Family Research – English, Scottish and Irish Genealogy

20/12/2003

Putting the flesh onto the bones of family history

There is something, strangely enough that is always overlooked in most of genealogical research, and that is the historical context in which our ancestors lived and died. Certainly we can look at Birth, Marriage and Death certificates or even Parish records and work out names and siblings and form a family tree covering many generations but by doing so do we come any closer to who our ancestors were or do we simple end up with a list of related names.

The point is I don’t think so. Suppose we take trades for example do you understand what a Hammerman was or a Traffiker or a Maltman? What was a Scottish Incorporation? Or if a family moved from area to area in a certain geographical area why would they do that. Suppose you visited a graveyard let’s say in Edinburgh and you came across a gravestone which says that the person was born in Shetland or in the Orkneys the obvious question to ask is “How does a person born in one place end up being buried in a quite different place?”

This leads us to the study of Social History. How did people live, what diseases were prevalent at the time they lived, was there much overcrowding in the area where they lived, how much did they earn, did they claim a pension or did they go to the Workhouse, what education did they receive and for that matter could they read and write. It must be understood that not all our ancestors would have been rich and powerful people they would be ordinary human beings living in the context of the their own time and place. We are all products of our period in history so people of the twenty-first century live and act as people of the twenty-first century would act and in the same way people would live and act in the way that people of earlier centuries that would be expected for that period and likewise would write and speak in the way expected of their own period and not in the way standard English is written or spoken today. So if we find that our ancestor was transported from Great Britain to the Australia colonies then that is what happened it is not making a moral judgement it is merely stating an historical fact. This is what people expected to happen if they broke the law in the 19th century. However in the 18th century they could have been transported to the American colonies. You could ask why the change from America in the 18th century to Australia in the 19th century and this leads to a study of American and British history of the late 18th century and the American War of Independence.

If you really wish to understand your ancestors then you must try to look onto their world with their eyes not with the eyes of someone living in the twenty-first century. If you can with understanding then the family tree will come to life. For example I once did a family tree for my local Butcher. It started of in Edinburgh and going back to previous generations it became obvious that the family came from the Borders. Then a strange thing happened further back you went in turned out they lived on the Scottish Border and then a generation earlier they became English just over the Border and for just over a hundred the family moved back and forward over the border becoming Scottish then English in turn. Why? The reason was quite simple they were Border Reivers or as we would say Cattle Rustlers and they never recognised the Border. So they could have married and lived in Scotland and buried in England and so on. Cattle’s rustling isn’t acceptable now but in the 16th, 17th and 18th century it was acceptable it was the way of life in the Borders.

Did you know that in Scotland there were several different ways of being married in Scotland in the past all acceptable and recognised by the State (i.e. By the agreement of both parties, by sexual intercourse, marriage in Church, by habit and repute, Sheriff Warrant) which of course causes problems for the family historian because the only records for marriages that are recorded are the ones done for a marriage in Church because from 1555 the church were obliged by law to record marriages and from the late 19th century the for-runner of Registrar marriages was the Sheriff Warrant. So a couple could have been married but not recorded if they were married out with the Church in earlier century and their date of marriage is lost for ever . Furthermore did you know that spouses in the past kept there own name on marriage. The idea of the woman changing her surname to her husbands is a Victorian invention.

People are often offended if they here that their ancestor is buried in an unmarked grave but in the past only the rich could afford headstones. During the Reformation of the 16th century in point of fact tombstones were frond upon as the dead person was considered to be with God already and Headstones were considered smacked of the Old Religion and Popery however they came back into fashion from round 1640.

As part of a semiregular series on this site I will look at some of the social history of Britain from the 15th century to the present day which should be of some assistance or interest to family researchers.

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