Back to School

September is a month traditionally bound up with that ‘back-to-school’ feeling: updated goals for a new season, and the chance of a fresh start blowing in on the cooler air. Even if our schooldays were decades ago, the change from summer to autumn brings with nostalgia for a time when reinventing yourself simply by dint of getting older and moving up a year was deemed possible. Perhaps it still is? I’d like to think so.

Back to school for my mother was the smell of leather satchels and sharpened pencils; while I recall scratchy wool blazers chafing on sunburnt shoulders which had been free for several weeks, along with a vague sense of excitement in knowing I’d soon be learning new things. Even now, I’ll sign up for courses at this time of year, believing somehow that they will make me a better person. While that might sound like a noble aspiration, I often think that endless studying can sometimes be an excuse for inaction – just one more class before I can crack on with a new career plan!

But back in the simpler days of obligatory education, there was something comforting about the rhythm of the seasons and the knowledge that, although many aspects of our lives were out of our control, there was an enjoyment to be had in the freedom to manipulate other things within those constraints. Choosing new season school shoes or deciding that this was the year to finally audition for a part in the school play, for example. And knowing you’d be meeting up with old friends, as well as making new ones, was enough to beat the alarm clock that first week back.

As a schoolgirl myself when I first became interested in the family photograph albums, I was always amazed that my mother could recall the names of most of the pupils in her primary class photograph, as well as remembering the things they got up to all those years ago. Most thrillingly of all, she was sometimes able to tell us what happened to these children in the decades afterwards. The pretty popular girl (there’s always one) who became dowdy with motherhood and housework, or the quiet boy who became a famous musician. I used to wonder whether I’d be able to do the same thing with my own class photos, and of course – surprise, surprise – it turns out I can! 

Alloway Primary School, Class 1, 1969 (I am on the far left)

Read more of this post at my new family history blog: A Scottish Family Album.

The Incidental Genealogist, September 2022

 

The Children in the Street

It’s been particularly hot where I live in Switzerland this summer, and so early mornings and evenings are often the best times to be out and about. But as a self-confessed ‘owl’ (with another of my species as a house guest) it has sometimes been difficult to achieve much before sundown. Thus it was a treat to be able to enjoy a quirky British film at our local open air cinema last month, taking advantage of the cool evening breeze from the lake. Set in a gloomy, early 1960s Newcastle, The Duke was a rather incongruous choice for our location, yet despite that – or perhaps because of that – the mainly Swiss audience seemed to love the film, even if the subtitles did not convey all the nuances of the dialogue.

Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren played a suitably dowdy middle-aged, working class couple from that time; and although the period details seemed to be spot on, I couldn’t help but feel that the street scenes seemed rather contrived. Were there really that many children playing that many different games outside the terraces of Newcastle in 1961? Sometimes it was difficult to know where one game ended and the other began. Later, when my mother and I compared notes, we agreed that it had almost felt like watching one of Michael Palin’s Ripping Yarns, a 1970s comedy TV series set earlier in the 20th century, where British customs of all classes were parodied.

My mother did, however, recall that it had been common for her to play with friends in the streets in the 1940s, despite my grandmother’s lamentations that many more children were to be seen outdoors in her day. And while my own childhood had also been as relatively unstructured and technology-free as that of the previous generation, one of the main differences in the intervening decades was the increasing number of cars on the road. Yet because I grew up on the outskirts of a village and my mother in a city suburb, then it was difficult to really compare our experiences. Nevertheless, both of us came to the conclusion that the philosophy of our childhoods was mainly the same: to be able to explore our environment freely in the company of other children. Of course it was that same spirit which brought my grandmother and her siblings out of their crowded Edinburgh tenement and onto the car-free streets of the Dumbiedykes and beyond to the grassy freedom of Holyrood Park, which abutted the neighbourhood. 

Mary Neilson (top left) with friends, Holyrood Park c1924

Read more of this post at my new family history blog: A Scottish Family Album. Better still, become a subscriber to the new blog and always get each new chapter delivered to your inbox on the first of the month!

