Saturday, 23 March 2013

Family history is becoming an on-line business. How can primary records be made available at a reasonable cost?

19th century haying at Inveraray Castle near the Glenaray.

Family history is on line and the past is available like never before. However the past is not free.

by Tom Thorne

“We look at the present through a rearview mirror. We march backwards into the future.” - Marshall McLuhan

Imagine a society without access to its past. Even if it has built large paper or even clay tablet archives of the past, they were largely accessed only by bureaucrats, registrars, specialized scholars and professionals. Long before computers the Church of Latter Day Saints  (CLS) began to archive births marriages and death information of the world amplified by a religious conviction they hold about saving souls of past relatives. They collected or put it all on microfilms. Their diligent work to index and put on microfilm millions of records was a major contribution to family history study and remains so to this day.

When computers came on the scene the CLS quickly adapted their files to the new medium and created an on line index which is often the first place to look to find an ancestor before either getting the original archived record or its image on analogue film or going on line for it from venders. These films are available at Church of Latter Day Saints family research centres at no cost and also on line for no charge. The CLS Family Centre I use is a few kilometers away. At Salt Lake City  are also now working to digitize the primary records for on line use. Laudable work.

Their analogue microfilm rolls 1041007, 1041009 contains most of my Scottish family living in Argyllshire from the 17th Century through to the 19th Century. When this film was indexed on a computer database it opened up a vast resource that I can access on my personal computer and iPad before going to the centre to see the original file or ordering it in my case from Scotland’s People the Scottish Government’s web site for family history. 

One of the best experiences I have had researching my own family history was getting access to the 1779 Duke of Argyll’s Census (DAC). My ancestors are listed in this secondary document transcribed and published by the Scottish Genealogical Society. For about a year I kept seeing it crop up as a source in people’s discussions on line. Then I found it was available  and was indexed in my nearby CLS office. 

It seemed like a mysterious document because no one had really seen the entire volume in the flesh. It was not widely available and hard copies of it seemed hard to get.  Probably a small select print run made it a rare book. None of our local university libraries had a copy. However the Robart’s Research Library at the University of Toronto over 200 kilometers from my home had one on their shelves. I opted for the CLS film.

I asked my local CLS family research office if they had it. No, they didn’t, but they would gladly bring it in from Salt Lake City. When it arrived I received a call to come in and use it.

It turned out to be a revelation about who was who on the Duke of Argyll’s lands in 1779-80 and it contained so many Munros that I had to set about learning about them. It also listed all their children and provided the maiden names of their wives. It was in a word useful. I provided part of it in an earlier story still on this blog in the June 2012 story: Family history: The Duke of Argyll's 1779 Census (DAC) of his properties provides insight into 18th Century Argyllshire and my family's origins.

The first problem was that we had the DAC microfilm for 10 days so I asked if I could photograph relevant pages for future reference. The prospect of writing out these pages was daunting and because their laser printer was on the fritz they agreed.

I photographed the entire document taking particular attention to the Argyll farms with Munros that were concentrated in the Glenaray and down Loch Fyne to Auchindrain Farm which is now a museum devoted to presenting the life on these collective family farms. I also focused on the Roseneath pages which records McCunns and McFarlanes that are also part of my family’s story. 

So there it is. If this material was not indexed and on line no one would know about it. The fact that is now available means that family history studies are personalized and no longer the province of archivists and experts. 

The Scotland’s People site has become a money maker for the Scottish government and their devotion to bring more and more material on line is endless. The following Census material is now available: 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891 and recently 1901 and 1911. However, their fees to access and download images of primary documents I find expensive.

That is why I use the free Church of Latter Day Saints indices on line. They have posted Census index files to 1891. This index tells a relevant file exists to pay for if you need to see it. A useful service.

Family history is becoming a business with venders such as However many times these services provide local library public subscriptions that enable researchers to check files that you may want for free.  One can get the original image in my the case from, Scotland’s People. I have a policy that once I have a digital file of a primary document I make it available to other researchers and this policy is reciprocated by my contacts.

This policy pays dividends in knowledge. A good example of this was a recent Australian contact who is related to me from the 18th and early 19th Centuries, provided me with the Inveraray Glenaray record of John and Mary Munro’s marriage in 1789. I was pleased to see that this file stated clearly that John Munro was “in Drimfern” which confirms the Glenaray farm that John Munro is found on in the Duke of Argyll’s 1779 Census (DAC).

However, there was a further payoff on the page of about 12 other marriages in 1788-1789 registry. The payoff is provided by this entry. “1788 Munro and McKeller: Finlay Munro in this parish (Inveraray and Glenaray) Janet McKeller in the parish of Strachur (just across Loch Fyne from Inveraray) gave in their names and were married April 21 at Inveraray.”

Finlay Munro is the younger brother of John Munro married in 1789. By a quirk of fate both their marriages are found on the same page of this primary document from Scotland’s People. Finlay is also found on Drimfern farm in the 1779 Duke of Argyll Census. 

Discovering why certain stubborn facts keep emerging in index systems can only be solved by seeing the primary document. One of the children of the John and Mary Munro mentioned above, was Grizel Munro born in 1793. She married Alexander Crawford in 1816. We can find this marriage with no difficulty and Census files thereafter from 1841 on also with no problem.

However there is a reference with the correct parents in all indices to a Grizel Munro whose birth was registered in 1822. Is it the same Grizel? It turns out it is because somehow her parents didn’t register her birth in 1793 and did so in 1822. 

