Thursday 31 January 2019

Phil Spencer’s History of Britain in 100 Homes

For those intersted in house history, there's a new series out on More 4, entitled Phil Spencer: History of Britain in 100 Homes, which may be of interest. From Channel 4 (

More4 commissions Phil Spencer’s History of Britain in 100 Homes

In an ambitious new series for More4, Phil Spencer will be taking a grand tour of the country’s most historical households in a bid to tell the story of Britain in 100 Homes.

Phil will unearth our nation’s architectural ancestry through 100 properties across the country. Each home will tell a story, from our agricultural past to the innovation in industry that shaped the Britain we know today.

In each episode, Phil will look back at how we used to live and why, as he meets the current occupants of these interesting homes and reveal the broader historical impact of who lived there, why it was built and how it was constructed.

On his journey visiting these incredible 100 homes, Phil will visit an array of properties spanning castles, cottages, stately homes and social housing that still stand as living history and are still much-loved homes today.

Phil Spencer’s History of Britain in 100 Homes (8x60’) was commissioned for More4 by Features Commissioning Editor Clemency Green.

Phil says “It’s a real privilege to be travelling the UK for More4. I can’t wait to tell the story of Britain’s social history, architecture, agriculture and industry through the houses we’ve built and lived in. It’s going to be a sumptuous and revealing journey of the most interesting homes packed with layers of intrigue and focussing on how our homes have adapted to social change over the centuries.”

Production Company: Raise the Roof Productions
Executive Producers: Andrew Jackson and Jo Scott
Commissioning Editor, Features: Clemency Green

And here's the blurb for the first episode, which was shown last night at 9pm on More 4:

Episode 1 - From Cave Dwellers to Home Makers
Over 13,000 years of homes, from 11,000 BC to the 1600s. Phil reveals 13 homes of all shapes, sizes and styles, from primitive prehistoric pads to houses built as status symbols.

You can catch up on the first episode on All 4 at Predominantly featuring English based homes, with tales on witchcraft, priest holes, and more, the programme did also briefly also visit Bellaghy Bawn in Co. Londonderry, and the Loch Tay Crannog in Perthshire, with Programme 2 set to visit New Lanark in Lanarkshire also. Highly recommended!

The series continues on Wed Feb 6th at 9pm on More 4.


My next Scottish Research Online course starts March 11th 2019 - see Details of my genealogical research service are available at For my Scottish and Irish themed books, visit Further news published daily on The GENES Blog Facebook page, and on Twitter @genesblog.

Scotland's Fencible Regiments - Part 1: Background

I've received an enquiry about a regiment of Fencibles from Scotland, and as such, thought you might enjoy an article I wrote about the Fencibles in a past edition of the now defunct Discover my Past Scotland magazine.

Tomorrow, I will tell the story of my four times great grandfather, William Paton, who was a soldier in Breadalbane's Fencibles, to show the kind of information that can be found in research. If you have a Fencible soldier, and are seeking information, I may be able to help - see

In the meantime, enjoy!

The Fencibles

Chris Paton takes a look at a forgotten Scottish army

There have been many famous regiments raised for military service in Scotland over the centuries, but a particular chapter in the country’s history is often overlooked. In 1759 and 1778, units known as ‘fencible’ regiments were raised in parts of Scotland as a form of home guard to allow the regular army to march off and fight overseas. After a short and uneventful existence, they were disbanded in 1783, following the American Revolutionary War.

In the ensuing peace, Britain had reduced its military compliment, and so had found itself unprepared when the French declared war in February 1793. The order was given for the recreation of the Fencible units to defend against the threat of invasion, particularly important in Scotland as there were few militia forces to speak of compared to her southern neighbours. Less than a month later, regiments had been established by some of the country’s wealthiest and most influential clan chiefs and landowners, including the Sinclairs and MacKays in Caithness, the Campbells in Breadalbane and Argyll and the Grants of Strathspey. Initially they comprised of eight companies each, led by a colonel, a lieutenant colonel, a major, and five captains, but by 1794 had grown to ten companies, with some regiments forming separate battalions. There were two types of regiment, the infantry and the cavalry. As infantry they were given regimental numbers, as with the regular army, but were later renamed in favour of the landowners who had raised them, whilst the cavalry brigades were renamed as Light Dragoons.

Sergeants sent out to raise men for their units were under strict instructions not to take on apprentices, deserters from other regiments, or weavers with unfinished webs, unless they agreed to pay a fine for non-completion of the work out of their bounty. Upon passing a medical examination from a local surgeon, enlisted recruits were then paid a bounty of three guineas, out of which they had to buy their own uniforms. This would typically include a scarlet jacket with white cuffs, collar and buttons, a twilled white Flannel waistcoat, a pair of flannelled drawers, a bonnet and feather, three shirts with frills, two pair of hose, two pair of shoes, a comb, a black leather stock and buckle, a leather rose, and a haversack. Some, such as the Rothesay and Caithness Fencibles, wore tartan pantaloons, whilst others, such as the Gordon Fencibles and the Invernessshire Fencibles, wore full Highland garb instead.

As a home defence force, a great deal of the soldiers’ time was spent in barracks, on various manoeuvres across the country and in performing escort duties, with some sent to perform similar duties in Ireland. In 1798, the United Irishmen rebellion led to many Scottish regiments engaged in fierce fighting in the country, including the Reay Fencibles, the Caithness Legion of Fencible Men, the Fraser Regiment of Fencible Men, the Inverness Fencibles, and others. The Reay Fencibles fought in a major battle against the rebels near Tara Hill, with twenty six of their number killed or wounded in the fighting, though the rebels lost well over four hundred. The Fife and Argyll Fencibles fought at the Battle of Ballynahinch, the turning point of the uprising, whilst the Inverness men also saw serious combat operations, and were renamed as Duke of York’s Royal Inverness Highland Men in gratitude.

An interesting point concerning the regiments which travelled to Ireland is that upon their return they established the Orange Order within Scotland, having served alongside the recently formed Orange Yeomanry within the country. The first warrants granted to establish Scottish lodges went to the Breadalbane’s and Argyll Fencibles between March and May 1798, followed soon after by the Ayr, Tay, Dumfries, North Lowland and Caithness Fencibles. It was not until the early 1800s that civilian lodges were established within the country.

