Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Learning about my Scottish family history goes deeper than finding facts. It helps to confirm how to live life each day.

A Highland croft in the middle 19th Century

Life expects self reliance from its participants. There is a life long pursuit in Scottish culture that lionizes self reliance and always identifies with useful life forces.

by Tom Thorne
The last time I was in Scotland in 2007 I noticed that the environment my ancestors spent their lives in was bare, bleak and strangely beautiful at the same time. The glen behind the town of Inveraray in Argyllshire is aptly named Glenaray and my ancestors worked the farms in this deep valley of the Scottish Highlands with the Aray River winding its way to the town of Inveraray on the sea coast. Munros lived in this place from about 1670 onwards.
I don't think it is unreasonable to say that environment is a large part of how you develop and this bleak and yet beautiful spot dotted by multiple family farms and the steep hills that support sheep influences attitudes to life that over time may be bred into the bones and perhaps even into genetic makeups.
To live in Glenaray my Munro ancestors needed to be a hardy lot. They lived in family groups in small stone croft houses. We get  a very clear picture as early as 1779 about these family groups because they were recorded in a census taken by the Duke of Argyll, on whose lands they lived. This unique document records every man woman and child on the estate and is particularly useful because it records the wive's maiden names.
The Munros were concentrated on Drimfern and Tullich farms in that time. These farms were like villages some with up to 40 people living on them. Other Munros lived in the town of Inveraray and sparsely on other lands owned by the Duke. Some Munros actually owned their land at Stuckguoy Farm as  a reward for some service they rendered to the Duke of Argyll during one of the times the Duke was on the wrong side of a political dispute.
They were often in the courts in Inveraray disputing or answering charges of assault ( Anne Munro took her broom to a cheeky man at her door of her croft in the Glenaray) or they were accounting for lost barrels of bonded whiskey stolen from a warehouse and distillery they managed. In all these activities they maintained an acerbic wit and a sense of humour that always relied on a quick answer, even in court, as the records attest.

Andrew Mitchell Munro about 1930.
Dry humour was a distinct advantage.

