Thursday, February 23, 2012

When a Name is Not Enough.

 Our Ancestors' Lives in Context

Every family historian delights in the finding and adding of names of ancestors to the family tree. The significance of genealogy, however, lies not only in expanding branches and extending roots. The importance of investigating the historical context of the lives of ancestors cannot be underestimated. History unfolds before our eyes, is transformed, and shifts towards a more personalized perspective when we view it through the lives of our forebears. This is the first of a series of blogs I am writing where I examine how it helps to understand our ancestor's lives in their historical context.

Scottish Ancestors in Historical Context
The massacre of Glencoe in Scotland on February 13, 1692

For me, ( and for many others) being a family historian has always implied considerably more than just names and dates. I appreciate family history as a part of its wider context. In addition to its relevance to the background of our families, family history IS HISTORY. As each family historian compiles data about his or her individual family tree, collectively, we are recording the history of our world. Genealogy is much more than names and dates of births, deaths and marriages. When we record the lives of ancestors we are also recording their lives within the social, economic and political context in which they lived. Our ancestors fought in wars and took part in revolutions. They lived through through great famines and plagues. Ancestors were members of nobility, and royalty and many lived privileged lives. Predecessors suffered the indignation of poverty and social injustices. They saw innovation and great changes throughout the times in which they lived. Our forebears witnessed political unrest, economic growth and depressions. Industrial changes transformed the the world in which they lived and inevitably bore consequences for them personally. Ancestors committed crimes, performed noteworthy deeds, observed great art movements and diversity in architecture.  Many had occupations that have names foreign to us and that no longer exist today but which offer us an unparalleled window through which to glimpse the past. Frequently, the  social. economic or political conditions at the time of their lives were the reasons why our ancestors emigrated or were displaced. Our ancestors were eye witnesses to world events and their lives reflect the world's transition through time. Through the personal stories of our ancestors we are privileged to glimpse a personal perspective of history which refines and clarifies our understanding of our own historical background.

Scottish Highlanders going into Battle

Scotland's early recorded history is abundant with violence. Between the years 1688 and 1746 great Britain experience a wave of insurgence intended to restore King James VII of Scotland and II of England and his House of Stuart descendants to the throne.  Amongst the ruthless feuds, battles and acts of treachery, one incident, which is possibly still today, most passionate in the minds of Scottish clans, was the Massacre of Glencoe on February 13, 1692. This treacherous event took place as a consequence of the Jacobite Uprising of 1689 and the failure of the Catholic Scottish MacDonald Highland Clans to pledge their support to the Protestant Monarchs of Britain, William and Mary. In August of 1691, King William III extended an offer of pardon to the Highland Clans providing they pledged their support to him before the end of that year and advised of inexorable consequences for failure to comply. The Clan Chiefs wrote to King James requesting his permission to register their allegiance to King William. With the bitter reality of defeat upon him, King James acceded. The winter of 1691 was especially harsh, however, and word of the King James' waive did not reach the isolated Highlands until mid - December, whereupon, the chiefs promptly set off to comply with the King William's request.

Alastair MacIain, Chief of the MacDonalds of Glencoe arrived at Fort William on December 31, 1691, to pledge his support for King William. Given a letter of protection which affirmed that he had arrived before the deadline he then headed to Inveraray to swear his oath before Sir Colin Campbell, the Sheriff of Argyll. In a plot hatched by English military commanders, whose animosity towards the highlanders was well known, several military companies led by Captain Robert Campbell were sent to Glencoe, welcomed and even billeted with Alastair McIain and the Glencoe MacDonalds. After a night of generous hospitality, on the part of the MacDonald Clan, the Campbells were ordered to 'fall upon the rebels'. The unsuspecting MacDonalds were attacked at 5 am on February 13, 1692. This bloodbath resulted in the slaughter of many MacDonalds, including Robert Campbell's own niece and her family. For Captain Robert Campbell. this was bitter sweet revenge for the 1689 plundering of his own lands at Glenlyon by the Glengarry and Glencoe MacDonalds. The Mort Ghlinne Comhann  or murder of Glen Coe has had a very personal implication in both my husband's and my own backgrounds since we discovered that it was my very own Campbell ancestors, who 'fell upon' and treacherously killed his unsuspecting his MacDonald relatives. 
Captain Colin Campbell's orders to 'fall upon' the MacDonald Clan

