Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Oh what a parish, a terrible parish! The hanged minister of Kinkell.

At the weekend I bought a copy of everyone's favourite Scottish newspaper, the Sunday Herald, and was delighted to find a free CD included within, the MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards Collection 2014. This contained 16 tracks from some of the best groups on the Scottish traditional music scene, but one really caught my attention, a track called The Queen of Argyll, by Silly Wizard. I'm sorry to say that I did not know who the band was, but it turns out they were a huge act on the traditional circuit a couple of decades back, and included well known accordionist Phil Cunningham, someone I regularly used to bump into during my TV days at the BBC canteen in Glasgow!

So impressed was I by the track that last night I downloaded the album it had been drawn from, a remastered album called Live Again (, which has just been re-released, and which features a concert from 1983 by the group in Cambridge Massachussetts, USA.  The Queen of Argyll was a great track, but another track on the album really caught my attention, a piece called The Parish of Dunkeld. It told the apparent story of a minister from Dunkeld who was said to have been hanged by his parishioners, who then partied on in the kirk building and got up to all sorts of grief. The following are the lyrics, written in Scots:

Oh, what a parish, a terrible parish;
Oh, what a parish is that o' Dunkeld.
They hangit their minister, droon'd their precentor,
Dang doun the steeple and fuddled the bell.

The steeple was doun but the kirk was still staunin',
They biggit a lum whaur the bell used to hang.
A stell-pat they gat and they brewed Hielan' whisky;
On Sundays they drank it and ranted and sang.

O, had you but seen how graceful it lookit,
To see the crammed pews sae socially joined.
MacDonald the piper stood up in the poopit,
He made the pipes skirl out the music divine.

Wi' whiskey and beer they'd curse and they'd swear;
They'd argue and fecht what ye daurna weel tell.
Bout Geordie and Charlie they bothered fu' rarely
Wi' whisky they're worse than the devil himsel'.

When the hairt-cheerin' spirit had mounted their garret,
Tae a ball on the green they a' did adjourn.
The maids wi' coats kilted, they skippit and liltit,
When tired they shook hands and then hame did return.

If the kirks a' owre Scotland held like social meetin's
Nae warnin' ye'd need from a far-tinklin' bell,
For true love and friends wad draw ye thegither
Far better than roarin' the horrors o' hell.

Not only is the song a great piece of music, it's a real cracker of a story - but was it true? I decided to have a wee look!

I first searched online to see if I could find anything on the song's origins and soon found a discussion thread at concerning its provenance. From this it soon became apparent that the song was indeed supposed to be based on a true story, but that far from happening in Dunkeld in Perthshire, it actually happened in Kinkell, further south in the county, with the two parish names being confused in time in the song due to them sounding so similar. Originally a parish in its own right, from 1639 Kinkell was merged as part of the parish of Trinity Gask, where a couple of my ancestral lines resided, the Fenton and Leitch families in the late 1600s and early 1700s. The full story was soon uncovered in Chapter 19 of a work called The Annals of Auchterarder and Memorials of Strathearn, available in a transcribed version online at Further confirmation was also found in the Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae, which provides a series of short biographies on Church of Scotland ministers from the Reformation to the early 20th century, and which can be found on both the Internet Archive ( and Ancestry ( in a digitised format.

In 1680, during the Kirk's episcopal period, the minister, Richard Duncan, was asked to repair the kirks at both Trinity Gask and Kinkell, both having fallen into a ruinous condition. However, he and his congregation did not see eye to eye, neither did he and his heritors, the landowners from whom the Bishop instructed him to seek funds from to carry out the repairs. So poor was the relationship that one of the heritors, the Laird of Machany, engineered a complaint to his synod that Duncan had re-baptised a child in an act of gross ignorance, as well as various other offences alleged to have happened against the congregation. The charges were so severe that by February 1681 Duncan was in fact deposed as the minister, although there was worse still to come. From the annals:

June 6, 1682.- One Mr Duncan, a minister in Perthshire is condemned to death by the Earl of Perth, as Stewart of Crieff, for murdering an infant begotten by him with his servant maid, it being found buried under his own hearth-stone. He was convicted on very slender presumptions, which, however, they might amount to degradation and banishment, yet it was hard to extend them to death.

