Saturday, 27 October 2012

Scottish Local History Forum Conference

Yesterday I attended the Scottish Local History Forum Conference at the AK Bell Library in Perth. The theme of the conference was “For Reliefe of the Pure and Impotent”: Welfare in Scotland before the Welfare State and it comprised nine talks on a broad range of topics connected to the poor in Scotland. 

The day began with Robin Urquhart from the National Records of Scotland giving an overview of poor relief in the period 1560-1894. This provided a useful background to the rest of the talks. Next, the Rev. Dr. Johnston McKay discussed Thomas Chalmers’s Glasgow experiment and the differing opinions as to whether or not it was a success. 

Dr. Irene O’Brien “painted the local picture in the west of Scotland” drawing upon the collection of records held at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. Having heard Dr. O’Brien speak before, some of the material was familiar to me, but the statistics she provided were particularly interesting - for example, that in the 1890s only 20% of those receiving poor relief were living in the poorhouse, the majority receiving outdoor relief. I also hadn’t appreciated the compulsion on single mothers (widows, the deserted and mothers of illegitimate children) to enter the poorhouse, primarily to prevent them having more children! 

Iain Flett from Dundee City Archives described the poorhouses that existed in Dundee from the 1500s to the 1900s. Unfortunately, the fate of most of Dundee’s poor registers reflects that of Edinburgh’s, having been deliberately destroyed because people wanted to look at them, although records do survive for the East Poorhouse. This was followed by Gordon Douglas speaking (and singing!) about the Mars Training Ship. Although I’d heard of the Mars, I was unaware that it took boys from all over Scotland or that around half of them came from Glasgow (especially Catholic boys who were not accepted by many institutions). 

After lunch, Dr. Malcolm Bangor-Jones discussed growing old in 19th century Sutherland, providing an interesting contrast to the earlier talks on the urban poor. He mentioned the role played by landlords and the information to be found in estate records, particularly the Sutherland Papers. Patricia Whatley from the University of Dundee described medical services (or rather the lack of them) in the Highlands 1845-1913, concluding with the Dewar Report and the creation of the Highlands and Islands Medical Service, a forerunner of the NHS. 

The final talks were by Dr. Eric Graham on The Incorporation of the Masters and Assistants of Trinity House and their role in caring for the seafaring community, and Elizabeth Henderson on Friendly Societies in West Lothian. Both talks highlighted that relief of the poor was not only the concern of the church or the parochial boards, and that self-help through membership of a trade incorporation or friendly society was also important. 

I definitely learnt a lot and had a great day. My main criticism would be that as each speaker only had a 25-30 minute slot they had to gallop through their material at quite a pace, which in every case could easily have filled a hour or more. However, this did mean that a broad range of topics were covered, if not in depth, and this really emphasized the wide variety of records available for studying the Scottish poor. Although there were plenty of genealogists in the audience, I didn’t get the impression that most of the speakers had ‘dumbed-down’ for a family/local history audience, which made a pleasant change. 

Some of the main points I took away from the day were: that the change from the Old Poor Law to the New Poor Law was more a change in administration than a fundamental change in policy; that despite the threat of the poorhouse being used as a test of destitution, the most common experience of the poor in Scotland was one of outdoor relief; and that poor relief was not intended to be a sole means of support but rather topped up the help received from other sources. 

I was very interested to see several examples of printed poor rolls, similar to those I previously blogged about here that exist for Edinburgh. Apparently these were produced so that ratepayers could see who was getting their money and raise objections if they didn’t consider the recipients to be deserving! I would be interested to know how many of these printed lists of names survive for other areas of Scotland, as presumably producing them was a fairly common practice. 

Patricia Whatley kindly mentioned my Records of the Scottish Poor list during her talk, and as a result of attending the conference I’ve added a few more details. 

The next conference from the Scottish Local History Forum will be the Spring Conference and Local History Mini Fair to take place in Kinghorn, Fife on 26 April 2013. The theme is ‘Salt, Sun & Shivering: Scots at the Seaside 1750-2000’. Although this may not be of quite as much interest to genealogists, I’m sure it will be another enjoyable day. 

