Just do it!

When it comes to doing family history I prefer the thrill of the chase.

I am not good at getting round to collating and filing bits of information, especially if they come in various formats such as computer files, photos, certificates, notes and thoughts on the backs of envelopes. Paper can be tucked into a file (if big enough) but how to integrate this with what’s on the computer? Scan all the paper and concentrate on identifying and bringing together all this electronic mass (and buy a big screen on which to view it)? Or, print out all the stuff on the computer and commandeer the sitting room floor? But even this is a way of avoiding getting down to making sense of the material and thinking about what might be missing, about the things unsaid, unrecorded.

Photo of section of a very large OS map

For the past few months I’ve been attending a writing workshop entitled ‘Blood Lines: Creative Memoir’. It’s been an experience I have approached with caution. Having poor recall of past events I am keen to hang on to what I do have and am reluctant to create false memories. Dredging our memories for matter to write about is also a trifle unsettling for all participants in that it stirs up feelings, not all, indeed it would appear very few, happy.

One of the premises of the course is that ‘each family has its fund of tales’  which further implies that these are passed on, often by grandparents, and that the recipients listen. Would this were so.

I have no memory of one grandmother who lived in another part of the country and who died when I was six. Fortunately the grandfather on that side was part of a female-dominated line who hung on to scraps of paper which enable some reconstruction of the family’s history. He was also interested in family trees. My mother, moreover, did a sterling job, collecting information and writing about her relations once she realised that not only were there years of family life and background of which her own children were ignorant but that her younger sisters were also strangers to much of it. Among the things she discovered was that one of her grandfathers had abandoned his children after the death of his wife and later died in a poorhouse. The children were rescued from threat of the orphanage by an uncle, brother of the absconding parent, who took them in. Mother had not known any of this before the researcher located death and census records; her own mother had never mentioned it. Nor were the younger sisters happy that my mother made public family information.

The other, Irish, side of my ancestry, is The Challenge. My father’s knowledge of his ancestors seemed to stop

Helpful Blackrock taxi driver tries but fails to find an ancestral site via a snip of a 19th century OS map

with his grandparents, and of them he chiefly recounted that his grandfather, Zeno Sloan, had introduced the tonic sol-fa into Ireland and that his grandmother ran a school and continued to do so with the assistance of her daughters until retirement age. Father and all his brothers bar one moved away from Ireland, seas and oceans then separating us grandchildren from grandparents who might have told us that fund of tales. Our visits were brief and not occasions for bonding or story-telling. I have spent the last couple of years trying to track down members of the family to see if I could get further back but even our combined memories and delvings into archives have not got very far, or gone very far… Photos and emails on the computer. Letters and photocopies in a file. Maps? Clippings? Must make a start on bringing some of it together.

This is not a new thought.Once of the reasons I signed up to the Creative Blood Lines course was to force myself to write regularly. Write what? Well anything, at least anything readable.  Same reason I started these blogs and it is evident from how few I have published that solo creation is not one of my strengths.

Also in the pursuit of, or let’s face it as a diversion from, my first novel I have put in time reading lists of tips provided by various authors. This was not the result of googling ‘top tips’. I do google the names of authors whose work I enjoy. Sneaking up on Rose Tremain online produced the first of these lists.

I have also been reading my way through Muriel Spark, first her short stories and then the novels, most recently The Abbess of Crewe, in the hope that some of her vivid style will rub off on me. And because her books are a joy to read as she is a brilliantly inventive writer with a lashing acerbic wit.

One of these lists produced from Muriel Spark the following advice:

“For concentration you need a cat…And the tranquility of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give you back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence is enough.” 

I have made a start on improving my concentration. He looks like this (but if he steps across in front of me, where his eyes are pointing, he becomes a writer’s block):

The Aide-Memoire waiting for food



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Eyeballing the ancestors

In the course of digging into family history you find yourself examining many documents but nothing can compare with gazing into the eyes of the past. Old photographs of people are fascinating. It’s not just the clothes. Faces confront you full on since in the 19th century most commercial photographers and their clients were concerned more with likeness than with art.

The people in the photo alongside are Catherine and Zeno Sloan, one set of my Irish great-grandparents and seven of their nine children (the youngest, Annie and James, were yet to be born). My grandmother – Katie to the adults of the family, and whom I remember as a small elderly woman with grey hairy sausages trapped in a hairnet ­– is the little girl smiling and wriggling in the front row.

My father provided the key to the picture, and the date, 1880, and thus the first of my questions:

• how did he know who was who and when the picture was taken?

When I was young my father showed little interest in his family history but in his last years, inspired or perhaps driven by my mother’s researches and writings around her own family, he unearthed his teenage sketches (he had a great gift for drawing, as indeed for music) and began to frisk his remaining relatives for memories. Of course, as most of us do, he came to this too late. His grandparents and parents’ generations had gone (even his aunt who had lived to be 113 though he had, fortunately, taped a chat with her in her late 90s).

