Thursday, 24 November 2011

Ghosts in the Snow - Chasing Ancestors North

Half the joy of being a genealogist is poring over the census records, deciphering ancient hand-writing, working out who the correct parents should be, and trying to draw a diagram that represents a family. But if you really want to play the sleuth, as we all love to do, the other half of this great hobby is getting out there. Walk their streets. Find their houses. Visit their churches.

This is a story which is strange for me to tell because it contradicts my normally rational and unflinchingly logical view of the world. This is a tale of coincidence, sentimentality and bewilderment about how I chased an unknown branch of my tree, and grew to love them. It's a soulful and lonely adventure I'd like to share.

It began with a visit to an old friend in Newcastle. A visit which went badly wrong. Not because of anything I did, but because the circumstances of her life contrived to destroy our plans on a Friday night in such a way that it was impossible for me to stay the rest of the weekend. I was far from home and without a place to stay.

But what I did have was a plan forming quickly in my mind as I packed my bag on Saturday morning. The line of my family which gives me my middle name came from the area, and I happened to have grabbed a few notes from home, with a half-hope of driving around Newcastle to see whether the streets still existed. We had a little time to kill before I had to head off, so my friend was kind enough to act as patient chauffeur and pander to my genealogical whims, whilst her life gently imploded in the background.

My trail began with this certificate:

My deeply Scottish ancestor Charles Napier McCulloch had married a young woman appropriately called Ann Isabella Scott. These were my great, great grandparents. At the time of their marriage of 1877 they had been living in Argyle Street. Ann Scott had been born in Newcastle, as revealed by her birth certificate, a document which also gave the names of her parents:

Ann's father was William Scott and her mother was Margaret nee Hills. A few years after Ann Scott's marriage, the 1881 census reveals her mother in Tower Street, Newcastle. Ann's father had died by 1881 and her widowed mother aged 58, was a boarding house keeper.

Tower Street, Newscastle
It was with some excitement I walked up the old steps to Tower Street - a narrow, student-occupied corner of the town centre. The immortal Tyne was behind me and the tall, slender Victorian Weights and Measures building stood guard over the entrance to a steep road.

Looming above were magnificent 19th century buildings. One's brickwork elaborately proclaimed itself to be Industrial Dwellings from 1879. These ominous, monolithic structures had sprung up in the years when the widowed Margaret Scott (nee Hills) would be running her boarding house, probably in a building opposite, but now gone.

I loved that I could see the buildings she saw, and the view of the river that would have greeted her at the end of the alley. I felt very comfortable there, standing on the very stones that she and her family would have helped wear down, a hundred and thirty years ago.

We went back to my friend's flat, and we said our goodbyes. I'd been so pleased with seeing Tower Street that the thought of making the five hour drive home never even entered my head. I knew that an even older document gave me a different possibility.

The marriage certificate of Ann Scott's parents told me that the road to take was not south - it was north, and further back in time.

In 1845, Ann's parents William Scott and Margaret Hills were married in Spittal, in the Borough of Berwick upon Tweed. William's father had been a baker (from Scotland) and Margaret's father had been a fisherman.

Berwick was an hour and a half's drive further north, and it was starting to rain. But I was excited. I was on the trail. So onwards I went, alone and looking for my ancestors.

As I drove, the rain cleared, but the ground became patchy with snow. Along the A1, a picturesque winter scene gradually developed as the blanket of white thickened the further I drove. The sun began to drift down behind the fluffed-up clouds, and I couldn't help but stop in the wilderness to photograph the beauty.

I pulled into a side road and the car slushed awkwardly onto the snow-covered soft verge. I gingerly stepped out and admired the cold landscape.

As I took my photos, holding the camera high over a bush to get an unobstructed photograph of the flat white field beyond, my clothing snagged and I fell into the needle-like branches which tore open my already chapped hand.

The shock of the pain on my icy-cold hand made me loose my footing and I splashed through a foot-deep puddle of freezing water, soaking me thoroughly, and I fell into the snow.

I pulled myself up and sat on the car seat, checking my hand. Having decided I was likely to survive the wounds, I found a spare pair of socks and put my shoes in the passenger footwell to dry under the car's heater. I took another couple of photos of the desserted scene and sheepishly got back into the car.

Starting the engine, I attempted to pull forwards but the wheels spun in the slush. It's surprising how quickly a feeling of isolation can strike you when you're a long way from home and the elements are against you.

Drawing a deep breath, I slowly raised the clutch again and gently, the car eased forward. But the road was a narrow lane and I needed to turn around. Cautiously, I swung the car around into a right-angle in the road and inched towards the hedge. An alarming clunk hit the front of the vehicle. It started to occur to me that without knowing the edge of the road, it was possible I couldn't turn round.

Putting the car into reverse I rolled it back, trying to guess where the edge of the road might turn into a dangerous ditch beneath its cover of snow. I felt the back of the vehicle start to dip down, and I quickly hit the brake. Turning the wheel fully, I moved off again and there was just enough room for the front of the vehicle to creep round and face the right way. I was able to make the final turn and head back onto the main road towards Berwick, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

Noting to myself that I wouldn't be making any more desolate stops, I pondered the significance of the route I was taking. I knew from the 1861 census that I was reversing a journey my ancestors had made - and I knew roughly when they had travelled.

William and Margaret Scott's first children had been born in Spittal, like them. But following the birth of George in 1851 they moved to Newcastle, where my ancestor Ann Scott was born in 1854 (although she's recorded as Isabella Ann in the census).