Explaining the treachery on the part of my Campbell ancestors requires some understanding of the political situation in the Scottish Highlands in the 17th century and even earlier as well as some knowledge of the Highland Clan system. Until 1493, the MacDonald Lords of the Isles were the greatest land and sea power in Britain after the Kings of England and Scotland. When King James VI forfeited their lands, he created a political void which the Campbell Clan quickly filled. They received Royal authority to accumulate land and to have legal rights to the lands belonging to other clans. The Campbells, especially the Earls of Argyll, became powerful Feudal Lords. For many centuries in the Scottish Highlands the basic system of society was the clan or clann which in Gaelic translates as 'children'. Contrary to popular belief, not every member of a clan was related to its chief. Many of the members were, however, there were also other ordinary people who relied upon the chief for protection. The clan system originated in early Celtic and feudal ideas where power depended upon land ownership and the size of the clan's manpower to fight battles. The Campbell's increased their power and influence in the Highland society until the 17th century when the Clan Donalds amongst other Clans joined the Royalist campaign. With the Campbells supporting the Parliamentarians, the MacDonalds saw this as a means of winning their lands back from the Campbells. Lawlessness reigned supreme in the Highlands and events attests to a violent history of feuds and battles between rival clans.

The Campbells of Argylle in Battle 1689

Alexander MacDonald of Drimindarach, 6 times great grandfather to my children was forced to forfeit his ancestral lands following the Rising of 1745 when he, as head of his Clan MacDonald of Sleat, supported Bonnie Prince Charlie. His son Charles MacDonald also lost his lands, which adjoined the property of the Earl of Moray in Invernesshire, when he played a leading role in the famous Battle of Culloden which took place on April 16,1746. Charles MacDonald, is reported to have single handedly smashed the gates of the Castle Carlisle and won it for the Highlanders. The battle of Culloden was the final battle in the Jacobite uprisings. This battle, fought on Drumossie Moor to the north east of Inverness, saw the final defeat of the Jacobite supporters and their attempt to restore the House of Stuart to the Throne of England. The Highland heroine, Flora MacDonald, who famously assisted Bonnie Prince Charlie to escape from The Isle of Uist to Skye, also sits illustriously on the family tree as documentation of family but significantly as illustration of history. I am pleased that my children can proudly relate the tale of the bravery of their 5 times great grandfather, Charles MacDonald at Carlisle Castle and that their own relative, Flora MacDonald  dressed Prince Charles Stuart in women's clothing and sent him 'Over the Sea to Skye'. It is a lessor boasted, but just as treasured tale, that my own Clan Davidson and Clan Chattan ancestors became very drunk during the night preceding the famous Culloden Battle and contributed significantly to the loss of this great final clash between the French supported Jacobites and the Hanoverian British Government.

The battle of Culloden

Flora MacDonald depicted with Bonnie Prince Charlie [Painting by G.W. Joy]

Family History furnishes History with personal relativity. Understanding the history of battles between the Scottish Clans and the English Monarchy  provided me with an historical backdrop against which I could sympathetically interpret our family history. Recorded historical chronicles of battles fought by the Scottish Highland Clans explained why a later ancestor and progenitor of Clan MacDonald, Alexander MacDonald, a qualified medical practitioner known as ' An Dotair Ruadh' (the red doctor) was living on rented lands at Gillin Farm in Sleat prior to and after, 1798 when he fought with the Glengarry Fencibles, and not as might be expected, on the ancestral MacDonald lands of Kilmalew and Drimindarach.

Gillin Farm in Sleat, which Alexander MacDonald leased.

Mathew MacDonald, grandson of Alexander and great great grandfather of my husband was born in around 1812, in the house at Gillin farm, pictured above. Mathew arrived in Australia in 1837 on board the William Nichol , the first of the ships to bring Scottish Highlanders to Australia as part of the Dunmore Lang Scheme. Reverend John Dunmore Lang, a young Scottish missionary, and later an ordained Minister,  began an immigration scheme in NSW in 1837, through which he was instrumental in bringing many new colonists to Australia. His vision was twofold. Not only did Lang see his scheme as a way to offer hope for a better life for immigrants, but he viewed his immigration scheme as a plan to rectify what was in his opinion, a moral plight, in the Colony. Since a vast number of convicts in Australia were Catholic Irish, Lang's concept was to balance the  inequity between Catholic and Protestant settlers by populating the rural areas of the colony with Protestant farmers, thereby expanding the number of Presbyterian Churches as well as prospective Ministers for the church.