Many soldiers were, however, unhappy about the posting to Ireland. When Breadalbane’s Fencibles were asked to send over volunteers, about half of the compliment refused to go, infuriating those who had sponsored the regiment. George Penny, in his 1832 book ‘Traditions of Perth’, recorded that “Lady Breadalbane, who had taken great interest in these proceedings, was so incensed at their obstinancy, that she is reported to have declared, that she would raise a regiment that would march to the devil if she desired it”. A third regiment was duly drawn up, which did travel to Ireland, with the Earl of Breadalbane granting a medal to each volunteer in gratitude. When these soldiers were subsequently asked to go to Europe to continue their service, they also drew the line at that point and refused. They returned to Scotland, and along with those who had stayed behind were recorded in a final muster on April 18th 1799, after which they were duly disbanded.

A major problem at the time was that many soldiers within the Fencible regiments were beginning to embrace ideas from political pamphleteers such as Thomas Paine, whose “Rights of Man” publication in 1791 sewed the idea in their minds that they were no longer chattels, and had some degree of free will. This led in many cases to disciplinary problems, such as that which occurred in Glasgow in December 1794, again with the Breadalbane Fencibles. Following the arrest and detention in Glasgow of a soldier from the 1st Battalion for an offence for which he had been found guilty, a party of his colleagues armed themselves with muskets and fixed bayonets, and marched to the guard house, where they successfully secured his release. So outraged was Lord Adam Gordon, the commander in chief for Scotland, that an order was given to round up every spare soldier in the city to confront the soldiers to demand the return of the prisoner and the leaders of the mutiny. Before the issue was forced however, the ringleaders voluntarily gave themselves up to Lord Breadalbane without condition. They were escorted to Edinburgh Castle, where the ringleaders were tried and sentenced to death. Three had their sentences commuted, but the fourth, Alexander Morton, was shot on Musselburgh Sands.

In an almost identical situation, a similar mutiny broke out amongst the Strathspey Fencibles later in 1795, when several men were imprisoned following a joke made at an officer’s expense, and then similarly liberated by their comrades. Following a trial of the ringleaders, four privates were sentenced to death. Escorted to Gullane Links at East Lothian, they were informed that they could draw lots to spare two of their number. Charles Mackintosh and Alexander Fraser, who lost the ballot, were then executed in front of their regiments.

Following the rebellion in 1798 the majority of the service performed by the Fencibles continued in Ireland, which in 1801 became a part of the United Kingdom. Other units did see service elsewhere in the UK, with the MacDonald Fencibles sent to the English port of Whitehaven, for example, to prevent the ships of seamen trying to force an increase in their wages from leaving the port. So terrified were the sailors of the Highlanders that they backed own.

When the Treaty of Amiens was signed in 1802, the Fencibles were disbanded, and new regiments then raised to specifically serve overseas. This followed an order given in 1799 which decreed that all units which had been designed to purely serve within the British Isles were to be discontinued.

If your ancestor was in the Scottish Fencibles, you may have to search far and wide to locate their records. Some are held at the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh, some are held in local archives across the country, whilst others have not survived. A useful guide to help locate those that do exist is “Militia Lists and Musters 1756-1787” (4th edition) by Jeremy Gibson and Mervyn Medlycott, available from

(c) Chris Paton

My next Scottish Research Online course starts March 11th 2019 - see Details of my genealogical research service are available at For my Scottish and Irish themed books, visit Further news published daily on The GENES Blog Facebook page, and on Twitter @genesblog.

Wednesday 30 January 2019

Latest FamilySearch records additions and updates

FamilySearch ( has added or updated the following collections this week:

Austria, Carinthia, Gurk Diocese, Catholic Church Records, 1527-1986
Brazil, São Paulo, Immigration Cards, 1902-1980
Cape Verde, Catholic Church Records, 1787-1957
England, Devon and Cornwall Marriages, 1660-1912
France, Convict Register, 1650-1867
Italy, Mantova, Civil Registration (State Archive), 1496-1906
Italy, Terni, Civil Registration, 1861-1921
Italy, Vicenza, Bassano del Grappa, Civil Registration (State Archive), 1871-1942
Netherlands, Noord-Holland, Civil Registration, 1811-1950
South Africa, Transvaal, Civil Death, 1869-1954
Maine, Tombstone Inscriptions, Surname Index, 1620-2014
Missouri, Civil Marriages, 1820-1874

Full details are available at


My next Scottish Research Online course starts March 11th 2019 - see Details of my genealogical research service are available at For my Scottish and Irish themed books, visit Further news published daily on The GENES Blog Facebook page, and on Twitter @genesblog.

Tuesday 29 January 2019

Update on Worcestershire Archives cuts

Further to the post I made on Sunday with a link to a petition to save Worcestershire Archives from a series of devastating funding cuts by Worcestershire County Council (see, the Council has now announced it will reduce the amount of cuts that are to be imposed.

Having intended to reduce funding from £700,000 to £295,000, it will now reduce the funds by £250,000 next year. This follows a previous cut in 2010 from £1.2 million to the current £700,000. The final budget will be confirmed in February.

The full story is at

The petition is still live at

(With thanks to Reynold Leming @rleming)


My next Scottish Research Online course starts March 11th 2019 - see Details of my genealogical research service are available at For my Scottish and Irish themed books, visit Further news published daily on The GENES Blog Facebook page, and on Twitter @genesblog.

More Waterford records added to RootsIreland

From RootsIreland (

We are pleased to announce that Waterford Heritage have added over 18,500 civil marriage records covering County Waterford for the years 1864-1912

For a full list of sources for Waterford please click here.

To search these records, go to and select the 'Parish / District' from the drop down list. Login and Subscribe if required.

Yours Sincerely


My next Scottish Research Online course starts March 11th 2019 - see Details of my genealogical research service are available at For my Scottish and Irish themed books, visit Further news published daily on The GENES Blog Facebook page, and on Twitter @genesblog.

Lost Glasgow website goes online

They've been on Facebook for a while at but Lost Glasgow now has its own dedicated website at

From the site:

The ultimate Lost Glasgow fans' group where you can upload your own images to a wider audience. Photos must have a link with historic Glasgow or Glasgow's past. And if you don't own the copyright to the image, please specify in your caption where the picture comes from.

Lost Glasgow is devoted to the documentation, discussion and appreciation of Glasgow's changing architecture and its community throughout the last few centuries, and more!



My next Scottish Research Online course starts March 11th 2019 - see Details of my genealogical research service are available at For my Scottish and Irish themed books, visit Further news published daily on The GENES Blog Facebook page, and on Twitter @genesblog.

Sunday 27 January 2019

Tracing the Belgian Refugees database

An announcement from the Tracing the Belgian Refugees project on Twitter (


The database is now LIVE & ready for you to start inputting your data on Belgian refugees of the FWW - As little as just a name!

