Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Looking back to the beginning

This week’s throwback Thursday blog post is a little more personal, taking us back to the very beginning of Maxwell Ancestry. Even while we look forward to the future with Scottish Indexes ( launching tomorrow!) it’s nice to look back at where we came from.

Our founder Graham Maxwell’s family are a long-lived bunch, and it was spending time with elderly relatives which first piqued his interest in genealogy. He remembers hours spent doing jigsaws with his great grandmother when he was just a small child. Sadly, his great granny Maxwell died aged 85 when Graham was only four years old. On the other side of the family, however, his Great Aunt Mary lived until she was 104. Her memories provided a vital and fascinating resource when Graham began his family history research in earnest.

Mary Cameron aged 99, taken on 17 Feb 1989

In 1989, Graham and his mum made their first visit to the General Register Office in Edinburgh. Armed with the knowledge they had gained from family stories, their mission was to trace the family through birth, marriage, death and census records. They hoped this way to compile a coherent picture of their family history.

The records system took some getting used to, and the process of research was a good deal more time consuming than it is today. However, their efforts were rewarded - together they successfully traced their family tree before going on to write a family history book as a gift for Graham’s Nana and Pappa. Long before ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ or, Graham and his mum created an easy-to-read family history chronicle filled with family photos and historic postcards of places and people. Fascinated by the past, Graham has always endeavoured to understand the lives of people’s ancestors beyond mere names and dates. In this first family album he added a piece of linen woven in the mill where his ancestors once lived.                                             

Researching his own family history whetted Graham’s appetite for genealogy. When friends asked him to research their family trees he didn’t hesitate. His time delving into the records came with the growing realisation that he could translate his passion into a career, and he began to take on clients in 1996.

Over time the business grew, most clients hearing of the business through word of mouth. Graham continued to develop his skills and gained further experience as a genealogist, becoming a regular fixture in both the General Register Office (now the ScotlandsPeople centre) and the National Archives.

A lot has changed since these early beginnings – both for the business itself and within the field of genealogy. Maxwell Ancestry was amongst the earliest of ancestral research businesses to harness the power of the internet, allowing people from Manitoba to Melbourne to seek records. His wife Emma joined the business in 2001 and together the pair have helped people with research projects large and small. While we’re looking forward to launching our new site, our focus will remain on helping our clients – so they can have the ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ experience Graham’s grandparents had all those years ago.

Graham Maxwell aged 20

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Beyond the census - Woodhead lead mines, Carsphairn

It’s difficult, sometimes, to look at places today and imagine how they used to be. It’s particularly poignant to see only ruins of places where whole communities once lived and thrived. Moss grows on old stones, and people forget small histories.

In the parish of Carsphairn, up in the hills, we find the long-abandoned Woodhead lead mines. It is peaceful – no echoes remain of the heavy sounds of industry that were once heard here. Although ruinous, we can still see the foundations of the manager’s home, the terraced houses of the miners, the schoolhouse and the smelt mill. The mine shafts themselves were blocked up with rubbish when the mine was closed – unassailed by the elements they remain in good condition.

Mining in Woodhead was started in 1838 by the proprietor Colonel MacAdam Cathcart. After discovering that greywacke on the surface was rich in lead, he led an excavation 20 feet deep which confirmed his hopes. There was a great deal of money to be made in lead at the time, and the Colonel was swift to construct not only a mine but an entire village surrounding the works. An 1856 publication described the process thus:

By degrees miners were collected, cottages reared, furnaces, smelting-houses, and other necessary accommodations followed; and where not a solitary shieling appeared before, rows, or streets of cottages now adorn heights eclipsing in size the village of Lagwyne [Carsphairn] below, to say nothing of public works and their gradual extension, which, in the course of little more than three years, have drawn together a body of artisans who have raised the population of the parish from 500 in 1831, to 790 souls in 1841.

The construction of entire model villages around mines was not unusual at the time, with many industrialists providing housing and community amenities for their workers. The village at Woodhead included a library and a school for workers’ children. Our census records for the schoolhouse read thus:  


James  Irvine

Teacher of English
Roxburgh, Ancrum

Ann Irvine

Roxburgh, Jedburgh

James and Ann Irvine would have taught the children until only about twelve years of age. Boys from the age of eight were employed in the washing and dressing of the lead ore and would have attended school only during the winter, when the conditions became too harsh to work. Girls from around the same age would have assumed a number of household duties. Childhood was short, and practically prepared children for their future roles.

