What started your interest in genealogy?
I always had some interest in my family history, and had thought of undertaking research into it but had never had the time. One lunch time at work many years ago, I was discussing this with a colleague, who assured me that Scottish genealogy research was easy! At that time, the ScotlandsPeople website was a fairly recent development, but following my friend’s online demonstration, I traced my paternal line back to 1855 that same evening and was immediately hooked. I began studying genealogy formally a few years later and have not stopped since then!
What are your specialist areas of interest and why have you chosen them?
I have a particular interest in the institutions that shaped ordinary people’s lives, particularly the Poor Law. These archive records are especially good in Glasgow, where I live, and they can often give very rich details on the extended family.
Through research into my maternal line, I have also developed an interest in Irish family history, and particularly in the connections between Ireland and the west of Scotland. I have developed an Irish family history course for the Centre for Lifelong Learning at the University of Strathclyde, where I am also a tutor on the postgraduate Genealogical Studies programme. I’ve been knocked out by the response to my Irish Family History course, which has been very quickly booked out on every run so far.
Some of my other research specialisms have been driven by client research projects, which have led me into many interesting areas, for example, early emigration from Scotland to Canada. No qualified genealogist could claim to know everything about every aspect of family history; but what we do have are the research skills and experience to find results much more comprehensively and quickly than someone without a genealogical studies background. Every project is different and they are all fascinating!
Your most exciting discovery, either personal or professional.
Exciting discoveries in genealogy can be double-edged. Finding a suicide in my own family history has made me very aware of some of the pitfalls we face and how clients need to be prepared for these. On the other hand, one of my most positive discoveries on behalf of a client was finding three entire families on the same passenger list emigrating from Scotland to the USA, confirming my theory that these people all belonged together! And there was the early 20th-century merchant navy record with a photograph, the only one the family had ever seen of their grandfather. Once, in the National Records of Scotland, I found a bundle of handwritten letters sent in the 1850s by a businessman I was researching… Sorry, did you ask for just one exciting discovery?!
A typical day’s work.
My typical working day depends very much on what time of year it is. For most of the time, I work from my home office, researching for clients in a wide range of online and published sources, or I may travel to a Genealogy Centre or an archive for a day’s research there. The pattern is very different in term time, however. The University of Strathclyde runs a range of introductory genealogy courses, and this autumn I am teaching in the classroom three days a week, as well as tutoring online postgraduate students. In addition to my Irish class, I teach an introductory course and also a course looking at occupational records for family history – that one is a lot of fun. So I sometimes have to cut back or postpone client work during term time, although I then come back to it refreshed and with increased expertise. There are never enough hours in the day for all the genealogy research I’d like to do!