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Monday, June 06, 2011

Tracing My Roots

All I had to go on was my grandmother's name, Julia McNeil, and the story that she was illegitimate, which was only ever referred to a couple of times that I remember - I think because it was a source of embarrassment for my mother (her daughter). On one of those occasions my dad said my grandmother Julia's mother had come to the mainland from "the islands" because she was pregnant and unmarried. Before he was shushed quiet by my mum, he said she'd worked as a servant at a "big hoose" and that it was her wealthy boss that had got her pregnant. I knew from separate discussions about the family tartan, that the "McNeil" part of the family came from Barra, so "the islands" got narrowed down to one island in particular. And that was the sum total of my knowledge.

Last year when Peter and I were on South Uist and Eriskay researching book two in his Lewis Trilogy, we were staying with our lovely friend, MaryAlex, whose house looks across the bay to Barra, and I told her the story. "But Janice," she said, "you've got to find out more - you'll have relatives here!" and immediately she got on the phone to some friends on Barra, to get the investigation underway.

The scant information I had, provided little to go on, and what little there was didn't seem to make sense. On the mainland, "big hooses" - the homes of landed gentry - are everywhere. But on Barra...? there weren't any. There weren't even any big farms that might require domestic servants or staff. MaryAlex had the wonderful thought, at one point, that perhaps my great grandmother had been working for Compton Mackenzie, when he was living on the island! Could it be that there was another writer in the family? Was Compton Mackenzie my unknown great grandfather...? But sadly, no, the dates didn't fit.

The vague curiosity I had was nipped in the bud and we left the Outer Herbides last year without setting foot on Barra.

This year we were back for Peter's research for the last of the trilogy, and visiting MaryAlex again, and we decided to take a day trip to Barra. The night before we set off we decided to take a look at online records and see if we could find anything else out about Julia McNeil. Amazingly it was not a very common name and within a couple of minutes, I was looking at the entry in the registrar's records for her birth in Greenock. First, was her full name: "Julia Ann Ferguson McNeil". Next, the bald statement: "illegitimate". Not a surprise, but it was sad to see the label there and hard to imagine the stigma. Further along was the mother's name: "Margaret McNeil", and a blank where the father's name should have been - so that part of the story was holding up. Then something confusing... the entry seemed to read: "her + mark witness assistant registrar..." and then a name. The "+" was't very clear... was it a "T"? No, suddenly we saw what it was. It was an "X". "her X mark" had been witnessed by the assistant registrar. She was unable to sign her name. She was unable to read or write and the assistant registrar had got her to make "her mark" in the form of an "X".

Suddenly she came alive to me. This poor girl. Pregnant, banished from her island home, no doubt a Gaelic speaker, sent to the mainland, where she would have to learn English and learn to survive, all alone. She has her baby and goes on her own to register the birth but can't read or write, so she has to make a "mark" in the form of an "X". It was indescribably sad.

Then other things occurred to me. Most girls who were sent from the island in shame, expecting babies out of wedlock - for there were more than a few - were sent to convents and pressured into giving the children up for adoption. When they were at their most vulnerable, the babies would be taken from them and they would be parted forever. How brave and strong Margaret McNeil must have been that she was determined not to do that. She must have taken the decision to keep her child and try to survive somehow.

And in the name she gave her baby, she left clues. Julia Ann Ferguson McNeil. We found several Margaret McNeils born on Barra, who would have been the age to have been Julia's mother, but only one of those Margarets had a mother named "Ann". Could the John McNeil and Ann McKinnon we found have been Margaret's parents? On arriving in Castlebay on Barra, we went to the records office to find out.

Sadly, it proved to be another dead end. The physical record book seemed to be in conflict with the online records. But... the lady at the records office gave us a telephone number of someone who might be able to help.

MairiCeit, whom we arranged to meet in the tearoom at the heritage centre, has a passion for genealogical detective work. We told her what we knew and suddenly cracks of light appeared in the dead ends. It was true there were no "big hooses" on Barra. But there was a big farm, and a major employer of land and domestic workers on nearby Vatersay. Not only that, but the tenant farmer's name was... wait for it... Ferguson!

Julia Ann Ferguson McNeil - was Julia's mother trying to make a point? Furthermore, the McNeils were Catholics, but the Fergusons were Protestant. "If one of the Fergusons had got a Catholic girl pregnant, she would have been sent from the island, and never allowed to return!" said MairiCeit.

Fired up with enthusiasm, MairiCeit was going to do further researches using census records and church and other records. I can't wait to find out what she discovers, but already my great grandmother has come alive to me and the land and times she lived in are drawing me in. I need to know more.

It's something in the blood.

Sent from my iPad


Jill Browne said...

Tracing family history is addictive! For a writer, it's particularly satisfying. Each clue and snippet shapes the person until you get a clear picture.

Good luck with your quest. I think you have already found the girl you were looking for. Who knows what other ghosts are waiting to meet you, Janice?

Duncan Sketch said...

That's how it starts Janice. You'll become hooked on genealogy now!

Don't be surprised by your G Grandmother's illiteracy. Very common of the time - especially in womenfolk.

You can actually research a great deal of this yourself on the interweb; but you can't beat a visit to General Registers House in Edinburgh - deep joy for the curious!