Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Unlock the Past Baltic genealogy cruise - Days 9-11: Helsinki and Stockholm

So far on my recent Unlock the Past cruise ( travels, I have blogged about my visits to Bruges, Berlin, Tallinn and St. Petersburg. Now into our second week, the next major stops were in Scandinavia, at Helsinki (Finland) and Stockholm (Sweden).

Helsinki was the first to be visited on Day 9 (July 19th), and was a particularly big day for Alan Phillips (CEO of Unlock the Past) and his family, who were due to meet up with long-lost family locally for a huge genie-fest of information exchange and visits (see Alona Tester's blog post). For me it was another new city to conquer, and after the Celebrity Eclipse docked at 8am, I went in on a shuttle bus with Tony Beardshaw and Jane and Steve Taubmann for a further dander. At first my heart sank, as we appeared to have been dumped in a fairly average run-of-the-mill shopping precinct, but within a few minutes we realised the driver was obviously having a laugh, because there was a much more interesting part to the city just a few minutes walk away - things soon picked up!

It was a fairly quiet but sunny Sunday morning, and we made our way to the major neo-classical style Lutheran Cathedral, built between 1830 and 1852. This dominated the surrounding landscape, built on a hill overlooking a city square, and we took a few snaps, although we did not venture inside. There was something clearly going to be happening on the square later in the day, as it was fenced off, but we were not able to discern what it would be, and so left to wander around some surrounding streets.

As we wandered it soon became clear that one thing Helsinki is not is wifi friendly for visitors, and so my fiendish masterplan of not using the expensive on-ship wifi, and only leeching off free wifi in city centres took a dastardly blow, with only the occasional bubble of hope occasionally rising and then crashing again repeatedly as we perambulated through the city. 

In the midst of wifi hunting a novel experience soon occurred, when my heart almost made an assassination attempt on my brain for taking a wrong direction as we passed a government building with a banner advertising the truly exciting exhibition, "Our Mutual Debt: Finnish Government Borrowing 1859-2015". Fortunately an adjacent statue with a stone plinth that had clearly been shot at repeatedly soon peaked our interest, although there was nothing on display to suggest why it had been targeted. Quite possibly it was a statue of the person who first came up with the notion of making an exhibition on Finnish Government Borrowing.

The genius of the debt exhibition was later matched only by a shop for which the mind truly boggled, called Bonk Mindlab. This was one business for which I did not want to discover a purpose, in case it turned out to be the place where creativity pushed tirelessly beyond the bounds on a daily basis to end up producing government debt exhibitions...!

By the riverside we then crossed a bridge with many padlocks clamped to it with couples names inscribed upon them, the current in thing for young love.

We then proceeded to the Finnish Orthodox Church, an extraordinary building, which I briefly popped into. There was a service going on, and so I stayed for a few minutes to observe, having never been to an Orthodox service before, and experienced lots of smells, but no bells - it was all very calm and dignified, and a real pity we could not have stayed for longer.

After this the four of us made our way to the waterside and to a market, where I bought the compulsory fridge magnet, avoiding the purchase of anything made from reindeer, or the salmon soup which seemed to be on special offer from all the food-vendors, clearly a local delicacy. We left the riverside, passing a bronzed Mr T impersonator (10 out of 10 for random!), and then through a couple of parks to the Brunnsparken/Kaivopuisto park to the south of the city, before making our way back in to the centre for a beer.

The final part of the trip was a visit to a church literally carved out of a stone, the Temppeliaukio Kirkko, or Underground Rock Church. This was stunning, yet another Lutheran church, but with an architectural style much simpler and more modern, and which opened in 1969 - well worth a visit.

Another dream soon came true after we left the church, as I finally got to meet Santa Claus and a reindeer busking outside of a shop!

Back at the boat, Helen Smith kept the daily evening talks programme going with a session on researching health history. Again, I missed this one, as happening at the same time was a hot glass show taking place on the upper deck, with a demonstration on the art of glass making, which sounded too good to be true and which was worth the 90 minutes of mild hypothermia I endured to watch the team demonstrate their extraordinary craft. However, Helen has kindly given me a copy of her publication Death Certificates and Archaic Medical Terms, 2nd edition (available from, which I will review in due course, and which on intial inspection certainly looks to be a useful guide.

On the Monday morning, Day 10 (July 20th), we were then in Sweden, having docked at Stockholm at 9am. As with Helsinki, this was another short stop of just seven hours, and so I was back out again early to take in the sites. It was quite a grey morning, but we wandered into the old part of the town to see some beautiful small cobbled streets. There were some wonderful squares, and we soon came across yet another royal palace, this time for the Swedish royal family.