By the time we children, living in the Highlands of Scotland, met our Irish grandparents they were living in Belfast. Very occasionally they visited us. Our equally infrequent visits to them involved a cramped car trip down across Scotland to Stranraer, luggage roped to the roof, anti-sickness chain dangling, and then a carrot-munching sea journey over to Larne. Otherwise, we knew that long-dead Great-grandfather Zeno ‘had introduced the tonic sol-fa into Ireland’ and that they all seemed to be teachers. His name intrigued.

Back to the photograph:

• how did my father know it was taken in 1880? I don’t know, perhaps he extrapolated from the apparent ages of the children. I would also very much like to know why it was taken. A family group. There is another family group taken at about the same time which marks the silver wedding of my Edinburgh-based Chisholm great-grandparents. Why was the 1880 photo taken? It does not look celebratory, was it perhaps to send to other members of the family? If so, why and to whom…. where…

What became of those solemn children laced so tightly into their boots? I am gradually learning more since their descendants are people whom I sporadically email as I try to dig back further back. Electronically, we put our heads together and share our frustrations, small triumphs and speculations. I/we need to find out more about Zeno and in particular about Catherine, the mother in the picture, but also, before, then and later, a school-teacher, head mistress of a National School in Dungannon. My father, in the memoir he put together, said nothing about her origins. When I asked one of his cousins she had a vague feeling that her grandmother came from Thurles in Tipperary (and she turned out to be right about County Tipperary at least).

Back to those children, dates as my Father entered them in a family tree in 1991:

William (b 1868) went to America, Chicago, as a young man, the only one of this generation to become part of the diaspora (why Chicago?)

Richard (b 1870) became a minister whom I remember carrying out the mass christening of my siblings when my grandmother discovered that all but one (me, the eldest) of her visiting grandchildren were unhallowed

Daisy [Margaret] (b1871) taught alongside her mother, married a shopkeeper, and died in her 40s leaving two small children

Mary (b1873) unlike her sisters, did not become a teacher but before her marriage went to keep house for her minister brother

Isaac (b1875)  died unmarried

Katie (b1877) my grandmother, who had married another teacher, taught throughout raising five sons, addict of ‘nice stories’ and narrator of improving verse (‘She did not say to the sun goodnight/ Tho she saw him there like a ball of light/ For she knew he had God’s time to keep/ All over the world and never could sleep.’)

Frances (b1879) teacher and ardent pianist, married another teacher; she suffered from anaemia and had to eat raw liver (ugh!)

As my father noted, two were as yet unborn:

Annie (b1883) trained as a teacher, was widowed for 70-odd years and lived to be the oldest person in the UK

James (b1881) father of my father’s blond musical cousin who vaguely remembered the connection with Thurles, was a county surveyor who inspired my father to become a civil engineer, and thus to make the journey from Ireland to dam-building in the Scottish Highlands, and thus to me.

More later…


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Another Graveyard – but David Plenderleath was here!

I set out last weekend to revisit, this time with my digital camera, one of my favourite graveyards, that of the Parish Church of Pencaitland in East Lothian. I last came here over twenty years ago but with old technology and the photos lie in some poly bag in some box in some cupboard…

This is an attractive small church which shows its history. Unlike some I have visited where a well-meaning or wealthy 19th century ‘benefactor’ obliterated the old with the new, this building shows in its fabric many of the styles of the past, doors become windows, windows with differing shapes of arch, doors are added or bricked up. There is not an overall plan.

It has changed over the centuries since the perhaps 13th century, inside and out (this visit I saw only the outside) but it still sits near the centre of its village community.

Which makes it easier to stand in a corner and try and connect with the past.

Moreover, the church is set in  a well-kept churchyard sprinkled with  gravestones dating back to the 17th century at least. Some, the very oldest, include the symbols of trades, for the farmer, the taylor, the mason. Others have cherubs clutching scrolls. Most frequent of all are the skulls, the bare bones.


Others, no less reminders of memento mori, and sorrows past, rely on words


KA FORBES Anno Domine 1639

Happie in birth match comely feature

And every virtue gracing nature

In nothing cross’d but barren wombe

All that was flesh rests in this tombe


In memory of

Robina, aged 15 months/ Alexander 14 months/ Alexander, 9 months/ George 3 years/ Robert 1 year….


However I am here in Pencaitland because there is a family association. This was the home of the Simson connection of my family tree.

There is a plaque on the side wall of the west tower. An aunt died young in 1716, her mother and two sisters, in their 20s died ‘of a violent feaver’ in 1736

But Helen Simson survived to marry David Plenderleath

At the end of December 1755, in the manse which lies alongside the church, my ancestor David Plenderleath opened up his new leather-bound notebook and began the one volume of his diary which survives. The present manse dates from the early 19th century, some 50 years after the Reverend Mr Plenderleath picked up his quill to set down his reflections and, just a few days early, his New Year’s resolution:


22 Decr


The last book I writt any observations

I thought might be of use for composing

my mind & preserving in memory what

I might wish to ???? ended in the

close of the year 1754. During this

year I have only written on pieces of

paper which fall by & I lose one

great benefit of writing, taking a review

of what is past and therefore have

this day begun to write in this book

& after some general remarks on

occurrences thro this year that were

of some consequence I shall write

down the present state of things as

to me & mine, & then waiting for

divine counsel shall propose what

ought to be henceforth in dependance

on a superior end and be steadily followed

out by me if the Lord sees meet

to lengthen out my life–

What was the reverend gentleman doing here in the closing days of 1755? Visiting the in-laws, or, given the information on the plaque, his father-in-law Matthew Simson, then Minister at Pencaitland. David Plenderleath had been ill and was still feeling under the weather. It is not clear whether he had his wife Helen and young children with him or whether he had left them at home in Dalkeith where he had been Minister for the past ten years.

