Happy Birthday, Robert Burns!

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

Happy 253rd birthday, Robert Burns! My Scottish grandmother Agnes Greig (Ross) Rennie used to tell me his poems “To a Mouse” and “To a Louse” as stories. She always had a framed picture of him prominently displayed, and her frequent fond references to Rabbie Burns gave me the vague notion that he was a relative or old family friend she knew as a child back in the Old Country.

If I had any Drambuie in the house, I’d raise a proper Agnes Rennie toast to him tonight! But I don’t, so I’m settling for a cup of tea in one of my grandmother’s Scottish teacups, and listening to my favorite poems from the Librivox’s wonderful Robert Burns 250th Anniversary Collection.

Who Are These People?

This photograph has been around for as long as I can remember. When I was a child, it was in a big box of unsorted photographs my mother kept in a cabinet in the living room. I used to love going through those old photographs, spreading them out on the coffee table and looking at them individually. Many were people I knew — my mother as a child, my Scottish grandparents and great aunts and uncles. This one, and a few others of this girl, fascinated me because they were taken in Scotland and were family members that I had never met. I imagined going to Scotland and meeting this girl and pictured us running through hills of heather together, although I knew that of course she wouldn’t be a girl at all anymore, she’d be my mother’s age or even older. I remember asking my mother who they were and her answering rather vaguely that she thought this was [someone] and her daughter [someone].

But who? I don’t remember what she said, and there’s no one else left who might know. It looks like it was taken in the 1920s, which was when my grandparents emigrated. Was this taken on an outing before they left, or sent to them in a letter later? Was this the wife and daughter of one of my grandmother’s brother, William and James Ross, who remained in Scotland when their mother, stepfather and four sisters left for America? Or was my grandfather the photographer, and are these members of the Rennie side of the family? I’ve done a little work on Ancestry.com, trying to figure out possibilities, but I have no idea.

I love the photograph anyway, especially the smiles on their faces and the comfortable affection of the girl’s pose. Someday I hope I’ll solve this mystery. I’m hoping that someone else has another copy of this photograph, or other photographs of this woman and girl, and they’ll find this scanned image or I’ll find theirs and we’ll connect. Stranger things have happened. I truly believe that photographs have a way of finding their way home.

In the meantime, I post this as a reminder to everyone to identify everyone who is in a photograph. When photos are new, it’s so obvious who the people are that there’s no reason to record this information, but as the years pass, photographs (printed or digital) can get scattered, and the information can be lost.

My Ancestral Village in Scotland

Day 326 : November 22, 2010

Until I started doing some research on my family history, I had a rather hazy and romantic notion of my Scottish ancestors. My Scottish grandmother entertained me with the poems of Robert Burns, and tales of Robert the Bruce and all the clever ways that he escaped his enemies. My grandfather sang sentimental Scottish songs like “My Laddie” and “My Ain Wee Hoose,” and we listened to records by Harry Lauder, Jo Stafford and Andy Stewart, and one of my mother’s favorites, the soundtrack of “Brigadoon.”

Lucy Goes to ScotlandBut my notions of Scottish village life were largely based on a special episode of “I Love Lucy” called Lucy Goes to Scotland, a spoof on Brigadoon. It’s a fantasy episode, in which Lucy dreams that she visits Kildoonan, the village of her McGillicuddy relatives, where she’s warmly greeted with singing all around, and then informed that every thirty years a terrible two-headed dragon comes around looking for a nice McGillicuddy to eat, and it’s just about time. Lucy is rescued from her fate by Scotty MacTavish MacDougal MacCardo, who is really Ricky Ricardo in kilts. I was very young when I first saw this, and although I knew it was silly, I loved it and thought that someday, like Lucy, I’d go find my family’s village.

My grandmother was born in Aberdeen and my grandfather in Ayrshire, and they had met and married in Glasgow. They had both moved to the big city and then to America, but somehow I had the vague idea that all the generations before them had lived in little stone cottages in the countryside, surrounded by fields of heather. I thought I would someday visit the ancestral villages of my Ross and Rennie relatives, where I’d find crumbling church registers recording births, marriages and deaths back to the Middle Ages, and a graveyard with tilting old stones marking the graves of my ancestors. Perhaps these graves were being lovingly tended by the grandchildren of the brothers and sisters and cousins who stayed in the village, who would invite me home for teas and shortbread.

