records and newspapers on microfiche. It also has many different books relating to the area. I have spent hours in there just reading about local history, without even researching my own family tree.

I have also made use of the library's free access to Ancestry.co.uk, which is an invaluable service for those people without a subscription to that particular website. Also on offer are credits at a discounted rate for the Scotland's People website.

The main centres for genealogical research in the UK are the Scotland's People Centre in Edinburgh and the National Archives in London. However, if you don't live near to those locations there are still many places where useful information can be uncovered. Local councils often run family history centres where records can be searched. Some cities also have Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints centres with access to the public. The Mormon church is of course an important provider of genealogical records.

And then there are our libraries. With their extensive collections and helpful staff, they are hugely important for genealogists. To continue growing our family trees we need to make use of as many resources as possible, and libraries play a crucial part in this. If nothing else they provide a calming, peaceful environment for us to organise our research.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Names and Places

When you are researching your family tree the surnames you discover can often give an indication as to where your ancestors came from. Surnames that begin with Mac or Mc are typically Scottish in origin, for example. Similarly, names such as O'Reilly would suggest a family line originating in Ireland.

In addition to these obvious national indicators, it is often the case that a surname can provide a clue regarding the particular area of a country that your ancestors came from. This is especially true in Scotland, where the clan system ensured that people with the same surname could often be found grouped in the same specific locations. This is by no means an exact science when it comes to genealogy, but it is useful information to have at your disposal. 

I wanted to highlight some of the ancestors I have discovered as examples.

  • Cruickshank - this name and its variants is very common in the north-east of Scotland. My line goes back to St. Fergus in Banffshire.
  •  Third - another north-east name, I have traced my line to Fraserburgh, and before this to Rathen in the mid 1700s.
  • Campbell - one of the most common Scottish names. The earliest ancestor I can find is Edward Campbell, born in Edinburgh in 1806.
  • Leith - from Slains in the north-east.
  • Kennedy - although Irish in origin, there is a large population of Kennedies in Ayrshire in Scotland. The earliest ancestor I have been able to find is Hugh Kennedy, who was born in Colmonell in 1753.
  • Cummings - another Irish name, my line goes back to the early nineteenth century in County Tyrone.

These are just some of the names to be found in my family tree, and I'm sure other people have found ancestors from much more exotic locations. I'm hoping to do so myself. I have, however, been able to travel to many of the towns and villages where my ancestors lived. To stand where your forebears stood hundreds of years before is a humbling experience, and I recommend it to anyone.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Captain James Love

As I have mentioned in previous posts, many of my ancestors were agricultural labourers. While there is nothing wrong with this, I was delighted to discover a relation whose life took a different path. 

James Love was my great (x4) grandfather. He was born in Kirkoswald, Ayrshire, Scotland in 1810.His father was Alexander Love and his mother was Mary (nee Lees), both from Kirkoswald. James married Helen Gordon in Kirkoswald in 1839. They went on to have six children: James in 1841, Alexander in 1844, Sarah and Elizabeth in 1846, John in 1848, and Robert in 1851.

I discovered from census records that James was a sailor, which made a change from all of my agricultural labourer ancestors. At the time of his marriage in 1839 he had been a fisherman, but in the 1841 census he is listed as a merchant seaman. The census also states that James and Helen were living in Girvan, which is situated on the west coast of Scotland not far from Kirkoswald.

Moving on to 1851, Helen is living at a different address in Girvan with her children James, Alexander, and Elizabeth. Sarah may well have died by this point. Their father was not at this address on the night of the census. It is reasonable to assume that he was at sea, but I have not been able to find a record to confirm this. Helen is listed as a sailor's wife.

In the 1861 census Helen is living with Alexander, Elizabeth, and Robert. Once again James is not present, but between 1851 and 1861 he had received a promotion, as Helen is listed as a Captain's wife. It was at this address that James died of dysentery in 1868. His death certificate noted that he was a Sea Captain.

I have a lot more work to do on Captain James Love, but this makes an interesting start. I have discovered a lead in a Captains Register database which I intend to follow up. Hopefully I can find out the ships that James sailed on, and more about his career.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Ancestors in the Time of Robert Burns

In the past couple of weeks there have been two news stories relating to Scotland's famous poet Robert Burns. The first is that a first edition collection of his poetry just sold for £40,000. The second is that a new art exhibition is themed around Burns' various romances.

