All libraries smell the same—the smell of very old paper and canvas, old carpet, old air. It’s the smell of old milk and the scent of history and like a hound sniffing the air, I followed the trail to the domed research room inside Scotland’s National Archives.
Genealogy is nothing more than serious detective work. For me there were no black sedans or smoking guns, but I did have my little black notebook and half-pencil, and over the course of the day I was dealt many, many false leads.
I knew the man’s name and even his supposed date of birth, but this is usually never enough. Tracking down written proof of a man long dead takes patience and sleuthing. I had come to the ScotlandsPeople Centre in Edinburgh to unravel a personal mystery but as I sat in front of a library computer searching their incomparable database, I felt a little less hope in connecting present-day me to my family’s Scottish roots.
I have three different Scottish branches in my family tree—three different travelers who left for America at different times. Those of us who are Scottish take pride in our heritage, we brandish our tartan and get teary with the bapgpipes, and yet so few of us actually know who we are or from whence we came. I had a name and date, but now that I was in Scotland, I wanted proof.
Poking around in the past quickly revealed that the McGregors and Campbells of Glasgow are like the Smiths of New Jersey—filling up the pages of the phone book, or the database as it were.
My search through a few million birth records brought up nothing, and though I had the help of a librarian, we were unable to turn up anything from Scotland’s national registry. Prior to 1855, all births, death and marriages were recorded by the churches only, so I imagine many individuals fell through the cracks.
After a while, I grew discouraged by the constant computer response, “0 Records Found”, as well as false leads of same name, wrong guy. There were a lot of McGregors back then, but my librarian was an artful detective, crunching numbers and guessing at ages, then turning to the census records.
“He would have been seven or eight around the time of the census, so where did he live?”
“Glasgow,” I remembered, and suddenly I was transported into the digitized spread of long handwritten sheets—a national profile of every individual in Scotland from more than 150 years ago.
Scrolling through the pages, I read the carefully-scripted ink names, every one of them a human life once upon a time. And then I saw it.
I was staring at the handwritten name of my own great-great-great grandfather, William Campbell McGregor.
I felt my heart soar.
Immediately I imagined the scene on that early summer evening back in 1841, the census takers knocking on a door, standing on the threshold of a stone house in Glasgow, speaking to a man. Somewhere in that house stood a seven-year old boy, perhaps clinging to his mother’s skirt—and he was counted.
Staring at his name on the 1841 census, I wondered if I look like him. There are no pictures from so long ago, but my mother keeps telling me that my dark curly hair comes from the McGregors.
From the census, I was able to confirm William’s father’s name (my great-great-great-great grandfather), Alexander McGregor, and with more searching, I was able to track down a death record for him—in 1872, along with his address in Greenock (near Glasgow).
Suddenly the past was opening up to me and suddenly, Scotland felt so much closer—a real part of who I am.
All good travel is a path of self-discovery—to go somewhere new is to invite serious bouts of self-reflection, introspection and curiosity, leading to a stronger sense of who you are.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Coming to Scotland and searching my family history was a way of connecting the dots—linking bits of information to greater truth and confirming, in fact, that these people lived—Scottish blood flows in my veins.
There is no way to describe the joy at establishing that link with one’s past. All of us create storied versions of our family tree, but picking out the golden flecks of truth is so much more rewarding.
This will not be my only visit to the Scotlands People Centre, nor is my search over. Now that I have a trail to follow, I will follow it.
I have so much more detective work to do, but right now I am happy, because I found William.
Start tracking your Scottish ancestry by visiting the ScotlandsPeopleCentre online database.