Tying Knots in the Loose Ends of Scotland

The Dome at Scotland’s National Records House

Hugh MacDiarmid, one of Scotland’s most successful modern-day poets, once described his home country as having “loose ends.” Scotland is, undeniably, a land steeped in legends, myths, and mysteries—from the enigmatic Loch Ness monster to the ancient marvel of the Ring of Brodgar. The allure of the unknown, these “loose ends,” as MacDiarmid put it, has always been an integral part of Scottish culture. As someone deeply rooted in Scottish ancestry, my admiration for the country my ancestors and I grew up in has been deepened even further by the aspects that have no concrete answers. Recently, I was invited on an insightful genealogy tour of Edinburgh organised by American Ancestors/NEHGS, allowing me to delve deeper into these mysteries and pursue my own family’s “loose ends” in Scotland.

We embarked on a genealogical journey through Scotland, focussing on tracing our tour members’ Scottish ancestors. We visited three national repositories: The National Records House which houses Scotland’s People Centre, the National Library of Scotland, and the Scottish Genealogical Society.

We began at the National Records House. Situated at the heart of New Register House is a grand circular room, fondly referred to as “The Dome.” One can’t help but be captivated by the enchanting atmosphere of this room, the towering walls creating the sense that one is stepping into a mystical sanctum. Covering the walls is an enormous collection of records organised into three main groups—green for marriage records, black for death records, and red for birth records. Immersed in this enchanting setting, we gained valuable insight into the kinds of information researchers can seek within Scottish records. We then relocated to the Reid Room in Scotland’s People Centre, which became our central hub for the ensuing four days—allowing us access to a treasure trove of records, both digital and physical.

On the fifth day, our journey of discovery moved on to the National Library of Scotland. Initially, I expected the National Library to be a much more restricted facility. However, to my surprise the library was rather relaxed—all we needed to access the reading rooms was an assigned reading card and a commitment to maintaining the quiet. The staff at the library was exceptionally kind and helpful, going above and beyond to assist us in understanding the library’s many resources. The library housed a great deal of family history research materials, as well as information on what life in Scotland was like across the ages. The collection was incredibly valuable, and I am eager to return in the near future to expand my knowledge of my own country’s past.

In addition to our National Library visit, we embarked on trips to the Scottish Genealogical Society. This charming establishment is tucked away at the end of Victoria’s Terrace in Edinburgh. The building itself was enchanting—like the TARDIS in Doctor Who, its modest exterior belied the vast expanse waiting for us inside. The society was established in 1953, but the building had been around easily 100 years more, containing a library piled high with records, books, and more. It was a remarkable experience, immersing ourselves in the abundance of records contained here. Over the next two days, we were able to uncover a wealth of information about our Scottish ancestors.

Throughout the tour our resident genealogists, Rhonda McClure and David Lambert, provided personalized consultations to each of our tour members. I couldn't help but admire their remarkable expertise and dedication as they offered valuable advice based on the three queries each participant had submitted prior to the start of the tour. Witnessing their ability to decipher intricate Scottish documents and trace lineage back through the Kirk Records of Scotland and beyond left me amazed and inspired, fuelling my determination to continue my own genealogical journey. Their exceptional skills and extensive knowledge shed light on areas where I lacked proficiency and provided invaluable guidance on approaching challenges within my own family tree.

My purpose in joining the tour was twofold: first, I was to help ensure the tour's smooth operation, as well as the comfort and punctuality of our tour members. Secondly, I had a personal goal in mind for this journey: I wanted to delve deeper into my family tree, to find long-lost siblings of my ancestors. It was also important to me to learn something other than a name and a date—a specific detail, such as their job or where they lived. During the tour, I concentrated on my mother's side of the family, specifically the Breslin line of my family tree. Breslin is not a Scottish surname, as I discovered on this tour, but rather an Irish surname. I'd known for a long time that I had Irish ancestry, but learning that a portion of it came from my mother's side was unexpected. I also discovered five more siblings at various points along this branch of the family tree, along with their jobs and addresses! Among these siblings was John Lynch Breslin, an attempted fire-starter who earned a sentence in Aberdeen Prison for his crime, and whose story I'll detail further in an upcoming blog post. While I find all of this incredibly captivating, I use my personal experience to say that the tour proved to be much more of a catalyst for understanding my own family than I ever anticipated. Beyond gaining invaluable skills and knowledge for my ongoing research, I also underwent significant personal growth as an amateur genealogist, exceeding all of my initial expectations.

Ultimately, it is through embarking on genealogical explorations that we can begin to tie up these “loose ends” MacDiarmid spoke about and understand our ancestors’ lives. It is our willingness to confront and embrace the unknown aspects embedded in our family trees that allows us to grow as genealogists. By identifying our own loose ends, we simultaneously tie-off one mystery while unravelling countless others, perpetuating genealogy’s ever-evolving journey of discovery.

Interested in embarking on your own journey of discovery? Find out where American Ancestors is headed next on our upcoming Heritage Tours!

Photos by Kim Taylor and Kathleen Mackenzie