Saturday, June 11, 2005

The Self-Amputating Aquatic Scotsman

From The (London, U.K.) Times of June 11, 2005:
Ben Macintyre

Thanks to the craze for climbing our family trees, we now see history from a more democratic viewpoint

MY LATE FATHER liked to shock strangers by claiming that he might be the illegitimate son of George VI. The sole basis for this outlandish assertion was that my grandmother had met the Duke of York then at a party in Perth, Australia, the year before my father was born, and got on very well with him.

There were other, equally unverifiable tales of our ancestry: the grandfather who supposedly died, post-prandially, after falling down a manhole outside the Sydney Bridge Club; the hard-hunting 19th-century Irish aunts who rode their horses up the stairs; the Macintyre clansman who severed his own hand and hurled it to the shore in order to win a swimming race; mad Aunt Rachel who turned out, post-mortem, to be an uncle.

I have no idea whether these stories of my forebears are even remotely true. The reality was probably much more prosaic: hairy Scots-Australian sheep farmers on one side, English sailors and a smattering of vicars on the other. But I have always clung to the family legends of self-amputating aquatic Scotsmen and peculiar Wodehousian aunts.

Today, thanks to the internet and DNA testing, I could find out my origins for sure, as millions of others have already done. The tracing of family history is the world’s fastest-growing hobby, no longer restricted to brassrubbing or to elderly folk with time on their hands.


The craze for family genealogy has democratised history in a way that was impossible a generation ago. The ordinary, everyday lives of your ancestors and mine hold as much fascination as the actions of the great and good, the famous and the infamous. This reflects the wider shift towards personalised microhistory: the simple men who fought the battles and not just the great men who ordered them; the women who sewed the clothes rather than the duchess who wore them. These people traditionally fell outside official history, acknowledged only as faceless cannon fodder or social statistics.


Family genealogy can be addictive, and expensive. James LeVoy Sorenson, the American catheter billionaire, so enjoyed discovering his Scandinavian origins that he decided to draw up the entire genetic map of Norway, at an estimated personal cost of $500 million.


I, for one, will not be submitting my DNA to a genealogy database. For there are some things about the ancestral past one would rather leave ambiguous, and some legends best left undisturbed. And I know my cousin Prince Charles feels the same.

[Read the whole story]

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