Sunday, June 27, 2010

ScotlandsPeople Centre

I'm still not sure how I got sucked so deeply into tracking my family tree. All I can say is, it's addictive. Curiosity led me to poke around Ancestry.co.uk a little and it just took off from there.

Ancestry is a wonderful site, but does not hold the birth, marriage and death records for Scotland. Those are held at the ScotlandsPeople website. The records are accessible online, but instead of a monthly subscription that allows you to search as much as you want, on scotlandspeople you have to buy credits. 30 credits cost £6, and to view a search results list of up to 25 entries is 1 credit, and to view an actual record is 5 credits. Personally, I find this a frustrating system.

There is, however, the ScotlandsPeople Centre in Edinburgh. They have a large number of computer terminals where, for £10 a day, you can sit and access as many records as you want. There are dedicated printers and there is also the option of saving your records to a memory stick. (Note, however, that there is a fairly minimal charge both for printing and for saving.)

So, when I knew I was going to travel to the UK, I made sure to allot time while I was in Edinburgh to spend the day there.

The Centre offers a free two-hour taster session within specific time windows (10am-12am and 2pm-4pm). I arrived in Edinburgh in the afternoon, dumped my gear at the B&B and practically ran up the very big hill to get to the Centre before it closed. I ended up with just over an hour of my taster session, but that was fine. It let me figure out how to search, how to print, how to save - all things that would help me get the most out of my full day of research.

On the way out, I reserved a seat for the next day. It wasn't really necessary in December, but if you're going during the high season - particularly during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival - I highly recommend reserving a seat so you don't end up being disappointed if it's full.

The next day, I arrived at the centre when it opened at 9am and stayed until it closed at 4:30pm (opening hours: 9am-4:30pm Monday to Friday). There is a cafe there, but I didn't stop to eat, or even go to the bathroom, I was so deeply into what I was doing.

The best part about that unlimited access was the chance to just dig through record after record. For example, I know my grandfather had three brothers who died as infants, but I didn't know their names or dates of birth. At the Centre, I was able to do a search of every child born in a specific region within, say, a 25-year span and just keep clicking through the records until I found them. Dozens of records that would have cost hundreds of credits otherwise. And I used that method to find a number of different relatives.

Now, obviously, it's more cost-effective to just buy the hundreds of credits versus buying a flight and accommodation in Edinburgh just to go to the Centre. However. If you're going to be in the UK anyway, it's a wonderful resource for family history research.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

the happiest place on earth - for book-lovers, that is

I found it during a stop-over in Inverness to change buses. I had enough time to just take a quick walk through the town, and there it was. My favourite place on earth.

It's a book shop. Not a chain store, but a real book shop. And a second-hand book shop, at that. It's in an old gaelic church. It has great big bookcases hewn from real wood and wooden floorboards that creak just a little. The counter was in the middle with a cast-iron wood-burning stove spewing a merry warmth while the clerk reclined with his feet up on a stack of cord wood and a cat slept nearby. It was, I think, my idea of heaven. I nearly turned around and walked straight back out, terrified that if I lingered at all, I would never, ever leave.

Thankfully - or not - we had a bus to catch, so I couldn't browse for too long. But the memory of that book shop stayed with me for nearly fifteen years, and when I arrived in Inverness on my trip this past December it was the first place I wanted to go.

It's still there. I was so thrilled when I found it. There was a ceilidh dance going on at a pub down the street and I would have dearly loved to join, but it being late afternoon on a Saturday in December, the ceilidh ended at the same time the store closed, so I gave up the dancing to spend a blissful 20 minutes browsing the wooden shelves.

They've made it even more cosy with the addition of a little cafe on the upper gallery, accessed by wooden stairs with a wrought iron railing. And I feel like they may have moved the counter. In addition to books, they also sell old maps and prints of artwork. I didn't get a photo myself, but I managed to find one online here. (It's from a delightful website that has its own description of the shop. I can't seem to find a website for the shop itself.)

Isn't the shop just beautiful? I stayed until closing.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

pilgrimmage to Culloden field


My grandad, Charlie, was born and raised on the Isle of Skye. We went to visit when I was three years old, and one of my earliest memories is of him playing the bagpipes for me and my grandmother kicking him out of the house to play on the porch because they were far too loud for indoors. His favourite song, which has become one of my favourite songs, was the Skye Boat Song, a Scottish folk tune about Bonnie Prince Charlie escaping after his defeat at the battle of Culloden.
Many's the lad fought on that day,
Well the Claymore could wield,
When the night came, silently lay
Dead in Culloden's field.

Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward! the sailors cry;
Carry the lad that's born to be King
Over the sea to Skye.

Our family were staunch Jacobites, and family legend has it that we are descended from Captain John MacKinnon who led the MacKinnon clan in the Jacobite uprising of 1745, and who sheltered Bonnie Prince Charlie during his escape to Skye.

This photo was taken at the Elgol coast on the Isle of Skye. You can see the remains of stone walls in a squarish outline in the foreground which are, I'm told, the ruins of the house in which my family lived. They took Bonnie Prince Charlie from here to hide him in a cave further down the coast.

