Was great-great-great grandma a witch?

witch3A new manuscript available to consult on Ancestry.co.uk  details the names of people who were accused of being witches in Scotland in 1658. If you have an Ancestry account and would like to look at it, you need to search under the Card Catalog option in the drop down search menu. The name of the collection is “Scotland, Names of Witches, 1658.” I’d suggest, however, that if you really want to read it properly, you go through the Wellcome Library site. There they have also digitized a handwritten transcription of the extremely-hard-to-read original manuscript. I don’t see the transcription available on Ancestry.
I’m already intrigued – in the first few pages there is a “Catharine Edger” listed as an accused witch in Dumfries. Edgar is one of our ancestral names on my maternal line and some of them certainly lived in this area!

There’s an article about the manuscript below; if you want to see both the manuscript and the transcription you need to go to the Wellcome Library website at




I’m related to Matt Damon! (possibly)

Ancestry has just released an app called “We’re Related” and it’s kind of fun – possibly highly inaccurate but fun, as long as you take its findings with a pinch of salt.

How it works isn’t especially transparent. I downloaded the app and  was asked to connect to my tree on Ancestry and identify which person I was within the tree. Once I did this it produced a series of “insights” for me about famous people I’m related to. My results were a veritable array of hunks and geniuses including Matt Damon, Brad Pitt and Robert Pattinson. Well, when I say a veritable array I mean it gave me precisely 5 connections  – the 3 above named “hunks” plus Steven Hawking and Peyton Manning.

The app claims that Matt Damon and I are (possibly) 7th cousins and here is the chart that shows the possible connection:img_0124-1

(Can you see the resemblance?)

If you click on the number just above each person’s face (in the app) it shows the line of descent for both of us from our suggested common ancestor, Agnes Brown, to the present day. There are names and dates for each person in the line of descent but no further information.

Matt (I think I can call him that now, right?) is a descendant of Agnes Brown through one of her daughters called Mary Wight. I supposedly descend from Agnes Brown through her son Robert Wight. A search on Ancestry showed various family trees recording an Agnes Brown born in Roxburghshire, Scotland around 1710 and that she married a William Wight. The Wight surname is certainly one that I have in my ancestry on my mum’s side but I’d have to do more digging to see if we connect to this Wight line. I really don’t know how Ancestry calculated the connection between Agnes Brown and Matt Damon and that’s where we have to be skeptical. Which is unfortunate because most people with an interest in genealogy and family history work very hard to prove connections between families using existing documents rather than hearsay or smoke and mirrors. I wonder how many celebrity ancestries are in their app to compare against? Is Matt Damon going to connect with me any day now on Facebook and suggest a family get together?
If you do have a tree on Ancestry and you’d like to download the app it’s in the App Store or Google Play. I’d love to hear how many of us it suggests are actually related to Matt, Brad or any of my other new family!

Who was Nicholas Barber?


I first came across Nicholas Barber a few weeks ago when I was researching the McKay line in Dumfriesshire for a family. The person of interest was called John McKay. Late one day I had come across this record in the Scottish census of 1851, an entry for the village of Dunreggan, Dumfries and Galloway;


This fitted the information I had about John McKay. I was intrigued that the record also showed a sister, Janet,  plus another “son”, William Park. What struck me most about his household were the 3 different surnames.  I wondered about Nicholas Barber and presumed that he was some kindly gent who had taken in these children and was raising them as his own.

The next day I dived back into the records looking for more information about Nicholas Barber. The Scotland’s People website had just launched in a new format and seemed to be very glitchy. I was searching for Nicholas Barber in census records but not coming up with any other hits. Eventually I found a death record for a Nicholas Barbour in the right location that seemed to fit the bill;


The informant on the death certificate was Jane McKay, described as a grand-daughter of Nicholas Barber. I knew that one of John McKay’s children had been called Jane. The information fitted.

My searches for Nicholas Barber or Barbour continued to throw up nothing so I went back to searching for John McKay in the records to see if I could find them together. In the 1841 census for Scotland I found the following record;


The third name down is hard to read but it is “Niklos” followed by an abbreviation for ditto, meaning Niklos had the same surname – Barber – as the head of the house. In 1841 “Niklos” is 25 and William Park age 3, as well as John McKay aged 7 months, are living with this household. In other words two of the same three children from the 1851 census.

Something didn’t add up about my “kindly gent” hypothesis. I soon realised that it wasn’t the records’ fault. It was mine. Here is a closer look (one that I didn’t take) at the 1851 census entry for the family group again;

Barber 1851 larger shot.png

Had I taken a little more time when I first found this record, instead of jumping to conclusions, I would have noted that Nicholas Barber, according to this census, is a 34-year-old female seamstress. The 1841 census entry for Niklos Barbour also confirms that this is a female, as does the death certificate in 1901. Instead of a story of a chivalrous gent, I had discovered a young mother who had had 3 children by two different men without being married to either of them. Her unusual name  – Nicholas – meant I hadn’t read all the information carefully enough and had jumped to conclusions.