I’ve previously been disappointed that there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of conferences for genealogists in the UK, beyond the very basic talks given at most family history fairs. Although the SLHF Conference was not aimed specifically at genealogists (or perhaps because of that), it provided a great deal of information about an important genealogical source. 

With the Previously... Scotland’s History Festival in Edinburgh next month, the Scottish Association of Family History Societies conference to be held in Galashiels in May 2013, planned celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the Scottish Genealogy Society and the Halsted Trust Conference ‘Exodus: Movement of the People’ in September 2013, I look forward to attending a lot more conferences in the near future!

Friday, 3 August 2012

The Scottish Genealogy Network

There are many great things about being a professional genealogist: getting to do something you love every day, helping to solve family mysteries and to give others a greater understanding of their history, constantly learning new things and gaining a better understanding of your country’s past, to name but a few.
However, most of us work alone, rarely meet our clients and spend rather more time amongst the dead than the living.  Friends and family may not necessarily share our passion or appreciate hearing about the really fascinating record we found from 1792.  Genealogy can, therefore, be a rather lonely occupation.
For me, social networking has been a great help in overcoming this feeling of isolation and, through Twitter in particular, I have connected to a great bunch of professionals in the UK and worldwide who are always read to give support and advice and share in an exciting genealogical discovery.
But there’s only so much you can say in 140 characters and nothing beats sitting down face-to-face for a good old chinwag.  As I wrote earlier this year, for me, the best part of attending ‘Who Do You Think You Are Live’ in London was the opportunity to meet with other professional genealogists, many of whom I’d never met in person before.
In fact, a few of us professionals based in Scotland found meeting up together at WDYTYALive to be so useful (and such good fun!) that we decided to try and make it a regular thing, and so the idea for the Scottish Genealogy Network was born.
The basic idea of the Scottish Genealogy Network is that it should be an informal and inclusive group and meet regularly.  As such, it does not replicate nor conflict with any other professional genealogical organisation, of which several attendees (myself included) are members.
Anyone who is involved in genealogy in some way professionally - for example, as a researcher, archivist, librarian, tutor, lecturer, writer, vendor etc. - is very welcome to attend.  Meetings will take place on the last Saturday of each month at a different venue throughout Scotland.
The main meetings take place in a pub (ideally one with interesting historical connections!) giving those who attend a chance to have a few pints, get to know each other a little better, swap the latest news and gossip from the world of genealogy and perhaps even make some useful business contacts.
As getting to some meetings may involve a fair amount of travelling, it was felt to make the most of the different venues we should include something a little educational.  Therefore, where possible, there will also be a short visit to a library, archive, museum etc.  This will be a chance to familiarise ourselves with record repositories that may be new to us.
The next meeting will be held in Perth on Saturday, August 25th 2012.  An archivist at Perth and Kinross Archives had kindly agreed to show the group around the archive (which is normally not open on Saturdays).  We will meet at the main entrance to the A.K. Bell Library, Perth just before 1pm for a tour of the archive, followed by a quick look around the local studies section of the library.  Around 1.45-2pm the group will move on to The Salutation Hotel for a drink and a chat.
Anyone is very welcome to come along to either or both parts of the day.  If you would like to be included on an email mailing list for future events, please email me at or Chris Paton at christopherpaton @  You can also read a little more about the Scottish Genealogy Network on Chris’s blog.

I look forward to meeting some of you at future events!

Kirsty F. Wilkinson
My Ain Folk

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Records of the Scottish Poor

