Thursday, 26 October 2017

Feeling Stuck? Create a Research Plan

When you come to what you think is a dead end, or a "brick wall" in your Scottish research, step back, and take a better look at the documents. Scottish documents contain a wealth of information and can make researching so much easier when you really take a look at what the documents are telling you.

Use a spreadsheet or create a chart with five columns:


  • Make a list of all of the documents you already have so that you don't waste time searching for them again.
  • Think about what you already know from the documents you have.
  • What questions are still unanswered?
  • What do you still need to know?
  • Looking at the documents you have and knowing what you still need to find out, what are the best documents for you to get that might give you the answers you need?
  • Next do some online research to determine where you are likely to find the records that will help you fill in the gaps or chip away at your brick walls (newspapers, land records, church records)
  • Move forward by starting to look through documents you may have missed in the past. If you can’t access the records online and can’t plan a trip, reach out to a local genealogist who can work on your behalf to access the records and the information you need to help break through your stagnation and move your research forward.  

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

The Covenanter Memorial Deerness

The Battle of Bothwell Brig (Bridge) was fought on June 22, 1679. The battle was part of the Covenanter Uprisings. There were about 6000 fighting on the side of the covenanters and 5000 government troops. While most on the side of the covenanters scattered, there are reports that up to 700 men died while another 1200 were captured and marched to Edinburgh. They were to be imprisoned at the Castle but they outnumbered the space available, so were placed in a makeshift prison on the south end of the Kirkyard at Greyfriar’s Kirk. 

Covenanter prison at Greyfriars

This prison was open to the elements and overseen by the notorious George “Bluidy” MacKenzie. Most were beaten, many were starved. Some 150 died from a combination of the abuse, starvation and exposure to the elements. They are buried in a mass grave in the Kirkyard and are honoured by a memorial known as the Martyr’s Memorial.

Some of the prisoners were freed after making submission. The 250 who remained imprisoned in Greyfriars were destined to be transported to Barbados. They were loaded onto the ship “Crown of London” at Leith to be sent to the colonies where they were to be indentured slaves on the plantations. The ship headed north, with it’s first scheduled stop to be Orkney. As is typical of the area in the late fall the winds were gale force and caused the ship to run aground just a few miles from Deerness. The chain of her anchor snapped. While the captain and crew managed to escape, the prisoners were not as lucky, since they had been in the hold. The captain had ordered the hatches battened down to ensure that the slaves were still on the ship when it landed in the colonies. He had planned to make some money by selling them to the plantation owners. One of the crew did manage to hack through the hatches before he left the ship, allowing about 45-50 men to escape. Some of the escaped men were eventually recaptured and later transported to New Jersey.  

The remaining 200 men drowned when the ship went down off the coast of Deerness. Bodies washed ashore for many days and weeks. 

There is a memorial at the edge of the cliff to mark the spot where the covenanter martyrs died tragically. Once again, we pulled up to the car park and found ourselves faced with a well worn footpath. While windy, the winds weren't gale force this time. The walk to the monument and back is 2 kms (a mile and a quarter) and primarily passes through a farmer's field. The monument is visible early on, but never seems to get closer. On the horizon was the sea, and what I thought was mist turned out to be some serious rain on its way to shore. 

apparently tourists aren't a common sight for this cow

Finally, we made it to the monument. The winds had picked up and the drizzle had started. The sky looked ominous, so in the end it was a quick whip round the monument, taking as many photos as time would allow before we had to run for cover. Cover? Oh, the car we had left in the car park! Go, go, go!

The monument itself is quite impressive at some 30 feet tall. One side of the monument holds a stone which reads: 
“Erected by public subscription to the memory of 200 Covenanters who were taken prisoner at Bothwell Bridge, and sentenced to transportation for life, but who perished by shipwreck near this spot on 10th December 1679”

Monday, 23 October 2017

Badbea Clearance Village

As we left Helmsdale and headed to Thurso to catch the ferry to Orkney, we saw the sign for Badbea Clearance Village. Always keen to learn more about the Clearances, and to see the destruction first hand, I made a quick left into the car park. Through the turnstile, we came upon a well beaten path which we began to follow.