Richard Duncan was duly hanged in early 1683 - tragically for him, a pardon that had been granted to him arrived just twenty minutes too late. The bell mentioned within the song was later sold to the parish of Cockpen in 1708, as recorded in the kirk session minutes of Trinity Gask, whilst the reference to the drowned precentor in fact refers to another incident where the sole precentor of the two kirks at Kinkell and Trinity Gask died whilst crossing the River Earn to get from one church to the other.

But as I mentioned, as well as being a great story, with it being true it is almost certain that my ancestor had this story on their lips at the time, and may even have been dancing in the kirk and drinking the whisky! It is a brilliant wee song - here is the version of it by Silly Wizard as found on YouTube at Enjoy!

For the history of the Scottish church, and how to find relevant records for genealogical research, my book Discover Scottish Church Records is available from My History in Yorkshire, England, for £7 (, from Global Genealogy in Canada at Can$19.95 ( and from Gould Genealogy in Australia at Aus$20 inc GST ( An ebook version is also available from Gen-eBooks at

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

The curse of Loughmourne

I've just been going through a pile of papers belonging to my late mother, and amongst them I found a poem about Loughmourne, an area comprised of many farms and a lough (loch) just a couple of miles north of my old home town Carrickfergus in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. My parents separated in 1979 and then divorced in the early 1980s, and a few years later my mum had a short term relationship with a gentleman from a farm in the area, which is how I assume she came into ownership of the poem. During this period I remember going up to her partner's farmhouse with her one night as a young teenager, and spending a magical winter's evening seated beside a roaring turf fire, as a blizzard hit outside - it's the only time I've ever been to Loughmourne, but the experience still remains very vivid in my memory.

There's no village at Loughmourne, but there is a lough, about 57 hectares in size and filled with brown trout. There's also a church in the area that bears the name, said to have been founded by exiled Scottish descendants of Covenanters in 1784 (see As for any village that may once have existed there... well that's where the poem comes in!

Where the lough now stands there was certainly once a village many centuries ago - the remains of several crannogs have been found there (see - but it's said that a visiting peddlar, from whom nobody would buy matches, cursed the village the following morning, sending the place to a watery doom.

It's almost Hallowe'en - enjoy!


'Twas nightfall and the clock had struck
The solemn hour of rest;
There lay the infant still asleep
Upon its mother's breast;
The weary peasant free from toil
Upon his bed was laid;
The lover sought the silent hour
To talk love to his maid.

'Twas in a village that lay law
Within a valley green;
Encircled round by verdant hills,
This village looked serene.
'Twas on that night a wanderer passed
Through it with weary feet;
Within its walls he shelter sought,
No shelter could he meet.

The poor ones there no pity showed,
The wealthy scoffed with scorn,
But pride and vanity were doomed
To die before the morn.
'Ye know not what to do, proud men,'
The wanderer this did say;
'Omnipotence shall avenge the just
Before the break of day'.

'Ye heavens give power, O God give strength,
To the powers on earth below:
Let the village sink with a fearful shake
And o'er its waters flow.'
With one fearful road and one wild convulse
The hills and dales did shake;
One hour more and that village lay
A calm and peaceful lake.

Then view it now as its waters flow
To a thriving distant town,
And with reverence think on the scenes below,
For that spot is sacred ground.
And the legend says that the curse was this
'A toon the night and a Loch the morn'.
It has claimed that name to the present day,
It still is called Loughmourne.


If you are just starting out with your family history research, my book, Tracing Your Irish Family History on the Internet, should help you to locate many of the key resources to help you get under way - not least of which some of the resources digitised and made available online by bodies such as PRONI, the National Archives of Ireland, the National Archives at Kew, and more. The book is available from publisher Pen and Sword in paperback, Kindle and ebook editions. For a free 13 page preview - and to order a copy - visit

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Scotland says No. For now...

This last two months has seen me do something that I have never done before - get involved with politics. Independence for Scotland is something that I have long believed in, and a few months ago I first popped into the Yes Largs shop to offer my help. However, it was not until the European elections and the recent rise of the right wing political party UKIP in England that I really decided that enough was enough. From that point on I became much more involved in the campaign, and in the last two months I have pounded the streets of Largs on many occasions to leaflet, post newspapers, and to work on Yes stalls for the idea that we should be able to govern ourselves as a sovereign nation.