From here we then made our way to one of the real jewels in the city, the Tyska Kyrkan/Deutsche Kirke (German Church). We went inside and just marvelled at the interior. It was much more basic than many of the grand cathedrals we had so far witnessed, and to me seemed a bit more reassuringly familiar, the Lutheran interior being a seemingly blinged up version of the more austere Presbyterian kirks I am more used to in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Whilst incredibly ornate, it still felt much more basic than anything else we had seen on the cruise so far.

After a coffee at the under Kastanjen cafe, in a cup that never emptied and with a wifi source that never failed, wecontinued our meanderings, and soon passed an amazing statue of Saint George fighting a dragon. This seemed as much out of context as Saint Andrew did in St. Petersburg, and yet this is every bit as much a part of the local culture in Sweden as it is in England.

As we made our way to the riverside by the palace, we then bumped into a bit of troop trooping, which we stood and watched for a bit, before passing a building marked Sveriges Riksdag, which I presumed was a parliament - Riksdag possibly being a localised equivalent of the German word 'Reichstag'. It turned out that it was indeed the legislature for Sweden. (One of the interesting things about touring around the Baltic was seeing how the Germanic and Cyrillic languages mutated from place to place, making it possible at times to guess what some words meant with my limited German, and which was fun to guess.) Whilst we never visited inside, we did see some interesting things around it, not least of which some 'hoop-boats', a rather unique design for a fishing boat. I later found some old black and white pictures online of these boast in use, which can be viewed at After a final visit to the Riddarholmen church, the oldest in Stockholm, and which has long been used as a royal burial church, we made our way back to the boat, getting on board just as the heavens opened.

As I ate dinner on the 14th deck I was able to watch as the boat sailed out of Stockholm, through a beautiful landscape of islands which seemingly followed our exit for several hours, before we again reached open sea. The final part of the day was to hear Jane Taubmann's useful talk on scanning and restoring old photos, with her recommendation to use a software package called Photoshop Elements, which I will certainly need to look into.

Day 11 was then a full conference day at sea, and so time to get busy again on the genealogy front. I gave the first talk on Scottish civil registration records to a fairly busy theatre for an 8am start (there isn't a more disciplined force than a group of genies wanting to learn!). Several interesting talks then followed, from Cyndi Ingle on maintaining an organised computer, Jane Taubmann on Family Historian's diagrams, and Eric Kopittke on locating an ancestor's place of origin in Germany. Shauna Hicks also spoke on family history on the cheap, with several tips and tricks on offer, and Barbara Toohey spoke on charting your family history. After a quick lunch Rosemary Kopittke gave an overview on The Genealogist website (, before I then had a second, and this time, successful bash at my postponed talk on Scottish land records, introducing the audience to the complex but awesome world of Scottish feudal records. This was then followed by a research help zone, where the main speakers offered advice to individual delegates on the cruise with brick wall genealogical problems - always a good way to keep us on our feet!

I missed Cyndi Ingles' talk on creating chronological timelines in order to attend Paul Milner's talk on pre-WW1 British soldiers' records, which I was glad I did as it confirmed a potential line of enquiry I had suggested to one of our delegates with some research I had been carrying out for her, to confirm a particular brick wall issue by chasing the subsequent payment records of money paid to a soldier ancestor after being discharged to pension (and which I am delighted to say has since worked out for her after a fruitful day's research at TNA yesterday!). I then attended another writing workshop by Carol Baxter on structuring a family history or other non-fiction piece of work. The final talk of the day was by Helen Smith on the need to ask grandma, and other relatives, for stories and information before it is too late!

Coming next - I get shouted at by a Danish soldier, and then have what is probably the finest lager in the world in full view of a little mermaid - before a final full two day conference at sea, and a slight problem with time keeping...


For details on my genealogy guide books, including my recently released Discover Irish Land Records and Down and Out in Scotland: Researching Ancestral Crisis, please visit

PERSI updated on FindmyPast

The PERiodical Source Index (PERSI) has been updated on FindmyPast ( to the tune of an additional 85,000 articles from 30000 journals.

For further details please visit


For details on my genealogy guide books, including my recently released Discover Irish Land Records and Down and Out in Scotland: Researching Ancestral Crisis, please visit

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

US Social Security Applications and Claims Index 1936-2007

Ancestry ( has launched a major new American based database with some 49 million names, being the U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007. From the site, a description of the collection:

This database picks up where the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) leaves off by providing more details than those included in the SSDI. It includes information filed with the Social Security Administration through the application or claims process, including valuable details such as birth date, birth place, and parents’ names. While you will not find everybody who is listed in the SSDI in this database, data has been extracted for more than 49 million people.
Information you may find includes:

applicant's full name
date and place of birth
father's name
mother's maiden name
race/ethnic description (optional)

You may also find details on changes made to the applicant's record, including name changes and life or death claims. You may also find some unusual abbreviations or truncated entries for county and other names and punctuation errors in the data. These are in the original; we have not altered the text.

