Ian McMillan: Tracing my family tree through scraps of the past

Diaries and letters all shed light on the past.
Diaries and letters all shed light on the past.
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I like looking, in a fairly amateur way, at my family tree, and I love it when these forgotten people from the past step out of the shadows and introduce themselves and I start to see them as a real people rather than as names in parish registers or scrawls on copies of birth certificates.

I get intrigued by the most mundane aspects of their daily lives; what did they sound like? What did they like to eat and drink and, because I’m a man who reads and writes a lot, what did they read? What, if anything, did they write?

Going back a long way, of course, a lot of my ancestors wouldn’t have been able to make out the words on the page. They would have signed their name with an X. They would have heard the minister reading from the Bible in the pulpit on a Sunday and they would have gazed at the lines of unfathomable and hostile type like I gaze at Russian.

Then, after a while and some Education Acts, they would have started to be able to read; whole worlds would have opened up to them. I’m still not sure what my grandad George McMillan would have read though, or his dad John; they’re too far back, still too vague to grasp.

If I’m looking for evidence of reading or writing, I’ll have to travel a little further forward in time. My dad was born in 1919 and he enjoyed reading when he was at school. I remember asking him what he liked to read and he often talked about a book, or it could have been a magazine article, about that Utopian precursor of the UN, the League of Nations. He talked about walking home from school to Falla Cottage near Carnwath in Lanarkshire where he lived, and reading about the League of Nations and then writing an essay and taking it back to school the next day; of course the piece of writing doesn’t survive but I like to think it kick-started his love of travel that led to a career in the navy.

There’s less evidence of the kinds of things my female forebears would have written and read, although it’s been said that one of the only times you can find evidence of women’s writing from the late 19th or early 20th centuries is in handwritten recipes of the sort that often used to tumble out of my mam’s wartime and postwar austerity cookery books. They’re often folded, these pieces of paper; they’re yellowy-brown and they almost fall to pieces when you open them. They’re written in strong or shaky hands and they sometimes shout at you in capital letters. They shout about how to make fruit cake or instructions for jams and chutneys. They are reminders of hard lives in steaming kitchens.

The recipe and the forgotten essay; not much to remember people by. And one day I’ll get further back.

What did Grandad George read in his flat cap that he called a bunnet? Watch this space.