Largs and its surrounding villages are very Conservative in nature, and we have a very elderly population here, not great factors for a movement in our area that wanted to push the potential that independence could bring. The No campaign targeted the +65 demographic so successfully with fear stories on their pensions that when the vote took place, some 73% of this age group voted No, by far the biggest group, with those aged 54-65, approaching pensionable age, being the next largest group at 57%. No doubt on top of this the old feelings of British identity were much stronger, something which contrasted sharply with 16-17 year olds, the devolution generation, for whom 71% voted Yes. With the exception of the student age range (18-24), which showed 52% in favour of No, the pattern was that the younger the age group, the more pro-Yes they were (Source: Lord Ashcroft Polls:

On the referendum night the final vote came in, showing Yes at 45% and No at 55%. So on this occasion, we lost - but we certainly put the fear of God into Westminster. Despite this defeat, I am very proud that our work, along with the work of other groups in North Ayrshire, saw us deliver a 49% result for our area, despite the odds. The eventual resurgence in the No campaign has been attributed by many to a last minute pledge given by the three main Westminster parties just a couple of days before the day of the vote, which vowed that Scotland would receive more powers if a No result was given. A timetable was given by the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown that he said would begin yesterday to deliver on this. Not only has that promise already been broken (yesterday came and went without the first promise fulfilled on that timetable), the three Westminster parties themselves are now disagreeing about the way forward, with the Labour Party in London even trying to kick it into the long grass at the end of next year, after the next UK general election. They never learn. So, for the Yes campaign, my feeling is that the referendum result has simply bought the union a little more time, and is merely the end of this current act. Another referendum will come, perhaps as soon as within the next 5-10 years, when the circumstances and demographic of the population have again changed, and most importantly, amidst the political circumstances in what I suspect will be a failure of Westminster to deliver on its promises - though time will tell.

On a personal note, I have thoroughly enjoyed participating in the greatest democratic exercise this country has ever seen, so much so that I have now joined a political party for the first time. On the referendum day itself I worked at three poll stations as a polling agent for the Yes side, with much good humour on the day exchanged between myself and my opposite numbers on the Better Together (No campaign) side, and I also had the privilege to attend the subsequent count in Ardrossan for North Ayrshire. I've gained a lot of experience of the political process, and hope to contribute further in the years ahead. As of next week, I become a full-time family historian again - not that I stopped as one throughout, mind! I have kept a diary throughout the campaign for my kids, and have kept copies of some of the key documents and literature from both sides to show them in years to come.

In addition to the great folk of the Yes Largs shop with whom I worked, perhaps the biggest highlight of the last few weeks was last Wednesday, when I unexpectedly got a chance to meet our First Minister Alex Salmond in Largs, and grabbed a chance to get a selfie with him. Sadly he has now announced that he will be standing down soon, but the selfie shows a real joie-de-vivre that to me just summarises the optimism that we all had.

The Yes campaign will be back - after a short intermission - but Scotland will never be the same again. We tasted sovereignty for a few hours, and developed a liking for it. So stay tuned...!

First Minister Alex Salmond hits the streets of Largs

With actor Peter Mullan (Sunshine on Leith/Braveheart/Trainspotting)

Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon visits the Yes Largs shop

With fellow campaigners in the Yes Largs shop

Yes will return....!

Friday, 15 August 2014

The Scottish Independence Referendum

I've just received my Poll Card in the post for the Scottish Independence Referendum. As someone who has spent a decade living in England, over a decade in Northern Ireland (where I was born), and half of my life in Scotland (both as a child and as an adult since 1997), I have long been convinced that a Yes vote is the right vote for Scotland - the United Kingdom has for a long time not been an equal union, not just between its countries, but within its countries. Since the rise of UKIP in the recent European elections, which really put the fear of God into me, I have been actively helping out with my local Yes group to canvass and to leaflet. But I have to admit, that even with all this personal conviction instilled within me, when I picked up the poll card from the post, a huge shiver went down my spine. This is genuine history in the making. 

The future of this country is in my hands, and the hands of everyone resident in Scotland who is entitled to vote - whether they are Scots born, a wayward paddy like me, English, Welsh, French, Polish, other European, South African, black, white, Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, gay, straight, able bodied, disabled, or from any other nation, culture, colour or creed who is resident here. This is not a referendum written as a sequel to Braveheart (no matter how much an ignorant Londoncentric media chooses to view it), this is not about the past, it is first and foremost about democracy. As a genealogist I work every day in the past, I respect so much about our shared history with the other nations of the UK in the past, but I do not live in the past. I live in the present with an eye always to the future, and most specifically, my kids' future.

