Monday, 26 October 2015

Smallpox in the National Records of Scotland

Smallpox is a word that has inspired fear for generations. Our ancestors suffered with little help and it was not until the 26th of October 1977 that the world’s last naturally occurring case was discovered.

We are the product of generations of ancestors who survived long enough to have children, but we know that sadly many of our ancestors’ siblings did not survive. It is rare to find detailed health records of our ancestors, so although we might theorise that they endured diseases such as smallpox we do not often have any evidence one way or the other.

Clues do exist, though, if you know where to look. One interesting source is the prison registers held by the National Records of Scotland. Victorian prison records are very detailed, and one of the columns on the registers was headed ‘Marks’. In this column, as well as finding details of tattoos or scars, we commonly see written ‘pock marked’, ‘poxpitted’, ‘pock pitted’ and even ‘Marked with small pox’. A person could become pockmarked by various skin conditions, but smallpox was a major cause of such scarring. Depending on the description used, it can be very clear that they suffered from smallpox at some point in their life, information which may not be found in any other record. The image to the left shows William Phillips and Betsy Phillips are recorded as being marked with the smallpox in an 1848 prison register; you can search an index to these records on our website.

Another source of information is the Kelso Dispensary patient records, which are also held by the National Records of Scotland. These records provide a fascinating glimpse into the history of smallpox. Founded in 1777, this charitable institution saw patients with many ailments, and smallpox is frequently seen in the records. Between October 1793 and October 1794 the Dispensary saw 29 cases of smallpox, with one case resulting in death.

Click to see image full size

The records of the Kelso Dispensary document many cases of smallpox. Above we see an entry for Thomas Tenant who died of the disease in 1797. This entry is again from the National Records of Scotland, their reference number for the document is HH71/43.

In 1796 a physician named Edward Jenner discovered that infecting someone with cowpox gave them protection from the much more dangerous smallpox. This was effective because when a person was exposed to cowpox, the human body produced antibodies which helped protect them from smallpox. This was the world’s first vaccine!

The vaccine came too late for poor Thomas, though. Just a few years later, on 10 August 1800, we see the first entry of smallpox inoculation by the Kelso Dispensary. Sadly the names of the children are not listed but these ten children surely have a place in history.

Click to see image full size

As with many new ideas the smallpox inoculation (or vaccination) was not universally accepted. Cartoons of the time depict the fear that the public had at the time, that somehow the cowpox may turn them into a cow! Science prevailed however and the results were clear. In time an improved vaccine was made and the rest, as they say, is history. This terrifying disease now only exists in laboratories, let’s hope it stays that way!

When researching our ancestor’s past we are not content with a lists of names, dates and places, we want to dig deeper and understand the people we are descended from. By looking at a variety of records you can do that too. We are working on a project to index Scottish prison and health records so that you can trace your family tree and find out more about the people behind the names, including the diseases they had to endure. Search for the names of your ancestors and discover more about their lives.

A page from a prison register

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

A Scottish Family Archive

The Lands of Kirkconnell
Many of the readers of this blog will treasure their family documents and photographs. You may have spent many hours scanning and photographing them, as well as trying to work out who is standing next to great uncle Alfred!

We were fortunate to be invited to view the family archive of Francis Maxwell of Kirkconnell, Baron of Newlaw recently. His family archive is on a different level to ours!

A Family Treasure
The first treasure we saw was a handwritten volume written in 1581! As we began to open up the archive boxes we found treasure after treasure. The aim is to expand what we already know on the Maxwell family by tracing younger sons. Although a lot is known about the eldest sons in the Maxwell family less is known about the younger siblings. If you are descended from a younger child this can be frustrating!

If you are tracing the Maxwells of Newlaw, Kirkconnell, Breoch or Carnsalloch please let us know as we are keen to hear from anybody tracing these families.

We're looking forward to assessing these items in detail

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

7 July 1905 - Peebles Hydropathic Burned to the Ground

Peebles Hydropathic before the fire

To us researching your family tree is more than just gathering names, dates and places. Tracing your genealogy should be a journey of discovery, getting to know the people along the way, in effect having your own ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ experience!

Edinburgh Evening News
08 July 1905
Copyright British Newspaper Archive
Newspapers and old photographs are a great way to add to the knowledge you have gleaned from certificates and census returns. Sometimes newspapers name our ancestors but at other times we will need to think a little more laterally, searching for stories about the places they lived and worked.

On this day 110 years ago the Peebles Hydropathic hotel was burned to the ground. As you can see from the photographs that accompany this blog the destruction was devastating and complete. For those visiting the Hydropathic, those staying there and those living in the town it must have been one of the most, if not the most, traumatic events in their lives.