Find it here, complete with user guide:

Any questions or comments please email

There's more about the project on the site's home page:

Tracing the Belgian Refugees is a digital humanities project funded by the AHRC and run by colleagues at the Universities of Leeds, Leuven and UCL, which traces and records Belgian refugees who came to the UK during the First World War. We have created a free-to-use online database for anyone who would like to input information that they have found about a Belgian refugee, and to view the information that others have shared. With this, we hope to widen our knowledge and understanding of the experiences and legacies of the Belgian refugee diaspora.

There's also an introductory video (

Looks like a very useful resource!

(With thanks to the latest Society of Genealogists newsletter at


My next Scottish Research Online course starts March 11th 2019 - see Details of my genealogical research service are available at For my Scottish and Irish themed books, visit Further news published daily on The GENES Blog Facebook page, and on Twitter @genesblog.

Save Worcestershire Archives petition

The Friends of Worcestershire Archives has launched a petition to try to save its archive service ( Here is the blurnb from the petition page:

Our award winning Archive and Archaeology Service which provides educational, cultural, local and family history resources is under attack! Worcestershire County Council intends to cut the Service's budget allocation by almost 60%.

Such a swingeing cut will destroy the Archive Service as it now exists!

This will:
  • affect children's education
  • delay or curtail planning applications and appeals
  • damage research opportunities for local and family historians
  • hinder outstanding students' research projects

There is the potential for our Archive Service to win further national awards, receive more bursaries and make more money to finance its vital work. Let's give our Archive Staff a chance.

Please sign this petition. Published by The Friends of Worcestershire Archives

To sign the petition, please visit

And good luck to the campaign.


My next Scottish Research Online course starts March 11th 2019 - see Details of my genealogical research service are available at For my Scottish and Irish themed books, visit Further news published daily on The GENES Blog Facebook page, and on Twitter @genesblog.

Friday 25 January 2019

Urgent appeal to save Robert Burns birthplace in Alloway

An appeal has bene launched by the National Trust for Scotland to save the birthplace of Robert Burns, in the Ayrshire village of Alloway. The Tust is urgently seeking to raise £100,000 for much needed repairs to the cottage in which the bard was born.

For more on the story, visit  To donate, visit

About three years ago I visited the cottage and the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway - to read my account of the trip, visit my other blog at


My next Scottish Research Online course starts March 11th 2019 - see Details of my genealogical research service are available at For my Scottish and Irish themed books, visit Further news published daily on The GENES Blog Facebook page, and on Twitter @genesblog.

Scottish additions to FindmyPast on Burns Night

FindmyPast ( has gone the whole haggis this Burns Night with several Scottish releases:

Scotland, Jacobite Rebellions 1715 and 1745
Discover more about the Jacobites and the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745. Findmypast has digitised this expansive collection of records from The National Archives which includes lists of prisoners and those banished or pardoned along with correspondence, commission records, and briefs evidence. The rebellions had the aim of returning James II of England and VII of Scotland, the last Catholic British monarch, and later his descendants of the House of Stuart, to the throne of Great Britain after they had been deposed by Parliament during the 1688 Revolution.

Scotland, Glasgow Anderson's College Anatomy Students 1860-1874
Did any of your ancestors study at the Anderson College of Medicine, Glasgow? Discover details of their class dates. Anderson College was founded in 1796 following the will of John Anderson, Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Glasgow from 1757. Initially known as Anderson's Institution, it changed its name to Anderson's University in 1828 and finally to Anderson's College in 1877. The Institution's medical school was founded in 1800 when Dr John Burns began lectures on anatomy and surgery. The medical school of Anderson's College became a separate and distinct institution known as Anderson's College Medical School in 1887.

Scotland, Glasgow Smallpox Vaccination Registers 1801-1854
Do you have ancestors from Glasgow? Explore these smallpox vaccination registers to find out when they received their inoculation to help fight the smallpox disease. Smallpox was caused by the variola virus, there are two types of the virus. The more deadly form of the disease is the variola major which killed about 30% of people who were infected. The smallpox vaccine, introduced by Edward Jenner in 1796, was the first successful vaccine to be developed.

Scotland, Glasgow & Lanarkshire Death & Burial Index 1642-1855
Over 283,000 additional records spanning the years 1636 to 2001 have been added to the Scotland, Glasgow & Lanarkshire Death & Burial Index 1642-1855. This index of deaths and burials consists of transcripts of original documents covering the years of 1642 to 1855. From the index, you may learn your ancestors' birth year, death and burial dates, age at death, burial place, and mortcloth price.

Scotland Roman Catholic Parish Registers
Over 223,000 new baptisms, marriages and burials have been added to our collections of Scotland Roman Catholic Parish Registers. The New additions cover 471 parishes across the country and span the years 1800 to 1966. Each result will include both a transcript and image of the original register entry.

Our collection of Scotland Roman Catholic Sacramental registers covers all eight Scottish dioceses: Aberdeen, Argyll & The Isles, Dunkeld, Galloway, Glasgow, Motherwell, St Andrews & Edinburgh, and Paisley, and date back to the early 17th century. The records form part of our wider Catholic Heritage Archive, a groundbreaking project that aims to digitise the historic records of the Catholic Church in Britain, Ireland and North America, and additional new records will be added to these collections later in the year.

Scotland Roman Catholic Congregational Records
Over 55,000 new records have been added to the collection. Congregational records can help you get a better understanding of your ancestors' relationship with the church and include registers of confirmations and communion recipients, as well as parish lists, seat rentals, lists of people who converted to Catholicism and more.

British & Irish Newspaper Update
This week we have added 140,106 new pages to The Archive, meaning in total we are just shy of 30 million pages available to search, with a current total of 29,905,890 pages.

We have added one brand new title, the Sunday World (Dublin), which is full of amusing agony aunt anecdotes, and updated five of our existing titles. Updated titles include the Carlisle Journal, the Perthshire Advertiser and the Manchester Evening News, as well as two of our Irish titles, the Drogheda Argus & Leinster Journal and the New Ross Standard.

Further details, and links, at


My next Scottish Research Online course starts March 11th 2019 - see Details of my genealogical research service are available at For my Scottish and Irish themed books, visit Further news published daily on The GENES Blog Facebook page, and on Twitter @genesblog.

Thursday 24 January 2019

To Robert Burns' Immortal Memory

Friday 25th January is Burns Night, dedicated to the life of Robert Burns. Two years ago I was asked to give the Immortal Memory at a Burns Supper - the only problem being, I had never been to a Burns Supper before! So I did it my way - my perspective as an Ulster Scot on Robert Burns, having taken the scenic route to getting to know about the lad. I thought you might like to read what I said - and you'll be glad to know, there's some genealogy involved! :)

If you're celebrating Burns Night, have a great one. Here's to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns - enjoy!

