Just a Wee Blether…

About seeking those Scottish ancestors

The lady who approached me in the genealogy tent at the Phoenix Scottish Games last weekend had a detailed list of papers revealing a very impressive Scottish and European ancestry.

She was descended from none other than King of the Picts Kenneth MacAlpin, the man regarded as the first King of Scotland. Kenneth was born on Iona in the year 810 and ruled over the country for 16 years before dying, apparently from a tumour.

Not only that, her family tree included the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, and a couple of the Louis kings of France. It was also peppered with several other members of prominent royal and noble European families.

My new acquaintance, who now lives in Arizona, insisted she had double checked and triple checked all her sources. And it’s perfectly possible she is right. Residents of the United States are descended from a hodge-podge of different nationalities, many of them from the upper echelons of society.

And of course, when your ancestry reveals a connection with one European royal house, then it automatically leads to many others. So, there is nothing far-fetched about a so-called ‘ordinary’ American person finding family links to some of the grandest names in European history.

I was volunteering in the genealogy tent at the Games, and the lady had come to ask for some background about Kenneth MacAlpin. Based on some very distant teenage memories, I informed her that he was a character we learned about in school history lessons, and obviously, an important person in Scottish history. I showed her Iona, and she went away happy.

Genealogy is a big industry here, and Americans would give their right arm for a bit of Scotland – or Ireland – in their family tree. Over the two days of the Games, I helped several people who had found the name Stuart, Wallace, or Bruce, in their trees and who were convinced they were descended from Bonnie Prince Charlie, Braveheart, or Robert the Bruce.

I had to tell them, yes it was possible, but it was more likely that their Bruce ancestor was a weaver in Paisley, or the Wallace a day labourer in the Borders.

To be honest, it didn’t really matter to them. They were excited – super-excited as they say here – just to get a Scottish perspective on what they had discovered. It helped that they were hearing from someone in a kilt, with a Scottish accent, who had lived for almost 60 years in the ‘old country’.

I helped trace one family’s great grandfather to the Gorbals area of Glasgow. When I broke it to them that the area was at one time notorious for violence and slum dwellings, they were initially shocked. But when I explained how it all fitted in with Glasgow’s long and proud working class, industrial past, they went away delighted.

Another woman could trace her history back to the Border Reivers in and around Roxburgh and Galashiels; an elderly gentleman was descended from a family I had never heard of, Kelly of Sleat, from the Isle of Skye; a couple was thrilled to learn of a connection with Clan Gunn in the far north of Scotland.

There were a couple of disappointments. It only takes one broken link in a family chain to wipe out generations of fascinating history. And I had to break it to a couple of people that they had made mistakes.

Our tent was packed with visitors for two days solid. What interested most of them was not so much the family name, but the tartan, the castle if there was one, and which part of Scotland their ancestors were from.

I’m always a bit suspicious when I hear about royalty and aristocracy. But it is slightly amazing to someone like me – a Scot who spent most of his life in Scotland – that there is so much genuine fascination about all things Scottish in this faraway land.