If you don’t know where you are going

The Ancestorium.com family history collaboration I have been helping run with my cousin Hamish has over 167,000 records in our family tree database now. The other part of the site is a WordPress blog and that only has 15 posts. And so we are going to close down the blog on that site and repost anything that was published there on here. We will, however, continue with the family tree collaboration there. Here is one of the first posts I put together over at Ancestorium.com, back in February 2020 (just before the pandemic).

As mentioned in the first post on Ancestorium.com, I have been penning this one about how this collaboration with my cousin Hamish Maclaren and not so distant one Kathy Neville came into being. It’s a long story with lots of twists and turns. But starts with how I have been looking into my family history now for around 12 years and have been publishing the findings as a journal-like blog.

It’s called Descent from Adam: a tale in down- ward social mobility, having once told my wife that I had just found out via Google that I could trace my ancestry back to Adam and Eve. Her response was that at least my slide down the social mobility snake helps someone else step onto a ladder.

The original idea was simply to use the blog for keeping notes about my discoveries. As these grew, the blog became a lighthouse, signpost and sometimes a gathering place for others fascinated by their ancestry or those researching the dead I had written about.

Inevitably my posts also chronicle some of the how of discovering ancestors, or at least in the way I’ve been doing it. And that’s involved a ‘detective-like’ process of deduction where information gathered from difference sources is sorted basically into what is or can be actually known by conforming to some standard of proof (i.e. Genealogical Proof Standard); what has been surmised or is only probably true; what is simply just believed; and what seems unlikely or disproved.

That was the theory, but over the years the blog has evolved into more of a repository for a random selection of anecdotes, discoveries, encounters, observations, notes, and reflections. As such, it became only partly about family history and often felt more like an excuse to experiment with both a form of non-fiction writing and how the different types of information I’ve gathered might be presented. And the longer I have been at it, the more I have started to think of my blog as like a digital equivalent of the Jackdaw history series of folders containing primary source documents I enjoyed as a child, including the ‘Battle of Britain’ one I still own like the example shown below:

I have no idea how many words I have written since I launched the blog back in the late naughts. And I have completely lost track of how many ancestors I have actually traced. I would be surprised if the total word count of all those posts represents 5% of the discussions I have had with various cousins and others researching or writing about ancestral kith and kin. And probably smaller percentage still of those I have bored by talking about my interest in family history.

Certainly, my head count is no way near the 134,000+ individuals my cousin Hamish has amassed working on genealogy for about 25 years. This kindly includes patiently chronicling the who-begat-who included in all my posts; as well as helping several other cousins along similar lines; and also compiling trees for in-laws, friends, their spouses, and even some lines he was just asked about. If there was an OBE, or even MBE, for family history/genealogy then he deserves to be awarded one… perhaps knighthood.

Looking back, it dawned on me that what I have been doing with my blog seems akin to the European folk story about the stone soup:

Some travelers come to a village, carrying nothing more than an empty cooking pot. Upon their arrival, the villagers are unwilling to share any of their food stores with the hungry travelers. Then the travelers go to a stream and fill the pot with water, drop a large stone in it, and place it over a fire. One of the villagers becomes curious and asks what they are doing. The travelers answer that they are making “stone soup”, which tastes wonderful and which they would be delighted to share with the villager, although it still needs a little bit of garnish, which they are missing, to improve the flavor.

The villager, who anticipates enjoying a share of the soup, does not mind parting with a few carrots, so these are added to the soup. Another villager walks by, inquiring about the pot, and the travelers again mention their stone soup which has not yet reached its full potential. The villager hands them a little bit of seasoning. More and more villagers walk by, each adding another ingredient. Finally, the stone (being inedible) is removed from the pot, and a delicious and nourishing pot of soup is enjoyed by travelers and villagers alike. Although the travelers have thus tricked the villagers into sharing their food with them, they have successfully transformed it into a tasty meal which they share with the donors.


There is a long list of acknowledgements for those who have kindly contributed, but I started to realise that my preparation of all those ingredients on my previous blog might not be to everyone’s taste. That’s part of why this collaboration with Hamish and Kathy has been launched.

