Thursday, 28 August 2014

A lament for the letter

When you go will you send back a letter from America?’

Thus begins ‘Letter From America’, a classic song from Scottish pop duo The Proclaimers. It reflects a long history of Scottish people emigrating to seek better lives overseas, many leaving behind family members on their native shores. Back then, letters from America or Canada would take weeks or months to arrive back home – if they arrived at all. We can scarcely conceive of how precious such an epistle would be to those who received it.

Today, the letter has been largely rendered obsolete, replaced in written form by email, texts, Facebook messages, tweets, WhatsApps or the multitude of alternative telephone or online messaging systems. We can communicate instantaneously – speak across continents, hear the voices and even see the faces of our loved ones. Technology is astounding, and what would have been thought of decades ago as unthinkable, centuries ago as magical, has fast become the norm. As with progress in most areas, we gain much, and forget what we are leaving behind.

Genealogists do not forget the letter. How could we? Letters are our pathways to pasts unknown to us, our windows into the lives our ancestors lived. From the mundane to the dramatic, the terse to the loquacious, letters possess a peculiar charm to the descendants left behind. We peer intently at the rushed lines of a holiday postcard, struggle to decipher the scrawls of a soldier’s letter home. It’s a fascinating way to get to know your forebears – through their own words. The words were not intended for you – not the friendly enquiries towards a new mother, nor the sympathetic tones for the bereaved. Time passes, and what was a moment full of raw joy or staggering sorrow becomes removed from us. Yet we remember it. These letters open up to us a different world.

We’ve been looking recently at the court records and supporting documents of paternity cases. The love letters we read have a painful edge in retrospect – the promises of eternal adoration belied by the sombre purpose the letters are used for: evidence that the wayward father was once in an intimate relationship with the unmarried mother, now seeking financial support. They are fascinating as evidence and as a glimpse into a society both similar and different to our own. Today, text messages and screenshots might be used to prove past affection in court – but love letters cached in shoeboxes are few and far between. The great-grandchildren of my generation will have no photo albums or physical letters to hold in their hands, but may trawl what remains of us in cyberspace – a modern legacy.

Genealogists will remember the letter. 

Monday, 25 August 2014

Who Do You Think You Are? Live (this weekend!)

We’re looking forward to Who Do You Think You Are? Live in Glasgow this weekend, where we’ll be enjoying the displays, the talks and the hubbub of excitement when a group of genealogists get together. (How’s the research going? – It’s all relative).

For those not familiar with the television show, Who Do You Think You Are? researches the lineage of celebrities and documents their journey as they uncover secrets and truths about their ancestors. WDYTYA is enormously popular around the world, and the spectacle and scale of the live event is breath-taking. Hundreds of genealogy experts and thousands of enthusiasts gather together to learn from one another, discover some more about the past and to take in the buzz. We’ll be joining them, wearing our Scottish Genealogy Network badges with pride (stop us if you see us, we’d love to answer your questions).

Badges © Scottish Genealogy Network 

On Saturday morning, Graham will be giving a (free!) talk about tracing illegitimate ancestors. While such individuals can provide fascinating and sometimes touching stories, they are also notorious roadblocks in progressing your family tree. In the 1850s, around 9% of births in Scotland were illegitimate, so a number of genealogists will probably have discovered illegitimacy in their family line. Fortunately for posterity, mothers often took the fathers of illegitimate children to court to prove their identities and seek financial support. We still have records of these cases, providing details and facts which are absent from other records. Graham’s talk will explain how both amateur and professional genealogists can use these records to discover paternal lines and progress family trees.

We’re gearing up for the weekend – hopefully see you there! 

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

#DGHour hints and tips for Ancestral Tourism in Dumfries and Galloway

According to Tourism Intelligence, ‘10 million people with Scottish roots are interested in finding out more about their ancestry. It is estimated that 4.3 million people could be encouraged to visit.’

This blog post has been specifically created following the #DGHour we had on Twitter in August 2014 and is designed to help those in the tourism industry help people trace their family tree. I hope however that it will also help individuals tracing their Scottish family tree.

