It’s a pretty intense feeling, walking in the very footsteps an ancestor once took. I had never experienced that feeling before, but now that I have I can’t wait for the next opportunity.
I remember very clearly when I first got interested in genealogy. It was one of those very rudimentary family tree assignments in elementary school, where we got a blank mimeographed family tree sheet to fill out and turn in as our assignment. We didn’t do big poster boards with photos and such back then. Things were simple. Purplish-blue, blurry mimeograph paper. Fill-in-the-blanks-type stuff. It was the 1970s.
For some reason – maybe because I really only knew a handful of my relatives – this assignment sparked an interest.
That interest took hold when I was sitting on the patio at my grandmother’s home one afternoon around that time. A great uncle (my late grandfather’s brother) was visiting from Florida. He was the family genealogist in my mom’s family, and he showed me his work that day. I was amazed at seeing sheet after sheet of names and dates and places of people I was related to, dating back to the Revolutionary War and beyond. This was all done by hand, as in the 1970s there was no family tree software or Ancestry.com to work with. And it was all based on original sources – documents, photos, firsthand accounts from relatives.
I was maybe 10 or 11 years old at the time, and my days were consumed with playing ball and hanging out with friends like so many kids did back then. My whole world pretty much consisted of my neighborhood – my elementary school was literally right around the corner from my house, and I’d barely been outside of California.
I remained intrigued, but I didn’t really revisit the topic in earnest until another homework assignment landed in my lap many years later. I was a freshman in college, taking a history and ethnic studies course that spring. The assignment was to research and write a term paper focusing on the ethnic background of one side of your family. Even in 1986 there weren’t the tools we have today, so I started by calling both my grandmothers. That led to a treasure trove of hand-written letters, extended family trees, new family surnames, and new leads…distant relations who knew the trees and could provide some stories too.
One story that caught my attention was contained in a copy of a letter my maternal grandmother sent me. It was the story of her relatives in the Winter family who visited Scotland in the early 1970s and sent her an accounting of their visit to Kirriemuir, a small town in the county of Angus. It was there that my grandmother’s family, the Winters and Ogilvys, originated. My grandmother’s mother, Mary Ogilvy, is believed to be related to Kirriemuir’s most famous son, Sir James Barrie (whose mother was Margaret Ogilvy), but I’ve yet to connect the dots between our Ogilvy line and his. I’ve also come to learn that the late rock vocalist Bon Scott of AC/DC fame also hailed from Kirriemuir, so I’ve got some more digging to do.
This letter contained a story of a visit to a large farm outside town called Balnagarrow, the very place my grandmother’s grandfather had been born. Balnagarrow was the Winter family farm for at least a few generations in the 1800s, and a 26-year-old William Winter emigrated from there to eventually settle in Brooklyn in 1871. The copy of the letter I received also had a couple of grainy, poorly reproduced snapshots from the visit – early 1970s Polaroids that had been Xeroxed into difficult-to-decipher black and white blotches on the page. But I could make out some of the landscape…rolling fields leading to a ridge on the horizon. And immediately, Balnagarrow was a place I had to go one day.
It took me 28 more years, but this past summer I finally made it to Kirriemuir, and to Balnagarrow, and it felt like I was stepping back in time a century or more. The town itself is a slice of history, with narrow streets and alleyways (called “closes”), a small town square, and a single cemetery on a hill. I visited Barrie’s birthplace, and saw the Peter Pan statue in the town square, and I wondered if and how I’m related to this famous playwright. Yep…more digging to do…
As I drove up a winding country road approaching Balnagarrow, surrounded by fields of green on either side as far as the eye could see, I couldn’t help but think how idyllic a place it is, and what a different world it must have been for my ancestors who left that region and eventually settled in mid-1800s Brooklyn.
Nearly 150 years after David Winter left Kirriemuir to come to America, his home turf in rural Scotland must not look a whole lot different than it would have when he was there. And it was a real treat to walk on the very ground he walked, if only for a few minutes, half a world away from my own home.