The Incidental Genealogist, August 2022

Toy Stories: Part 2

In last month’s post in my new genealogy blog A Scottish Family Album I described my search for pictures of children and their toys in amongst my Scottish family photograph collection. I was surprised to discover there were not as many of these as I’d expected, surmising that the grown-ups who’d taken the photographs had most likely decided in advance how the children should be photographed. Possibly they did not want any toys to be a distraction. In contrast, the formal studio photographs often showed children with wooden or classic toys, which may have been given to them by the photographer to create a naturalistic setting or to relax the young sitters. 

I remember my father hadn’t been keen to encourage us to line up our dolls and stuffed toys for the rare times he had his camera ready, regarding it as a waste of good film, and I recall sneaking my ‘teddy-bear cat’ into family photographs. When he did give in to my demands for a portrait of Pussy Willow, I proudly posed him on the back steps of the house for the occasion, dressed up in an outfit belonging to my younger sister.


Pussy Willow c1970

Like many children, I adored my stuffed animal toys more then plastic renditions of babies or functional items such as building blocks and Lego sets. A soft item which can be cuddled obviously has a much greater chance of being loved and even improves with age as its battered parts are a reminder of all the hugs over the years. That’s possibly why my mother preferred Panda and George to her French bisque doll Margaret (see Toy Stories: Part 1), who by dint of her antique status was only ever allowed to be played with under supervision, and never outdoors.

It is also the reason why I did not have many dolls myself, and those I did possess tended to be treated cruelly. The only doll I can really remember (and still have ) was called Linda, named after my mother’s much younger teenage cousin who seemed exciting and glamorous. Unfortunately, she (the doll) was often forced into doing the sort of activities that the cuddly stuffed animals would never have to endure.

Abseiling Linda Doll c1971

Read more of this post at my new family history blog: A Scottish Family Album. Better still, become a subscriber to the new blog and always get each new chapter delivered to your inbox on the first of the month!

The Incidental Genealogist, July 2022

Toy Stories: Part 1

While researching and writing the story of my ‘lost’ London ancestors, I published a post entitled Of Lost Toys and Mothers which compared the childhood of my London-born father with that of my Scottish mother. My father’s experience of being a wartime evacuee in Surrey then Somerset (see East Coker) was very different from that of my Edinburgh-born mother, ten years his junior. Even though my mother went to live in the countryside outside Edinburgh with my grandmother for a few months early on in the war, she was an infant at the time and thus has no memories of that period. Not only that, but my maternal grandmother had simply to take her baby daughter several miles out of the city to the village of Roslin, where her older sister Bessie lived with her miner husband and two young sons. It was certainly much less of an upheaval than the four years my father and his siblings spent with their mother in East Coker, living with strangers, with my English grandmother trying to eke out a living by undertaking odd jobs in the locality.

As I pointed out in Of Lost Toys and Mothers, my father and his siblings ‘lost’ their childhood toys when their London home was partially damaged in a bombing raid and the contents stored with relatives who lived nearby. When my paternal grandfather later went to retrieve the items, he quarrelled with that branch of the family and never spoke to them again. Later my aunt told me she suspected they had been using the furniture in their own home, a fact which had angered my grandfather, who was prone to irascibility.

When writing Of Lost Toys and Mothers, I also mentioned my Scottish family, stating that: I remember once when I was staying with my Scottish grandmother after she had been widowed, and my mother had helped her clear out a cupboard built into the floor of the cloakroom in the hall (or lobby press, as we called it). This had always been my grandfather’s domain (being dark and dusty and full of spiders), and when my mother took it upon herself to rummage about in the space she found a cornucopia of old toys, many of which she’d been bequeathed from older relatives, including a china doll given to a soldier uncle by a French family in France during WW1, a metal spinning top, and a couple of strange wooden objects we had to be taught how to use! This also spurred my Scottish grandmother to reminisce about her favourite childhood games – including the metal hoops that she and her siblings played with in the street (which seem to be the ubiquitous image of turn of the century childhood). I vowed then that I would never let my favourite childhood toys languish in an attic or basement space.

The French china doll called ‘Margaret’ from WW1

Read more of this post at my new family history blog: A Scottish Family Album. Better still, become a subscriber to the new blog and always get each new chapter delivered to your inbox on the first of the month!