Caerlaverock Castle

Heritage Tourism or Ancestral Tourism

One thing to mention at the outset is that there is a difference between what we might call ‘heritage tourism’’ and ‘ancestral tourism’’. As an example, some people with the Maxwell surname may choose to visit Caerlaverock Castle, because (I quote from the Historic Scotland website) ‘around 1220, Alexander II of Scotland, needing trusted men to secure the Scottish West March, granted the estate to his chamberlain, Sir John de Maccuswell (Maxwell). Sir John built the ‘old’ castle. Within 50 years, his nephew, Sir Herbert, had moved to a new castle just 200m away to the north. There the Maxwell lords remained for the next 400 years.’ The reality is however, that many people with the Maxwell surname are not directly descended from these Maxwells.

One dictionary definition of genealogy is ‘A line of descent traced continuously from an ancestor’.

Your first mission, therefore, is to find out what type of experience your visitors want. Do they want to visit a castle once owned by someone of the same surname, or do they want to trace their own direct ancestors one by one as far back as they can?

If they want to trace their own genealogy, here are some resources and tips so that you can be better placed to help them:

Accommodation - What to offer the Ancestral Tourist

A good internet connection - A lot of family history research is done online these days. Many people will have their family tree online on websites like This means a good internet connection is essential to family history research. If you can offer this as part as your accommodation package the ancestral tourist will likely find your accommodation a more appealing choice.

Reference books - For south west Scotland, I would recommend the guide produced by the Dumfries and Galloway Council, ‘Researching Local History - A Guide’ (available at £5.99 from most D&G libraries). I would also recommend the book ‘Tracing your Scottish Ancestors’ published by the National Records of Scotland. Other books such as ‘The Surnames of Scotland: Their Origin, Meaning and History’ by George Black may also be useful to visitors. If you want to have an even larger library for your visitors I would also recommend the books by Chris Paton.

Visit Scotland’s Ancestral Welcome Scheme - Participation in the Ancestral Welcome Scheme gives you the opportunity to publicise your knowledge and commitment to meeting the needs of the ancestral visitor. For more details see the Visit Scotland website.

Scotland’s People - is the foremost website used in researching Scottish Ancestors online. They give access to the key building blocks of a family tree: Birth, Marriage, Death, Census and Parish Records as well as wills and some other key resources. The website is a ‘pay-per-view’ site (not a subscription website). Scottish libraries sell half price starter cards, giving 60 credits which can be used on the site for just £7 (the standard price is 30 credits for £7).

Once your visitors arrive

The Old School House at the long abandoned Woodhead lead mines, Carsphairn, Stewartry of Kirkcudbright.

Maps - People visit the area where their ancestors lived is to visit the homes they once occupied and visit their graves. If you are able to offer help by supplying maps this would really help your visitors. The National Library of Scotland has a fantastic collection of historic maps (many of which can be overlaid on modern maps for comparison) which could help them work out where a long demolished house once stood.

Archives - At the time of writing (August 2014) the main archive for Dumfries and Galloway is within the Ewart Library (Catherine Street, Dumfries, DG1 1JB). Access is free and you can use your digital camera to photograph many records (permission needed). Here are the opening times:

Archive Search Room Opening Times
Monday- CLOSED
Tuesday - 10.00 - 13.00, 14.00 - 17.00
Wednesday - 10.00 - 13.00, 14.00 - 19.00
Thursday - 10.00 - 13.00, 14.00 - 17.00
Friday - 10.00 - 13.00, 14.00 - 17.00
Saturday - 10.00 - 13.00, 14.00 - 16.00 (First Saturday in month only)

Important - Most archive material is stored off-site, you need to contact the archive a day or two in advance so that they can make sure the items you need are brought in for you.

The archive at Dumfries has records such as school log books, poor relief applications and minutes, valuation rolls and newspapers throughout D&G. They also have copies of the census for D&G on microfilm and also local pre-1855 parish records (OPRs). As well as providing access to these key resources they also have a genealogist who can help searchers; there is a fee for this service and booking is essential.