As a democratic nation - and Scotland IS a nation - we have a responsibility towards each other, but as a parent my first responsibility is to my kids. Our kids need a better deal than that being offered now within the United Kingdom, within which Scotland is and will continue to be the second violin in Westminster's eyes. It is not alone in that regard - Northern Ireland is treated as badly, as are parts of England and Wales, even within parts of London - but we have a chance here in Scotland to stand up and do something about it. I know that many No voters feel the complete opposite of that for their own kids, and I truly respect that - I just happen to think they are wrong. If we vote Yes we won't change Scotland overnight. But despite many ups and downs in the future, we will change Scotland for the better - because we have to. We can certainly do no worse than what is being offered by Westminster in the present.

No matter which side of the fence people are on, the greatest thing about this whole process is that it has been democratic. I feel very privileged to live here, to participate in the debate, and above all, to be able to vote. Thank you Scotland. 

In the Yes Largs shop

Meeting actor Peter Mullan (Sunshine on Leith)

With the team on Largs' Main Street

Friday, 1 August 2014

The last heir - ultimus haeres records and retours

I had an interesting case to look at last week, where a client contacted me to try to trace the relationship between a John Menzies and James Alexander Playfair MacLaren, with Menzies having been appointed as MacLaren's heir some two years after his death in 1910. The client had already obtained some solicitor's records and some sasines (land transfer records) outlining to a degree what had happened to the deceased's estate, but without the relevant genealogical information. There were mentions of family trees having been drawn up to prove the claim - could I essentially find the other side of the conversation, and work out the relationships by locating the mentioned tree charts?

The deceased was a gentleman called James Alexander Playfair MacLaren, who had passed away in November 1910. He died without any immediate lawful issue, and no claimants were immediately forthcoming as prospective heirs. In Scotland, if no claimants step forward in such circumstances, after a suitable period the estate goes to the Crown as Ultimus Haeres, which is Latin for the 'last heir' (see The papers that my client held seemed to indicate that this was what had happened to James' estate, and so the first step was to first confirm that it had indeed fallen to the Crown. To do this I ordered up the Ultimus Haeres lists for the year in question, and confirmed it to be the case (they are catalogued under E869).

Next up, I then called up the Treasury Report in which the case would have been mentioned. In some cases genealogical evidence can be found included alongside these reports, and it was hoped that the family tree chart might have been included here - sadly this avenue turned out to be something of a damp squib in this case, however, simply noting that James' unclaimed estate had fallen to the Crown on 14 FEB 1911, with his lands due to be sold off in 9 lots. After any debts incurred by the deceased were paid off, the rest was to go to the office of the King's and Lord Treasurer's Remembrancer in Edinburgh, or KALTR (today it would be to the Queen's and Lord Treasurer's Remembrancer).

My next avenue now was to consult what are known as the Procedure Books, catalogued under E851. These provide a summary of developments concerning the administration of the Ultimus Haeres process, but also any subsequent claims made on the Crown by prospective heirs late to respond to the initial advertisements made by the KALTR for claimants to step forward. In this case I was now fortunate to get a 5 page summary of written conversations held between the agents of John Menzies and the KALTR's office. This slowly began to reveal some genealogical information. For starters, it noted that James MacLaren was the eldest lawful son of the late James MacLaren, draper of Coupar Angus, who was brother german of John MacLaren of Beechhill, a solicitor ('brother german' means a full brother), and that James junior had died at Auchterarder on 3 NOV 1910. In September 1911 the first mention of the name Menzies appeared, with a Jessie Menzies claiming to be the descendant of the deceased's grandfather's sister, though no names were provided. An exchange of letters requiring proof followed, and in February 1912 a solicitor was noted as claiming that John Menzies was MacLaren's rightful heir.

The thing is... the KALTR office was deeply unconvinced. There was a question mark over whether the relevant documents to support the claim had been found as proof, with particular concerns over a marriage document that seemed to imply that MacLaren's grandfather was aged 13 and a half when he married.

This was useful stuff, but what I really needed was the written conversation from the KALTR, not a summary, and as such, I next called up the letter books for the period from 1910 to 1913, which are catalogued under E854. The first thing to note about these books was the appalling quality of the letters, which had been kept as carbon paper copies. A few were so faded they were close to being illegible, but I photographed them all and was able to enhance some of them when I got home. These not only revealed the genealogical problem causing the KALTR office grief, but also the workaround that led to Menzies being confirmed as heir.