The Incidental Genealogist, June 2022

 

The Portrait in the Shed

Last month I returned to Scotland again for a short visit. And in a brief sunny two-day window bookended by cold and wet weather, my mother and I headed over to the west coast to visit my younger sister. Since we’d last seen each other, she’d moved into an old quarryman’s cottage in a tiny Ayrshire village. Set on the banks of the river Ayr with a nature reserve at her back door and a welcoming neighbouring pub with great food  it was the perfect location for a weekend away, bringing back memories of our Ayrshire childhood in the seventies.

My sister’s terraced cottage was decorated in her eclectic style with objects old and new. In the entrance porch I was surprised but pleased to see the twin brass eagles that had graced my grandparent’s mantlepiece for all the years I’d know them. They were made by Robert Neilson, my grandmother’s father, who was a brass finisher by trade. As a child they’d always fascinated me – as they obviously did my sister – and they were just as exquisite as I’d remembered, with the strange detail that had intrigued me at the time: the birds’ flat-topped heads and outsized feet; their arched wings and the indentations of their feathers. I automatically reached out to touch them, as I’d always done, and felt that same unexpected coldness and roughness.

One of a pair of Brass Eagles which my great-grandfather made

In the small room at the front of the house was an even greater surprise: the lost portrait of our Great Uncle Adam that I remember so well from the day we triumphantly unearthed it from my grandfather’s garden shed. That warm afternoon we’d set ourselves the task of emptying the shed of all its accumulated junk in order to make some play room for ourselves. I still can recall the musty damp smell of the tiny wooden building and the wonder as the area outside the shed filled up with all the tools and boxes that had been stored there (looking like it had doubled in amount once freed from its confines). Soon we could see a wooden floor and knew that we were on target to achieve our goal. Except we hadn’t quite worked out how everything would go back in.

With my grandparents in summer 1964 – the shed is behind us

We were lucky that day that my grandparent’s were fairly sanguine about the enterprise, using it as the spur they needed to get rid of some of the unwanted items they’d forgotten about over the years. But I’m not sure what they thought when we came proudly back into the house carrying a large and unwieldy framed photographic portrait of a young smiling man in military uniform. Oh, it’s Uncle Adam they exclaimed. When he was in the war. By that they meant the 1st World War, in which Adam Neilson had enlisted in the Signallers in 1914 at the age of 16 by saying he was older than he actually was. His parents had been furious and tried to get him out of the contract, with Great Grandma seemingly upset about the fact she’d just bought him an expensive new winter wool coat. Yet he had survived the conflict – like my London grandfather he felt it better to choose his regiment rather than be conscripted later – and gone on to become a much-loved uncle and now our oldest great-uncle. 

Adam Neilson c1914/15

Read more of this post at my new family history blog: A Scottish Family Album. Better still, become a subscriber to the new blog and always get each new chapter delivered to your inbox on the first of the month!

The Incidental Genealogist, May 2022

Walking Pictures

While I was undertaking February’s onerous task of organising the large and jumbled collection of Scottish family photographs, I came across a number of  so-called ‘walking pictures’. So delighted was I with these spontaneous-looking images – like unexpected peeks into unguarded moments in my relatives’ lives – that I almost thought about giving them a separate category. In the end, I reluctantly filed them in their individual family folders, but not before deciding they should at least have their own chapter in my Scottish family story.

Most of us with collections of personal photographs from the last century will recognise the walking picture and may even been ‘victim’ of one. These opportunistic snaps were mainly taken in the 1920s through to the 1950s, before camera ownership was widespread. The business idea was simple: commercial photographers set themselves up on busy main streets or seaside resorts, catching pedestrians as they walked and talked and gazed around them. The walkers were often unaware of the camera pointing in their direction – at least until the moment when their wry smiles or looks of quizzical surprise were captured on film.

Catherine and Ann Neilson, Princes St. Edinburgh, late 1920s

Read more of this post at my new family history blog: A Scottish Family Album. Better still, become a subscriber to the new blog and always get each new chapter delivered to your inbox on the first of the month!

