Wednesday 19 September 2012

BIFHSGO's 2012 Conference - report

I returned home last night from a visit to Ottawa, where I was one of the speakers at the annual conference of the British Isles Family History Society of Greater Ottawa (, aka BIFHSGO. This was the group's 18th conference, with the form being that every three years it rotates between Scotland, Ireland and England/Wales as the main theme, with this year being Scotland's turn.

This year's event had a record turn out, with some 266 delegates, the norm for a Scottish session apparently being about 200, and with some forty walk-ins (i.e. not having pre-registered), which is apparently fairly unusually high also. It meant for a great crowd, so before I divulge more, here's a quick chance to meet some of them and to hear a special Transatlantic message!

I arrived in Ottawa on Wednesday evening and was met at the airport by Joanne Payne, who was helping to run the event this year, and who kindly got me to my hotel. I had no idea that we were so close to the province of Quebec, it being just on the other side of the river, but Joanne pointed out a few sites for me on the way. Ottawa is the national capital of Canada, and so many of the buildings were Government based - a quick look at a map showed that my hotel was actually surrounded by embassies on several sides!

Drinkies with Pat Whatley
On Thursday I had to venture out to buy a travel adaptor (I always forget something!), and in the afternoon met up with Pat Whatley from the University of Dundee for some lunch and a catch up. We found a great cafe spot called L'Ange (The Angel), and were somewhat bemused when after a couple of hours there two gents started to walk past us in the empty shop with a large carpet, only to be further bemused as they took it outside, popped back in and did the same again on another four occasions. It turned out that in the evening they held salsa classes on the street - fortunately we avoided getting caught up in proceedings!

Library and Archives Canada
The three day event was to be held at Library and Archives Canada, with this being my first ever visit to the institution. The first events to be held on Friday were the pre-Conference talks, at which I gave a three hour session on the history of Scottish civil registration, Scottish censuses and the various forms of Scottish marriage, from medieval times up to 1939 and 2006 - essentially three one hour talks pulled together with a 15 minute break in the midst. There was a great turn out and it seemed to go down well, as people soon got used to the fact that I am very serious about what I do, but not necessarily always in how I do it! I then had a quick lunch, and was delighted to catch up briefly with Di Thompson of the Toronto branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society, who had hosted a wonderful lunch at her home last year when I was last in Ontario - a few more familiar faces were also there from Toronto!

Robert Currie, killed in action in 1918
After this I registered for a reader's ticket for Library and Archives Canada, which took half an hour of queueing to obtain, the only real down point of the whole weekend. Blogger John Reid, of Anglo-Celtic Connections ( had very kindly pre-ordered for me the service record of a cousin of my grandmother, who served with the CEF in France, so we then went upstairs to see it and to photograph it. My overall impression of the archive itself - which I barely had a chance to glimpse - was just how quiet it all seemed, i.e. with very few people there doing any research, though it may well have been an exceptional day. The security staff are also very well drilled on rules and regulations - at one point a person with me was told to remove a light jacket before going upstairs, even though I was allowed to keep on a suit jacket, which was similar - the difference being that one was outdoor wear, the other indoor!

War of 1812
Having done this I missed the first half of Pat's pre-Conference session, though caught the end, where she discussed various lesser known resources online. There were alternative sessions on the day with Susan Davis and Tony Bandy. After this, I went for a quick meal with Pat and a few of her archivist colleagues from both LAC and further afield, and had an opportunity to discuss Ottawa, Canada and more. At one point I asked about morale at LAC, based on what I have been reading about the situation there in recent times, and was told that it had fairly plummeted in the last 2 years or so. To get up to speed on the developments, I'll point you towards John's blog again! After the meal we returned to LAC and heard an excellent presentation by Victor Suthren on the War of 1812. It's extraordinary how little coverage this anniversary has had on this side of the Atlantic, considering it involved the UK as one of the warring factions, but in North America it is considered to be the defining nation building conflict that established the beginnings of modern Canada, and by the United States as its Second War of Independence.