Back in 2004, I remember reading the article Scottish Poor Law Records: An Invaluable Aid to the Genealogist by David W. Webster in the 8th edition of The Family and Local History Handbook.
The article discusses the value of Scottish Poor Relief records and the extent of surviving records, mentioning records for Glasgow, Ayrshire, Lanarkshire, Dunbartonshire and Paisley.  Webster wrote that, “elsewhere little appears to be widely known about extant poor relief records”.
Since that article was published, a lot has changed in the world of Scottish genealogy.  One of these changes has been that the holdings of local archives are now much easier to identify as many archives have added descriptions of their collections to the Scottish Archive Network (SCAN) catalogue, have their own online catalogues or have created finding aids and guides to their records (some designed specifically for family historians).
This means that is now fairly easy to locate surviving poor relief records from all over Scotland.  However (as far as I know!), no attempt has been made to bring together a list of the records held by different archives, so that it is necessary to consult a range of different catalogues and finding aids to determine what exists for any particular area.
And so I decided to create a list of ‘Records of the Scottish Poor’ covering the whole of Scotland.  This list is available as a PDF file on my website at  Like my previous list ‘Scottish Censuses, Population Listings & Communion Rolls (mainly pre-1841)’ (also available on my website), this grew out of a desire to have something I could quickly refer to when carrying out research for clients.  Also like my previous list, whilst I began with a clear idea of the types of records I would and wouldn’t include, this quickly expanded as I came across a whole host of records that sounded interesting, might be useful and should probably be included.
The current list is very much a work in progress and I hope to update it periodically.  Broadly speaking, I have included all registers of poor and volumes of poor relief applications that I could identify, and anything that seems to be a list of those in receipt of poor relief.  On the whole I haven’t included minute books, except where these are noted as containing lists of names or have been indexed.
I have relied heavily on online catalogues and a few reference books, and in some cases these only give very general details.  For example, for the counties of Inverness, Orkney, Ross & Cromarty, Shetland and Sutherland, I found that poor relief records survive for certain parishes for specific date ranges and that among these records are general registers of the poor, applications for relief and children’s registers, but have not established exactly what survives for each individual parish. 
I have included some records of poorhouses, hospitals and asylums, industrial schools, children’s homes and charitable organisations (mainly admissions registers and lists of names), although this is by no means comprehensive.  As a number of poorhouses later became hospitals, their records may be found in NHS archives.  In addition, many hospitals and asylums distinguished between regular and pauper patients, so that there is a certain amount of overlap between medical records and records of the poor.
As with most records, survival of records of poor relief is pretty patchy, with some counties having vast collections and others practically nothing at all.  As well as the well-known Glasgow poor law archives, Aberdeenshire, Angus, Banffshire, Dumfriesshire, Kincardineshire, Kirkcudbrightshire, Moray and Wigtownshire all have pretty good collections.
Conversely, very little survives for Fife, and I have been able to identify few records for the counties of Kinross or Nairn.  Whilst most Edinburgh poor relief records were destroyed, there are some records for the 1830s-1840s, as well as lists of poor for 1840-1884 which I blogged about previously here.
Taken as a whole, a remarkable number of records of the Scottish poor do survive - my list is so far up to 40 pages!  I was particularly interested to discover how much 20th century material there is, with the poor relief registers of some areas continuing up to the 1940s or even later.  Whilst this might seem somewhat academic as most records are subject to 75-year or 100-year closure periods, it does mean that some interesting discoveries await the family historians of the future.
In the above-mentioned article on Scottish Poor Law Records, David W. Webster wrote, “the potential value of the Scottish Poor Law records to genealogists is such that it is surely worthwhile considering a project covering all of Scotland to locate and computer index such records”.  

Whilst it is not yet clear what form it will take, the fact that the records for Aberdeenshire, Banffshire, Kincardineshire and Moray are currently being digitised in a project involving the National Records of Scotland, the Aberdeen and North East Scotland Family History Society and FamilySearch, suggests that such a project may finally be becoming a reality.
In the meantime, I hope that my list will enable other researchers to discover what records exist for the areas where their ancestors lived and where these records may be found.  If anyone has any additions or amendments to the information contained in the list I would be very grateful if you would let me know.  My contact details are listed below.
Happy hunting!