The idea, if not the details, of the Battle of Culloden has loomed large in the impressions I have of my family. So, when I was in Scotland this past December, a trip to the site of the battle was high on my list of things to do.

It was a damp, blustery December day when I visited the battlefield at Culloden. I rented a car in Inverness and drove out to Culloden, a brief detour before heading out to the Isle of Skye. Getting there at all was something of a personal triumph, it being my very first experience with right-hand drive.

Admission to the Visitors' Centre cost £10, and included a guided tour of the battlefield. (The National Trust for Scotland has an excellent website, with all the information you need to plan your visit.) I spent some time wandering through the centre, looking at the exhibits on the walls. One side of the gallery tracks the Government's troops under the command of the Duke of Cumberland, and the other side tracks the Jacobite troops under Bonnie Prince Charlie. Walking through the gallery, you can see both sides moving through the battles of the uprising, through to the final battle at Culloden.

It was the tour of the field itself with a guide telling the story that made the deepest impression, however.

It being December, there were only a handful of us on the tour, all huddling deep into our jackets against the bitter driving wind. A row of blue flags showed the Jacobite line, a row of red the Government line. And, not far from them, stone cairns marking the mass graves of each Jacobite clan.


When it was all over, the local villagers came out and dug graves for the dead of both sides, doing their best to keep them together by clan.

Because Culloden was less a battle than it was a slaughter, in the end.

The Government troops under the command of the Duke of Cumberland were well-fed and well-rested. They had spent the day before the battle celebrating the Duke's 25th birthday.

The Jacobite troops, however, were half-starved. Supply lines had broken down and they likely hadn't had much to eat in three or four days. They had spent the previous day standing ready to fight, and the night in a forced march; their commanders hoped to mount a surprise attack on the Government troops during their celebrations at their camp, eleven miles away. A dense fog scuppered those plans, and they were forced to turn back, hungry and tired.

When the battle began, the Jacobite troops charged the Government line through a hail of artillery and musket balls. They smashed into the line and the fierce hand-to-hand fighting began. Under the onslaught, the Government lines buckled, then broke. The Jacobites were through their lines.

The Duke of Cumberland had a plan for this eventuality, however. He had a second line in place, and he sent one part of it forward to meet the clansmen, and the other part around to flank them. The Jacobites were caught in a vicious cross-fire. 700 clansmen fell within a matter of minutes. The battle was lost, and the rest of the Jacobite troops broke and ran.

After the battle, the government troops rode through the field, under orders to kill any wounded Jacobites where they lay. They then rode down and killed any fleeing survivors they could find and anyone along the way they suspected of having Jacobite sympathies.

In the construction of the Visitors' Centre, they have turned one wall into a memorial for all those who died on the field that day.


The inscription on the plaque reads:
16 April 1746
Many more Jacobite than Government men died at the Battle of Culloden. The numbers of fallen on both sides are represented by the two groups of projecting stones in this wall.
The group for the Jacobite dead contains approximately 1500 stones. The group for the Government troups about 50.

My family, the MacKinnon clan, were not among those 1500, however. While they certainly rose with the Jacobite cause, they did not fight at Culloden; they were stationed north of Inverness on another mission. After the battle, they were among the 1200 troops that retreated to Ruthven under the command of Lord George Murray.

After this resounding defeat, Bonnie Prince Charlie accepted that the uprising was over and fled through the highlands with a £30,000 price on his head and the Government troops hot on his heels. It was five months before he could escape to France.

And while Bonnie Prince Charlie was able, finally, to escape, some of those who helped him were not so lucky. The lovely lady behind the counter at the Visitors' Centre was kind enough to look up Captain John MacKinnon in her book, Prisoners of the '45, and photocopy the information for me:
No. 2217
Name MacKinnon, John of Ellagol (Elgol)
Regiment M'Kinnon's
Prison Career 11.7.46 Elgol; H.M.S. 'Furnace,' Oct. 1746, Tilbury, Southwark
Ultimate Disposition Released 3.7.47
Home or Origin Skye
Notes and Authorities Nephew of John Mackinnon of Mackinnon, the Chief, with whom he served through the campaign. In company with his Chief, he helped the Prince to escape from Skye to the mainland in July 1746. He was caught on 11th July and put on board ship, where he was examined by General Campbell as to his reasons for not giving up the Prince and claiming the reward. When he replied that he would not have done it for the whole world the officers rose and drank his health. He was ordered to be transported, but must have been reprieved. He was in hospital in Edinburgh in 1761 paralysed in both legs, and he died 11th May 1762 in Bath
I did, in the end, find my family connection at Culloden, although not the one I was expecting. I was vastly impressed with the kindness and helpfulness of the staff at the Visitors' Centre. And I also found that the fact of standing on the battlefield, with a very knowledgable guide telling me the story of the battle, made history come alive for me in a way that no amount of books or wall-mounted displays ever could.