Family History – why are we so interested in our ancestors?
Genealogy is the second most popular hobby (behind gardening) and is also the second most visited category of website (I’ll let you guess the first, and it’s not gardening!). The search for our ancestors has become big business, but in an age of mindfulness where we’re encouraged to live in the present moment, why do we spend so much time, effort and cash on living in the past?
Most societies have a respect or reverence for ancestors. Ancestor worship is in a different category holding beliefs that the dead have a continued existence and can influence the lives of the living. But people have charted their family line since the beginnings of settled communities and this may have been linked to establishing property and inheritance, documenting marriage alliances, proof of connection to a noble lineage or for extending the circle of trust in a small community – a common ancestor might play a part in strengthening kinship ties.
Even in the early and mid-twentieth century genealogy was an expensive business and not undertaken unless you were pretty well off. Poorer people had to hand their history down through word of mouth. The internet has been the great leveller in this respect, not only providing affordable or even free research but also bringing people together through forums to meet and share knowledge. Today you can collect a huge amount of family information in quite a short period of time thanks to the ever-increasing digitisation of official records. For instance, one day’s research at the records office in Edinburgh can take you back from the present day to the early 1800s via statutory births, marriages and deaths, Old Parish Records and Census entries without ever leaving your chair. Sites such as ancestry.com and Scotland’s People mean that you don’t necessarily have to leave the comfort of your own home to consult the archives. And you don’t have to stop when you run out of names and dates – DNA services will provide you with an ethnic profile showing, in percentage terms, the areas of the world your ancestors would have originated from.
But that’s the ‘how’ and doesn’t address the ‘why’. So why is the twenty-first century citizen so interested in who and what has gone before? Partly because we can; we have the leisure and income to spend in this way, but there are other motivations:
- Curiosity is probably an important factor. Few of us know the names of any of our relatives beyond our grandparents and probably our knowledge of our grandparents’ stories is hazy. We want to know the people, the places and the lifestyles that led to our own existence. It can help clarify and confirm our own identities
- Genealogy is history on a personal scale. You can look at a history timeline side by side with your family tree and see how local, national and international events affected the lives of your own family
- Truth or fiction? What lies behind the family stories? As a professional genealogist I’ve had my work cut out on occasion to persuade clients that Great-Aunt Mabel was not a reliable source of family fact. Stories that have been passed down for generations might be shown to have no basis and could have been altered or embellished for any number of reasons
- Finding a link to the famous or to noble lineages. I’m not immune – one branch of my family tree lived in Kirriemuir at the same time as J M Barrie and shared Barrie’s mother’s maiden name. I’m still searching for that link!
- Building a medical history through the data held on statutory death certificates
- Proving a relationship for inheritance
- Social history – your ancestors and their stories can be vital to bringing to life the development of one family or a community over time
I’d also like to suggest that we’re in control of our ancestors’ stories. The dead can’t be as wilful or as irritating as the living might be! We’re connected but we can choose the level of involvement we have with them, we are the authors of their stories highlighting some parts and fading others to suit ourselves.
At the end of the day the past is a puzzle which turns us all into detectives and we enjoy the game, the thrill of discovery. The important part is to make sure that what we record is accurate, but that’s the subject for another blog. Happy hunting!