But as soon as I started following the trail of documents online, I discovered that the past wasn’t like that at all, at least not for my ancestors. They moved around a lot, from town to town within a region, to Scotland’s crowded cities, and to England, Canada, Australia and America. Sometimes whole families moved together, but sometimes not. I found several children who were living with grandparents, and many young men (often just 14 or 15 years old) living as a lodger and working in coal mines or factories. Their sisters were often living on farms as dairymaids or in city homes as servants. My great great grandmother’s sister, Catherine Fraser, went off to China about 150 years before my daughter did the same.

I don’t know why any of this surprised me. I’ve read quite a bit about Scottish history, and know it was not all roaming in the gloaming. My ancestors moved around for the reason people today move around — they were trying to make a living and make a good life, parents sacrificed to support children and then children sacrificed to support parents.

Reality is more interesting and more inspiring than my fantasies.

The Isle of Bute

Isle of Bute

Ferry to the Isle of ButeLast month I was spent a few days in Scotland and made a quick and unplanned visit to the Isle of Bute. I knew nothing about it except that the train and ferry schedule worked out so that I could make the trip in an afternoon and get back to Glasgow in the evening.

I also remembered a fragment of the song Rothesay Bay from one of the Scottish records my mother used to play when I was growing up. The tune was playing over and over in my head on the ferry ride from Wemyss Bay. Fortunately, it wasn’t a very long ride, because this was all I could remember of the lyrics :

It’s a bonnie bay at morning,
And bonnier at the noon,
But bonniest when the sun draps,
And red comes up the moon

Rothesay Castle MoatBute turned out to be a wonderful place. Within five minutes of landing I was at the Rothesay Castle, which dates back to the 13th Century and is surrounded by a moat. Then I saw the open-top tour bus which circles the island, which turned out to be a great way to see more of the island.

Bute, like the nearby Isle of Arran, is located on the Highland Boundary Fault, which divides Scotland’s rocky Highlands and the fertile, rolling Lowlands, so these islands really are miniature versions of Scotland. I enjoyed sitting on the open upper level of the tour bus, even when it rained a bit. There were only a few passengers and the commentary was friendly and informal. We mostly just enjoyed the beautiful views of fields of cows, sheep and even a few llamas, with misty views of the Firth of Clyde and near and distant islands. I wondered if my Scottish grandparents ever made this trip by train and ferry from Glasgow back around 1917 or so, before they emigrated to America. I like to think they did. I can imagine them taking the train to Wemyss Bay and getting on the ferry and cycling around the island, glad to get away for a day from the crowded tenements of Glasgow.

Isle of ButeI wish I had been able to get off the bus and explore the beautiful island, and to take better pictures than I was able to do from the moving bus. I would love to go back and spend a week (or maybe the rest of my life) on the Isle of Bute. An afternoon there was not enough time, but I’m just glad that I made this unplanned trip and got to see it at all.

Wemyss Bay Railway Station

Wemyss Bay Railway Station
Last month I spent two weeks in Northern Ireland visiting family, and took the ferry over to Scotland to spend a few days of casual exploration, riding around on trains with a “Freedom of Scotland” BritRail pass. I had studied the map and guidebooks and had some ideas of where I wanted to go, but my first day’s trip was completely unplanned. I spent the morning in Glasgow with my daughter and grandson, and saw them off at Glasgow Central Station around noon. The next train out was to Wemyss Bay, and ten minutes of research online showed that it connected to the ferry to Rothesay, which I knew from a song on one of my grandmother’s Scottish records. That was good enough for me, so I headed off to Wemyss Bay.

Wemyss Bay Railway StationThe trip to Wemyss Bay took just under an hour, and was worth the trip just to see the magnificent 1903 station, designed by Scottish architect James Miller (1860–1947.) This marvel of steel beams and glass panels arranged in graceful circles and curves is a Category A Listed Building, considered to be one of the finest railway stations in Scotland. It is supported by the active Friends of Wemyss Bay Station group.

Passage to the FerryI passed through the station in a hurry, heading for the ferry in one direction and then anxious not to miss my train on my return, and I’m sorry that I didn’t even take the time to go outside and photograph the exterior of the building. But someday I hope to visit again, and will definitely plan to spend a longer time exploring and appreciating this beautiful piece of Edwardian railway architecture and history.