To access the collection on a Worldwide sub, visit


For details on my genealogy guide books, including my recently released Discover Irish Land Records and Down and Out in Scotland: Researching Ancestral Crisis, please visit

Unlock the Past Baltic genealogy cruise - Days 7-8: Russia

In my second post on the recent Unlock the Past Cruises ( tour of the Baltic states, I described my visit to both Berlin in Germany and Tallinn in Estonia. So far so good, but a real treat was next on the agenda - Russia.

Specifically, we made our way to the Venice of the North, St. Petersburg. I say the 'Venice of the North', because that is all we heard about the place for two days, the length of our stay there, though with some justification - virtually every other building in the city was a palace, with the whole infrastructure developed in just nine years during the reign of Peter the Great. The city was founded in 1703, and for many years was the capital of Russia, before Lenin relocated the capital back to Moscow in 1918. With the widespread layout of St. Petersburg as it is, and the Russian requirement that you could only visit the city without a visa as part of a tour group, I accepted an invitation by Jane and Steven Taubmann, along with Tony Beardshaw, to travel on a two day trip around the city in an organised tour with SPB Tours ( Our Russian tour guide spoke excellent English, and importantly had a good sense of humour, something of major importance for a two day trip!

The first stop on Day 7 then was a visit to the spit of of Vasilevsky Island and its 'Rostral Columns', which used to act as port beacons. We stopped off for some photos, looking out towards Peters and Paul's fortress and cathedral, before then venturing on a two hour drive around the city centre with our guide pointing out some of the key features in the city. We then made our way to the fortress and the Cathedral of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, where some serious history was soon to be encountered. Within the building we first encountered the tombs of Peter the Great and his daughter Catherine the Great (see below), and various other members of the Greats, sorry, the Romanovs.

There was then for me a truly unexpected discovery of the fact that Nicolas II and his family were also buried there in an adjacent room, though with only a single tomb to mark the entire family. The last Russian Tsar and his family were murdered in Yekaterinburg in 1918 in the aftermath of the October 1917 Russian Revolution. In 1979 the remains of Nicolas, his wife and three of his daughters were discovered near the town, and after formal confirmation of their identity from DNA analysis, the family was laid to rest in the cathedral in 1998.

According to our guide their burial ceremony was attended by Boris Yeltsin, but the tomb itself was paid for by local subscription. Considering I am not at all a monarchist, I actually found the whole thing quite moving, the cathedral itself being a beautiful building which seemed somewhat fit for purpose as a royal tomb. As we left the cathedral, I saw a building with a boat viewable through the door, which Lena explained was a replica of the first boat built by Peter the Great (who founded the Russian Navy after learning boat building skills himself in western Europe). The real boat was located elsewhere, and as such, she did not want us wasting our time with it - but I snapped a pic anyway!

Next up we enjoyed a trip on a hydfrofoil across the water to the Peterhof Palace, known as the Russian Versailles, not least because the same architects were apparently responsible for both palaces. As with all of St. Petersburg's palaces, this was ridiculously luxurious, though we only walked through the gardens rather than inside the building itself. Stunningly beautiful, and as with much of St Petersburg a technological marvel being built on swamps, but I couldn't help wondering how many lives may have been lost during its construction.

At the end of this our guide mentioned that the Nazis had destroyed the palace at the end of their occupation of the surrounds of St Petersburg in the Second World War, but that most of the furniture within, and the original drawings for the structure had already been relocated to safety, allowing a faithful restoration after the war.

We then stopped off for lunch, fortuitously as a shower broke out, and I took the opportunity to ask our guide about life in Russia, explaining that all we had to go on in terms of our perceptions up to this point was our own media - how did she see life there?

This was when it got really interesting! We had a fascinating conversation about the Soviet era, with her explaining how whilst there was no choice for types of food, there was at least food and a guaranteed pension, and how rent in the Soviet era for a basic room was one dollar a month, but now after Perestroika and westernisation it is anything up to two thousand dollars a month. Whilst she missed much about the Soviet era, she did say her favourite thing about today was her freedom to travel around the world. We also talked about the Revolution, and her disdain for Lenin, who she believed was a much worse dictator than Stalin, and we also touched on the Siege of Leningrad (St Petersburg's former name) in the Second World War. Some two million people died during the nine month siege apparently, with a further million surviving against the German war machine.

In fact this conversation revealed the most extraordinary thing from our two day trip in St Petersburg about 20th century Russian history, namely our guide's professional aversion to discussing it, save for mentioning when any palace we visited had been destroyed by the Germans, only to be rebuilt. It was clearly not part of the official programme, and yet her own personal willingness to discuss it when asked was much more interesting than the constant roll out of palaces and churches after palaces and churches. And as such, she was suitably toasted with a shot of vodka at the dinner table - "Na Zdorovie (На здоровье)!"