Lead mining continued at Woodhead until 1873, producing at its peak around 900 tons of lead a year.  Hundreds made their homes in this remote village in Scotland. Now, only ruins and passed-down memories can recall the mining community which once brought life to these hills. 

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Tale from a Shetland cemetery

It may seem odd to have a favourite graveyard – I’m not entirely sure. Genealogists certainly spend an above average amount of time in such places (second only to gravediggers and groundskeepers). Some graveyards are grand, with marbled angels standing mute and magnificent over the graves of past illustrious personages. Others are small and tucked away, grey headstones recording the patient lives of ordinary people - a name and two dates providing a starting point for research.

One short dash between the dates on a gravestone may be the only indicator of a whole lifetime. Sometimes, however, the gravestones yield more insights into the deceased’s life – or death. One small graveyard in a corner of the Shetland mainland has it all – the scenery, the stones and the story.

Eshaness cemetery © Nicholas Davidson

Eshaness cemetery is tiny – perhaps fifteen hundred square metres, walled off from the surrounding fields. It’s set on a long green slope leading up to the lighthouse and the famous Eshaness cliffs. The land is salted with sheep and lambs, the occasional wild bird startles the scene. It’s difficult to imagine a more peaceful place. Yet in this spot 166 years ago a gravestone was laid by a bereaved friend seething with grief and rage, now immortalised in stone and memory.

Donald Robertson, born 14th January 1785, died 4th June 1848, aged 63 years.
He was a peaceable, quiet man and to all appearance a sincere Christian.
His death was much regretted, which was caused by the stupidity of Laurence Tulloch in Clothister (Sullom) who sold him nitre instead of Epsom salts by which he was killed in the space of 5 hours after taking a dose of it.

Much regretted © Nicholas Davidson

37-year-old Laurence Tulloch was brought to trial in Lerwick on August 19th 1848 where he was charged with ‘culpable homicide and the reckless and negligent sale of Saltpetre instead of Epsom Salts’. The case was heard by sheriff Charles Neaves and a jury of fifteen men, who pronounced Tulloch guilty yet asked for leniency due to his good character. Nonetheless, the knowledge of what he had done and the ostracism by the community led Tulloch and his family to leave the isles not long after, never to return.

Remote © Ceris Aston
If you’re as fascinated by the story as we were, check out the local HEARD website for more on both the deceased and the man responsible for his death.

In the meantime, why not tell us about your own favourite graveyards?

Happy #throwbackthursday!

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Into the archives - McVitie's

One of the exciting things about a trip to the National Records of Scotland is that you never quite know what you’ll discover. The other day we were delving into court records from the mid-1800s, many of which exist as small brittle bundles of notes and relevant documents tied up with string. One such bundle, pertaining to a case of land ownership, yielded a few pages from an old newspaper – the relevant information outlined in pen.

General Register House © Ceris Aston

Our eyes were drawn, however, to the advertisements – one Mrs Carstairs, Fruiterer and Florist, announcing her upcoming move to ‘those Central and Commodious Premises in the ROYAL EMPORIUM’. Another: James Carstairs, Poulterer & Game Dealer, respectfully intimating that his new premises open ‘THIS DAY… with a complete Stock of the very best POULTRY, GAME, &c.’

We delighted in the formality and archaic language of the adverts – even in the capitalisation of the nouns. These 19th-century shopkeepers were savvy though, with Mrs Carstairs being quick to address the announcement to ‘her numerous Customers’, and James Carmichael invoking loyalty and respect for tradition as the ‘Grandson and Successor to the late Mrs Janet Young’. Modern advertising still uses some of the same techniques – just not in quite such a polite manner!

Delving into the records © Maxwell Ancestry
Then we glimpsed a familiar name.

begs gratefully to acknowledge the very flattering amount of patronage which he has received since he entered the above Premises; and at the same time respectfully intimates, that having had his accommodation increased, he has commenced the CONFECTIONARY in connection with his LOAF-BREAD BUSINESS, and assures his Friends and Patrons that they may rely on everything produced being of the very best quality. (North British Advertiser, Jan. 1st, 1853).

We looked it up – how could we not? And it was he. One Mr Robert McVitie, born 1809, taking his first steps towards a future which would give the world the McVitie’s digestive biscuit. The baking dynasty which he founded still flourishes today and digestives are arguably the nation’s favourite biscuit. As we sit with a cuppa and a nice dunkable digestive, we reflect that McVitie’s 1853 decision to expand into confectionary was, all things considered, a good move.

It’s fascinating to find records of such moments, especially when we are familiar with the stories or legacies from long ago events. We’re looking forward to our next find – see you next #throwbackthursday!