Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Bygone Borderlands

In the area we in the UK call 'The Borders', straddling the boundary between England and Scotland, we have just had an interesting couple of days called Bygone Borderlands with an Archive Exhibition in Berwick-upon-Tweed Guildhall. On both days there were a number of related talks. I was persuaded to give one which I entitled 'Tracing my family history: Celtic Origins - what price DNA? A rare surname - and a few costly mistakes'.

Most of what I planned to say (only part of which I used because of the time constraint) can be gleaned from what I have written in this blog over the past couple of years. However, here is a summary. Historically I have two starting points for my family 'tracing'. The first was about 50 years ago meeting a Gaelic speaking Scottish Highlander, a stonemason working on the rebuilding of Iona Abbey, who told me the meaning of the Gaelic of McIlhagga, 'Mac-Ghille-Sagairt', namely 'the son of the servant of the priest', and proceeding to tell me that the name was from the Isle of Jura. Half-truths are only half true, and sources should be checked! Gaelic yes, but not from the Highlands at all and therefore not from Jura, but rather from the South-West of Scotland, in fact Ayrshire where Gaelic also used to be spoken. And rather than 'servant', more 'follower'. In my talk I proposed the theory that 'followers' of Mochuda (the Gaelic priest's name which evolved into McIlhagga via Medieval references in the Scottish Border Abbeys) came as 'missionaries' from Lismore in the South of Ireland in the 6th and 7th Centuries to found villages like Colmonell and Kirkmichael where the earliest Anglicised form of 'McIlhagga' can be found.

I commended the internet site <> which supports the Celtic-Scottish origin of our McIlhagga name, though interestingly confirms that its variant McIlhagger is Celtic-Irish. This fact enabled me to introduce the influence that sometimes the female line has, for 'McIlhagger' was adopted in a marriage and for its descendants from a clan daughter. This in turn let me introduce the difference there will be therefore between the male DNA for the respective McIlhagga and McIlhagger lines. There may of course be McIlhagga DNA in families using another surname where a name change has occurred for other reasons, and I cited an example in New Zealand.

I then came to my second personal 'starting point' for tracing my family tree, namely being brought up to believe that I was 'last of the line' of our branch, something that my 'tracing' has proved in a number of ways not to be true. I mentioned cousins in Canada, one of whom was sent out as a 'Home Child', and another whom I discovered when trying to help with his family tree and who proved to be my third cousin (once removed). Such a 'eureka moment' is one of the rewards we get from our hobby of tracing our families, though there are also 'brick walls', and I cited my own, not being able to find records for the birth or the marriage of my GGgrandfather William, partly caused by the loss of Church records in Clogh, a townland of County Antrim, Ireland. My hope for the future is to find a way back from William who was born about 1795 at least to the earliest references to our clan name in Ireland which occurs in the Hearth Tax records of 1669, and then may be to Ayrshire where references go back to 1527.

By the time I had reached this point in my talk I had nearly run out of time and I was not able to do justice to other material I had prepared, including the experience of having my own DNA analysed and so being able to demonstrate that our clan name is not to be confused with similar names found in the 'Borderlands', like McIlhargy. I had hoped to warn folk not to be taken in by commercial firms which produce false heraldic devices and dubious family name origins. I had hoped to tell the story of how I spent two years being misled by false information which had been given to me in good faith and which at the time I was too inexperienced to question. I also wanted to tell how such experiences can be balanced by good fortune which I have had on at least two occasions by being in touch with people who had done well-resourced research into two branches of my family tree and have taken me back many generations. Sadly I had no time to sum up what I had said by referring to a number of individuals who have proved to be really interesting characters or who have experienced life-changing events and so made their stories memorable in our clan. Most of them are there in this blog, with one exception, perhaps the most intriguing, a story which I will tell very soon.

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