Peebles Hydropathic after the fire
The newspaper accounts don’t mention many people but you may have found from the census that your ancestors worked at the Hydropathic, if they did they were likely involved in the incident. The lesson is to think laterally when searching the newspapers and you may discover an incident that would have impacted on your family greatly even though they are not mentioned as individuals.

The British Newspaper Archive is a wonderful resource if you are searching for UK ancestors. They are steadily increasing their holdings and you can also request certain newspapers. The BNA collection is also part of some Findmypast subscriptions. If you live in Scotland you can access many Scottish newspapers through the National Library of Scotland’s ‘Licensed digital collections’ (free): all you have to do is register. The NLS also has a large collection of newspapers on microfilm that are free to view in person.

Many local libraries and archives hold newspapers for the local area and libraries such as the Ewart in Dumfries allow digital photography. There are also many newspapers on Google which are free to use.

The New Peebles Hydropathic

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Tracing Your Scottish Ancestors

If you need some help tracing your elusive Scottish ancestors the May ‘Then & Now’ competition prize is just what you need.

This month we are giving away two hours of professional genealogy help in the National Records of Scotland and we are also including a copy of the book ‘Tracing Your Scottish Ancestors’. This book should be on the desk of every Scottish genealogist! It will help you learn why records were created, how they have been kept and what information you can learn from them, it is the official guide for the National Records of Scotland. We hope that this book, kindly donated by the National Records of Scotland, together with our time will help you get over a brick wall in your family history and propel your research forward!

To enter find an old Scottish photo, recreate it and email both photos to me. To see full terms and conditions see our previous blog post:

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Finding Birth, Marriage and Death Records Before 1855

From 1855 onwards, finding records of births, marriages and deaths could not be much easier than it is in Scotland. All historical records are available to view on the Scotland’s People website (at a fee).

For the period prior to 1855, the Scotland’s People website also has the Church of Scotland Old Parochial Registers (OPRs) that have survived. The question is this: if you can’t find a birth, marriage or death in the OPRs, does that mean that no record exists?

The answer is a resounding NO! There are many registers lying unindexed which could hold the key to progressing your family tree.

Our new Learning Zone section ‘Finding Birth, Marriage and Death Records Before 1855’ has been designed to explain the situation and help you find the records you need.

Please let me know if you have a question which is not covered in the Learning Zone.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Using Marriage Contracts to Trace Your Family Tree

Marriage contracts are just one type of deed that can be very useful when you are tracing your family tree. As well as detailing the persons getting married they frequently mention other family members including parents, siblings and sometimes even more distant family members. They were usually drawn up by families who had land or wealth of some kind. If your family worked on the land rather than owned the land you are unlikely to find a marriage contract. 

There was no legal obligation to register a marriage contract, it was a private document. As a fee would be involved in registering the document it was often only done if and when it became necessary. For example, a marriage contract could be dated 12 July 1735 but only registered on 20 December 1769; as you can see in this entry on our website index. 

Finding these marriage contracts without an index can be challenging and time-consuming. That is why we have decided to begin indexing sections of the Register of Deeds that are currently un-indexed. We hope this project will uncover many genealogical gems that will help you and others research your family tree.

So far we have indexed 1,072 entries… there’s a long way to go! We are indexing these under the ‘Sponsor an Index’ initiative: can you help? From just £7 you can be involved in getting Scotland’s historic records online:

Thursday, 30 April 2015

The people behind the names

The Kelso Dispensary 
When you trace your genealogy you research the names, the dates and the places. This has to be step one. The second step, though, is digging a little deeper and finding out extra details that can help you understand somebody’s life.

Take this entry in the 1851 census of Stichill, Roxburghshire: Margaret Guthrie, aged 73, born in Greenlaw, married to James Guthrie. James and Margaret have a daughter living with them, her name is Alison and she is 30 years old. You can see the full entry on our website.

Tracing James and Margaret back to the 1841 census we see they that are living in the same house. A quick search online tells us that James Guthrie married Margaret Waddel in 1807, in Stichill.

Using these common genealogy tools we have learn something of James and Margaret. What else can we learn? Thanks to a generous contribution through our ‘Sponsor an Index’ scheme we can learn something remarkable.

When just 16 (in 1780) years of age Margaret was seen at the Kelso Dispensary due to ‘Obstructed Menses’. How scared she likely was as a young girl being seen by a physician in an age when this was very rare. We do not know how severe her condition was but it is possible that it is only because of the kind (and free) help of the Kelso dispensary that Alison was ever born.

The lesson for us, don’t be content with a list of names, dates and places; dig deeper, search more records and learn more about the lives of your ancestors.