Badbea (pronounced Bad-Bay or Badbay) is perched on steep cliffs above the North Sea and is on the east coast of Caithness, just inside the boundary separating Caithness from Sutherland. The village was originally settled by people who had been cleared from their crofts in Berriedale and Ousdale. As the sign post says “Please be careful. The people are gone, but the steep slopes, high cliffs and strong winds remain”. They weren’t kidding.

The plots of land that the crofters were given, were not arable, rubble laden and at a perilous angle to the sea. At one time, there were 80 families recorded as living here but by 1904, most had left. I’m sure thankful doesn’t even come close to expressing their relief at moving to safer ground. The former longhouses have all fallen into ruin but the foundations of many are still quite visible if you know what you are looking for. There are a number of drystone walls outlining former pastures, sheep enclosures and the village itself.

The ground is wet and marshy. There is a natural spring that runs through the former village that once provided drinking water for the villagers but which now only sops the land. The crofters were unable to farm anything more than a few vegetables for their own consumption. The men were encouraged to work as fishermen in the herring industry, with boats leaving Helmsdale and Dunbeath, several miles from the village.

Like any fisherwife, the women of the village not only tended the land while the men were away, they also kept house and raised children and livestock. When the men returned with their catch, the women worked to clean the fish and ready them for sale at local markets. The women of Badbea were in a precarious situation when faced with outside work in that they ran the risk of children and farm animals being swept into the sea by the constant winds. To keep everyone rooted, the children and animals were tethered to one of the many rocks around the village!

Our walk back to the carpark was all the more strenuous as we battled the near gale-force off-shore winds! For most of the walk, we were one step forward, two steps back and had to hunker forward to keep planted on the land. It was an endurance test at best and one I cannot imagine having to live with on a daily basis!

By the end of the 1800s, most people had left the village for a better life. Their mark on the Scottish highlands and the history of the Clearances live on in the ruins of the Badbea Clearance Village. 

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

And That's A Wrap

All too soon, another Genealogy Tour of Scotland has come to an end. The days have flown by. We researched at the ScotlandsPeople Centre, the National Library, the National Archives, Edinburgh City Archives, the John Gray Centre in Haddington and at the Scottish Genealogy Society. 

We attended talks on Kirk Session Records, High Court Records, National Records of Scotland, Scottish Maps and Family History Resources at the National Library. 

We learned about life in Victorian times, the poverty and the difficulty of the times. We learned about Scottish history, Edinburgh's history and the characters that shaped Edinburgh. 

We visited ancestral villages and towns including Bridge of Weir (the Quarriers Village), Newtonhill, Callander, Haddington, Old Edinburgh and Lanarkshire. 

We took day trips, walked for miles and enjoyed the beauty and culture of our ancestral homeland. We have made new friendships. We have a deeper understanding of what it means to have Scottish Heritage. Most importantly, we have connected to our ancestors and to Scotland in a way that we never could have imagined had we only depended on online resources. And for this, there are no words that can fully describe what we have experienced. 

Monday, 25 September 2017

Arbroath Harbour Home of the Smokie

In medieval times, the fishing village was located in Auchmithie, three miles north of Arbroath. Auchmithie had no harbor and the conditions were terrible. Along with the move to a harbour (first built in 1394 and paid for by the Abbot) the fishermen were offered plots of land along the harbour on which to build houses.

The first harbour was a wooden structure, slightly north of the current harbour and remained in use from 1394 until it was destroyed by a gale in 1706. This gale gave the area of the harbour the name Danger Point. 

The current harbour opened in 1734 and was again expanded in 1842.