Without romanticizing them too much, their humour was dry and pointed and is best illustrated years later with a story about my grandfather Andrew Mitchell Munro who was a dry witted Scot of the first order. Andrew was celebrating the birth of one of his nine children and was out with his friends at the local pub.
To celebrate the birth he offered his friends a round of drinks. One of his friends had a particularly large physical mouth and when offered a drink responded: "Aye Andra I'll have a mouthful, tae"  After a pregnant pause my grandfather responded. "I don't think you'll have a mouthful, Dugald, you'll have tae content yersel with glass like the rest of us!"
That is the attitude Scots take to life. There is always a sparkle of wit and dry humour that permeates conversation and social interaction. You have to be on the ball to drink and socialize with Scots and you are expected to engage them in this kind of repartée otherwise the experience is considered dull and anti-social.
Whiskey: a social lubricant.
This attitude towards life is expressed in the widespread use of an almost sacred golden liquid that Scots use during these moments. Whiskey is an anglicized Gaelic word which means Water of Life. It is a celebration of life and living. Its use in social interaction creates a bigger value than just yourself and your own problems. 
It is also used to seal business deals. In a bleak and yet strangely beautiful land it is the social lubricant combined with wit and honour. It is the stuff of good mental health. Those who misuse it to excess and fall into "the failing" are ostracized as a risk to society.
When my family decided to go to Canada in 1948 we went up to Scotland to visit my grand parents. It was a teary farewell because in those days it would be some time before anyone would see you again. In earlier times it was really a permanent goodbye for many Scots. In 1891 some of my relatives went off to Australia. They might as well gone to the moon.
Andrew Mitchell Munro, my grandfather and my grandmother Jane Kerr Munro had a small goodbye party for us. After the main meal me and my cousins sat around a large wooden table for dessert. It was a large fruitcake and it was to be smothered in hot Bird's custard. 
We waited for my grandfather to start cutting the cake. He played it for all it was worth. "Right noo" he said as the knife cut into the cake, "Ye'll all want some of this, then, won't ye?"  A chorus of yes yes ran around the table from the eager cousins. He then cut a piece and placed it slowly and deliberately in a bowl and lathered it with hot Bird's custard. All eyes were on this bowl and then there was another long wait and finally a spoonful was taken and was on its way to his mouth "Well watch me eat it !"
My cousin Iain Clark couldn't restrain himself. "Dae we no get any, granddad?" Granddad looked over his glasses "Have ye been gid all week Iain?" "Aye, I have," Iain replied. Then he looked about the table "And what aboot the rest of ye?"  A chorus of ayes and yes, yes went up in hopeful anticipation.
Then my grandmother intervened. "Och Andra stop pestering the bairns (children)!" Then in true Scottish matriarchal style she took over the distribution of the cake and pudding. It was a grand cultural moment. Scots can never resist taking a rise out of others and that is how they teach their children through teasing and fun.
At the end of that day as we were preparing to leave for Canada there was much somberness. As it worked out five months later Andrew Mitchell Munro would have a heart attack walking home. He then got up from the curb, walked home, and climbed the stairs to his apartment. When he came in he said "Jane...I don't feel too gid, I'll away tae my bed for a rest." He died several minutes later age 69 of cardiac arrest.
So as we left for Canada he called me to him: "Tam" he said quietly, "always remember who ye are and who ye are from. Ye come from me, Aindrea Mac an Rothaich" which is Gaelic for Andrew Munro. I have never forgot that moment. I felt intimately included. I was clan.
The death of my mother. Connecting back to the clan.
Very much later in 1976 I met with my Aunts in Scotland to discuss my mother's death in Canada and her unusual requests for burial. I came over at the New Year from Belgium where my own family and my wife were visiting her family for Christmas.
My Aunts (five bright, intelligent formidable ladies) sat in a living room and this meeting was chaired by my mother's oldest sister Anne. Auntie Annie began to inquire about my mother's Canadian funeral. I assured them that all was done in church but my mother had a strange request that hopefully they could help me with.
I opened my hand luggage and extracted a small cardboard box sealed in plastic by the undertaker in London, Ontario.  It was a portion of my mother's ashes from her cremation. She had left instructions that this "wee box" had to be interred in her father's grave which of course was in Scotland. I felt duty bound to carry out this wish.
Once Aunt Annie knew her facts she sprang into action. "Och there will nae reason tae have another church service here, Jeanie has had that already! We only need to call Andrew Johnson (my cousin). And so we waited for Andrew Johnson to arrive and I found out he was an undertaker.
Aunt Annie quizzed Andrew: "How much tae open Grandpa Munro's grave and put Jeanie in tae it?" Andrew stated that it would be 20 pounds. "Tam  pay  Andrew and gee him the wee box." I did that and Andrew said "I'll see you later," which turned out to be a big family party later that night.
Then Aunt Annie went to the serious business. "Tam I hope you had the presence of mind tae visit the duty free shop in Brussels", she stated with a glint of keen anticipation in her eye.
"Yes" I replied and pulled a bottle of Glenfiddich Malt from my hand luggage.  I had been well trained by my mother. Never go to a family meeting concerning funerals without whiskey.
Aunt Minnie dug out glasses for everyone and drinks were poured. Everyone waited for Aunt Annie (Scottish culture is very matriarchal) to say a few words. "Furst of all, Tam, I don't want ye tae think we're all boozers!" I  said " Yes, I know that you all only drink whiskey for medicinal purposes." A round of laughter went up as they got on with the serious business of toasting their sister's memory.
Aunt Annie then said "Tae Jeanie!" and we all toasted her. Then they began to tell stories about my mother and celebrate her life with comments like " Och Jeanie never forgot her faither. Dae ye no mind that she was only in Canada for five months when Grandpa Munro died, nae wonder she sent her ashes hame." That was an afternoon of concentrated  life experiences because I hadn't seen most of my aunts for over 25 years.
That night the family came and I spent the entire evening being introduced to all my aunts, uncles and their children. It was a party for Auntie Jeanie but it was a giant clan gathering that made me understand the great life force of my Scottish roots.

