Thursday, 21 May 2009

Hunting Ancestors - Part I

The family branches I share with my cousins, Sharon in Western Australia and Sandra in California were, between the late 1840's and early 1880's, immigrants from Northern Ireland, fleeing the famine to be ironstone miners in Dalry, North Ayrshire in Scotland. As Dalry is only a couple hundred miles from me, near the coast west from Glasgow, I felt I really ought to go look at the place and see what I could find. So that's just what we did last weekend.

It was a wet drive up and, wanting to share the trip with my


cousins, I took many rain splattered images from the car. I'd never


before appreciated how much paraphernalia on the car and windscreen were going to conspire to interfere with my efforts.


Bill kept pointing out examples of modernised cottages and I always responded,


taking pictures to the point where I admitted to being cottaged-out.


Armed with an enlarged historical map from the internet and having purchased local street maps when we arrived, Bill and I located the road juncture labelled Burnside, along side of Borestone Repairs (a garage), the only evidence of the name for a row of miner's houses where my great-grandfather was born in 1855. Some of the buildings, now a B&B and a farm-cum-kennel, remained. I didn't know until our return that some of the family who had remained in Scotland after others had gone to America and/or Australia, eventually lived at the place that now breeds boxers.

Though many of the houses in the area look as though they might have been some miners' cottages that had been knocked together to form more modern sized accommodation, the rowhouses of my mining ancestors had been long torn down.

Putting letters on the historical map and labelling the pictures with the letters and directions to share the findings proved to be a fun challenge, as well as writing up a travelogue. That story included a scary encounter with a big, belligerent, skin-headed & earringed Scot after a little driving disagreement. Road rage is alive and well in this part of the world. Bill tried to suggest he might be one of my distant relations, but I'm not having it. I will admit, however, that to survive the life they led, they will like have been at least equally as hard.

The details of genealogical research only really fascinate the descendents, but perhaps a little history and a bit of culture might be of interest. We found this description of the miners' living conditions in Carsehead, about 2 miles East:

DESCRIPTION OF CARSEHEAD ROWS, DALRY. [From "Ayrshire Miners' Rows, 1913" Evidence submitted to the Royal Commission on Housing (Scotland) by THOMAS McKERRELL and JAMES BROWN for the Ayrshire Miners' Union.]

1st Row. Wm. Baird & Co. Closets without doors. The first row contains 14 two apartment houses built of stone. The kitchen measures approximately 14 feet by 11 feet and the room 8 feet by 6 feet, and there is a cupboard which contains a set-in bed in addition. There are six dry-closets (Note: This is an earth closet, a form of toilet), without doors, for this row. Neither washing-houses nor coalhouses have been provided, but in many cases the people have built these outhouses for themselves. The closets, at the date of our visit, were very dirty, and very difficult of access if one wished to prevent his boots from being soiled. The syvors and cesspools in front of the houses were very dirty. The roadway is unpaved and very muddy. The rent is 1s 6d per week..... In one house we found twelve persons, four of them grown up.....The ashpits are very large, and at the date of our visit filled with very foul material. ....Some of the tenants complained that the houses were troubled with rats, and in the words of one tenant, 'They were rotten with damp.'....The Carsehead Rows have houses floored with the usual sunken, twisted, and cracked brick tiles. The roadways are all unpaved and muddy, and there is a huge mound of black 'blaes' in front of the rows which does not make the prospect any the more pleasing.....[These rows are thought to have built about 1850-1855.]

Another description of the time and place described the difficulty in maintaining good hygiene in these surroundings, the miners generally only able to wash their faces after coming out of the pits; and, the part I liked, the children generally 'innocent' of water. It goes on to explain, as though not obvious, the many reasons why the children have such poor health.

Scotland, of course, was mainly Protestant and the Catholic Irish weren't always particularly welcome:

William Wylie in his "Ayrshire Streams" 1850, paints a vivid picture of life in the Borestone mining community, near Dalry. This attack on the Irish immigrant is scathing. "Too often has the presence of the people from the sister isle acted prejudicially on the native population. They have eaten up our public charities, crowded the calendar of crime to fill our prisons and destroyed the character of Scottish villages. Shadows have darkened into sullen gloomy clouds. Subsisting on the coarsest diet and paucity of apparel, the Irish offer their labour at a lower rate than the Scot". He describes conditions in the hovels by the roadside: "Filth fills the atmosphere with a miasma sufficient to pollute the breezes from the hills. Heaps of ashes and pools of water stagnate at the doors where half-clad, stunted children play around." He talks of vagrancy, pestilence and disease. Wylie's plaint was cultural, social and economic. Not once did he mention religious difference; nor did he appear to have much understanding of the conditions from which these people had fled.

Of course, the Irish suffered the same difficulties as any wave of unwanted immigrants. It is difficult to imagine that conditions were worse in Ireland, but I suppose work, however dirty and dangerous, is always preferable to starvation.

So now you have a picture of the miners' lives, turn your attention if you will to this: The Blair Mines, one of several companies in the area, were owned by the Blairs, who lived at Blair House. There have been Blairs there since nearly the time of William the Conquerer (the first portion being constructed in 1105) and the house (Castle) is apparently still in private ownership, descendents of the same Blair family. I don't actually begrudge them their family sucess, but when I first opened their website, the contrast of those pictures to the ones in my mind of the miners' lives was quite startling.

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