Wading In My Gene Pool
“Aye, that’s a tricky period for finding your Ancestors.” A nice way of saying that the hours of online research to find John Jamieson, my Scottish ancestor, were for nothing. Birth records in Edinburgh showed I had the wrong guy. I still needed to find MY John Jamieson, that unluckiest of forebears whose family had been evicted from their ‘croft’ during Highland upheavals then emigrated with over 500,000 Scottish countrymen during the Great Potato Famine of the mid-1800s. In predictable bad timing he then was conscripted into the American Civil War where he died in 1862. All that remains are well scripted personal letters to his wife, children and some DNA to which I have a small claim.
The clerk at the Archived Records in Edinburgh was sympathetic; ‘This happens every day. People come over to Scotland wanting to find their ancestors, but that period of time was very difficult. In the 1840s and 1850s great numbers of Scots died of starvation. The government, landlords and churches helped pay their ship passage because there was no help available here. Record keeping was shoddy to nonexistent. They were happy to see them go.’
It gave me new compassion for the mettle of my Scottish forbears, and stronger desire to solve this ancestral puzzle. The clerk gave me sound advice for more tracing at the American end of things. I was initially disappointed, but just like those Scottish ballads blending sorrow with extreme optimism, I think things worked out for the best. Instead of looking up my Scottish ‘rellies’ (their diminutive for relatives) Glen and I got to explore the Scottish Highlands and get a feel for the land and people.
Scotland is achingly beautiful. But that would have been cold comfort during the hardships of the 19th century. Especially in the Highlands; it was cold and damp in August – I would never want to be there in the winter. I know cold weather. But the Scottish chill hits you on an entirely different level. The damp seeps into your bones and stays there, leaving you yearning for a cup of hot tea before the fire and layering as many clothes as possible. It warms up on the rare sunny, summer day but weather in Scotland is cool and overcast with intermittent rain more often than not.
Highland Clan Museums are the pride of larger villages and give a real feel for the difficult life my ancestors had in the 1800s Highlands. Life expectancy was low — living into your 50s was an achievement. Many children died from the hardships so women bore many hoping a few survived. Large, extended families lived in single-room houses. Hygiene was bad – when their kilts got too filthy they killed the fleas by soaking them in urine. Coats didn’t exist. Men were tough and women wrapped thin woven fabric around their bodies like a shawl. Life was unimaginably hard.
On our last day in Scotland, Glen and I walked back from dinner through the light rain and reflected on our trip. Our time in Scotland had been wonderful. But now I was wistful to return home to our sunny mountain cabin, family and friends. Then I realized that my ancestors – whose genes intertwined to produce mine – felt that same longing for Scotland as they made families and communities in their adopted land.
I honor the struggles and hopes of John Jamieson, my forebear. It may take awhile, but my ‘rellies’ in Scotland will someday have a visit from their American cousin. Who knows, they may be tall, have red hair and spend much of their time online searching for their lost American relatives.