To be continued.

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What brings the past to life for you?

After West Linton along to Abingdon and up miles of windy road (a road that winds not wind-buffeted) to Wanlockhead, the highest village in Scotland, 1531 feet above sea-level in the Lowther hills (if you chance to be walking the Southern Upland Way you might pause for breath here). Wanlockhead today prides itself on the possibility of panning for gold and on its old lead mine and museum. Also on having the second-oldest subscription library in Europe (the oldest being in its near neighbour and rival Leadhills across the county border).

Lead ore and other minerals have been mined here since Roman times. The first modern smelt mill was constructed in 1682 and between 1756 and 1765 nearly 3,500 tonnes of ore were extracted. Production later increased with the introduction of new technology and in 1902 a railway was constructed to link with the main Glasgow-Carlisle line. Despite a small revival in the 1950s there has been little mining activity here since the 1930s.

This is very much an unplanned village with cottages tucked hard against the many contours, located to suit the whim of occupants. Sheep wander. The stream wanders (no gold-panners today). Insulated with lentil soup, off to explore.

First, to the museum (minerals, Covenanters, information on life and times with those human-scale models now essential in the modern visitor centre). Then a short walk to the mine and, hard-hatted, along the main passage hewn out of rock, irregular sides and roof still showing the marks made by the small groups of men who worked in near darkness chipping and setting explosive and pumping out water. The sides still glisten with water. Gone are the young boys who pulled sleds of ore out to the light.

Just where miners descended to even deeper tunnels the tour ends. We stand beside two more life-size models and try to imagine. Then back out to the light and the sheep and a row of cottages hinting at home life mid 1750s, 1850s and 1910.

And finally up to the Miners’ Library, a subscription library established in 1756 and holding over 3000 volumes, classics, journals as well as technical books. 1756 is a year that means something to me, that’s the year my Plenderleath diary begins. I can connect. More costumed figures and a tape to help us relate to the people for whom this small building, open once a month, was important.

But it is just as I am leaving, when I pick up a leaflet with the signatures of the ‘originating miners’ that they and their individual  lives become real. These men spent much of their lives in the dark. Look at the signatures, literate hands, far from the stage of leaving a mark with a shaky ‘X’. And universal education was over 100 years away. How did these men come to be here living this hard life? Books must have meant much to them. John Edmond, Schoolmaster, was a signatory, there was a school for their children.

Now we write fewer letters; with the disappearance of cheques, the entering of pins, signing your name happens less and less. I write this on a computer and the software shapes the letters… What signs, links will prevent us appearing an amorphous blur when we are the past?

More about Wanlockhead is at  http://www.leadminingmuseum.co.uk

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What is it about graveyards?

There is something about standing where your ancestors have been. As a child I was wary of graveyards, especially those with human-sized stone chests or with slabs balanced on shadowy bases. After years of foraging for names and dates I am now used to wandering hopefully across roughly cut grass.

The Reverend David Plenderleath (my n times great grandfather whose diary started my quest)  lies in Greyfriars Churchyard in Edinburgh. According to the daughter responsible for starting his diary on its journey to me, he was ‘ordained in Ormiston in 1832, transported to Dalkeith 1756, transported to Edinburgh 1765, died 1779’. The more usual term for the movement of ministers of the Church of Scotland from one parish to another is being ‘called’ rather than ‘transported’. No elaborate gravestone but a simple marker for Mr Plenderleath

Unlike the stone for a well-known inhabitant of Edinburgh which is near by

Greyfriars Bobby

Even where I am sure no ancestors are around, I cannot resist a graveyard. Today it was in West Linton where several stones date from a time when the skills of the stone mason were called on not only to record names and dates but also to provide images that remind the living of what end awaits.

Skull, cross-bones and a floating head, and clearly the work of a less skilled craftsman than the one who created the impressive figure below

Memento mori. Tak’ tent o’ time ere time be tint. We who are still living salute you!

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A voice from the past

I’ve always been aware of my mother’s family tree. There it was inked out meticulously on shelf lining paper by my grandfather and stretching back, selectively (very), to the 1560s. What else, apart from my father’s background, was there to know. Then my mother, visiting, handed over a small leather bound note-book and went on talking to my daughter about everyday things.

Inside the cover was written ‘My Father’s Diary, 1756′. 1756? Just ten years after Culloden and the end of the ’45?

The past opened up like an unexplored ocean…

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