Dumfries Archive in the Ewart Library

Other archives and museums - Whilst the Ewart Library is the main repository, local museums and libraries throughout D&G can also be useful. They sometimes have original records, and in many cases have key resources in the form of printed transcripts and microform. Most importantly, though, they can provide local knowledge!  This map can help you find archives across Scotland. The guide book published by D&G council that I have already mentioned (Researching Local History - A Guide) includes a comprehensive list with contact details.

Online Indexes

Friends of the Archives of Dumfries and Galloway - A lot of work has been done by the Friends of the Archives of Dumfries and Galloway group to index historical records. These indexes include the 1851 Census, Dumfries Jail books, various Kirk Session Minutes, Poor Board Minutes and much more. All indexes are free to access from the archive’s website.

Scottish Indexes - Our own website has census indexes, prison indexes, patenity indexes, mental health indexes, as well as birth, marriage and death indexes.

Gravestones - The website has free online access to gravestones or Monumental Inscriptions for a number of churchyards in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright. Its sister site has an historical index of the people and places of the Stewartry of Kirkcubright and other useful local resources.

Family History Societies and Researchers

Dumfries and Galloway Family History Society - The society is run by volunteers and has its premises in Glasgow Street, Dumfries. The opening times vary between summer and winter so it’s best to look at their website for details. As well as being able to visit the research centre and use their resources you can also buy their publications.

Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society - This society is perhaps more immediately thought of by the historian than the genealogist but as they are so closely connected I have included them in this list. Their website has an index to their transactions and many volumes are online.

Scottish Indexes - Most people these days are able to trace their own family tree, sometimes however they need some help. As well as providing indexes we also have a research service. Feel free however to give us a quick ring if you have people coming to stay and you need some advice on how to help them.

Scottish Genealogy Network - This is a group of professional genealogists working across Scotland. For more information see their blog.

If you have any questions please post a comment below and I’ll do my best to answer it.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Why we moved to Scottish Indexes (and why we're happy that we did!)

We’re settling in to our new home at Scottish Indexes ( It’s been amazing to hear all of your comments and compliments on the new site – we’re so excited about our new venture and it’s lovely to hear that you are too!

Having got our breath back a bit, we thought now would be a nice time to discuss why we made the change, and what the new site offers. Questions and comments are always welcome – contact us here or join us on Facebook or Twitter to have a natter.

Even while up to his ears in dusty documents, Graham has always recognised the possibilities of modern technologies to help make your ancestral research easier. Cast your mind back to those far off days when the internet moved at the pace of a decrepit sloth, access was billed by the minute and plugging in the internet immediately meant you’d miss the phone call you’d been waiting for all day. Our founder Graham Maxwell, undeterred, created his own website (catchy URL, we know!)
This first website Graham had is listed in the guide, “Cyndi's List: A Comprehensive List of 70,000 Genealogy Sites on the internet, Volume 2” (2001 edition). 

Back then, Graham focused on researching the ancestors of individual clients to create family trees. This involved regular trips to Edinburgh to painstakingly search documents such as the census - there were few indexes in those days. It wasn’t long before Graham moved his site to There’s still a version online – looking back it is very basic and quite embarrassing but at the time we were quite proud of it!

Genealogist Emma joined the business in 2001 and together the husband and wife team created in 2006. Intended to provide a clearer service to their clients, the website showcased not only research services but also the printed indexes which the company had already made available, mostly consisting of many South of Scotland census records from 1841, 1851 and 1861. As technology moved on, companies like Ancestry, Scotland'sPeople and FreeCEN started offering immediate online access to the census. Graham and Emma updated their website, adding a searchable census database with free access without subscription. Since then our online database of indexes has grown enormously, with a variety of records from around Scotland.

Today many people want to trace their family tree for themselves rather than enlisting a professional to do it for them. We totally understand the thrill of engaging in your own ancestral research, so while we still offer a full research package we’re also here to offer our expert advice and research assistance to those who simply need a little help along the way. As genealogists, Graham and Emma know that basic sources such as the census and birth, marriage and death entries can only take you so far. Records like prison registers, court registers and health records can tell you much more about the real people in your family tree.

