Sunday, 18 May 2014

Why not keep a diary? In pen and ink...

In an age where as genealogists we all seem to be increasingly scrabbling around for online resources using tablets, PCs, Macs and mobile phone devices, why not take a few minutes each night to keep a diary - using pen and ink?!

I've just started to write my seventh diary of daily events. I've been keeping diaries on a regular basis, with just a few gaps, since 1999, when as part of a Scottish Television crew I spent three and half months filming in the United States for a series on the history of the Scots, Irish and Welsh in the country. The trip saw me visit locations in thirty different states, as well as several areas of Canada on brief flying visits, and in my diary I wanted to jot down not only an account of the shoot, but also my first impressions of many of the areas I was to visit. Now when I look back I read accounts of everything from meeting members of the Cherokee in North Carolina, visiting John Paul Jones burial place in Florida, gazing in wonder at Yosemite Fall in California, an encounter with the Ku Klux Klan and a visit to Gracelands in Tennessee, sailing into Halifax harbour in Nova Scotia on board a British man o' war vessel, and a trip to Ellis Island, where we had the run of the museum for two hours before it opened to the public. The TV series was duly broadcast, and now remains in an archive somewhere - but in terms of a chunk of my life, the diary, along with a few photographs, remains the only record.

So useful did I find the experience that later in the year I started to keep a second diary, but for a slightly different purpose. I had started to learn Scottish Gaelic whilst living in Bristol, and as with any language learning, the best way to do so is to force yourself to engage with it as often as possible. Thus I started to write down accounts of my daily life in Gaelic (and, at first, seriously bad Gaelic!), but no sooner had I started it than I was recording my father's involvement as a train guard in the Ladbroke Grove train crash in October 1999. The following year I got married in Ireland, and conscious of just how useful the diary was becoming as a record, I wrote that day's entry in English, as I did again in November when my first son was born, as I wanted them both to be able to read those events in years to come. I soon realised that if I kept writing in Gaelic, no-one else would be able to read it in my family, and so from 2001 the diary entries have since been kept in English. They recall my previous career making documentaries, the birth of my second son, the illnesses and deaths of my grandmother and father-in-law, many trips to see family in Ireland and England, my subsequent life as a genealogist since 2006, and much, much more. My last diary in particular, kept from December 2012 to April 2014, has seen some tragic and extraordinary events, from my mother's and aunt's deaths, to the marriage of my brother and the birth of my first niece.

As a regular blogger, you might think that I would advocate using a computer to keep diary entries - and at times, I have tried, though never for long. I can certainly write faster with a keyboard, and can often keep more detailed accounts when I do so - but there is something truly special about writing daily entries in pen and ink, not least the fact that it now tends to be the only time I ever do use pen and ink. The volumes I keep feel like something I can pass on in years to come, and will hopefully preserve a wee bit of what made me me, with my bad handwriting, occasional flares of temper, humour and sarcasm, my politics, opinions on anything and everything, the odd doodle, and even a few pics to help illustrate some events along the way.

Records such as birth, marriage and death certificates tell a partial account of our lives - but in years to come, whilst they may help our descendants to picture certain aspects of our lives, they will never reveal a full picture. So why not help the process along a little?! It's easy to keep a diary - a sentence or two a night, or perhaps a couple of entries a week, is all it takes - and in years to come, your descendants may well be as impressed with you, and as well informed about you, as those ancestors that you as a genealogist are currently spending so much time and effort on trying to bring back from obscurity!


Now available for UK research is the new second edition of the best selling Tracing Your Family History on the Internet: A Guide for Family Historians, whilst my new book British and Irish Newspapers is also now out. And FindmyPast - please reinstate the original Scottish census citations on your new site.

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