It transpired that the issue causing problems was the fact that Alexander McLaren (Laren or McLaurin), the grandfather, was said to have been baptised in February 1787, but that he had an older brother born in December 1785. This meant that the earliest that Alexander could have been born was September 1786 (assuming his mum fell pregnant again within a couple of weeks, which was optimistic!). This therefore put a question mark over whether Alexander was truly 14 when he married Elizabeth Cochrane in October 1800 - the age of 14 being the minimum legal age for marriage at that point for males. The minimum age for girls to marry back then was 12, but this was far from the KALTR's concern - the bride in this case was supposed to have been aged 24! John Menzies was said to be the grandson of Alexander's sister Jean MacLaren, and again there were problems confirming that she was related to Alexander. In short, the KALTR was having none of it, and was of the mind to reject the application of John and Janet Menzies to make a claim on the MacLaren estate that had fallen to the Crown, noting the relationship to be "unsatisfactorily established" in July 1912.

And that's when it got really interesting! Clearly frustrated with the KALTR's objections to the claim, the solicitor on behalf of John Menzies went down a separate tack - to have John formally recognised as an heir via the Services of Heirs procedure, and to have Janet Menzies appointed as an executrix dative for the moveable estate. Janet was first recognised as such in January 1913, and a month later John's application to be served heir went before the court. The Services of Heirs process was the Scottish jury based process by which anyone making a claim on heritable estate had to be first recognised as the lawful heir. There were two types of 'service' that could be applied, the easiest simply being a 'general service', the process pursued by Menzies' agents, where a jury simply looked at the evidence put before them and said yes or no as to whether the claimant was who he or she said they were (the other was a 'special service' where any land in question was also brought into the proceedings). Against the KALTR's objections, the Sheriff Court in Perth took a look at the family trees and other evidence placed before it and contented itself that John Menzies had the right to be recognised as MacLaren's heir-at-law. A last check in the indexes to the Services of Heirs from 1913 confirmed that John Menzies was duly served as heir as "second cousin" to James Alexander Playfair MacLaren. It seems that this move by Menzies' solicitor to have him recognised by a court as a lawful heir was enough to force the KALTR to release the assets held by the Crown which had been surrendered to it as Ultimus Haeres, to John Menzies, despite its overwhelming objections.

Although there were many references to family trees and genealogical documents being bandied about between the relevant parties, no tree was found in the papers that have survived from the case - but the detail in the records at least provided the information that allowed Menzies to satisfy his claim as understood and believed by a court of law. Unfortunately the Sheriff Court papers from the period have not survived, nor the solicitors' papers, and so this cannot be pursued further. The question remains as to who was right. Did the KALTR office have a legitimate problem with the evidence it was asked to consider - or did the Jury listening to the services case get it wrong?!

An interesting case!

For more on Scottish land records and inheritance, my book Discover Scottish Land Records is available from Unlock the Past at - both print and ebook versions are available.

(With thanks to my client for permission to share the story)

Thursday, 10 July 2014

The Two Carrick Smashers

Paddy Giles at our wedding
I'm sure everyone has a favourite family song or two, but one song in particular used to define my father-in-law, Paddy Giles, originally from Carrick-on-Suir in County Tipperary, and who passed away in 2001. It was called The Two Carrick Smashers, and was a song that if Paddy thought he had an audience for, he would sing verse, after verse, after verse! At my wedding to Claire in June 2000in Piltown, County Kilkenny, Paddy never gave a speech as the father of the bride - instead, he grabbed a microphone, and came out with several verses of the song, much to the delight of the assembled guests. When he passed away the following year, shortly after his funeral the family was all gathered in Anthony's Inn in Piltown, understandably upset. A lad with a guitar was seated by the main entrance, as it was back then, and I asked him if he knew The Two Carrick Smashers? He did, and once he got started, everyone gathered around him and belted it out, at what became an epic four hour singalong in Paddy's honour, with a lot of ceol, deoch agus craic!