Kirsty F. Wilkinson

My Ain Folk

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Edinburgh Bridewell Records: A Rich Source for Tracing Women

Some recent research has involved me searching the records of the Edinburgh Bridewell, a jail that once stood on Calton Hill in Central Edinburgh.
The information typically given in the records for each prisoner includes: date of commitment, name, age, crime, sentence and details of previous commitment.
What particularly struck me when searching these records was the number of women included and, at least for the period I was looking at, it appears that over half of the prisoners in the Bridewell were female.
The large number of women included in these records, together with the fact that, as in many Scottish records, women are recorded under both married and maiden surnames (although in some cases aliases were used), means that they are a surprisingly rich source for tracing female ancestors.  And the fact that the date of a person’s previous commitment is given, means that once you have located one entry, it is quite straightforward to trace previous offences.
The majority of those committed to the Bridewell were guilty of petty crimes, including theft, drunkenness, vagrancy, and begging.  The following is a selection of entries from the period 1814-1815:
Edinburgh Bridewell: Register of Warrants against Prisoners, Committed by the Court of Police  1814-1817
National Records of Scotland ref. HH21/6/3
1814 Augt. 15
Margt. McDonald or Simpson, 21, Breaking the Windows in Bridewell - 10 Days confinement & thereafter till she pay 5/- damages but not to exceed 60 Days

1814 Sept 13
Janet Thomson alias Helen Black, 44, Drunk & giving false & fictitious names - 30 days confinement

1814 Sept 30
Elizth. Fraser alias Johnston alias Sally Falconer[?], 28, Bringing in spirits to prisoners in P[olice] Office going to Bridewell - 30 Days Confinement

1815 Jany 31
Ann Stevens or Stevenson, 25, Rioting & fighting

1815 Augt 3
Janet Begg, 27, Pawning wearing apparel entrusted to her to mangle - 59 days on B[read] & W[ater]

1815 Augt 10
Betty Dewar or Campbell, 21, Vagrant, drunk & insisting on the Watchmen to conduct her home - 59 days b[read] & w[ater]

1815 Aug 4
Christian Bryce, 37, Drunk in a Stair - 59 days B[read] & W[ater]
Drunkenness was recorded as a crime more frequently for women than for men, suggesting that female drunkenness was particularly frowned upon.

Many Scottish convicts sent to Australia had committed previous crimes, so the records of the Edinburgh Bridewell and other similar institutions are also a valuable source for those tracing convict ancestors.
The records of the Edinburgh Bridewell are held at the National Records of Scotland (formerly National Archives of Scotland) in reference HH21/6/1-15 and cover the period 1798-1840.  Details of the surviving records of other prisons in Edinburgh and throughout Scotland are given at

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Is There Too Much About The War In Family History TV?

Last night the final episode of War Hero in My Family was broadcast on Channel 5 (UK).  The series followed twelve celebrities as they uncovered the part their relatives played in the Second World War.
The TV series Find My Past, which was broadcast towards the end of last year, took a different approach by connecting ordinary people to famous events in which their ancestors or relatives had been involved.  Of the ten episodes, three were concerned with events during the Second World War and one with the First World War.
Whilst it’s great to see more family history programmes being made, as someone who doesn’t have a particular interest in military history, I found the war related episodes of ‘Find My Past’ to be the least interesting and wasn’t attracted to the idea of ‘War Hero in My Family’.  However, the programme received an overwhelmingly positive response on social media and so I thought I should give it a try.
So far I’ve watched two episodes (the whole series is available through Demand 5 but only to those in the UK) but these failed to capture my interest and I can’t help wondering, am I the only one who finds all these war stories a bit samey? Even a bit dull?
I think much of my lack of interest can be traced back to school history lessons.  The prevailing belief at the time seemed to be that 20th century history is more relevant to young people than earlier periods, with the result that most of my contemporaries left school bored to tears with studying the Treaty of Versailles and writing essays on the causes of the First World War and with practically no knowledge of anything that happened prior to the 1900s.
Of course I can see why military history, and World War II in particular, appeals to programme makers: dramatic stories featuring life or death situations which can be illustrated with photographs, film footage and often interviews with survivors who witnessed the events firsthand.  Such sources simply don’t exist for earlier periods and ‘Ag Lab in My Family’ or ‘Domestic Servant in My Family’ would hardly have the same appeal!
Funnily enough, I did enjoy the episodes in more recent series of Who Do You Think You Are (UK) which focussed on only one or two ancestors (rather than tracing a whole family line) often in the 20th century and sometimes involving the two World Wars (not unlike ‘War Hero in My Family’).  Whilst some criticised these for a lack of ‘proper genealogy’, I felt that these illustrated what 'Who Do You Think You Are' (WDYTYA) does well: namely, demonstrating the breadth and range of family history.  WDYTYA has shown that tracing family history is not restricted to those with White European origins and that it can involve learning about recent relatives as much as about those who lived hundreds of years ago.  
Whilst some series of WDYTYA have been more varied than others, the episodes featuring wartime ancestors have tended to contrast with previous and subsequent episodes in the same series in terms of geography and time period.  Conversely, ‘Find My Past’ made the decision to broadcast the World War II stories as episodes 1, 3 and 4.  I’m sure this ‘turned off’ some viewers to the series who might have enjoyed later episodes such as ‘Suffragettes’ or ‘Royal Scandal’.
Genealogy has long since lost its preoccupation with male lines of descent but, inevitably when the focus is on military history, it is the stories of men which predominate.  Whilst women do feature, for example the work of a female plotter with the WAAF was explored in the ‘Battle of Britain’ episode of ‘Find My Past’, theirs are at best supporting roles.
I’m certainly not saying, “Don’t mention the war”.  There are some fantastic tales to be told concerning our ancestors in the First and Second World Wars and it is particularly important to capture stories from World War II whilst some of those involved are still with us.
My concern is that the current crop of family history programming, sponsored by the major commercial companies and and to some extent the public face of genealogy, may be putting people off learning more about their family history.  Just as my schoolfriends and I grew tired of learning ad infinitum about the world wars and in some cases were put off studying history all together, those with little interest in military history, or whose ancestors did not play a major part in the wars, may conclude that family history is not for them.
Family history is such a broad and varied field of study and there is little human activity that does not fall within its bounds.  It would be nice to see this reflected in family history programming.  To misquote John Lennon, “All I am saying is give peace a chance”.
Oh, and please, can we have a little bit more about women?!