I've always loved Burns' poetry, and through reading a selection of biographies I discovered that he had a fascinating life. He was born in Alloway, in Ayrshire, Scotland, in 1759, and spent much of his life in that part of the world. Indeed, many of his poems are inspired by the places he knew and loved. 

This brings me to the point of this post, which is that through researching my family tree I have come tantalisingly close to discovering a connection to Robert Burns. His mother was from Kirkoswald in Ayrshire, and he received part of his education there in 1775. 

One of the branches of my family tree are the Gordons, who were living in Kirkoswald at this time. Robert Gordon was born to William Gordon and his wife Elizabeth (nee McLatchy) in 1771. He also had an older brother, John, who was born in 1768. Robert married Helen McNeillie in Kirkoswald in 1804.

You may be thinking that this is a very tenuous link, and you'd be right. I have yet to find any information linking my ancestors to Robert Burns, or the Brown family of his mother. However, Kirkoswald is a very small place even today- I made a visit there. I'd like to think to that everybody knew each other back in the 1770s. I think it's incredibly exciting that there is a chance, however small, that one of my ancestors spoke to the young Robert Burns. 

It's the thrill of discovering information like this that makes genealogy so fascinating for me. It makes history come alive.

Friday, 4 May 2012

The Social Side Of Genealogy

There is a popular misconception that genealogy is a lonely, individualistic hobby to have. To be sure, you have to possess a personal desire to trace your family history, and the fact that it is your ancestry means that it is individual to you. However, as you go further back into your family history it will be more than likely that somebody else is researching a shared ancestor. This presents the opportunity for you to get in contact with, or even meet up with, distant relations. 

This is what happened to me. I had joined the genealogy website Genes Reunited, and had uploaded a GEDCOM file of my family tree. A few months later I was contacted by another member who was related to my great-grandmother. She very kindly emailed me some photographs she had of my ancestor, such as the one below, along with some information.

In return I was able to provide her with some details that were unknown to her. Helping fellow genealogists out in this way is not only sociable, it also can save a lot of time and money in terms of research.

There are countless genealogy websites and family history forums on the Internet. They offer an excellent way for genealogists to come together to share resources and advice. In addition, it can be really interesting to read about some of the stories people have unearthed in their research. Many of these sites are free to join, and they can be a great way to widen the scope of your hobby.

Genealogical research also involves getting out and about. I have travelled to many different places around Scotland where my ancestors lived and worked, and I've met some great people along the way. I've also met fellow genealogists at various libraries where we've been conducting research. I am not, as yet, a member of any family history societies or groups, although these are another obvious example of the sociable nature of genealogy.

Everybody has a specific family tree that is unique to them, but that doesn't mean that it wouldn't be of interest to anybody else. We all have a family history, some of us even share ancestors, and for that reason I believe that genealogy is a very sociable hobby to have.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

War Hero In My Family

I wanted to write a quick post about the new UK Channel 5 show War Hero In My Family. On first impressions it appears to be very similar in style to Who Do You Think You Are?, but with a particular focus on military records. This is no bad thing. As with WDYTYA, War Hero In My Family involves celebrities travelling to various locations to learn more about their ancestors. 

To be precise, each story relates to one particular ancestor. This means that there is naturally not such an emphasis on genealogical research, although the nature of the show is highlighted in the fact that it is sponsored by the well known genealogy website Ancestry.

In the first episode in the series the celebrities who were researching their military ancestors were Chris Tarrant and Lisa Faulkner. Whilst it was good to hear two different stories, I would have preferred them to be split into the first and second halves of the show. The fact that the makers elected to play out both stories simultaneously meant that I couldn't really concentrate on either.

As with  WDYTYA, the stories develop over the course of an hour, with the celebrities learning more about their ancestors each step of the way. Chris Tarrant spoke to a military expert, as well as somebody who had served with his father. Lisa Faulkner learnt about what her grandfather's role in the RAF was in World War Two, and visits the concentration camp at Belsen. A narration provided context and greater historical detail.
All in all, War Hero In My Family looks very promising. I don't think that it will provide many tips in terms of carrying out genealogical research, but it will give a clear idea of what people experienced during times of war. This will no doubt help anybody who is tracing their military ancestors. Ultimately, the show looks to be enlightening and entertaining. I will watch the rest of the series with interest.