Although it is relatively well known in Carrick-on-Suir, trying to obtain the lyrics was something else! I believe the song is a variant of another called The Two Ashton Mashers, aka the Brothers Malone. It took a while, but a few years ago my sister in law Lia was able to obtain the Carrick lyrics, and emailed them to me. These are the words for the first two verses and chorus:

Oh we are the two Carrick smashers,
We often go out on the mash.
We wear no tall hats
Or no shirts to our backs,
And we seldom have got any cash (cash,cash).
We often bring out a new fashion,
While the old ones they stick to the old.
Although we are just 27
We are daring quite handsome and bold

And we'll sing tra la la la as we walk down the street
For style and perfection we 'ere can be beat,
All the ladies declare that we are a treat,
We're the two Carrick smashers from off Greystone street
And we dance and we sing
And we don't give a jot, we're a jolly fine lot
We're all right, when we're tight, 
And we're jolly good company.

Last Saturday we were invited,
To the town hall by two ladies fair,
Their cheeks were in bloom
Like the roses in june,
And we danced to a beautiful air,
We were singin and dancin til midnight
Drinkin whiskey and porter and rum
And when the dancin was over
With the queer wans we had lots of fun

And we'll sing tra la la la as we walk down the street
For style and perfection we 'ere can be beat,
All the ladies declare that we are a treat,
We're the two Carrick smashers from off Greystone street
And we dance and we sing
And we don't give a jot, we're a jolly fine lot
We're all right, when we're tight, 
And we're jolly good company. 

I've just returned from a trip to Piltown, and a few nights ago at Anthony's, my brother in law Mick Murray and several others were having a singalong in the inn's back yard, when they suddenly got started on The Two Carrick Smashers. By a coincidence I had my phone in my hand and had just moved the sound recorder app to the home screen, meaning my finger was close to the Start button as they got underway! Although I missed the opening lines, I managed to record the song - it is not a great recording, as I was not close enough, and there were feral kids running around us in all directions, but the tune is easily identifiable from it!

So this one's for Paddy Giles - Up Tipp! :)


Thursday, 26 June 2014

My mum's barbecue sauce recipe

My mum, Charlotte Harper Graham, who passed away last November, would have been 64 this coming Sunday. One of her most delicious recipes was the barbecue sauce that she used to make for us when we were kids, and so this Sunday, we're going to have it for our dinner as a wee birthday remembrance.

But as a recipe, it's too nice to keep to myself - and with my luck I'll get run over by a bus before I get a chance to pass it on myself.

  • Two teaspoons sugar
  • Two teaspoons flour
  • One teaspoon vinegar
  • Five teaspoons curry powder
  • Sprinkle of black pepper
  • Small tin of tomato puree
  • Medium sized bottle tomato sauce (400ml/460g)
  • Two tablespoons Worcester sauce
  • Small minced animal of choice

Put sugar, flour, curry powder, vinegar, black pepper and tomato puree into a bowl and mix to a paste
Pour tomato sauce onto the paste
Fill tomato sauce bottle with cold water and add - mix in bowl to smooth consistency
Add the two tablespoons of Worcester sauce and again mix to smooth
Fry mince to brown (optional - add garlic and onion)
Pour the sauce over, stir and mix - bring to the boil
Simmer the sauce for half an hour.

Eat barbecue sauce.

Raise a glass to my Mum.

You can find out more about her at - she was one hell of a woman!

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

The French Horn

One of the greatest thrills from doing family history research is that occasionally what goes around, comes around. Over the last couple of years I have been corresponding with a cousin of my wife's, Paddy Nolan, on a shared part of our family tree concerning the Giles and Nolan families of Carrick-on-Suir, Co. Tipperary, Ireland. I've been sending finds at this end to Paddy, he's been reciprocating with finds at his end, and together we have achieved a lot in unravelling the shared part of our respective family stories.

As a part of this, some time ago Paddy sent through a photograph of my wife's father, Paddy Giles (1926-2001), which depicted him in the uniform of a Local Defence Force volunteer playing with the Carrick-on-Suir Brass Band (originally the Carrick-on-Suir Brass and Reed Band). The LDF was a local defensive group set up to prepare for the possibility of an invasion during the Second World War, known in the Republic of Ireland today as the 'Emergency', as Ireland was neutral throughout. It was an extraordinary find, not just because it was the first time we had seen him in an LDF uniform, but more so because we did not know he played an instrument. Front and centre though, Paddy sits there in the image with a French horn. This is the picture...

Last November, there was a further development. Following the recent passing of their brother, Midge (Eugene), Paddy Nolan and his brother Pierce (top photo), who still resides in Carrick, had been in conversation about the family history research being compiled, and during their conversation came across the above photo. It transpired that Pierce had in his possession the very same French horn that Paddy Giles once played in his youth.