Reverend John Dunmore Lang

To understand why Mathew MacDonald and his wife Mary McPherson along with many other Scottish Highlanders chose to leave the kinship of the home they knew so well, requires a review of the economic circumstances in Scotland in the 1830's. In the early part of that decade, Scotland was in the midst of a surge of industrial and commercial enterprise, which in addition to a significant population increase, had a disastrous effect on the living conditions for the essentially agricultural and isolated highlands. Large scale emigration from the Scottish Highlands was predominantly the consequence of destitution forced upon the farm workers.

Mathew MacDonald ( born c 1812) as the first born son of  Charles MacDonald, Tacksman* of Ord, a substantial landowner and progenitor of the Clan MacDonald of Sleat does not appear to meet the criteria for the Reverend Lang's immigration scheme as neither a destitute farm worker, nor a Protestant. As the title, Family History would suggest, fundamentals of family must unavoidably be taken into account, alongside evidence of history. According to Scottish naming patterns observed traditionally and strictly by Scottish Clan Progenitors, Mathew, as the first male child of Charles MacDonald of Ord, should have inherited his grandfather's name of Alexander, a name later given to the first son of Charles of Ord by his wife Anne Mcleod whom he married in 1828.  Mathew's family circumstances -  the identity of his mother is unknown, he was not afforded the traditional family name,  augmented by historical evidence - Scottish marriage traditions, lead to the conclusion that he was most likely, the child of a handfast marriage, which although recognised at the time in Scotland was probably not acknowledged by the family. Traditional European handfasting, or marriage by mutual consent, was commonly performed by the binding or exchanging of rings, and was a particularly popular custom in the Hebrides and especially on the Isle of Skye.  Although not recognised by the Church, handfasting was known to be practised on the Ise of Skye into the 19th century. Handfasting is mentioned by a number of authors with reference to The Isle of Skye, including Walter Scott [The Monastery]. Mathew was never destined to  inherit the progenitorship of the Clan MacDonald of Sleat, nor it appears to be well educated as were his younger half siblings. His occupation, confirmed on the passenger list of the William Nichol, was that of a shepherd.
 * a tacksman is a leaseholder, especially in Skye, who sublets to tenants.

Family anecdotes portray Mathew's decision to leave the Isle of Skye as the result of his father not approving of his marriage to Mary McPherson, nanny to Mathew's half siblings. That Mathew never again spoke to his father, supports the family anecdote , however,  there is little doubt that Mathew and Mary MacDonald were part of a mass wave of emigration from the poverty stricken agricultural highlands. 

Ord House, home of Charles MacDonald, Mathew's father.

Of course not all of our ancestors have illustrious lines which can be traced back to John, Lord of the Isles through both his wife Amy McRuari (a commoner) and Princess Margaret Stewart, daughter of King Robert 11 of Scotland.  My Campbell ancestors are understandably unpopular amongst this proud MacDonald family so when I announced my intention some years ago to name our baby, Campbell MacDonald White, my father in law declared vehemently that 'No grandchild of MINE will bear  the name of Campbell WITH MacDonald.'  Fortunately we had a daughter so the crisis was averted. Those MacDonald Clan members have long memories it seems! 

John, MacDonald Lord of the Isles

Mathew and Mary MacDonald 

On my family tree I have a Campbell who married a McDairmid, in Argyll. Their daughter, Sarah, was born in 1781 in  Greenock, Renfrewshire, the same parish in which she married James McDade.  Understanding  some of Scotland's history has enabled me to understand why these proud, traditional farming Highlanders moved from the lands of their fierce kinship to live in the lowlands, in the dense city of Glasgow. Around 1762, small highland farmers or crofters began to be  encouraged and often forcibly removed from the land to make way for larger and more profitable farming for wealthy land owners. Economic times were difficult and a succession of seasons of harsh weather and an increase in population, resulted in overcrowding and unprofitable agricultural use of highland farmland. Many people still view the Highland Clearances as having been an attempt to sever the power of the Clans. Historically, my McDairmid of Argyll ancestors were a part of the Highland Clearance and left the Scottish Highlands to live in Glasgow, where they and their descendants remained, working as coal miners.