Hello everyone,

For those of you who don't know me, my name is Chris Paton, and as you can probably hear, I am not originally from this parish. I come from a wee island just off Scotland – it's called Ireland, which at its closest is about 12 miles off the coast. In fact, I'm delighted to say that I come from the same town that God comes from in Northern Ireland, a wee place called Carrickfergus, although I might have to have a word with him about the rugby result earlier today!

Just for good measure, this is the first time I have ever attended a formal Burns Supper, so I'm honoured to be asked to speak to the immortal memory of Robert Burns – this is definitely one to tick off my bucket list later.

So, after Googling “immortal memory” and after watching a few speeches on YouTube, what can I tell you about Robert Burns the man? As an Ulsterman, what possible interest could I have in Robert Burns? Well I have to tell you that until a few years ago, I had none whatsoever. In fact, I would go so far as to say I was deeply suspicious about the man, but for all the wrong reasons. So let me tell you where I once was on that, how I have now come to admire and respect the world's greatest poet, and why I, as a Johnny Foreigner, think he should be remembered and celebrated.

As I mentioned, I was born in, and for most of my childhood was raised in, Northern Ireland. Now the province of Ulster, as you may be aware, was colonised by thousands of Presbyterian Scots some four hundred years ago, in an event known as the Plantations. As a child though, I didn't know any of this. In a period when we lived through the Troubles, you were either a Catholic or a Protestant, or Irish or British, with people often defining themselves not by who they were, but by who they weren't. As a consequence, I had no idea that I had a deep Scottish ancestry, despite the fact that when growing up many of the words I used were good auld fashioned Ulster Scots words

When I misbehaved as a wean and a bad word came from my bake I was scolded for being a cheeky wee hallion, when the pokey van came to our estate I'd buy a 99 poke, it was a place where my wee brother used to be a clipe for squealing on me, where I could go for a walk up the Red Brae, and where I could point to this table, that wall and thon hill. But I didn't know that these were Scots words, I just thought that was how we spoke English.

We also had some Scottish traditions - but again, I didn't know that they were Scottish. One New Year's Eve, my dad asked me to take a lump of coal up to my Granny Graham's house in our estate and to wish her a happy new year. Terrified that my granny was somehow freezing to death on her own, I ended up filling a carrier bag with coal and took that up instead! I got a clout around the ear for that one! I had no idea about my Scottishness – my Ulster Scottishness – because we were never allowed to define ourselves in that way.

Even today I get wound up by what has happened to Ulster's Scottish culture. I gave a talk in Largs a few years ago about how to research Irish ancestry, and a wee man approached me and told me he was setting up a local non-sectarian Ulster Scots heritage group – would I be interested in going along? He handed me a leaflet, at which point I had to ask him – if this is a non-sectarian group, why have you printed your leaflet on orange paper? I wanted nothing to do with them. My notions of Ulster Scottishness tie into my Presbyterian ancestors from Islandmagee and Antrim, who fought with the radical United Irishmen in 1798. Now I'm not saying all my lot were successful. Never mind the fact that the rebellion failed – as a fifteen year old, lad my four times great grandfather John Montgomery accidentally shot his hand off with one of the rebels' rifles in the midst of it.

My family's been regularly winning the Darwin Award on occasion ever since.

So then there's Robert Burns himself. As a child in Northern Ireland, all I knew about Robert Burns was he was Scottish, and had written that Hogmanay song. Even as an adult, I still had no idea about what half of Auld Lang Syne meant - “we'll tak a right guid willie waught”, for example.

I used to work in television, and as a one time researcher on a BBC2 series of short films on men's health, I could never quite understand what a right good willy wart was – that certainly wasn't what my research was telling me, I filmed many a grown man with tears in his eyes complaining about how sore they were – until the time when I twigged that it wasn't quite what it sounded like! It's actually a hearty swig of ale or some other alcoholic drink, and I'll happily tak one of those. Especially if it is Laphroaig, which is God's official whisky.

And everywhere I came across Burns as a child, it was the same image of the man on a tea towel, or a shortbread tin, the portrait that became an icon, a bit like Bonnie Prince Charlie. Now I was raised as a Presbyterian, and the one thing we were taught in Ulster's Presbyterian churches was that idolatry was a bad thing.

In fact, on another TV series I once made about the history of the Church in Scotland, I had to visit the Free Church College on The Mound in Edinburgh, where the Scottish Parliament first met after it was reconvened. When I got there, it amused me no end, because when you go through the arch into its main courtyard, the first thing you come across is a statue of John Knox on a plinth – the very man who tore down the statues at the Reformation. I still don't get why the Kirk doesn't see the irony of this! But the point is I was raised not to believe in the idea of celebrity – I can make my own mind up about whether someone should be celebrated.

So how did I first begin to develop an understanding of Burns? Well, when I left the BBC in 2006, I started to work professionally as a family historian. Now as a genealogical researcher, I get a lot of folk contacting me who tell me that they are descended from William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, the Stewarts – you name it, I've heard it, they're usually always wrong, and they've usually bought the wrong tartan! However, about four years ago, I had a client who claimed she thought there was a family story of some possible connection to Burns - could I take a look?

In fact, it transpired that she was spot on. I discovered that her five times great grandfather was a merchant from Kilmarnock called John AIRD, who, with his wife Anna CAMPBELL, had a granddaughter called Jean BRECKENRIDGE, who in 1791 married a young man by the name of Gilbert BURNS – the poet's brother. It was through this connection that I first looked into the story of the Burns lads, and I learned that Robert and Gilbert had together taken on the lease of Mossgiel Farm, near Mauchline, in 1784. Three years later, Robert withdrew from the farm, and from the sale of his second edition of poems he granted Gilbert a loan of £180 to pay off his debts and to invest in his business. So this was the first time I had ever come across Robert Burns in a guise other than as this foreign icon, not as a poet, but as a big brother looking out for his wee brother. Fair play to you Rabbie, I thought, and all due respect – as the eldest in my family I've helped my own siblings out from time to time in the past, this was something I could relate to.

And then we had the (Independence) Referendum. At this point there was an argument in the sainted Scottish press about whether Burns was a unionist or a nationalist. By now I knew that Burns was a bit of a complex man, and that in rebellious times such as the 1790s he had to be careful how he expressed his loyalties. But it was obvious that he had been disgusted by the Treaty of Union in 1707, for which he condemned the Scottish nobility:

What force or guile could not subdue
Thro' many warlike ages
Is wrought now by a coward few
For hireling traitor's wages.
The English steel we could disdain,
Secure in valour's station:
But English gold has been our bane
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation.