After lunch we then made for Catherine the Great's palace at Pushkin. Another extraordinary building with gilded interiors and Chinese porcelain walls, and to keep with the unofficial theme of the day, another palace destroyed by the Nazis and later rebuilt. We did the tour of the building and then made our way back to the minibus before the heavens opened, and then made our way back to the Celebrity Eclipse for our overnight stay. I was so tired with the day's programme that I missed Helen Smith's talk on Researching Australian and New Zealand Great war soldiers.

Day 8 then saw us proceed with part 2 of the tour, and our opening event today was an early morning boat trip, sailing past the Peter and Paul fortress and into the heart of the original city, which had originally been designed to replicate Venice with her waterways, although many have since been filled in and have had a road put over. We went past the Winter Palace, the statue of Peter the Great as a ship's carpenter, the Admiralty building and more. One of the interesting sites we saw was a former palace used for the performance of and registration of civil marriages, apparently encouraged after the October Revolution to try to lure people away from the attendance of churches in the town with a suitable alternative.

We then stopped off to buy some souvenirs, directly across the road from a former log cabin in which Peter the Great had resided within when he first arrived at the city that would soon bear his name. Unfortunately, there was a slight issue in seeing this cabin, in the form of a ruddy great brick building built around it to preserve it, allowing no views in (see below)!

Our souvenirs purchased, the next stage was designed to test mankind's limits - the Hermitage Museum, roughly the length of a small Baltic state, in which we spent two hours walking from lavish room to lavish room. We fought our way through crowds of tourists for two hours, being careful not to be pick-pocketed (a serious criminal problem plaguing the city), and occasionally stopping and rallying to the cry of "We don't leave our men behind" to retrieve members of our 16 strong bus party who wavered from time to time in the relentless battle to do a tour stop! It was hard work walking from opulent room to lavish room to gilded room to luxurious room, with occasional moments of delight and highlights such as the Rembrandt Gallery and the odd Da Vinci painting. We hardy souls persevered, however, until we were finally rewarded at the end with an opportunity to step outside onto St Peter's Square, providing a huge open air vista of the palace from outside.


After a spot of lunch we visited the extraordinary Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, a huge edifice of the Russian Orthodox Church, built on the site where the Tsar Alexander II was wounded and died in March 1881. The church was closed by the Soviets in 1930 and was later used as a morgue during the Siege of Leningrad (not explained to us when we were there), and later became a vegetable warehouse, before becoming a museum and then undergoing a full restoration. It no longer acts as a church, and remains a museum of mosaics, the pictures and biblical scenes on the walls all being made in this way.

Upon leaving the church, we were now due some more proper Russian history - the Moika Palace, built in 1770 as the palace of the influential Yusopov family, which housed a fascinating private theatre and luxurious rooms, and which for many years has been owned by the Department of Education in the city. The building has only recently been opened up as a museum.

Apart from being a seat of the Russian nobility, the Moika Palace has one other major claim to fame, it being the building in which the mad monk Rasputin was murdered by Prince Felix Yusupov in December 1916. The Prince tried to poison Rasputin in the cellars with tainted red wine, seeing him as a dark influence on the Romanov family, and when this did not work, he was forced to shoot him. Thinking he was dead, he did not see Rasputin crawl through a side door to an outside courtyard, at which point he was again shot twice more, including once in the head. We were unfortunately not allowed to use cameras inside the palace, but by luck our minibus was parked right beside the spot where Rasputin was finally executed, so I quickly retrieved my camera from the bus and took a spot of where he finally fell.

Proving you can never visit too many churches in one day, we then made for St. Isaac's Cathedral, the city's largest Russian Orthodox church, and the fourth largest cathedral in the world. Another extraordinary building, but at this point I was getting a bit churched out, though still took a few snaps!

Our final treat was a journey on the St Petersburg Metro, where I caught up with an old friend - St. Andrew, who not only acts as our patron saint here in Scotland, but who is also a patron saint of sailors, and therefore, the Russian Navy. In fact, Andy wasn't the only familiar face that kept popping up on our cruise, as across the Baltic states we also encountered many statues of St George slaying a dragon. The underground station was deep beneath the ground, having to be bored deep beneath the swamps on which the city was originally founded. We caught a train and went one stop along, purely to see the lavish underground mosaics on what was otherwise a similar underground tube network to that in London.

With this we purchased some more souvenirs, and were then finished touring for our second day. Upon a return to the boat, I had one more task to do, and that was to give an 8pm lecture on British and Irish newspapers, the only talk of the day, before crashing in my bed, ready to make our way to Helsinki.

Coming up - Helsinki, Stockholm, and another full day's conference at sea...


For details on my genealogy guide books, including my recently released Discover Irish Land Records and Down and Out in Scotland: Researching Ancestral Crisis, please visit