So the Register was opened to the pages for 1793 and the following was inserted in 1822: “Munro: Grizel lawful daughter of John Munro in Drimfern and Mary Munro his spouse was born 15 July 1793 and Baptized on the same date 1793 years”.  Grizel perhaps rectified this herself as she began to have her own family. Her first son Neil Crawford was also born in 1822. This adventurous lad went to South Australia in1839 resulting in the people I am in contact with today.

An upcoming story in this space will deal with the costs of accessing primary documents from governments and private venders and the counterpoint to those costs offered by collective organizations such FreeCen at their website:

© Copyright 2013, Tom Thorne, All Rights Reserved. 

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Roots: I go to Scotland to make my family history more tangible. Seeing where it happened enables dry facts to come alive.

Argyle and parts of Dumbartonshire in the 19th Century. 
The scene of my family history from the 17th-20th Centuries 

A genealogy trip to Scotland: Roots on the ground or is it simply satisfying a bucket list item of an aging geriatric?

by Tom Thorne

I have the family history bug. Stories still on this blog attest to this interest. Family Historyitis is a pleasantly incurable syndrome, however, and at times it smacks of an obsession. The infection is now at a point where to really understand my Argyllshire Scottish roots I feel compelled to get on the ground in Scotland.

This has morphed into a trip to Scotland this spring. On 10 April 2013 my wife Mieke and I, make for Brussels Airport from Toronto where we land on the morning of 11 April. At the airport Mieke goes off with her Belgian family primarily to see her mother who is 92  this year.

I hang about Brussels Airport for a tiring day and then in the afternoon fly on to Edinburgh where I intend to get my rental car and go to sleep in the first hotel I find. On the morning of 12 April my jet lagged odyssey into family history begins. 

In 2007 we went to Scotland to tour the highlands and see Neolithic megalithic standing stones and other archaeological evidence at Callanish on the Hebrides,  Brognar Ring on Orkney and other sites throughout the Scottish Highlands. That was a wonderful trip but the fleeting hour we spent in Inveraray ( the Argyll origins of my Munro family) while on our rushed way to a ferry to the Hebrides, was simply an unsatisfying prelude to what was really needed.

This time I will have from 12-23 April to focus only on family history then I return to Belgium and a trip to see World War II Holland and my regiment’s (The Royal Canadian Regiment) contribution to the liberation. 

In Scotland there will be a luxury of time compared to 2007 experience because I will  get on the ground and fully into the family history task. The basic trip is from Edinburgh over to the Dumbarton-Trossachs- Aberfoyle area where my Munros lived and worked in the early 19th Century after they came down from Inveraray about 1818.  

Some of their descendants still live in this area today. I will meet some of these contemporary people and see where my family is buried and where they lived. Sadly my generation of cousins from the 1940’s are mostly dead which is a sobering thought for me. I am the only one left of my mother’s sisters and brother’s children at nearly 72 years old. 

However, a lot  of evidence remains in Bonhill, Dumbuck, Dumbarton, Helensburgh and Roseneath from the 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, Dumbuck House an old 18th Century estate house is now a hotel on the Clyde River near Dumbarton. In 1861 my great great great grandmother Helen Mitchell Munro died on this estate at age 28 from tubercolosis. 

The Strathleven House estate now a local government building in Dumbarton, is the site of where Duncan Munro worked as a shepherd in 1851 and nearby Mains Farm area is a suburb now where he lived in 1861. Spouts farm where Duncan Munro lived in 1841 as a shepherd with his family is still in open country.  The shepherd’s house now a recorded archaeological site, retains the stone outline of a small cottage that can still be seen. It makes family history much more tangible. You see the ground and looking to the west from Spouts, the Leven River flows towards the Clyde River from Loch Lomond.

I will be staying in a Bonhill bed and breakfast which is how a visitor can link to an area because you can mine local knowledge from your hosts. However my bed and breakfast is near where Duncan Munro 1790-1882 from Inveraray and a huge extended family lived nearby at 145 Main Street in 1881 at the age of 91. That building also still exists along with their parish church.

Once I have done this part of the trip which includes examining Rhu Parish churchyard Plot 71 for evidence of Peter McCunn and Agnes McFarlane the parents of Duncan Munro’s wife Janet McCunn 1783-1869,  I go north to Inveraray and Argyllshire where the family goes back to at least the 17th Century. In the 18th Century the Munros were concentrated on farms in the Glenaray a river valley behind Inveraray town. I will be carrying primary documents and early maps on my iPad to guide me. 

Again, I will be staying in a bed and breakfast in Inveraray from 15-22 April to gain local lore. On 19 April I will attend a luncheon meeting of the Neil Munro Society. Neil Munro is a famous journalist and author who is also an Argyll Munro with origins in the Glenaray at Ladyfield Farm. At that time I meet Duncan Beaton who is related to me through Archibald Munro 1798-1864 who was the brother of my ancestor Duncan Munro 1790-1882 and both born in Inveraray Glenaray Parish to John and Mary Munro who married in 1789.

We can trace the parents of both these people into the Glenaray at Drimfern Farm where Archibald Munro born 1712 lived with his wife Isobel McIlvoile or Bell, born 1723. We find all these people in the wonderful primary Duke of Argyll census document  of 1779 which I have transcribed onto my iPad. I hope to find information about which Mary Munro, John Munro actually married in 1789. Perhaps someone will know the answer.

I think you get the picture why it is important to get on the ground. There is only so much a researcher can do on line and from downloaded documents. I need to get a tangible sense of place and time by tramping about on the “auld sod”. Watch this space for discoveries.

© Copyright 2013, Tom Thorne, All Rights Reserved.