His contempt for the upper class, and his belief that all people are in fact equal very much reflected the thinkers of the Enlightenment at that time, as expressed through works such as The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine. Burns expressed his belief in, and solidarity with, the common man when he penned A Man's a Man for a' That:

Ye see yon birkie ca’d ‘a lord’,
Wha struts an’ stares, an’ a’ that?
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a cuif for a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His riband, star, an’ a’ that,
The man o’ independent mind,
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an' a' that;
But an honest man's abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities an' a' that;
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth,
Are higher rank than a' that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.

Now you're talking! This is definitely a man I can respect. And he wasn't just drawing inspiration from the nonsense he was encountering in Scotland, or in Britain, he knew that education and the revolution of the mind could unlock a strength that no imperial power could ever thwart. In his Ode to General Washington's Birthday he stated:

Here's freedom to them that would read.
Here's freedom to them that would write!
There's nane ever fear'd that the truth should be heard
But they wham the truth would indite!

A short and sweet quote there. Robert Burns would have been great on Twitter!

So I began to pick up on a lot of this throughout the Referendum, and in its aftermath. Now I struggle with poetry, and am not a great one for songs and lyrics. When I sing, it sounds like a chicken farting, and I don't do romance awfully well – I proposed to my wife by waking up one morning and saying “should we get married then?!” Romantic songs, and love poems – was Burns really someone I should be trying to come to grips with?

But last year, having by now grasped that there really was something to engage with when it came to Robert Burns, I decided to challenge my final prejudices about him. I visited the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, thinking I was a going to be accosted by people dressed in 18th century outfits looking for wee sleekit mousies and hunting haggis. In fact, I was – but I don't think I've ever been to better museum in my life. It wasn't about Burns the industry, it was about Burns the man. The excise man, the farmer, the poet. The interpretative panels were all written in Scots, written as a real living language.

So it turned out from this exhibition that Burns was a great poet, but rather endearingly, he wasn't a perfect man – who amongst us is? He loved his words, and he also loved his women. My God, did Burns love his women. My wee brother, who was actually born in Scotland and who lives in Dubai, is now with his third wife - but I haven't the heart to tell him about Burns' tally with women, in case he gets competitive. 

As a genealogist, one of the things I regularly come across in old kirk session records are cases of what was referred to as 'antenuptial fornication', basically doing the dirty deed before a wedding ring was put on – well I think in the 18th century the Kirk must have had an entire department working on Robert Burns. I can imagine all these ministers of the cloth having minor heart palpitations every time he walked into a room which had a woman someone near within a five mile radius! One article I read noted that Burns was a 'philanderer, fornicator and a father of bastart bairns'. Actually, it could be argued that if he wasn't, he might not have written so many of his great love songs. But Burns also believed in the equality of women, and in 1792 wrote:

While Europe's eye is fix'd on mighty things,
The fate of Empires and the fall of Kings;
While quacks of State must each produce his plan,
And even children lisp the Rights of Man;
Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention,
The Rights of Woman merit some attention.

Even with the things he didn't agree with, he did try to see the opposing view and to understand why others held their views, for example, with religion. Now again, being Irish, and being raised on an island that makes religion still seem like a growth industry, the one thing I can tell you for a fact that is that I am not in anyway religious - because whilst Northern Ireland tried to knock religion into me, it also knocked it right back out of me. But I will absolutely to my dying breath defend the right of folk to have religious beliefs. Well Burns held very similar views. In a letter to a Mrs Dunlop in December 1794, just eighteen months before he died, he commented on the delight that he gained from seeing people gain comfort from something he himself could not be reconciled to. This is what he wrote:

What a transient business is life! Very lately I was a boy; but t'other day I was a young man; and I already begin to feel the rigid fibre and stiffening joints of Old Age coming fast o'er my frame. With all my follies of youth, and I fear, a few vices of manhood, still I congratulate myself on having had in early days religion strongly impressed on my mind. I have nothing to say to any body, as, to which Sect they belong, or what Creed they believe; but I look on the Man who is firmly persuaded of Infinite Wisdom and Goodness superintending and directing every circumstance that can happen in his lot - I felicitate such a man as having a solid foundation for his mental enjoyment; a firm prop and sure stay, in the hour of difficulty, trouble and distress: and a never-failing anchor of hope, when he looks beyond the grave.

Unlike most of you in this room, Robert Burns to me has become an acquired taste worth acquiring. I was not raised to revere the man, I did not take to him because I was taught about him at school, I wasn't raised to eat haggis, neeps and tatties on Burns nights, I instead took the scenic route to come to terms with the Bard.

When I read Burns now – and believe me, I am reading Burns now – I see a reflection in many of the things that he writes that I believe in, and that I have believed in my whole life. His words on equality, on national identity, on internationalism, on all the things he has celebrated and railed against, these are words that are easily understood - whether written in Scots or in English - because at their heart lies a truth about who we are and what we aspire to be. They are the same things that Burns believed over two hundred years ago, they are the wisdom of ages immortalised in verse.

When we gather and quote his thoughts and share his stories, we celebrate the fact that we remain wedded to those words and that ideology. On a personal level, whilst I have spent years trying to uncover and reclaim my Ulster Scottishness, through the words of one man here in Scotland I have been able to find the words that help to define my values as a civic Scot. They are the values I share with each and every one of you here tonight.

Ladies and gentlemen, you'll be delighted to know that I have come to the end - but that also, when it comes to appreciating Robert Burns, I finally got there in the end! So I'd like you all, if you would be so good, to stand now as I raise a glass - a right guid willie waught - to the immortal memory of the one and only Robert Burns.


My next Scottish Research Online course starts March 11th 2019 - see Details of my genealogical research service are available at For my Scottish and Irish themed books, visit Further news published daily on The GENES Blog Facebook page, and on Twitter @genesblog.

FIBIS adds Jalna Christian Cemetery in India images and transcriptions

From the Families in British India Society (

Jalna Christian Cemetery – over 100 graves photographed and transcribed

Photos from the old cemetery at Jalna, East of Aurangabad in Maharashtra, have now been transcribed and uploaded to the FIBIS database. Almost all the graves are between 150 and 200 years old. Our thanks to The Pilgrim Trust for funding the photography and to Sandra Seage for the transcriptions.