The Incidental Genealogist, April 2022

February Fill the Dyke

February certainly lived up to its old appellation of ‘fill-the-dyke’ this year – at least it did in Scotland. It was my first trip home in two years, and while many things in Edinburgh had changed, the late winter weather was just as miserable as I’d remembered, albeit persistently windier. I had never heard the old rhyme February fill the dyke, either black or white before, but my mother told me that it was one of her maternal grandmother’s favourite climate-related sayings, including the rather pessimistic  Ne’er cast a clout before May be out. (Etymologists still cannot decide whether the May in question refers to the spring month or the arrival of the hawthorn – or may – blossom several weeks earlier, but there are compelling arguments for both alternatives).

Despite the ambiguity of the aforementioned rhyme, had it been May and not February my mother and I might have actually managed to do some of the things we’d planned (layered up or not): such as exploring the Canongate and Dumbiedykes area of the city where one side of our Scottish family had lived, or heading down the east coast to rural Athelstaneford, from where the Neilsons had originated. But due to the hostile weather we spent a lot of time indoors, sorting out the five messy boxes that contained all the Scottish family photographs amassed over the last 130 plus years. That in itself took up most of the week (and most of the living room), and in fact was a task that I’d still not finished when I was hurriedly packing my suitcase in preparation for my all-too-soon departure.

However, without the dykes being filled (both black and white) I doubt I’d have had the time to even manage to reorganise one of the boxes; so I have February to thank for my achievement. And even though I didn’t manage to digitalise all the photographs, I made at least a stab at sorting out the contents of the boxes into five separate categories. While it had always seemed fun just to prise open the lids and find random photos irreverently juxtaposed inside – my mother playing tennis in shorts as a teenager in the fifties next to a cabinet card of straight-backed Victorians – it was not conducive to any easy retrieval of images, something which needed to be rectified for my genealogy project. But therein lay the problem: how should the contents of the boxes be categorised?

My grandmother with my grandfather’s motorcycle, Largs late 1920s

Read more of this post at my new family history blog: A Scottish Family Album

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The Incidental Genealogist, March 2022

A Tenement with a View

This month in my new Scottish family history blog, I am focusing on my grandmother’s childhood home in the Dumbiedykes‘  tenement flat in the east of Edinburgh. It is a house which I have never seen as it was torn down during the 1960s post-war ‘slum clearances’, although it had once been a much loved family home. Not only was the location fairly central for Edinburgh’s Old Town, but the balcony from the top floor flat looked over Holyrood Park and Arthur’s Seat. This balcony was also the scene of many family photographs – no doubt because of the space and light that wasn’t available inside the crowded tenement – and it’s thanks to this (and the unknown photographer, who was possibly one of my grandmother’s brothers) that there are so many natural images of the family relaxing at home throughout the 20s, 30s and 40s.

*My Grandparents on the Dumbiedykes Balcony, c1930

As a child I was always drawn to the set of photographs taken from the balcony of my great-grandparents’ tenement flat in Edinburgh’s Dumbieykes area. Through these images I saw my grandmother morph from a gangly 1920s teenager into a young married woman in the 1930s and then as a mother in the 1940s. Fashion moved on over the decades, but the solid-looking wrought-iron balcony was a constant. I have been told that the views from the flat over Holyrood Park were spectacular, although unfortunately no-one in the family thought to photograph them. My mother credits the fresh air blowing in from Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags for the Neilsons’ longevity – in addition to my great-grandmother’s plain and wholesome Scottish cooking. And even if they did not take advantage of the outdoor space in quite the same way we would today, the family must have appreciated being able to step out onto the balcony on a sunny morning, or to simply have a place to hang up damp laundry or wet overcoats.

Read more of this post at my new family history blog: A Scottish Family Album

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The Incidental Genealogist, February 2022

An Ordinary and Unremarkable Woman: Part 2

This month, I am publishing the second part of an essay my mother (born Catherine Thomson McKay in 1938) wrote about her namesake maternal grandmother – Catherine Miller Thomson – the great-grandmother who I remembered from my early childhood. With my mother’s permission, I have edited and updated her text slightly, without removing the spirit of the original. This potted biography was originally an assignment for a course in family history, a subject my mother took up after I returned home from London and recounted my exploits as an heir hunter in Holborn in the 1980s (see The Incidental Genealogist is Born). When my mother wrote the article, she was younger than I am now; which is a sobering reminder of how time has a habit of overtaking us all. But this can also be a spur to action, as it is never too late to start working on a family history and interview living relatives.