This includes integrating Darrin Lythgoe’s The Next Generation of Genealogy Sitebuilding© (“TNG”) tool into this new blog. Next step is to amalgamate our collective research into one tree and upload it. That way you’ll be able to see all the Descendancies, Pedigrees and Ahnentafel-type indices, which will make it easier to follow the generations of each family. In the meantime, you can see a sample tree of ancestors starting with Ralph de Bridtwisell of Bridtwisell in Hapton (this link will only be active while we test the TNG tool with the sample tree).

Anyway, we hope this hybrid blog and ancestor database will allow us to present our findings, as well as stumbling blocks, in both an interesting and useful way. At very least, we hope to provide a useful starting place for the those of you wanting to find out more about the individuals and families along with different ways of presenting our findings including the how and where of what we cover. Part of the rationale for doing so is to make that information publicly available, which it isn’t on sites like Ancestry.com without a subscription.

If you follow the blog, you will get an idea of how we conduct our research and where we find out more about our ancestors. Putting together an idiots guide to online genealogy, wasn’t part of the plan… or at least intentionally.

The catalyst for this collaboration was actually part of trying to answer a similar riddle to the one posed by Alice to the Cheshire Cat in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

And also taking on board the observation in his response:

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”

George Harrison paraphrased this exchange in the following refrain from his song Any Road:

If you don’t know where you’re going, any road’ll take you there

Like Alice, I wasn’t particularly sure at the onset, but now that I have covered so much ground I have started to ponder the purpose or the why of it.

As Julie Andrews says in the Sound of Music, “let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.” One way of doing so is to think about what triggered this quest, beyond some kind of Pokémon-like “gotta catch ‘em all” and it not mattering that much what you end-up catching/collecting. ‘Different strokes, for different folks’ and all that.

I only have anecdotal evidence, but I am beginning to think that there maybe a common catalyst for an interest in one’s ancestors that I am calling the 3x Gt. Grandfather Enigma. That seems to be a phenomena where people start becoming obsessed about/addicted to ancestry research, often in middle age, having not been able to get much further than about 5 generations back. And that’s because the information contained in census records from sites like Ancestry.com is about as far back as most can get. Perhaps, this is only true of the UK, where the first major census since the Doomsday book was in 1801.

In my family’s case, we know quite a bit about our 3x Gt. Grandfather, but only know the name of his father (George) and possibly his mother (Mary). They may have lived in Charles Street in the parish of St Andrew Holborn, but we have no idea where they were born. And so it is not clear where to find out more about their ancestry, i.e. via which parish records.

According to Lincoln Inn’s records, George was a ‘gent’ of Kensall Green. He can’t have been that posh because there’s no mention of him in various compendiums of Peerage, Baronetage & Knightage like Debrett’s and Burke’s; or even those about more up-market commoners aka the Landed Gentry:

I am not sure whether genealogical dead ends like this one caused by the 3x Gt. Grandfather Enigma is what leads to many researching other branches of ancestors, both paternal and maternal.  It was for me, hence the 370 or more blog posts I’ve written on my previous blog about what I have discovered and has been shared with me as a result.

There’s actually been a lot I have been asked not to share, which is a shame because I think it would be interesting and helpful to others. I’m also doubtful it would be particularly embarrassing to those living regardless of whether they have a public profile or not. But I can see how some might want to let ‘what happened in Las Vegas, stay in Las Vegas’ or at least reserved for the eyes of close family only.

What I have never really answered though, is why I am actually bothered.  Can’t say my interest is shared beyond a very small number of close relatives, even if the site seems to be of some interest to more distant kin (Birtwistles in particular), and those researching some of who I write about.

I do sometimes wonder whether I am one of many – for we are legion – engaged in some kind of Westernised veneration of ancestors. Then again, I doubt whether my previous blog really counts as ‘culting’ of ancestors, or at least in a Shinto-like way based as described in the little snippet on the preceding page by Lafcadio Hearn in Japan, an attempt at interpretation (1904).

They were the givers of life, the givers of wealth, the makers and teachers of the present: they represent the past of the race, and all its sacrifices; whatever the liver posses is from them. Yet how little do they require in return! Scarcely more than to be thanked, as the founders and guardians of the home, in simple words like this: “For aid received, by day and by night, accept, August Ones, our reverential gratitude”…

To forget or neglect them, to treat them with rude indifference, is the proof of an evil heart; to cause them shame by ill-conduct, to disgrace their name by bad actions, is the supreme crime. They represent the moral experience of the race. Whosoever denies that experience, denies them also, and falls to the level of the beasts, or below it. They represent the unwritten law, the traditions of the commune, the duties of all to all; whosoever offends against this, sins against the dead. And finally, they represent the mystery of the invisible: to Shinto beliefs, at least, they are gods.”