You can view the index of Jalna Christian Cemetery headstones via

FIBIS Cemeteries Project

FIBIS has hired a photographer who is currently visiting cemeteries in India and taking two photographs of every gravestone: one of the whole and one of the inscription. Mindful that many Indian cemeteries are in a dilapidated condition that is only going to deteriorate further, we are looking for donations to enable us to continue this important project.

In the meantime, the photographer is receiving from FIBIS a modest fee and necessary expenses for travel. Therefore, we are asking for suggested donations of £3 (Three pounds sterling) for one image or £5 (Five Pounds sterling) for two.

How to donate to the FIBIS cemeteries project and order an image

Please make donations via the PayPal button on the Cemeteries Project page ( to ensure donations go to the correct project. Please quote the Cemetery and Image Reference in the “Add special instructions to recipient” section of the “PayPal Review your payment” screen. Photographs will be sent by email. If you experience any problems making your donation please email

(With thanks to Valmay Young)


My next Scottish Research Online course starts March 11th 2019 - see Details of my genealogical research service are available at For my Scottish and Irish themed books, visit Further news published daily on The GENES Blog Facebook page, and on Twitter @genesblog.

English Convict Prisons and Criminal Lunatic Asylums records added to TheGenealogist

From TheGenealogist (

Press Release: New Records Release

Prisoner Records reveal a criminal lunatic who threatened Queen Victoria and was detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure

TheGenealogist is adding to its Court and Criminal Records collection with the release of almost 700,000 entries for prisoners. Sourced from the HO 8 Registers held by The National Archives, these documents contain records from the years 1821 to 1876. This expands our collection to over 1.3 million individuals covering 1801-1876.

These Prison Registers give family history researchers details of ancestors who were imprisoned in a number of convict prisons from Broadmoor to the Warrior Convict Hulk. The records reveal the names of prisoners, offences the prisoner had been convicted for, the date of their trial and where they were tried.

Use the quarterly prison registers to:

● Find ancestors guilty of crimes ranging from theft, highway robbery and libel to murder
● Discover the sentences received
● See the age of a prisoner
● Find out where they were sentenced and to which prison they were sent

Read our article, “A child poisoner and a criminal lunatic detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure”.

(With thanks to Nick Thorne)

UPDATE: Thanks to Nick for a clarification that although the records are for English Convict Prisons they "do contain some convicts that were convicted in Scotland and sent to an English prison as well. Here is an example of a John Smith convicted of Assault in Glasgow 1874 and in the registers of the Convict Prison in Portsmouth.  I was fascinated to find some convicts from Jersey (again a separate legal jurisdiction) serving time in these institutions!"


My next Scottish Research Online course starts March 11th 2019 - see Details of my genealogical research service are available at For my Scottish and Irish themed books, visit Further news published daily on The GENES Blog Facebook page, and on Twitter @genesblog.

Wednesday 23 January 2019

Mary Queen of Scots at the National Records of Scotland

The National Records of Scotland ( has an interesting blog post by archivist Dr Alison Rosie, concerning documents held at the facility relating to the life of Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary is the subject of a major new movie, Mary, Queen of Scots, starring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, which a in Edinburgh last week.

The article strolls through several documents giving a glimpse of Mary's life upon her return to Scotland in 1561, with letters, accounts of expenses, inventories and other documents, including an account of the assassination of Lord Darnley.

You can read the full piece at

And don't forget that Outlaw King is also now available on Netflix, concerning the story of Robert the Bruce!


My next Scottish Research Online course starts March 11th 2019 - see Details of my genealogical research service are available at For my Scottish and Irish themed books, visit Further news published daily on The GENES Blog Facebook page, and on Twitter @genesblog.

FamilySearch updates Derbyshire and Northumberland collections

FamilySearch ( has updated two English parish records collections, and a UK military set:

United Kingdom Great Britain, War Office Registers, 1772-1935
Added 3,153 indexed records to an existing collection

England, Derbyshire, Church of England Parish Registers, 1537-1918
Added 305,850 indexed records to an existing collection

England, Northumberland, Parish Registers, 1538-1950
Added 994,791 indexed records to an existing collection

Also of potential interest are additions to an Australian record set:

Australia, South Australia, School Admission Registers, 1873-1985
Added 50,944 indexed records to an existing collection

For details of additional records updates and releases, including several collections for the USA and Europe, visit


My next Scottish Research Online course starts March 11th 2019 - see Details of my genealogical research service are available at For my Scottish and Irish themed books, visit Further news published daily on The GENES Blog Facebook page, and on Twitter @genesblog.

Tuesday 22 January 2019

Scottish Indexes updates Sheriff Court paternity case records

Some further indexed Sheriff Court paternity case records have been added to Scottish Indexes ( this evening:

Aberdeen Sheriff Court Processes 1913-1917

Kirkcudbright Sheriff Court Processes 1848-1850

Ayr Sheriff Court Processes 1816,1861-1865

Aberdeen Sheriff Court Processes 1913-1917

Inverness Sheriff Court Processes 1799-1806,1825-1859

Dingwall Sheriff Court Processes 1912-1917

Dingwall Sheriff Court Decrees 1830-1919

Inverness Sheriff Court Decrees 1886-1889

For more on the datset, visit

(With thanks to @GM_Ancestry)


My next Scottish Research Online course starts March 11th 2019 - see Details of my genealogical research service are available at For my Scottish and Irish themed books, visit Further news published daily on The GENES Blog Facebook page, and on Twitter @genesblog.

New feedback facility for TNA's research guides

The National Archives ( based in England has a new online feedback widget for users to use to make comments about issues with the archive's online research guides, which are the primary finding aids produced for its catalogue, Discovery.

From the archive:

In the digital team, we’re interested in finding out if there are improvements we can make to help users locate assistance in research guides before they are obliged to contact us via phone, email or web chat (or abandon their journey). We have stats about which guides are viewed, but we currently have no means of gathering qualitative feedback at scale about whether or not users have located what they were looking for.

We’ve been working on a way to collect this qualitative data by creating a feedback widget, which now sits on every research guide page. This widget allows you to quickly and anonymously let us know whether you found the help you needed.

It’s a quicker way for users to send us feedback while they’re using the research guides – as opposed to filling in a survey, or contacting us – and it’s less intrusive than a pop-up. It’s also a permanent fixture of the page for as long as we need to collect data.

You will find the feedback tool at the right hand column beside the guide, looking something like this:

For more on the story visit


My next Scottish Research Online course starts March 11th 2019 - see Details of my genealogical research service are available at For my Scottish and Irish themed books, visit Further news published daily on The GENES Blog Facebook page, and on Twitter @genesblog.

