Alloway and Southern Ayrshire FAMILY HISTORY SOCIETY Robert Burns Cottage, Alloway, Ayr
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Friday, 22 February 2008

21 Feb 2008 - "Smugglers Who Saved A Language"

This month’s speaker, Mr John Millar, author of "Lithuanians in Scotland" and winner of a Churchill scholarship in 2003, gave his talk the intriguing title of "Smugglers Who Saved A Language." 

We were eager to learn more. And what a tremendous amount we all learned! Mr Millar, a tall, erect, imposing figure whose appearance belied his 85 years, regaled us with a family history story of tremendous courage, adventure and poignancy which held his audience riveted. The scene was set in a border area of Lithuania towards the end of the nineteenth century when the country was occupied by the Russians who, he said, had let it be known that their underlying aim was to have a "Lithuania without Lithuanians." To this end churches and schools were closed, the publication of books and newspapers written in Lithuanian stopped. Even the speaking of the Lithuanian language was forbidden. In spite of punishments, these edicts merely forced the language underground and created a determination to keep it alive. 

Mr Millar’s father and uncle, as young men, were among many courageous men and women, who risked fines, incarceration or, worst of all, deportation to Siberia, to smuggle in to the occupied country newspapers and books printed in their own language beyond the borders. In one sense they were indeed smugglers, but there was no financial gain for those who took part, only danger and the fear of being caught and they are more truly called the Book Carriers. Fortunately the two brothers were warned that the Russian authorities were about to swoop on them and they were able to flee the country unscathed. 

Their aim was to reach America and so, in 1900 with barely any money, they made their way overland to a German port. But the fare to America was £5 and that was beyond their resources. A berth on a ship to Leith, Scotland cost £1 and that they could afford. Having no passports and with Lithuanian names that Scottish officials could neither spell nor pronounce, when the brothers reached Scotland, the surname of Millar was given to our speaker’s father.
The Churchill Scholarship Award enabled our Mr Millar to make a six week visit to Lithuania in 2003 to trace his roots and to see how the Book Carriers had been remembered and honoured. It must have been a wonderful and emotional homecoming. He has returned at least once since then and hopes to make one more visit. How’s that for an 85 year old?

It was at Question Time that members realised the ten visitors who had swelled our numbers were people with Lithuanian family links and they had much to ask and to add from their own family stories. A final moment of sheer serendipity was that when one gentleman inquired about his family name, Mr Millar recognised it, for as a boy he had known the visitor’s father and could mention several family members. This whole evening was a delightful experience for not only did we learn of the Lithuanian strand in our own Scottish nation, we were also privileged to hear the moving story of one Lithuanian family’s involvement in history.

If you have a Lithuanian branch in your family and you want help to trace it, SEND US AN E-MAIL via the "Contact" page, and we will send on your query to Mr John Millar who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of how to find Lithuanian ancestors both here and in Lithuania. 

Sheila Dinwoodie

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