‘Japan, an attempt at interpretation’ by Lafcadio Hearn (1904)

As my cousin Hamish commented, this seems a little bit extreme because if you don’t do things their way then it is “proof of an evil heart” (the supreme crime); “falls to the level of the beasts, or below it”; and even “sins against the dead.”  But as he also reflected, it probably helps to think one won’t be forgotten, at least for a very long time.

I mention all this because I have also been wondering whether the growing numbers of those finding out about their ancestors might have common experiences. And whether these could be analysed in a more cultural-anthropological way, i.e. the why of what they do, or phenomenology. And would discovering any common experiences that help explain the why of it, rather than just the how, be interesting to that audience and others as perhaps as a form of non-fiction.

Not sure my sample of one is much to go on as a basis for a book along those lines, not least because it seems to me at times to read more like a shaggy dog story although sadly not as well written as Laurence Sterne’s classic, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. But perhaps writing up my experiences in the following way might be a way of discovering whether they are ones shared with others.

For example, 3x Gt. Grandfather Enigma mentioned above. Or how likely blue blood will eventually be discovered given exponential nature of ancestry, or what I now call the Danny Dyer Effect (more on this later). And if the chances of that happening might be greatly improved, if at least one of your ancestors – included in census records since they began – are also listed in one of the many compendiums of Peerage, Baronetage & Knightage or even Landed Gentry. Or what I call The Peerage Pretension, given that so many of those families listed in those compendiums can be found on the free online ThePeerage.com resource compiled by Darryl Lundy (with help from their numerous descendants including yours truly).

Again, I only have anecdotal evidence, but it seems like the chances of discovering possible blue blood is improved still further if one of your ancestors is both Scottish and descended from one of the families listed on Darryl’s site. The assumption being that there were just less nobility up there given population density, and so there is a greater chance that at least one of their ancestors would have married into the House of Stewart and from there to other royal houses across Europe.

Putting accusations of pretension aside, which has been leveled at me by both close cousins and others less overtly, what is useful about a FabPedigree’ is that ‘posher’ family histories are usually better documented. Likes of Stirnet.com and Genealogy.eu sites can then show how you are descended, at least mythically, from Adam and Eve (hence name of my previous blog) as well as Viking, Greek and Roman Gods.

Fun as discovering noble, royal and mythical descent can be, it is not really what has kept my interest going all these years. That’s been more about the social aspect of connecting with others and sharing of discoveries/artifacts/stories, and especially for branches and individuals not so well documented. And that is another reason for this collaboration because it increases the chances that someone will get in touch with new information about our ancestors… and maybe also agree to join the collaboration.

That said, I am hoping that the blog will continue to be a scrap book-like presentation of our findings – beyond just a repository for ancestor biographies, wiki entries, obituaries, etc. In short, any kind of storytelling that brings our ancestors (back) to life rather than just reduces them to being part of yet another bifurcation in a family tree. That could include compiling what we have found into something similar about their families, clans, etc. This provides some additional context, and usual connects ancestors to some place rather than just an era, epoch, etc, i.e. time.

At the same time, what I have just written about with regard to posher pedigrees are potentially the basis of chapters for a non-fiction type book. And specifically, those ancestors – real or otherwise – that help join dots back to the dawn of time; e.g. a descent from Adam and Eve via Sceafa or Scēaf, the non-biblical son of Noah; a descent from the Greek Gods via Dardanus; and the less mythical Mitochondrial Eve, most recent common matrilineal ancestor of all living humans.

The reason for doing so might become clearer in what follows about whether Genetic Genealogy might be the next step. And specifically for those of us including my cousin Hamish who have encountered the 3x Gt. Grandfather Enigma. He’s way ahead of me as ever, but the DNA genealogy tests he has taken so far haven’t helped him get further back down his paternal male branch… possibly because things get a bit hazy DNA-wise when you get that far back. The tests have helped him connect to at least one distant cousin who shares a Confirmed Haplogroup, but it’s not clear idea how many hundred years ago their most recent common ancestor might be.