James McDade, my fourth great grandfather was born in Ireland. He arrived in Scotland sometime in the 1790's, as part of an explosive wave of Irish immigration. Between 1790 and 1850 more than 300,000 Irish people arrived in Scotland from Ireland to find a better life. Most of these Irish migrants settled in Glasgow where, skilled in handloom weaving, they formed communities of independent cotton weavers in areas such as Bridgeton and Carlton. The influx of Irish weavers contributed significantly and positively towards the Scottish economy. Despite this, the Irish were generally not welcome in Scotland and the Catholic Irish migrants were especially unpopular. My ancestors were coal miners not weavers and they were Catholic, so it is entirely likely that they suffered discrimination and hardship because of this. The large number of Irish migrants arriving in Scotland caused serious housing and health problems in Glasgow in the early 1800's. From my knowledge of Scottish history during this period, I know that my McDade ancestors lived through serious typhus and cholera epidemics from 1817 onwards. 50% of deaths from these epidemics were children younger than 5 years of age. The relevance of this historical evidence for me personally is significant in that these epidemics almost certainly explain the deaths of all of James and Sarah McDade's children except for one. Their surviving son, James is my three times great grandfather. The death of one more child would have meant that I would not be here today. Placing my four times great grandparents, Sarah and James McDade within the historical context of their life, understanding the political, economic and social and circumstances of the world in which they lived, the events that they witnessed and the hardships they endured, has enabled me to understand more about them as real people.

Scottish Coal Miners

Amongst the ancestral names which I am researching in Scotland are, McDade, Campbell, McDairmid, Bonner, Gibson, Thompson, Rennie, MacDonald, McKinnon, McLeod, McPherson, MacAlister and McIntyre. The  people who accompany these surnames all have forenames and dates of births, deaths and marriages. They have offspring and children. Their names and details fill the spreading branches of my family tree. When I search beyond those names and dates, to understand the historical context of my ancestor's lives, the more real my ancestors become, and my research becomes much more rewarding and fulfilling. The longer I linger in this personalised perspective of history the more I feel a part of history.

Preview of Part 2: German Ancestors in Historical Context.

Recently whilst on a trip to Toowoomba in Queensland where my Prussian great great Grandfather, Gottlieb Nerger settled in 1852 and married German born Christiana Siegler who arrived in Qld in 1864, I came across a document which showed that he had contributed 1 Pound towards the construction of the first Lutheran Church in Toowoomba.

Gottlieb Neger's name 3rd from the top.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Dear Ms. Sharn White,
    Thank you so much for this incredible article. I found it in my search for info on my newly discovered McDonald ancestors. I believe I am related to your husband! My great great grandmother was Isabella McDonald who married Thomas Poff in County Renfrew Ontario Canada in 1849. The MyHeritage website has records that say she was a daughter of Charles McDonald of Orde in Skye. There is no record of her parents in Ontario, but her marriage registry has the witness signatures of John and Alexander McDonland, which I guess were her close relatives. I would be very grateful if you or your husband would be willing to contact me on this subject? Thank you,

  3. Dear Ms. Sharn White,
    Thank you so much for this incredible article. I found it in my search for info on my newly discovered McDonald ancestors. I may be related to your husband... My great great grandmother was Isabella McDonald who married Thomas Poff in County Renfrew Ontario Canada in 1849. The MyHeritage website has records that say she was a daughter of Charles McDonald of Orde in Skye. There is no record of her parents in Ontario, but her marriage registry has the witness signatures of John and Alexander McDonland, which I guess were her close relatives. I am trying to verify if she is Charles' of Orde's descendant, as the records on that site are a bit confusing. I would be very grateful if you or your husband would be willing to contact me on this subject? I just added myself as a follower on your public facebook page.
    My facebook page is found by searching Clayton David Clement in London, Ontario, Canada.
    Thank you,