Paddy Giles was in the LDF and the band for a couple of years, but when he left (after the war, to join the RAF), the French horn was duly passed to Pierce as Paddy's successor. Pierce continued to play with the band for just under a year, before he too eventually left. At that point the French horn left Pierce's possession, and that was seemingly that - until a happy venture at a recent local auction in the town saw Pierce purchasing the instrument once again. During their discussion, Pierce had indicated that he would like to give my wife the instrument that her father once owned and played - if ever we were in the Carrick area, we could pop in to pick it up. Needless to say we were absolutely delighted!

Last weekend, we were indeed once again in the area, and arranged to meet up with Pierce. We had a wonderful conversation with him about Carrick in the past, the role his grandfather had in establishing the brass band in the first place, and confirmed that Paddy Giles' father was also involved with the band in earlier years, though to what extent we have still to establish.

But there was more... Pierce sat us down beside his computer and promptly showed us an extraordinary collection of photographs from his family's past, including both Giles and Nolan members. The highlight was a photo of Paddy Giles as a child, believed have been taken in approximately 1942, marching with the LDF in a parade through the Main Street of Carrick-on-Suir, possibly as part of a recruiting drive. Patrick C. Power's book, Carrick-on-Suir Town & District 1800-2000, notes such a parade on St Patrick's Day 1941 (p.315) - it may well be the same parade. At this stage Paddy was not playing an instrument, but was merely shadowing one of the members as he learned the ropes. The following is the image...

This cropped detail of the picture shows Paddy, marching behind Pierce Nolan's father Henry (Harry) Francis Nolan, carrying the band's sheet music for them - the French horn itself can be seen in the image also, on the far left, with the gentleman with the mop of hair looking down as he plays it:

I asked Pierce how he knew that the French horn purchased at auction was the same one? The answer was simple - the instrument was partially damaged one day when Paddy Giles dropped it on the Main Street! The dent that it left was of a unique shape, and it was this that Pierce recognised instantly at the auction.

Later in the evening, Claire and I returned home, after thanking Pierce for his generous gift. In the house of Paddy's widow, my mother-in-law Pauline Giles, several of Paddy's grandchildren were present, including my sons Calum and Jamie. An instrument is for playing, and so we allowed them each to try to get a note from it!

The French horn is now very tarnished, and we will seek advice now on whether it should be cleaned and restored, or left as is, before doing anything further with it. But the experience was absolutely extraordinary, and one for whom we are forever indebted to Pierce Nolan, and to his brother Paddy.

Family history does not get much better than this.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Chasing the Chaseley back from Brisbane to Largs

I've previously blogged how in 2010 I was able to visit Paton Street and Bell Street at Brisbane's Kangaroo Point, within the Australian state of Queensland. Paton Street was named after my four times great aunt, Helen Paton, who emigrated with her husband David Bell in 1849 to Queensland on board the Chaseley, one of a series of ships arranged by the Reverend John Dunmore Lang to take Presbyterian settlers to Australia, with the enticement of land for cotton plantations that was soon discovered to be non-existent upon their arrival. The blog post is available at

The connections to where I now live here in the North Ayrshire town of Largs and the Australian city of Brisbane are very deep - Brisbane itself was named after the local Brisbane family, with Thomas Makdougall Brisbane the first governor of the colony (and later city) that still bears his name. The Reverend John Dunmore Lang was also a local man, born near Greenock in 1799, just up the road, but raised in Largs as a child - a memorial to him is still to be found in the town today.

It transpires, however, that there is yet another connection. Yesterday whilst returning along the A78 from Greenock, I discovered that there was a small enclosure on the outskirts of Largs named after the vessel that carried my four times aunt down under. Chaseley Gardens is not a large place by any means - but it is another hidden link to a story that most Largs folk today will have little knowledge of.

The world keeps getting smaller - and Australia ever closer!

Friday, 7 February 2014

A Hungarian's story on a cruise

Every so often I have a conversation with someone that just literally blows my mind and makes me realise how grateful we all should be for small mercies.

I am currently on board a cruise ship in Australian waters, where I am participating as a speaker in a genealogy conference being run by Adelaide based firm Unlock the Past ( It’s the fourth day of a 10 day venture, and at breakfast in the main restaurant on the boat you are never seated by yourself, you are always allocated to a table with others from various walks of life. Thus I found myself seated beside a lady who had migrated to Australia 51 years ago from Hong Kong, and another who had made it to Oz from Hungary over 50 years ago.