At the foot of the road by the original harbour at Danger Point sits the Old Brewhouse, first built in 1754. The building remains as it was then, although the interior has been refurbished.

In 1809, Robert Stevenson, father of author Robert Louis Stevenson, built the Bell Rock Lighthouse on a rock in the sea, 11 miles from the shore of Arbroath Harbour.

Arbroath, of course is famous for it's Smokies - smoked haddock. The smoke shops continue to dot the harbour.

Arbroath Abbey

Had a lovely wander around Arbroath Abbey, a medieval monastery established by William I (William the Lion) in 1178. Although in ruins, the Abbey shows an impressive size and the importance of it in the life of the town as well as its place in history. 

 The bases for the pillars show just how large these structures were

 The 'O' transept is thought to have been used as a beacon for ships to show them safely to harbour when lit. It was restored by Robert Stevenson's father when he built the Bell Rock Lighthouse in 1809.

When this house was restored, several medieval graves were uncovered in the floor. These are thought to be the burial places for abbots, bishops, senior officials and benefactors for the abbey

When William was killed in Stirling in 1214, his body was returned to Arbroath and buried in front of the high altar.

Perhaps the most famous place in history for the abbey is that this is the place from where the Declaration of Arbroath was issued. The Declaration is a letter to the Pope (the United Nations of the time) outlining Scotland as an independent, sovereign kingdom. The most well known lines of the Declaration outline this position: "It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”

A framed copy of the Declaration hangs in the visitor centre of the Abbey, a gift to the Abbey from the National Records of Scotland

The letter was signed by 40 noblemen, freemen and barons who affixed their seal, urging the Pope to recognize Scotland as an independent sovereign kingdom. 

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Understanding Ancestor Occupations

The weekend is open for the tour participants to visit the part of Scotland where their ancestors lived, to sight-see or just to relax after a busy week of research.

I drove to New Lanark to visit the old cotton mills and the village designed to support the workers. New Lanark was innovative for its time, thanks in large part to the mill owner, Robert Owen. Owen was interested in the well-being of his employees and worked to make sure they had provisions that other employers didn't consider.

 The mill is down an incredibly long hill from the car park and the visitor centre isn't easy to find as it is in the middle of the mill buildings rather than at the start. Once there, however, there is a terrific wee ride through the life of one Annie MacLeod, a 10 year old mill worker. Annie has nothing but praise for Mr Owen and the way he treats his workers. She describes the school room, the nursery, and the work that she and the other children do in the mills. She is pleased to only be working ten and a half hours a day, six days a week.

From the ride, there are a number of other buildings that can be visited including the works floor. Here the machines run to clean and spin the cotton. The sound can be deafening and it isn't hard to imagine that hearing loss would be a normal effect on the workers having to endure the noise day in and day out for nearly 12 hours at a time.

Another innovative idea for Owen was that he withheld 1/60 of each workers wages and put the money into a sick bank to allow them free health care when they required it. As well, each child in school had regular health exams at no cost to the families.

The school that Robert Owen built is still standing today. The rooms are large and airy with lots of natural light. Music was part of the curriculum.

Owen provided housing for his employees. The homes consisted of two rooms, a living area with a kitchen as well as a separate sleeping room. There was a shared lavatory at the top of the landing of the stairwells.

Owen was concerned about the character of his workers and as such, built an "Institute for the Formation of Character" that was the focal point of the villagers during their free time. It became a community centre and offered evening classes for anyone aged 10 - 20 years of age who might otherwise be working and unable to attend school during the day.

The workers were paid in a local currency and tokens that could be used at the village store. The quality of the goods at the village store was superior to the stores outside of the village and the prices were much cheaper as well.

The mill was powered by the Clyde, some of the water from which had been diverted to the mill.

Visiting social history museums is the best way to learn about the lives your ancestors lived and to be able to experience some of what they experienced on a daily basis. It allows you to understand their lives and to have a deeper sense of who they were as people.