Consultation launched on Scottish public records management

The Keeper of the Records of Scotland has launched a consultation on proposed changes to his Model Records Management Plan, to assist authorities in meeting their record keeping obligations.

Since 2011 the Keeper has been required to assess and agree records management plans submitted by public authorities, with the current system in place now subject to review.

For more on the story visit

For further background information, and to take part in the consultation, visit

The consultation closes on Thursday March 7th 2019 at 5pm.


My next Scottish Research Online course starts March 11th 2019 - see Details of my genealogical research service are available at For my Scottish and Irish themed books, visit Further news published daily on The GENES Blog Facebook page, and on Twitter @genesblog.

Back To Our Past's Belfast talks schedule

Back To Our Past ( is returning to Belfast on Friday 15th and Saturday 16th February 2019, at the ICC Waterfront. The organisers have now released the talks schedule, which is as follows:

Friday 15 February 2019

10.30 Getting Started with Family History
Gillian Hunt, Ulster Historical Foundation

11.30 Not all records are online – try these…
Mike McKeag, North of Ireland Family History Society

12.30 How to trace your ancestors who went to Scotland
Irene O’Brien, Glasgow City Archives

13.30 FamilySearch - Fantastic and Free!
Steve Manning, Federation of Family History Societies

14.30 Migration and Family History
Dr. Patrick Fitzgerald, Mellon Centre for Migration Studies

15.30 Using PRONI’s Historical Map Viewer
Janet Hancock, Public Records Office of Northern Ireland

Saturday 16 February 2019

10.30 The Battle of the Boyne
Office of Public Works, Dublin

11.30 History Through Genealogy
Jonathan Gray, Killeeshil & Clonaneese Historical Society

12.30 An Introduction to GRONI Records
Kathie Walker, General Registry Office of Northern Ireland

13.30 Using PRONI Valuation Records
Stephen Scarth, Public Records Office of Northern Ireland

14.30 Property Records
Andrew Kane, North of Ireland Family History Society

15.30 How to trace your ancestors who went to Scotland
Irene O’Brien, Glasgow City Archives

Further details are available on the site's home page. For the separate DNA talks schedule, visit

(With thanks to Gillian Hunt @UlsterHistory)


My next Scottish Research Online course starts March 11th 2019 - see Details of my genealogical research service are available at For my Scottish and Irish themed books, visit Further news published daily on The GENES Blog Facebook page, and on Twitter @genesblog.

Monday 21 January 2019 adds first portion of 2019 UK Open Electoral Register

From (

The First Electoral Roll Update for 2019

The first portion of the 2019 Open Register has been added to the site this week.

Included in this update are millions of names and addresses from across the UK that have been changed, validated or even added for the first time.

Now is a great time to start a search on as your chances of finding all the people you're looking for have just improved! 

Searches are available via


My next Scottish Research Online course starts March 11th 2019 - see Details of my genealogical research service are available at For my Scottish and Irish themed books, visit Further news published daily on The GENES Blog Facebook page, and on Twitter @genesblog.

Sunday 20 January 2019

British Newspaper Archive approaches 30 million pages of content

The British Newspaper Archive ( is now reaching the three quarters of the way mark with its project, as it approaches 30 million pages of online content (as I write this it is currently at 29,905,890 pages).

This was the original announcement about the project from May 2010 (on my former blog at

British Library and Brightsolid partnership to digitise up to 40 million pages of historic newspapers

The British Library’s Chief Executive, Dame Lynne Brindley, will today announce a major new partnership between the Library and online publisher brightsolid, owner of online brands including and Friends Reunited. The ten-year agreement will deliver the most significant mass digitisation of newspapers the UK has ever seen: up to 40 million historic pages from the national newspaper collection will be digitised, making large parts of this unparalleled resource available online for the first time.

Spanning three centuries and including 52,000 local, regional, national and international titles, the British Library holds one of the world’s finest collections of newspapers. Each year the Newspaper Library at Colindale is used by 30,000 researchers in subjects ranging from family history and genealogy to sports statistics, politics and industrial history. This vast resource is held mainly in hard copy and microfilm, necessitating a trip to the north London site for people wishing to use the collection.

The partnership between the British Library and brightsolid will enable the digitisation of a minimum of 4 million pages of newspapers over the first two years. Over the course of ten years, the agreement aims to deliver up to 40 million pages as the mass digitisation process becomes progressively more efficient and as in-copyright content is scanned following negotiation with rightsholders.

I think it is fair to say that the BNA has transformed family history research, and is by far one of the most significant digitisation projects of this century so far.

Just ten million pages to go!

Here are the additions for the last 30 days:

Carlisle Journal
1847, 1883, 1885, 1889, 1891-1892, 1894, 1896, 1904-1905, 1908-1912

Sunday World (Dublin)
1987-1993, 1995-1996

Drogheda Argus and Leinster Journal
1965-1986, 1988-2005

Perthshire Advertiser
1875-1884, 1886-1906, 1908-1913, 1920-1932, 1937-1938, 1986

New Ross Standard
1911-1914, 1916-1986, 2002-2005

Manchester Evening News

Gorey Guardian

Bray People
1988-1997, 1999-2002, 2004-2005

Lichfield Mercury
1929-1931, 1942, 1964, 1966, 1968, 1971-1973, 1985-1986, 1988-1989, 1991

Cheshire Observer
1931-1938, 1946-1949, 1951-1979

Lennox Herald
1885-1886, 1888-1892

Wexford People
1986, 1994, 2005

Western Mail
1920, 1923, 1933-1935, 1938, 1946-1947, 1952, 1959

1986-1987, 2003-2005

Drogheda Independent
1986-1987, 2005

Belfast Telegraph

Sligo Champion

Lloyd's List
1890, 1892


My next Scottish Research Online course starts March 11th 2019 - see Details of my genealogical research service are available at For my Scottish and Irish themed books, visit Further news published daily on The GENES Blog Facebook page, and on Twitter @genesblog.

NLS uploads Ordnance Survey 1950s-1960s maps

From Chris Fleet, Map Curator of the National Library of Scotland's Collections and Research Department:

New Ordnance Survey National Grid 1:10,560 maps (1950s-1960s) go online

The National Library of Scotland ( has just put online 13,953 Ordnance Survey maps which provide near-complete coverage of England, Scotland and Wales in the 1950s-1960s.

These maps show excellent detail of the mid-20th century urban and rural landscape, including farms and settlements, roads and railways, rivers and watercourses, administrative and field boundaries, woodland and land use. Buildings are simplified in urban areas but many street names are also shown. They are especially useful for more remote rural areas, where this is the most detailed scale of Ordnance Survey mapping. This online addition includes all our out-of-copyright maps at this scale, published over 50 years ago.