Part 1 last month focussed on my great-grandmother’s early years and this post will move through the years of her marriage in the Dumbiedykestenement flat in the east of Edinburgh. It is a house which no longer exists, being torn down during the 1960s ‘slum clearances’ that destroyed many solid housing in its well-meant quest for social change during the post-war period, but was a much loved family home. Not only did the balcony from the top floor flat afford the Neilson family wonderful vistas over Holyrood Park and Arthur’s Seat, but it was fairly central for the rest of the city, in particular the south side. Despite my assumption that the moves to the suburbs or farther afield were something the subsequent generation had aspired to, I later discovered that most of the Neilsons liked their life in the city. And during my time living and working in The Canongate – the eastern end of the Royal Mile – in the mid-90s, I grew to appreciate the benefits of being in the heart of the old town, but with parks and hills and a palace on my doorstep. 

*Catherine and Robert Neilson in Middle-Age

In the years after my grandmother’s marriage to Robert Neilson in 1897, the outside world was changing. Queen Victoria had died; there followed the short reign of Edward the Seventh, and then George the Fifth ascended the throne. Great ships were being built in Scotland at Clydebank, but for the working man the fear of being out of work was omnipresent. There were no family allowances or unemployment benefits and the one dread of a family was to go ‘on the Parish’ or into the workhouse – known locally as ‘the Poorshoose’. Fortunately, through the thrift of my grandparents, this did not happen to their family. good health was also a strong factor in their favour as they all remained in remarkably good health, despite the relatively crowded conditions of their living quarters. The dreaded spectre of tuberculosis, which wiped out many families in those days, was fortunately absent from their household. 

Read more of this post at my new family history blog: A Scottish Family Album

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Happy New Year!

The Incidental Genealogist, January 2022

An Ordinary and Unremarkable Woman: Part 1

This month, I am publishing the first part of an essay my mother (born Catherine Thomson McKay in 1938) wrote about her namesake maternal grandmother – the great-grandmother who I remembered from my early childhood. With my mother’s permission, I have edited and updated her text slightly, without removing the spirit of the original. This potted biography was originally an assignment for a course in family history, a subject my mother took up after I returned home from London and recounted my exploits as an heir hunter in Holborn in the 1980s (see The Incidental Genealogist is Born). When my mother wrote the article, she was younger than I am now; which is a sobering reminder of how time has a habit of overtaking us all. But this can also be a spur to action, as it is never too late to start working on a family history and interview living relatives.

Through editing this post, I came to realise how much of my Edinburgh ancestor’s lives were based around The Canongate – the eastern end of the Royal Mile, and a place I knew well. In the 1990s, not only did I live and work in the heart of the district, but on summer evenings I would lean out of the flat window, surveying the busy thoroughfare below, musing on the fact that citizens had done this for centuries (although I did not go as far as to throw out the contents of my chamber pot, as was once commonplace!). Ghost tours stopped in the centuries old courtyard behind the tenement, spooking the residents with their shrieks and howls. On quiet Sundays I’d explore all the hidden closes and gardens of this most historical street. I became enchanted with some of the nooks and crannies that the majority of visitors overlooked, including White Horse Close, where unbeknownst to me, my great-grandmother had lived as a girl in the 1880s. In fact, I even took my husband there on our first date – and we’ve been back many times since without ever being aware of the family connection.

In the months that follow, I look forward to sharing this remarkable district of Edinburgh with you. As my mother says below: All history passed that way.

*

Catherine Miller Thomson age 18

My maternal grandmother, whose name I share, was an ordinary and unremarkable working-class woman, typical of her social standing and the times in which she lived. But in retrospect, three facts about her life now appear remarkable to me today: she lived through the Boer and the 1st and 2nd World Wars; her lifetime coincided with the reign of six monarchs, spanning Victoria to the present Queen Elizabeth 2nd. And she produced eleven children with predictable regularity from the time of her marriage in 1898 until shortly before her 43rd birthday in 1917.

*

Read more of this post at my new family history blog: A Scottish Family Album

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The Incidental Genealogist, December 2021