Naming traditions in Scotland at this time were both simple and traditional. Girls were called Ann, Mary, Sarah, Alison, Jean, Kate, Maggie…all solidly recognisable as girls’ names. There was a particular pattern often, but not always followed, of naming girls after the mother’s mother, then the father’s mother and so on. The office of the National Records of Scotland refers to the use of Nicholas as a girl’s name as an example of “Ambiguous Naming”. It refers to only two examples – Nicholas (which it says was confined mainly to the north of Scotland, not the case here) and Christian (used as an alternative for Christina).

The Whatsinaname website (http://www.whatsinaname.net ) is dedicated to documenting naming patterns in Scotland. It reports that there were “many uses of the name Nicholas for girls, particularly in the early 19th century in the counties of Ayrshire and Dumfriesshire. It does appear from the 1881 census of the lowlands of Scotland that Nicholas was more commonly a female name than a male name, and the male equivalent thereabouts was more likely to be Nichol.

As yet I have not been able to discover the historical reason as to why this name prevailed in two specific locals so far apart – mainly in Aberdeenshire and also Dumfries and Galloway. The two areas are roughly 200 miles apart, a huge distance in the rural Scotland of the 19th century. I have, of course, learnt an important lesson about not jumping to conclusions over names without a thorough evaluation of the records.

All images copyright of National Records of Scotland (http://www.scotlandspeople.org.uk ).


House Histories – Clues on the Inside


Some houses come with a ready-made history.  Like the beautiful Rock House on Calton Hill in Edinburgh, Scotland.  Built in the latter half of the 18th century, it is well-documented as the studio of photographer David Octavius Hill and collaborator Robert Adamson. This photograph, taken approximately 1890 by photographer Alexander Inglis shows the house pretty much as it is today, although the small photography studio to the right of the main building has been replaced with a more elegant structure.

rock house screenshot.png

The house even has a pane of glass in one of the upstairs windows with a name scratched into it – “W Menzies 1795”. Nothing I have read so far reveals much of the history before the photographers took up residence, so we have history and a mystery – a house with much information available about a specific time period and not so much about others. Who W Menzies was is still to be revealed.

History and mystery could be the tagline for any kind of genealogical research, including house histories. Often we start with a blank slate. I have known nothing about several of the houses I have researched but along the way have come up with both history and mystery. The census records are wonderful pictures into who lived in a house – except they only come about once every ten years.  In between those times there are many things we can turn to for research – newspaper articles, voter registration, city directories. Sometimes we get lucky and get a snippet of information from a neighbor or find something around the house that can tell us more. That happened to me recently here in San Francisco. I had the feeling that someone involved in journalism had lived in a particular house I was researching. There were odd, built-in filing cabinets in the basement labelled by year with “San Francisco Chronicle” on them and I really wanted to find out who they had belonged to. I was only part way through the history at that point and had really only really studied the land records and census records which took me up to about 1940.

One day I noticed this hand print in the concrete down the side of the house;



“T.O.F. 1992”. Not an especially historic discovery but an intriguing one. I hoped that the initials would lead me to a connection with the filing cabinets and my hunch about the occupier of the house.

A few days later I met a neighbor who confirmed my hunch. He told me that before the current owner purchased the building, it had been owned by Terence O’Flaherty. It wasn’t a name that was familiar to me but it turned out he had been a TV critic for the San Francisco Chronicle from 1950 to 1986. During his career he became the only TV critic ever to be awarded an Emmy for his work.

In this case, O’Flaherty was sufficiently well-known locally to have been remembered in the neighborhood. In addition he left a literal mark in the concrete, presumably for a bit of fun. W Menzies, who may or may not have lived in the Rock House,  left similar clues to the past by scratching his name into a pane of glass more than 200 years ago. The analysis of these clues adds a fascinating richness to house histories which research in other records can’t always provide.

Geocoding process brings clarity to historical photographs in San Francisco Library collection.

I found http://www.oldsf.org a few months ago as I was trawling through old photographs to identify any old shots of the Haight area in San Francisco for a house history I was working on. The creators of the site assigned a longitude and latitude to many of the images in the fantastic digitized collection available at San Francisco Public Library’s Historical Center. They were then able to plot the photographs on a map of the city, making a search by specific location much more accurate. They give full credit for the digitized photos to the library. The staff at the Historical Center have added OldSf.org as a link on their web pages so they are clearly impressed with it too.