Main Street, Bon Hill: The Munros lived at 145 Main Street in 1881

My uncles take me closer to my roots.
The next evening my uncles took me out. We drove off into the countryside towards Loch Lomond and finally stopped at a tiny pub near Bon Hill. The pub had sawdust on the floor and the other patrons were mostly shepherds who had brought their sheep back to the night pens and then went for a drink. 
The uncles ordered a draft dark ale and a gill of malt whiskey to chase it then we stood at the bar and talked. They wanted to find out who this Canadian member of their family was and whether he was a person of standing or some bloody colonial fool. I guess I passed the test and I thank my time as an army officer for teaching me to pace drinks with the likes of these men. 
The real kicker that night is the relationship of this tiny pub to my direct ancestor Duncan Munro who was born in Inveraray-Glenaray in 1790 and died in Bon Hill, Dumbartonshire in 1882 at the age of 92.  Duncan came south from the Inveraray-Glenaray area in 1818 when he married. Duncan was a shepherd all his life and I was standing on his home ground drinking with my uncles.
Duncan's son Archibald Munro was born in 1825 very near this pub. Archibald was a Flesher which is the Scots word for a butcher but he was a specialist in sheep fleshing often with his father. Archibald married Helen Mitchell in 1854 and the result of that union was Agnes in 1855 and my great grandmother Janet Munro born in 1858. Archibald and Helen had a boy Duncan in 1860 but he died in 1861. 
Wee Duncan's death in 1861 was soon followed by Helen a few months later, and the children Agnes and Janet were doled out to relatives. Both girls had a ragged bringing up and we next see Janet as a single mother giving birth in 1879 to my grandfather Andrew Mitchell Munro. There is no record of his father's identity.  Andrew Mitchell Munro married Jane Kerr of Helensburgh in 1899 and my mother Jean is one of their nine children.
The roots go deeper.
And what happened to Agnes and Janet? Well after Duncan died in 1882 at 92, Agnes married James Broadfoot and they finally made their way to Australia in 1890 where they founded a large family that I am now in contact with through Wendy Davies, a descendant of James and Agnes. James was a sea captain and built an enterprising shipping company on Australia's east coast. Both Agnes and James are buried in Sydney.
What happened to Janet? She left her son Andrew Mitchell Munro with relatives and journeyed out to Australia in 1891 to help Agnes with her budding family. She returned in 1895 and married John Philps in Glasgow and had two more children,  John born in 1896 and Nelly Mitchell Philps in 1897. In 1898 the parents of these two young children died of typhoid within days of each other in the Fever Hospital in Glasgow. Janet was 40. Her children with John Philps were taken in by his father and sister.
I am a proud descendant of these people. It took a lot to be a single mother in 1879 then go off to Australia in 1891 and return to Scotland in 1895 and start another family at age 38. Janet's travel was very rare in those days when going to Canada or Australia was usually a one-way trip for life. 
Janet Munro-Philps early death in 1898 left her first son alone at age 19. A year later he married Jane Kerr in Helensburgh. He was used to being farmed out to relatives but he had obtained, some how, a good trade and would work for Singers machining the shuttle for sewing machines for the next 50 years at their giant factory at Clydebank. His mother worked as a domestic servant, a factory girl in the Leven River fabric dyeing factories near Bon Hill. Later she worked selling milk and bread with John Philps in Glasgow. She was a doer and survivor.
She was the granddaughter of a shepherd who made his way south from Inveraray in 1818 probably for opportunities as Scotland industrialized in the early 19th Century. Her father remained a shepherd-flesher but her son is the first in his family to take on a new type of work as a machinist that was offered in the new industrialized Scotland. The good times lasted until the 1930's when Scottish industry experienced a huge downturn caused by the Great Depression. 

That was followed by World War II when the Germans bombed the industrialized Clyde Valley in an attempt to destroy its shipbuilding capacity. The "Blitz" as it is called in Clydebank destroyed large sections of the town. My grandmother's comment: "Och...the Gerries missed ma hoose with their Blitz. If they had hit it I would have got a new one like my neighbours."
They maintained their honour and their connection to life forces that go centuries back into their Highland origins.  Through all of these ups and downs these people remained resilient, hard working and family oriented. They maintained their sense of humour that was created by their ancestor's example years before in the Glenaray. 
© Copyright 2012, Tom Thorne, All Rights Reserved


  1. Thank you for your wonderful post. In researching the names of my ancestors and in reading about the history of the times in which they lived. I also gained a greater sense of who I am by who they were. There remains a sense of connection, pride, love for the land, and for the people and their stories. - A descendant of Mcphail Highlanders from Argyll family buried at Ft. Bragg.

    1. I am pleased that you found this post useful.