However, he did find out four more generations along from a 2x Gt. Grandmother and 100s of more cousins in various parts of the world as a result. Tests have also confirmed at least 1 brother, first cousins (including my brother) and cousins not so far removed, which shows that the tests are not completely inaccurate and can reveal more ancestors. Here’s hoping we’ll find new discoveries, as more relatives get tested and matched to us as they get added to an expanding (gene) pool.

But what is really beginning to intrigue me is whether Genetic Genealogy might completely re-frame the way we think about our kith and kin, i.e. not in just terms of our shared ancestors, but our shared genetic inheritance. It’s just that if you go back far enough then you end up with having more ancestors than the total population of the world today, i.e. the ‘genealogical paradox‘ of exponential growth (2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024 and so on).

That genealogical numbers game increases the odds of discovering royal ancestry. Hence the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are genealogy show being able to show Danny Dyer from the UK TV soap East Enders his royal descent. The point being, the most remarkable part was how they managed to trace his ancestors back far enough, not that he shares royal ancestors with millions of others.

Put another way, royal ancestry is just one part of genealogical paradox, which raises a question of where to draw a lines with research into family history (how far back do you go and along what branches). One option is to limit the scope of research to certain branches or rigour by which each generation is added based on the credibility of proof, i.e Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS).

But maybe genetic genealogy is another, by focusing on genetic inheritance and their associated traits instead. Firstly, doing so grounds one’s research back in the here and now. For example, do I have the gene variant known as DRD4-7R, which is thought to be present in around 20 per cent of the population… also known as the wonderlust gene that is linked to ADHD, Creativity, Entrepreneurship and what is called the Hunter vs. Farmer hypothesis. That might account for the skittishness of my research method, and why my blog has been most useful tool for my less linear approach to family history.

More generally, genetic genealogy begs the question whether knowing more about one’s genetic inheritance is actually useful or not for the here and now, i.e. because of nature vs. nurture. What interests me is whether it may encourage us to think differently about others, particularly with rise of populism that aims to rule by dividing the them from us. Could we start thinking about others more empathetically because we share common (genetic) traits beyond colour of skin or other aspects of our identity, e.g. geographical origin, religious persuasion, gender, sexual and political preference? And bringing this back to genealogy, could those traits be a different lens for looking at our ancestors and their behaviour, career choices, etc.

That’s probably the next project, but in the meantime I hope you enjoy our collaboration. My contribution is likely to remain more scrap-bookish and possibly shaggy dog story about how I go about my research. The idea being that it can be dipped in and out of, rather than be read as a story with beginning, middle and end. What I hope is that what I’ve write about also provides a look under the bonnet of researching family history in general, particularly via the vast array of available online tools and resources. And specifically the way my Descent from Adam blog became both a means of collaborating with others, but also a chronicle of what I have found when from where, how and with help from whom.

Given the various accounts of my Scottish ancestors I don’t think the kind of storytelling am trying to do is particularly new, e.g. based on the numerous Victorian accounts of the Macdonald/McDonnell clans I’ve seen that were originally written for a diasporic audience spread across the Empire caused by the highland clearances, hope of a better life, etc. If only I could make the topic as interesting as their authors. And they follow in the footsteps of the seanchaí, the traditional Gaelic storytellers/historians. Or seanchaidh in Scottish Gaelic that is often anglicised as shanachie.

Perhaps what we are doing with this collaboration is just the modern equivalent of that storytelling/famnily historian tradition. But as mentioned earlier, my reason for suggesting this collaboration was threefold. Firstly, I wanted to share my discoveries, and amplify the way that sharing encourages others to share their relevant discoveries. Secondly, it was partly to discover whether there are common experiences shared by others on similar family history quests. But most of all it was about finding a better way to consolidate what was already a collaboration with others, but in one place.

I was also thinking about writing a possible (creative) non-fiction book about family history research, but that looks like it is on hold while this collaboration gets under way and is possibly superseded by it. This shaggy story was originally going to be the preface, but I have adapted it as more of a origin story for this collaboration. If you have got this far it would be fascinating to hear your thoughts in comments below about this rambling and/or recognise anything about yourself in it or experiences you have had while researching your ancestors.

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