Genie on a mission...
Saturday then saw the start of the Conference itself. I gave the opening plenary session, a general introduction to Scottish online research, having made a very last minute slide adjustment to include an image of a cafe next to my hotel, which was plastered with coats of arms in a brilliantly cheesy way - no better way to demo what you won't find in Scotland, and the role of the Court of the Lord Lyon! After this I was essentially answering questions for well over an hour and a half on all things Scottish and genealogical, away from the main theatre. Following lunch I then gave a talk on Scottish House and Land History, never an easy subject to deal with! What I hadn't twigged, which soon made life considerably easier for me, was that the recent Scottish system of feudalism, so alien to the English system of land holding and inheritance etc, is actually more easily twigged by the Canadians, for the simple reason that the French Canadian seigneurial system of land holding was not a million miles off. As soon as I heard this from one of the delegates, I suddenly remembered I had come across the similarity before when reading Tracing Your Channel Islands Ancestors (Marie-Louise Backhurst), and from then I no longer had to quite worry so much about losing people in the Scottish jargon, as they readily took to the concepts behind Scottish feudalism. Thank God for the Auld Alliance! :) In the evening I then attended a meal with many of the delegates at the restaurant conveniently located in my hotel.

On Sunday I had a later start, so I first went to hear Pat Whatley's talk on the Scottish poor law, providing a historical overview on its history and some of the records likely to be encountered. There was a quick break and then I did my first session on the history of the churches in Scotland, and how to find relevant records for all denominations, by far my favourite talk. The biggest laugh, apart from my pointing out Charles I's head before he lost it, was when I showed an image of the Swedish flag and the Borg to illustrate the New Jerusalemites (aka the 'Swedenborgians'!). The session went down well, and after a few more Q&As it was lunch once more. In the afternoon I attended Lucille Campey's interesting talk on the Scots in Ontario, which discussed the migration patterns of Scots emigrating to the province across time. The day ended with me giving a final closing plenary, this time on how I researched the Mount Stewart Murder, a useful case study to pull together much I had discussed in terms of research sources in my other sessions. One question which slightly threw me at the end of this was whether I had ever considered the use of a psychic to work out who the killer was! No, I haven't, but it did give me a chance to tell the audience about my wonderfully dotty spiritualist great great grandfather, who created an experiment in Belfast in the 1920s to photograph ghosts at a funeral, which got a few more laughs!

A great conference, and all credit to the organisers for its smooth operation and great attendance, with particular thanks from me to Ken McKinlay, Joanne Payne and John Reid for their assistance, as well as to those who chaired the individual sessions and did the microphone running etc. It was also great to catch up with other bloggers and tweeters, such as Christine Woodcock ( and Elizabeth Lapointe ( Elizabeth's four page guide on the War of 1812 is an absolute gem, so thanks for the copy of that Elizabeth!

Hitler's car at the Canadian War Museum
On my last day there, Monday, I managed to get in a visit to the Canadian War Museum. As a building itself it was a tad odd, but it's exhibitions on the War of 1812 - told equally from four points of view (Canada, UK, US, First Peoples) - and in particular the two World Wars, were some of the best military exhibitions I think I have ever seen (including those in Auckland which I have previously blogged about). For more on the museum visit A sensational end to my trip there, and after a wee dander about the city I then finally packed my bags for the plane, and the return home.

A great event, and I hope conference attendees enjoyed it as much as I did - thanks BIFHSGO!

A few more snaps...

Pre-Conference preparations
Lucille Campey's presentation on Scots settlement in Ontario
A reading room in Library and Archives Canada
View to Gatineau in Quebec
Canadian flags
PS: Next year's conference is themed on Ireland!

UPDATE: Interviews carried out for local Ottawa radio show The Gaelic Hour (CJLL 97.9 FM) by Austin Comerton with Lucille, Pat and myself are now online at - click on the link marked 16 SEP 2012. The whole thing lasts for about 40 minutes. (With thanks to Austin)


Scottish Research Online - 5 weeks online Pharos course, £45.99, taught by Chris Paton from 26 SEP 2012 - see
New book: It's Perthshire 1866 - there's been a murder... (from June 12th 2012)


  1. I am pleased that my question about psychics "slightly" threw you in that one must always be challenged. Should you ever consider the option, perhaps these ladies could help you.
    I enjoyed your presentations very much and appreciated you taking the time to visit us.

  2. Just a little tip about jacket wearing at LAC... if you've noticed most outdoor jackets have zippers down the front, a no-no when it comes to consulting documents. If one is leaning forward or bending over a table of documents, a zipper actually can shred paper. Seen that one myself at a small archive.