NLS Maps Website User Survey

During January and February 2019, we are undertaking a survey of those using our maps website in order to help plan future developments. We are very keen for a range of responses from personal, educational, business and professional users. All responses will be anonymous.

Detail about the survey is available at this link:

The survey is available at:

This and other map news is also available in our January 2019 Cairt newsletter at:

(With thanks to Chris)


My next Scottish Research Online course starts March 11th 2019 - see Details of my genealogical research service are available at For my Scottish and Irish themed books, visit Further news published daily on The GENES Blog Facebook page, and on Twitter @genesblog.

Saturday 19 January 2019

Boring Ancestors?!

The following is an article I wrote for Practical Family History magazine, in March 2009:

Boring Ancestors

Chris Paton takes a look at the potential folly of trying to characterise our ancestors based on a limited amount of documentary information…

How many times have we come across an ancestor who appears to have been the most boring person on Earth?! “His name was John Smith” or “he was only an agricultural labourer” are for many people war cries to signpost that it is time to hand in the genealogical trowel on a particular line. We may be keen to dismiss our ancestors very easily when nothing obvious appears to stand out about them, but a 'boring' ancestor may be one simply badly recorded to posterity, or whose records have not survived to the modern day.

Personalising our ancestors

It can often prove extremely difficult to characterise our ancestors’ lives, as in many cases very little information actually does survive about them. Yet we are driven to try to learn as much as we can – they were our relatives and we want to relate to them as family, not just as names on a page. If our ancestors left memoirs, and put into their own words their life experiences, we can be extremely lucky, as these can greatly help us to understand who they once were and what their outlook on life was.

I was once fortunate, whilst trying to break a genealogical brick wall for a client, to discover that a brother of her four times great grandfather had kept a diary in the Aberdeenshire parish of Fyvie. A microfilm of the book, covering over ten years of his life in the early 1800s, was available for consultation at the National Records of Scotland. This turned out to be gold dust, as it recounted the names and events of many family members which allowed me to push the tree back a further four generations. The diary was more valuable from another point of view, however, in that it also provided a great deal of insight into the writer’s religious views, his attitudes to certain members of his family, his business ability and more. In such a case, with so much material available, it was possible to gain a sense of what drove him as a person, and to some extent, other members of the family around him. He was, for example, devout in his religious observance, and genuinely so, with many long passages quoting various scriptural passages that he had heard each Sunday, from which he had taken comfort. At the same time, he left very little money to his eldest son in his will, deeply hurt that he had made a life for himself in America and had cut all ties with his family back home.

Most of us, though, will at best simply get to know our ancestors from occasional documentary references that place them in a set location at a particular time. How well these were recorded will affect how we visualise the person described. If John Smith is listed as ‘surgeon general of the British Army’, he will grab our attention more immediately than a simple description of him as a labourer. But what if John Smith the labourer helped to build the Titanic, took part in a protest that secured the vote for ordinary working men and women, fought in a military campaign or was crushed in a rebellion? He may not have been boring at all; his exploits may simply be waiting to be found within more unusual sources.

Creating portraits

So how do we redress this? With the information we find initially, from vital records and census reports, we can create a basic chronology for our ancestor, and then try to further flesh out the story from other sources, such as newspapers and wills. In many cases, an ancestor may appear dull because he has not been well documented, but it may also be that we do not know where to look for the right records. If we become stuck, we need to create some options for ourselves. We can join our local family history society and ask for assistance from those who are further down the road with their research. At the same time, we might post what little we do know of our ancestors online, on a website or in a discussion forum, and use that as a lure to attract others who may be working on the same family. Books and magazines may offer some clues as to where to go next, and a short genealogy course might even help.

We can also look around our ancestors, instead of directly at them, and establish the world within which they lived. If all we have are a couple of vague references that describe our relative as an agricultural labourer, for example, we can still ask some useful questions. What was the parish like with which he lived? Can we locate the records of others doing the same job in the same area, and perhaps gain an understanding of his experience from their
stories? What sort of farm work was going on in the area, and what was the bigger economic picture? Then there is the domestic situation. What was the house like that he would have lived within? Does it still exist, can we visit it, or perhaps a contemporary building in his area that was similar? What religion was he? Where would he have worshipped, etc?

Whilst we can to some degree try to recreate the environment within which they existed, we must also appreciate that we can never completely understand that environment from a modern perspective. What may have been truly shocking to an earlier generation may seem laughable to us today, but it was still shocking back then. People burned witches in the past out of fear. Even if we cannot understand why they may have done so, we still need to accept that such a fear was very real. In many cases we may not understand the rationale for something at all, but that does not mean it was not there, and we should be careful not to invent an interpretation that may in fact be false.

Don’t overdo it

Whilst we may be desperate to characterise our ancestors, we need to be careful that we do not over-interpret the information that we do have, or try to ascribe characteristics to them based on our limited perspective of events.

I once found a letter in an archive regarding the recruitment of my four times great grandfather into a regiment in 1797, which described how a recruiting sergeant in Perth had for several days tried to coax both him and four other weavers to abandon their looms, and to accompany him to Edinburgh. It was addressed to his superior at Edinburgh Castle, who was demanding to know where the new troops were. The poor sergeant reported that they were all refusing to leave for fear of being heavily fined for non-completion of the work. When I first read it, I burst out laughing. We talk in my family about “the Paton Pride”, basically the trait that we all share where we tend do things when we are good and ready, and not before! Clearly this was a long standing tradition. But then I realised that four other people had done exactly the same thing as my ancestor. It wasn’t a personality trait at all – it was an economic reality that drove their actions, not some genetic trait passed down through the generations.

We should also avoid trying to over-romanticise an ancestor’s story. An ancestor may have been transported for having stolen an item, and we may be tempted to believe that such a robbery had been committed perhaps because the family was starving and destitute in some Dickensian hell. But another possibility does also exist however – that the ancestor may well have been a career criminal, only happy when running off with someone else’s gold watch!

The sad truth is that sometimes we may never know who our ancestors really were, but the fun remains in the constant effort to find out. Our ancestors might well have been boring – but only accept that as the truth if you find the evidence to prove it.

(c) Chris Paton

My next Scottish Research Online course starts March 11th 2019 - see
Details of my genealogical research service are available at
For my Scottish and Irish themed books, visit Further news is published daily on The GENES Blog Facebook page, and on Twitter @genesblog.