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

WDYTYA Live: A Newbie’s Perspective

I’m now back home after having spent the weekend in London at ‘Who Do You Think You Are? Live’. I had a fantastic time, met a lot of great genealogy people and very nearly lost my voice (it didn’t help that I arrived with a bad cold)! 

It was my first time at WDYTYA Live and my first visit to a major family history fair for several years. Having heard about the great time everyone had last year, I decided it was finally time I made the trip and I decided to make a weekend of it, arriving Friday lunchtime and leaving on Sunday afternoon.

The exhibition hall at 'Who Do You Think You Are? Live' 2012
Unsurprisingly for a show that describes itself as ‘the biggest family history event in the world’, WDYTYA Live was definitely the biggest and the best genealogy fair or conference that I’ve attended. With a well-known TV brand name behind it, the show attracts family historians from all over the UK as well as from Europe and the US. 

I’m very glad that I went, but I did feel that WDYTYA Live suffered from the same problem that has put me off from attending family history fairs for a few years - namely, a lack of substance. I did expect the event to be a bit bigger and if you’re the sort of person who already subscribes to one or two of the major commercial websites and keeps up with what’s happening in the family history world by reading magazines or blogs, it would be very easy to walk around the entire event in an hour or two and come away feeling that you hadn’t really learnt much that you didn’t already know. 

Although I did buy a couple of books (some secondhand), I didn’t find a lot to tempt to me to open my wallet and as these days it’s so easy to shop around online for a cheap deal, often with free postage, I didn’t particularly feel the urge to splurge on heavy books which I’d then have to cart home with me. It’s a shame that there weren’t more family history societies attending (especially some Scottish ones) as it would have been a good opportunity for them to sell their own, probably lesser known, publications, although I can understand that the expense of a stand and the need for volunteers to serve on it makes things difficult for many of the smaller societies. 

The best part for me was the opportunity to meet up with a large number of other professional genealogists as well as genealogy bloggers, tweeters and writers, many of whom I know through social media but hadn’t met in person before. I had plenty of good chats over coffees, dinners and drinks and there are many people I wish I’d had more opportunity to chat with. 

