Monday, December 21, 2009
'The very touch of the letter was as if you had all taken me into your arms.' Anais Nin 1903-77: letter to Henry Miller, 6th August, 1932
What love and comfort, a letter from James MCDADE's mother Elizabeth, pictured left, must have brought him as he bravely endured the horrors of war. I can only imagine the joy and relief a letter from their son would have brought to my great grandparents, John and Elizabeth as they waited for news of him, in their home in Cumbernauld, Scotland. letters are a wealth of information. Throughout the years they have delivered good tidings, sad news, the happy announcement of a birth and news of the death of a parent. They tell of the trials and triumphs of long voyages far from home, send news of safe arrivals, describe the horrors of war and extraordinary tales of comradeship. Letters pass on recipes, exchange knitting patterns, offer heart felt apologies, carry forth declarations of love, reveal secrets; treasured emotions all tucked inside an envelope and sent around the world to loved ones awaiting contact.
Letters, for the family historian are a wonderful portal to the past. They provide the human stories behind names and dates on the family tree. Words, written by hand, and from the heart, are an irreplaceable wealth of information. They tell us where our ancestors lived, who their friends were and how they lived their lives. Letters reveal much about the personality of an ancestor, his or her degree of literacy and sometimes just tell some jolly rollicking yarns. A death certificate is able to provide us with a date and cause of death, but a letter written to a relative provides a window through which we are privileged to view the emotions and reality of deaths, births, marriages, illness and the daily life of our predecessors. The humble letter is a window to the past.
My family members don't appear to have been prolific letter writers. Unlike myself, perhaps they were just not prolific hoarders. Of course, there is the very strong possibility, that in my family, letters were not preserved in order to hide some 'tiny' untruths! If my family had kept letters, I might have discovered earlier, that a very grand old family Welsh Castle does exist, but definitely not in my family! A letter might have saved me from years of searching for the grandfather in the Royal Welsh Fencibles.. who wasn't! These stories were myths, created to carefully guard well kept family secrets. ( I understand the desire for secrecy, and I do admit that the Royal Welsh Fencibles does sound a touch nicer than jail!) I might have discovered that letters were sent to Australia from Northumberland and Nottinghamshire and not from Wales where contrary to family tales, we have no ancestors at all. Not one! Disappointingly, no Fencibles, no Castle, no Welsh ancestors!
I know that letters arrived from America in the 1980's, and that, had they not been destroyed, they would have informed me that my grandfather's youngest brother, Alexander, was not a brother at all, but actually a nephew. He was the son of my grandfather's younger sister Mary by the husband of his older sister Maggie, (phew!). I would have known the reason that the entire family left Scotland and came to live in Australia (family 'scandals' are a popular reason for emigration!) and why poor Maggie and her straying husband emigrated to America to have no contact with their family for over 40 years. A letter might have told me that my grandfather on my mother's side was not a politician but instead, a bit of a rogue - quite possibly why there are no surviving letters ! How much easier my job would have been if letters had been stored away for me to read.
Documents such as divorce papers and shipping records and even photographs provide some useful information, but the letter remains the family historian's best friend. Letters are rich in detail, they are a part of the real fabric of life in the past and sometimes they are more importantly, proof of identity,and a key to unlocking the past, as in the case of my husband David's great, great grandfather.
David's side of the family, fortunately were both prolific writers and horders. Such a treasure trove for me! There are letters from Bedfordshire, England to the BEARD family, some from South Africa from Polly Brown (nee Beard) to her family in the Gippsland area of Victoria, letters from Kent, England to the DUNSTER family who settled in the Kiama area in NSW, letters from New Zealand to the WHITE family that tell of farming life on the Canterbury Plains and the most important a letter of all which proves a family story of Royal connections.
