I wrote back in November that I’d moved to Scotland, Aberdeenshire in particular, because of my family connection to it. I had discovered that there was a large archive of documents from my mother’s family housed at Aberdeen University’s Special Collections. A self-appointed local historian had discovered a treasure trove of letters and documents languishing in a farm building at a time when the house was uninhabited and took them to the university. I had thought I’d spend a day a week there, but the archive is large (more than 70 boxes) and the contents enticed me so much that I have been spending much more of my time there.
My family is Ogilvie-Forbes of Boyndlie, from branches of both the Forbes and the Ogilvie clans, families of North East Scotland. Boyndlie is near Fraserburgh and it is here I spent holidays in my youth as my grandfather lived there. My second cousins live there now. Both these families were landowners but also professionals such as doctors and merchants, variously gaining and losing properties thanks to the vagaries of politics, global commerce and agricultural markets. But often the younger sons had to make their way independently and these were often the most interesting ones.
The archive contains mostly letters and estate papers from the 16th-20th century with 18-20th century featuring most heavily. There is so much that I didn’t really know where to start without being overwhelmed, but start I did and I found my way. I decided that I’d combine a pragmatic and an instinctual approach. I knew if I transcribed and documented every item I’d be in the library for decades. I would also get bored. So I decided to look at everything and only spend time on items that somehow captured my imagination; items that made me feel something. At the same time I tried to work out what would be next: where was I going to take this material?
With that thought in mind I booked myself on a writing course. I’d heard great things from a number of people about the Arvon writing courses. I found one on non-fiction and booked myself on. It was quite life-changing and has given me the confidence to, maybe... start writing a book with this material.
I am only about a third of the way through the archive trawl and I have good days and bad days. Exciting days are when I’m completely absorbed and excited by my discoveries, and start putting what seemed like isolated pieces of information together and see that they form a story. Other days I can’t focus; the letters are unintelligible, boring and I feel the weight of my undertaking. But, I’m far enough along to know that this is a journey I’m committed to, and I feel there are a number of stories that are emerging that have captured my imagination.
Here are a few:
- George Ogilvie of Auchiries:, ‘the Planter’ – son of a Jacobite of the ’45 rebellion was sent as a young man to learn a trade with his uncle, Charles Ogilvie, who had lands in South Carolina. George managed his uncle’s plantations and extended these by buying his own. He owned slaves and wrote and published a long poem about his life there. He had to flee in the American Revolution, and fled, then was shipwrecked in Denmark on his way home to Aberdeenshire. He married a daughter of Drum castle, a cousin, and had a large family but spent the rest of his life trying to secure compensation and returns from his debtors, with his property eventually having to be sold on his death. George is my 4x great grandfather.
- Theodore Forbes, his brothers and his natural children. I’ve rather fallen for these sons and daughters of John Forbes of Boyndlie (also my 4x great grandfather). Theodore is notably colourful as he had three ‘natural’ (illegitimate) children. One, Frederick, was from a liaison with a local ‘country girl’ from Inverkeithney and the other two, Kitty and Alexander, were from a reputedly Armenian/Indian woman in Surat, India. The latter two were sent back to Aberdeenshire to be educated. All three were seemingly accepted and cared for by the family, given a good education and their father’s surname. Interestingly, they seemed to have been written out of the family records in the later Victorian years, but in their childhood of the 1820s they were loved. Kitty, and (therefore) Theodore, are direct ancestors of Lady Diana Spencer. The warmth and affection these siblings and their parents hold for each other and the precariousness of their existences has touched me. We are talking about the era of 1810-1820 and what surprises me most is the openness they appear to have in their tenderness towards each other. I can only compare to Jane Austen, who wrote during this period and I feel the style is refreshingly more direct than the impression I held of the way young men and women communicated from reading Austen and her biographers. Sadly, all the boys died without children, apart from Theodore, who was more prolific but his children, being illegitimate, could not inherit. The property went to one of the daughters, Jane, who had married Dr Ogilvie, the son of George I wrote about above. So, despite George’s first son, Alexander, having to sell the Ogilvie property, Auchiries, his second son, Dr John Ogilvie, inherited a property through his Forbes wife. There are reams of letters between all these brothers, sisters and their parents and friends and it reveals a tough but exciting existence (even for these privileged children of the gentry). They travelled to India, Russia, the Middle-East in search of a living in an era where disease and disaster were ever-present with little to fall back on. I loved reading the friendship that existed between the two families before Jane married John and they joined. Jane’s brother, Theodore (father of the natural children) was great friends in India, with William Ogilvie, Dr John’s brother. And I’ve read many letters between them about what to do with Kitty and Alexander.
- Sir George Ogilvie-Forbes, my great-uncle. Much of the correspondence is to Sir George – a medium-ranking diplomat who appeared to show great humanity in his work and seemingly saved the lives of many people in his various posts from Mexico in the civil war, Spain in the civil war and then Germany in the lead-up to the 2nd World War. Indeed, he was honoured for saving the lives on Jews in the Holocaust. Alongside these achievements I also find myself pouring over letters of a much more mundane or intimate nature, such as when he writes of being bullied at school, with his father (my great-grandfather)’s somewhat feeble attempt to do something about it.
Although I’m drawn to the personal, the family, the domestic, I also get excited about how members of the family have some connection with significant people in history. Two key ones are Lord Pitsligo and Sir Willilam Forbes. Pitsligo was the famous old man of the Jacobite rebellion. Lord Forbes of Pitsligo is related through my Forbes line, though not directly. However, he was very intimate with my Oglivies; he was guardian to my direct ancestor Alexander Ogilvie. Pistligo’s son, Master of Pitsligo, married the same Alexander Ogilvie’s sister, Rebecca and my ancestors gave them all refuge at Auchiries when Pitsligo castle was raised to the ground and their lands confiscated by the English. Sir William Forbes was a banker of great reknown, who also gave protection to this Master of Pitsligo. I love reading his letters to George Ogilvie – it’s funny knowing he was a man of great distinction and yet seeing him write copious accounts of his wife’s ailments to these family friends in remote North East Scotland.
I have far to go but I feel like one of these stories is leading me down the path of writing a book. I’m drawn to the personal, where I can grasp who these ancestors are, and how they lived, related to each other and how they fit into history. And you can only get these by pouring over the letters, understanding something of the context, which inevitably means studying the wider context, and then, I suppose, using my imagination to fill in the gaps, sensing for what’s right. I’m curious about the post-union era in this remote and somehow independent-minded community which clearly relied on the ‘empire’ to furnish its sons with work.
In the meantime, on I go, opening boxes and deciphering hand-writing, googling places on my phone from my library enclave as I read letters and discover different parts of the county where they lived. At weekends I hop in the car and explore, finding ruins, gravestones, imagining them walking to church down the footpaths. I’m curious still about why I want to do this; not only me, but I’m one of a wave of people who somehow feel the need to look backwards and uncover, imagine and bring to light. Why? I don’t know yet, but I need to do it.