The Hong Kong lady shared what may be a typical migration experience for many, a seventeen day trip by cargo boat on high seas, fascinating in its own right. However, the lady from Hungary was just extraordinary. She mentioned at one point how she had been in Budapest as a child during the Nazi occupation, and had witnessed all sorts of horrors. I asked her if she had also been in the country during the 1956 uprising against the Russians, to which she responded she had – “I was more under the table as a student than out there, but I did see it with my own eyes”. She talked about how her future husband and herself had managed to escape from the country, noting her last memory of her homeland as being the site of three Russian soldiers trying to warm themselves by a fire – “those poor boys” – a site that confirmed that her country was suffering yet another occupation.

This woman had made it to Australia with little English, but was soon able to gain a job as a lab technician. Some 15,000 Hungarians made it to Australia at this time to start a new life. She’s led a full and wonderful life in Oz since, but I asked her if she had ever returned home. She confirmed that she had just a few years back, at which point I asked if she still recognised the place. “Of course, it was still my home, though much has changed”. Her abiding memory was that under Nazism Hitler had allowed many buildings to be damaged or destroyed, whilst under the Russians there was no money to restore them. Now they were all shining restored examples of a former era before such occupations. When I further asked if she had been able to meet anyone from her former days in Hungary she explained that she had managed to track down an old student friend, and had renewed their friendship. With family though, the experience was a mixed one: “I have a cousin still there, but I think she always resented that we were able to get out, and so refused to meet up with me. I did meet her two daughters, however, and it was wonderful to finally realise I had family once again in Budapest.”

There were some painful memories, however. She attended a museum to the Holocaust on her own – a German friend from Australia did not wish to go, she had experienced many painful memories from her own time there and did not want to relive them. When the Hungarian lady duly went alone she noted in the corner of the room a small cabinet that contained a small amorphous lump of material that she could not make out. She asked the attendant what it was – “It turned out to be a series of leather headbands that Jews wore, which contained prayers, worn when praying at certain times of the day" (NB: I think these are called tefellin). "When the Nazis removed these leather bands before their owners were exterminated, they were all tossed into a pile – this was the pile. I started to cry. A museum attendant asked if I was OK, I could only say one word – no.” Her own regret about her trip back to Hungary was the attitude to the Jewish community residing there today – “My country is still the most anti-semitic in Europe, it is very sad”.

There was a light ending to our conversation (I should add our whole table was riveted to this lady’s recollections by now!). She asked where I was from, and I mentioned I was Irish but now lived in Scotland. She happily recalled visiting a friend of hers in Stirling many years ago. “The weather was glorious, but the following day we went to Glasgow, where the weather was just like Armageddon”. To much laughter I had to point out that for someone who had survived both the German and Russian occupations, and the 1956 uprising, to describe Scottish weather of all things as ‘Armageddon’ was extraordinary! This woman’s story is certainly one that I won’t be forgetting in a rush.

Travel certainly broadens the mind.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

A legacy of foster care

As previously noted on this blog, my mother Cherie McKeown (prev. Paton, ms Graham) passed away on November 28th 2013. In her life she raised four children of her own, but beyond this, whilst living in Wolverhampton and Manchester in England, she became a temporary carer to many others from some very disturbed backgrounds. Over the course of a decade, she helped almost forty children as a foster carer.

Last month, the CEO of Swiis Foster Care, Tim Notchell, sent a tribute to her husband Jim about her work with them. He stated that "Cherie was immensely respected by our Foster Care team and was a wonderful example to everyone of how love and compassion could change the lives of even the most vulnerable of children for the better... Cherie epitomised everything that we endeavour to achieve within Swiis and we are extremely grateful for work you have undertaken for all of the children you have cared for over so many years."

In his concluding comments he added that: "I hope that the legacy that Cherie has left to all the children you have cared for so long offers you some degree of comfort, the difference that you made to the lives of so many children will I am sure never be forgotten by the children themselves. Cherie will always be fondly remembered and highly cherished by the staff of Swiis."

In Mum's house she had a "wall of fame", on which she placed a picture of each of those children she had tried to help. For privacy reasons I have deliberately reduced the size of the picture to protect their identities, but the wall was equally a testament to her work as a foster carer.