Mathew MACDONALD, great, great grandfather of David White, was born in about 1812 in Sleat, Isle of Skye, Scotland. There has been no birth record found for him, although this has been well checked. Family lore says that he was born on his grandfather Alexander MacDonald's farm, Gillin Farm on the Isle of Skye. His death certificate states that his father was Charles MacDonald of Ord, David's father, Brian was proud to tell everyone that he was descended from the great Lord John of the Isles through Charles of Ord. There is no marriage record for Mathew to Mary McPherson who travelled with him on the ship 'William Nichol' to Sydney, Australia, in 1837. It is only from a letter to Mathew, when he was almost 90 years old from a half brother in Scotland, that we can verify this ancestry. The author of the letter, Keith Norman MacDonald was a well known musician and writer of Scottish Reels and Spreys, as well as being a medical doctor. He was also the son of Charles MacDonald of Ord House, Ord, on the Isle of Skye, by his wife Anne McLeod who he married in 1828 and therefore a half brother to Mathew. In his letter, Keith referred to Mathew as his brother and informed him that 'their' father, Charles was buried in the churchyard of Kilmore, as were both his mother, Anne and Mathew's mother. So here was proof that Keith and Mathew were half brothers and that Mathew was the son of Charles MacDonald of Ord, whose ancestry is well documented, not only back to John, Lord of the Isles but to the Royal Stewart Kings and the McKenneth Kings. Unfortunately the letter did not tell us who Mathew's mother was. The letter also revealed that Mathew's wife, Mary McPherson, was a nanny to Keith and the other MacDonald children and that Keith still remembered her fondly. It is obvious that Keith's letter was in reply to a letter from Mathew and that this had been Mathew's first contact with his family since leaving Scotland some 60 years earlier. We might deduce from this that Mathew had a falling out with his father, possibly over his relationship with Mary McPherson. Keith Norman's letter describes beautifully, the scenery in Skye that Mathew might have wistfully recalled and offers colourful character sketches of local identities. This letter is a valuable document, without which, David's MacDonald ancestry could not have been traced back to Scottish Royalty. The photograph above, pictures Mathew and Mary (McPherson) MacDonald with their children, at their farm at Crookwell which is still in the MacDonald family today. It is sad to think that Mathew and Mary had no contact with their families for so many years and one wonders whether old age prompted Mathew to write to his half brother. It is a blessing that he did, for without that letter the Royal MacDonald connection would have been lost with the passing of time.
Some years ago, in a clean out, I threw away a bundle of letters from my mother and from friends. Now, I regret that I do not have those precious letters, the contents of which are lost forever. As for the MacDade 'scandal' previously mentioned (hardly a scandal worth mentioning these days!) the letters from Maggie in America were also thrown away and with them any hope of finding her three daughters.
Letters, for most people are now a thing of the past. I do receive several typed 'news letters' from friends who live overseas or in other parts of the country. Although these are, strictly speaking, letters, they are missing that special touch of a hand written personal letter. They are 'speaking' to many and not just to me. I am fortunate enough not to have to wait long weeks or even months for news of a loved one at war or to learn of the death of a family member. I can contact instantly on Skype, relatives in London and New York and not only speak to them but see them as well. My sister and I correspond by telephone or by email daily. Our emails are a record of our daily lives. They concern our families, the antics of our pets, the swapping of recipes, gossip and news of family and friends. Often our emails are quite silly and sometimes very humorous and they give us great pleasure. Then we press the delete button on our computers and any record of our conversation is lost. No one is going to find old deleted emails nicely tied with ribbon in a drawer one day in the future.
Now, I have to admit, that I am not likely to take up letter writing as I am quite comfortable living in an age of instant communication. I have, however, come to appreciate the value of communications of the past to the preservation of history, whether it be world, local or family history.
In keeping with technology, through my blog entries, I hope that my stories will be written from the heart, for the future. I am trusting that somewhere out there in cyberspace, my good tidings and recipes and family stories and even some secrets will be discovered by someone who will appreciate them and perhaps even discover a family tree through them. These blogs are a record of lives past and present. They are my 'letters'.
'Letters of thanks, letters from banks, Letters of joy from girl and boy, Receipted bills and invitations To inspect new stock or to visit relations, And applications for situations, And timid lovers' declarations, And gossip, gossip from all the nations. W. H. Auden 1907-73: 'Night Mail' 1936