Now, with one entire event’s experience under my belt, I thought I’d draw up a short list of ‘dos’ for WDYTYA Live that I hope to put into practice next year: 

Do Volunteer - There seemed to be plenty of complimentary tickets going round for those who helped on stands or served as experts in the ‘Ask the Experts’ area. In most cases you only needed to help out for an hour or two and could then have the rest of the day to enjoy the show. Helping out is also a good way to feel involved and to get chatting with a lot of other people. (Note: You still need to fund your own travel and accommodation though). 

Do Plan in Advance - I attended a couple of workshops but really wished I could have been to a few more. The popular ones sell out early so it’s no good waiting until you fancy a sit down and then expecting to get into a talk, you need to get tickets as soon as you arrive. It’s also probably a good idea to work out in advance which exhibitors you particularly want to visit to avoid aimless wandering. 

Do Make Yourself Known - There were a few people that I’ve discovered were at WDYTYA Live that I didn’t get to meet. The tweeter/blogger rosettes organised by Else Churchill of the Society of Genealogists were a good idea as they stood out from the name badges worn by many of the exhibitors. Next time perhaps they could have something other than ‘Follow Me’ written on them though. After the third gentleman of a certain age came up to me and asked, “Where to?” the joke began to wear a little thin! 

Do Arrange To Meet - Even with the rosettes it was very easy to miss people in the large exhibition hall. Having a few mobile numbers and making some arrangements in advance definitely helped when it came to meeting up with people, especially those who were only there for a short time. I hear rumours of a possible ‘tweet up’ area at next year’s show which would be very useful. 

Do Have A Good Time!  Hope to see you all there next year!

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Naming Baby

When researching Scottish families it’s common to come across the same forenames repeated through the generations. Whilst this can sometimes lead to confusion (I’ve recently researched a family in which seven generations of men had the same name!) it can also be very useful for confirming that you have the right family, especially when a traditional naming pattern was used. 

Kinkell Baptismal Font (now in St John's Episcopalian Church, Aberdeen)
Photo by Nick Thompson

It’s rare to find the relative after whom a child was named specifically stated, so I was interested to come across these entries in the register of Comrie Associate Congregation, concerning children of the minister, Samuel Gilfillan: 

National Records of Scotland ref. CH3/608/1 

13th May 1809
Same day in the afternoon my own Son
was baptized by Mr Wallace his name is
Samuel after myself Samuel Gilfillan died the
15 Febry 1810 - aged 7 months
and 15 days - of a croup

Comrie 8 May 1816
My own daughter was baptized to day
by Mr Scott, Crieff - Her name is Martha
Rankine, after my Mother and the Surname
of my Mother in law, Mrs Barlas - Martha Rankine
Died suddenly on the 30th Decr. 1816.-
If an unexpected name (particularly one including a surname) crops up in your family it can sometimes be because the child was named after the minister who baptised them. The Comrie Associate Congregation register also provides evidence of this: 
Comrie 9th Feby 1817
Baptized a Son to day to Peter Millar
one of my Elders, his name is Samuel - after my
self - Deus benedicat

Glentarken 2d Decr 1817
Baptized a Son to Daniel Carmichael named
Samuel - after myself - Deus benedicat - Samuel
Carmichael died soon after he was baptized
The Reverend Samuel Gilfillan died in 1826 but his name seems to have lived on among Comrie families.   A google search for his name brings up an entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography for Samuel Gilfillan McLaren, born in Comrie in 1840, and information on the Reverend Samuel Gilfillan Carmichael, born in Comrie in 1871. 

According to his entry in Fasti, the Reverend Samuel Gilfillan Carmichael was the son of another Samuel Gilfillan Carmichael and his wife Janet Miller, so he may well have been connected to the Millar and Carmichael families mentioned above. 

I haven’t found a child named after a minister in my own family, but I have come across another reason for a child being given a particular name which is sometimes overlooked - that of being named after a relative through marriage (rather than a blood relative). One of my great-aunts was named after her step-grandmother (two older sisters being named after the actual grandmothers). I’ve also researched a family in which two brothers-in-law named a son after each other.

The reason that a child was given a particular name may not be immediately obvious but it can be worth investigating as it may provide evidence of a network of family connections, reveal the parents’ religious or political beliefs, or the allegiances felt to an employer or landowner.