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.”
But 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.