Roots Mon……..A Scot’s journey to his beginnings.
I’ve always been curious about where we came from – our family beginnings, I mean, rather than the familiar surroundings of my birthplace. I’m from Lanarkshire, once an industrious, prosperous place to live, but now a sad and battered testament to a financially distraught Scotland, where drink and drugs have destroyed the lives of many and those who struggle to survive do so in jobless towns strewn with closed-down pubs and shops.
But where do I really come from? Family folklore is that we are from the islands, but I’ve been unable to prove it. Like many people, I have begun a family tree and discovered stories of hard and careworn lives, some of perceived disgrace and others of quiet compassion and even heroism. And tragedy – we all have at least some tragedy in our stories.
But I still can’t trace my family back to anywhere beyond the 19th century coalfields of central Scotland, which has come – so far – as a crushing disappointment to my romantic dreams of gnarled old great, great somethings, sitting by a harbour mending nets, toiling in fields, or laboriously digging peats in harsh and unforgiving environments. But I knew, instinctively, somehow, that we have always been poor.
Like most of these journeys, mine began as a young man with a few late-night, semi-sober inquiries of my father, who seemed reluctant to go into detail and would only mutter that if I dug too deep, I ‘would be disappointed.’
It was only after my father died – how much opportunity I had wasted – that I seriously began to look into the family background. A trip to Edinburgh to look through the registers soon unveiled the reason why my father thought I would feel let down. A look at his father’s – my grampa’s – birth certificate showed that Grampa had been born illegitimate. That fact was starkly marked on his document – a cruelty that was to affect him for the rest of his life.
I soon unearthed that his mother, great granny Janet, not only had one illegitimate child by 1880, but two. This puzzled me somewhat, and there are various explanations, one being that she found it difficult to keep her bloomers on. Or was she a forward thinking carefree spirit, who despised the sexual hypocrisy of Victorian Britain and was keen to exercise free love? Another, and the most probable explanation, is that she was an illiterate and impoverished young woman who took her fun where she could find it and was ignorant of structured contraception, or unable to afford it.
Either way, GG Janet did not name the father of either of her two children, and therefore they grew up with her own name and not the dads’ – whoever they may be. So my surname comes from down the female side of the family – not that it matters to me.
But let’s think of her situation for a moment. There she was, in 19th century Scotland, with two young children and neither father to be seen (although their middle names, which don’t seem to be traditional family ones, might give us a clue). Surely this must have been perceived as a disgrace in a society in which sex was regarded as taboo and was a matter for behind closed bedroom doors ?
Yet in a world without a social services system, she had her support networks, nevertheless. The 1891 census shows she and her two children were living with her parents and several brothers in a mining cottage of just two rooms. It also showed Janet was able to contribute to the no-doubt impoverished family finances – there were 10 people living there – as she is listed a farm servant.
Illegitimacy, it turns out, was to be a family trait and therefore perhaps not the disgrace I fear it might have been. The census also shows that her younger sister too was an unmarried mother and also living in the parental home with her baby son. She was also a farm servant, but at that time unemployed. Was this because she had been thrown out by the farmer because she had to cease work due to her pregnancy, or indeed because he would not tolerate an unmarried mother on his land? (Or was HE the dad and didn’t want his wife to find out)?
When trying to find out more about all this, I asked an elderly maiden aunt, but she was too embarrassed to discuss it – although she did add rather acidly that in Janet’s case ‘we thought it was farmer who was the dad, but he wouldn’t put his hands up to it’. So GG Janet was taken advantage of – twice!
Janet mysteriously vanishes from the family home in 1881, according to the census, before reappearing 10 years later with her two children. I have been unable to trace her during that period – perhaps she had moved away for work. Perhaps – and how dreadful, if true – she might have ended up in the poorhouse. Whatever she did, it wasn’t a career that required literacy – she was unable to write, and her mark – X – appeared on her sons’ birth certificates.
How bleak her circumstances seemed to be in the 1880s– unmarried, with two illegitimate children, living with her parents and six others in cramped, damp and over-crowded conditions, with no running water, electricity or toilet. The sanitary facilities were outside, an ash pit in the middle of the street.
The street itself was a collection of semi-derelict houses, rented by mine owners to their employers. In many cases, her family working down the pit might have been paid not in cash but in tokens – which could only be spent, guess where, at shops owned by the mine’s proprietors. Miners were seen as little more than serfs or slaves in Victorian Scotland.
But Janet was nothing if not resilient and was to overcome her difficulties to make a decent if unglamorous life for herself, my grandfather and great uncle, even if the means she used were…..somewhat sly.
She was to marry, settle down and raise another family – and incidentally, learn to read and write.
But how? Find out next week.