Alloway and Southern Ayrshire FAMILY HISTORY SOCIETY Robert Burns Cottage, Alloway, Ayr
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Thursday, 20 September 2012

18 Sep 2012 - "Addicted to Ancestors"

Our new season of lectures was opened with an amusing talk entitled "Addicted to Ancestors" given by Reverend Alan Sorenson from Greenock. Whilst professing to be "no expert" on Family History but simply like us, an "addict", which he defined as "someone who acts secretly and spends too much time and money on an activity they find it impossible to give up", Alan treated us to a side-ways look at discovering our ancestors which was as thought provoking as it was entertaining.

He explained that, as far back as Deuteronomy, there are references to the importance of our ancestors in defining "who we are" and this preoccupation has continued through the centuries.  He referred to our love of puzzles and the way our searches and discoveries stretch both our understanding of the human condition and our imaginations.

Claiming to be descended from an Alien, he did stretch our credulity, until he explained that one of his grandfathers had come to Scotland from Denmark in 1918 and is consequently described in the next census as an "alien"(!) - and carried papers to prove it...  How little we often know of even such relatively recent times was illustrated by the fact that he did not know this until contacted by Danish cousins who were busy organising a "get together" of all the descendants of the Danish great grandmother.  There had been no contact between the 2 branches of the family from 1938 to 1998.  The Danish side of his family also provide one of the "rascals", found in every family tree who, while leading very reprehensible lives and being a great trial to their close relatives, are the source of great stories for their descendants.  This particular Sorenson deserted his wife and 4 children, and was believed to have gone to America, but the lack of any evidence for this casts doubt on his claim.

For someone who feels 100% Scots, it was a surprise to find he was 5/16 Irish too.  There was certainly a wish on the part of his ancestors to assimilate in their adopted country.  Perhaps the same wish to assimilate was responsible for the lady who changed religion from Protestant to Catholic and back 6 times in response to family circumstances (according to the religion of parent, step parent, husband, and so on).

A vivid picture was drawn of the way the social history of past times can be conjured up simply by looking at the occupations of past generations.  Some of the pictures being of a completely different world if we find a "paper bag maker" or of a completely fantastic world if we discover a "Card Sharp" - after imagining his ancestor coming over from the Mississippi River Boats to play Poker on the steamers heading down the Clyde it was something of a disappointment to find his job was actually "card sharp(er)" - a trade which is related to preparing wool in the mills.  Looking at the changes in occupation over the last few centuries will show in many families the drift from agriculture to mines to factories and eventually to better education and better paid work.

Any fears about the degeneration of morals in the 21st century will soon be dispelled by a look at the Kirk session records for the 18th Century.  One Kirk Elder ancestor he found, at an advanced age, was looking after 3 illegitimate grandchildren in his home...  In a similar way finding ancestors in the Paupers Lodging House in Aberdeenshire in the 1861 census had given him a different perspective of the homeless in his current parish.

Reverend Sorenson concluded his talk by saying he had learned 3 things from his studies:

  • They're all daft.
  • Never trust anything they put on a form.
  • The past is really closer than we think.
He illustrated the last point by showing a photograph of his daughter shaking hands with George McLeod of the Iona Community who had shaken hands with an old lady who had shaken hands with someone who had watched Bonnie Prince Charlie sail down the Sound of Iona.

Patricia Weston

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