31 January 2017

S5M-03748 Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-03748, in the name of Fiona Hyslop, on celebrating our past: Scotland’s year of history, heritage and archaeology.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

Presiding Officer, I stand before you a self-confessed geek. My geekiness comes from my hobby of genealogy, which is an interest that I took up some 50 years ago. I recently completed an online post-graduate certificate in genealogical, palaeographic and heraldic studies from the University of Strathclyde—I commend the university’s courses to anyone with an interest in the subject.

In Scotland, we have world-leading access to our family history information, which, for tens of millions of people around the world who have a familial connection to Scotland, is their “I know yous”. Many people who research their own family history from a distance end up coming to Scotland. When I visit the ScotlandsPeople centre at 2 Princes Street, I regularly hear the helpful and informed staff taking people from across the world through how to find their family history records for their ancestors. There are gentle whoops of joy as granny MacGregor is finally found.

Like probably most families, my family is full of migration. Besides my great-great grandfather Archibald Stewart who, in 1853, left Scotland for Canada at the age of 64 after being widowed, I have identified 13 sets of my relatives of his generation and their descendants who migrated to Canada, the USA, Ceylon, Australia and New Zealand. In my wife’s family, I have identified 12 migration events over the same period, and the migration continues to this day with our having nephews and nieces who are long-term residents of Sweden, Denmark and Australia. I have a more distant connection in the brother of the five-greats grandfather of my nephew’s fiancée, who was convicted of stealing a coat in 1830 and travelled at the Government’s expense to Australia. For George Adam’s benefit, I should also say that I have a family member who emigrated as far as Paisley.

All of us are likely to have relatives out there who are interested in what we do in Scotland and who retain an active interest in their own history here. The huge Scottish diaspora are part of us and we are part of them. For us, this year is an opportunity to raise their interest and attachment to their mother country to another level. The refresh of the ScotlandsPeople website has given even better access to a wide range of family history data—new data has just been added—and is a key factor in drawing in our international cousins. When they visit the historic building lurking behind the Duke of Wellington’s statue, they get the expert advice that they are looking for and, for many people who come to Scotland, it can be the highlight of their visit.

However, it is not just the people who are employed professionally who matter. There are family history societies right across Scotland, and volunteers regularly go out to record the inscriptions from gravestones and publish the results. About 18 months ago, I bought the book of inscriptions of the new Calton cemetery—which is about 400m behind the Presiding Officer—from the Scottish Genealogy Society, and that helped me to track down three particular family members. The Fife Family History Society’s book of criminals helped me to solve another problem—in someone else’s family tree, of course, not my own. In Aberdeen, we have the massive resources of the Aberdeen and North-East Scotland Family History Society, which has well over 10,000 members from right across the world. In my constituency, the Family History Society of Buchan does likewise for local data.

To know our own family history is to better understand ourselves. To be personal, I have more politicians in my family than I ever thought that I would have. A third cousin, the Canadian senator Keith Laird, was a legal partner of Paul Martin senior, who was the father of a Canadian Prime Minister. A cousin four times removed, Alexander Berry, was an MP in New South Wales. He became wealthy 150 years ago by employing convicts, and subsequently endowed a chair at the University of St Andrews that continues to this day. Lord James Stevenson, my father’s first cousin, chaired the empire exhibition committee in the 1920s and was responsible for the building of the first Wembley stadium.

My great-uncle Alex Stevenson, lord provost in this city, ensured that the statues to Robert the Bruce and William Wallace were installed on either side of the entrance to Edinburgh castle in 1929.

The attraction of genealogy, which the cabinet secretary referred to, is one of the branches of history and one that is intensely personal. It is also one in which someone will never finish their research. That means that there is the opportunity for people to make lots of repeat visits.

Of course, when one discovers something that took place 200 years ago that today would be bad news, it is merely interesting. In a parish record of a child’s birth, I once saw the phrase “conceived in ante-nuptual fornication”. If that had been my parent, that might have been one thing but, as a description of something that took place 200 years ago, it is fascinating, because it is redolent of another age.

I must go back to the National Records of Scotland to read the 200 pages of court papers and the 17 precognitions and so on that relate to the case of the young man who stole a coat from a Leith Walk house in August 1830 and got a free trip to Australia for his pains.


Stewart Stevenson
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