This is why Graham and Emma are launching a new website Since the early days we’ve often found it easier to index records than to return to the physical copies again and again. By making such records more widely available we hope to make genealogical research simpler for amateurs and professionals alike. We're keen to make ancestral research as affordable as possible so that everyone has the opportunity to discover more about their past. On the website, you can search intuitively across a broad range of records, deepen your understanding of Scottish genealogy resources in the learning zone and buy books from the bookshop. We’re always standing by though, so you can get help when you need it from expert Scottish genealogists. 

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Listening to my grandfather

Last week we posted the ancestral research tip: interview your grandparents. This applies as much to any elderly relatives, anyone who can tell the stories of your family. In my case, I interviewed my grandfather. It wasn’t quite as formal as it sounds – we sat in the living room of his new house, with cups of tea and the Commonwealth Games on the television in the background, and we chatted. Granddad has boxes and boxes of old photographs, papers and letters. I spent hours jotting down the names of the people in the photos and learning about their lives, until I was finally dismissed to walk the dog and allow him to get some shut-eye.

Listening to his stories, leafing through old photographs, reading letters – it was as though these people, my family, were characters in a book. I began to feel affection for these relatives I’d never met – my great-grandfather, leaning with charming insouciance against the Blackpool pier, or later, clad in a soldier’s uniform and holding a puppy to his chest. My great-grandmother, remembered by my uncle as an old battle-axe, had cycled around Europe, taken snapshots of Alpine mountains and laughing friends. Her father – my great-great-grandfather – had sailed the North Atlantic – smoked a pipe – doted on his youngest daughter. These fragments build up pictures of the people who came before. It’s fascinating – full of both joy and sorrow, and of course, bringing home the reality of our own mortality. What stories will be told when we are gone?

I pored through old letters – it seems my tendency to store precious moments is inherited, I come from a family of hoarders. Letters of sympathy, on my great-great-grandmother’s death. Letters of congratulations – to my great-grandmother on my grandfather’s birth, then on the birth of his brother Clive (‘I wonder if you weren’t rather disappointed to have another boy? But of course, the clothes will come in useful’). It seems she had wanted a daughter. Letters from friends – postcards from relatives – one note scribbled on the back of an envelope: 
‘Darling, I’ll call you when I finish work – around eleven. Love, Isaac’.
A loving moment from long ago, immortalised. It makes me wish we wrote more letters nowadays. I’ve resolved to try – perhaps one day I’ll be found in a box-full of photographs, old letters, drawings and someone will put these puzzle pieces together.

I’ve found something rather lovely in connecting to the past – knowing who my ancestors were and what they did. I feel that I know my Granddad a little better now as well. I’m keen to find out more – my grandmother came from Scotland, and I have an idea that I know a company who may be able to help…

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

An Index to Historic Scottish Mental Health Records Goes Online

The Mental Health Foundation say that “1 in 4 people will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year”. As a society of people we have become better at understanding mental health problems, although there is still a lot of room for improvement. The sad reality is that our ancestors didn’t have the understanding, support or treatment that we have today.

Have you had an ancestor ‘disappear’? Have you scoured the census and passenger lists just to draw a blank? Have you come across an ancestor listed in the census as an imbecile or idiot? Did you feel hurt for the poor soul and want to understand more?

With the help of a team of dedicated volunteers we are indexing the "Notices of Admissions by the Superintendent of Mental Institutions".

Today we have uploaded an index to the first 619 records (from 1858 and 1859) and we will be adding more on almost a weekly basis. Follow me on twitter or Facebook to keep up-to-date.

The original records can not only be genealogically useful but they can also help you peel back the layers of history and uncover your family story. Why did your great-great grandmother leave her children? Why did nobody ever talk about your great-great-uncle?

The original documents, which we can help you research, contain two doctor’s accounts of what they observed the patient to be like and what relatives had reported. These reports may say, for example, that the patient became withdrawn after the death of a husband or the birth of a child. Some report the symptoms started after financial losses or disappointment in love.