I knew therefore that the family made the journey from Spittal down to Newcastle in 1852/3. William Scott was a tailor, and perhaps a journeyman, and it seemed the family might have moved in search of work.

Around the time they moved I knew that both William and Margaret's parents remained in Spittal and the surrounding areas, known as Tweedmouth and Berwick-upon-Tweed. The 1851 census shows Margaret's parents and extended family - and it reveals a sad clue as to what factors might have driven Margaret and her husband to head south.

The 1851 census above shows Adam Hills (Margaret's father, and my great-great-great-great-grandfather) was a Pauper, with his wishful occupation of fisherman in brackets. Margaret's mother Jane was a "Pauper's Wife." These were obviously hard times. Perhaps the growing port city of Newcastle held promise for the next generations.

But the census revealed another fact which would alter the course of my journey. Adam Hills was not born in Spittal where he was living at the time, but in a tiny village six miles away, called Ancroft. I had to pass this place to get to Spittal, and so I took the turnoff in the narrowing and twisting country lanes.

The creamy orange and red sun streamed out from behind fluffed up cotton clouds, and I knew my destination was beneath the burning sky.

The tree-lined hill brow and scattering of ancient cottages were settled into their powdered landscape as I drove into this breath-taking, oil-painting image.

Arriving at the start of what could barely be called a village, I parked the car and crunched out into a dreamland. It was deserted. Deadly silent in the fading light. The one-track lane which snaked away was glistening with ice and patched with snow.

My feet left impressions in the land of my distant ancestors, and I soaked up this red, orange and white vista which Adam Hills knew as a boy. A string of old, low cottages hid behind some scrawny trees as I made my way further up the road.

At last a figure appeared. He was a friendly man with a black dog. I wish I'd asked his name. I explained I was looking for my ancestors. He asked if I was going to the church, and he pointed me towards it.

The reddened sky was silhouetting an ancient farm-house, and the little stream which flowed beside the road was stopped still in time, its icy surface catching the warm colours of the sky. I gazed, and took more photos and then I walked carefully up the slippery path to the church

At the gate, I paused. The white pavement lead towards an evergreen tree which obscured the building itself. The graveyard was surprisingly big and less covered in snow than any of the fields surrounding it. Large patches of green lay untouched and the leaning gravestones were randomly and generously spaced.

I pushed the metal gate and entered. Barely taking a moment to consider which of the many directions to start, without thought or reason, I stepped off the path, and walked to the left.

I had only walked a few paces, passing and partly-ignoring the first few head-stones before I stopped as a slightly more elaborate one caught my eye.

I couldn't believe what I was looking at.

The hairs on the back of my neck had risen.

I was looking at the grave of a Margaret Hills.

My mind spun with the possibilities. Emotion and confusion took hold of me. Yesterday had been upsetting and sad, but today had been exhilarating, picturesque and full of promise. I'd felt guided by the sunset and I'd been literally steered towards this church. And now, within seconds of entering the hallowed ground I was standing facing the name of my ancestor.

My tired and unreliable brain required a moment to take hold of the facts. It could not be my Margaret Hills - she married, and her surname changed to Scott before ending up in Newcastle running that boarding house. Ancroft was her father's village, not hers.

But this village was tiny. Virtually one road with a few houses. Surnames matching in villages like this were never a coincidence, I knew that from practical experience.

I walked around the grave. I touched it.

I looked up, and the bright moon hung in a clear, dusky-blue sky, sitting perfectly above the bizarre, square, nine-hudred-year-old church. The scene was surreal. The moment was improbable.

I stumbled away from the grave, talking to myself, scanning more headstones.

No more Hills. Not a single one.

The only one in the whole graveyard was the one I had found instantly. The namesake of my great, great, great grandmother.

The evening light suddenly faded, and I found myself trying to use the screen of my phone to see the names on graves. I refused to believe my find had been so easy and that there was nothing else of consequence here.

I hunted closer to the church, where the burials became older, and the inscriptions more faded.

I started to stumble clumsily across graves, and I was glancing only hastily, frustratedly. The chill of the air was closing in, and the dusk was almost tangible in the air.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone darting along the path which encircled the church.

I looked up, alarmed, trying to see if, as I imagined, it was a young person in white clothes. The anxieties of the real world were suddenly upon me. This strange quest amongst the dead seemed dangerous and lonely. I'd breezed through the day barely thinking and brought myself to a desserted village in the dark. No-one knew where I was.

I looked for the figure, to see if they were making their way out along the path. But the grave yard was completely empty. There was no figure at all.

The last feelings of excitment about my discoveries were drained from me. The darkness was all around. The outlines of the graves stood like stone figures, guarding their home.

I felt unwelcome. The rational part of my brain was gripped by the fear of being alone and in unknown territory. The irrational part of me was scared that I might not be alone.

I hurried back to the gate in the gloom, treading carefully on the untrustworthy path. I glanced back over my shoulder to take a last look at the church but it had sunk into the darkness.

I stopped at the gate. A black cat was sitting in the path, staring back at me.

Never had an animal looked so sinister.

Ususally I'm a cat-lover, but I hesitated before taking a step closer. It immediately darted, and melted into the blackness.

I quickly returned to the safety of my car, and I locked the doors.

The day had provided many emotions, and a few scars. The sadness of leaving my friend, the thrill of adventure, the isolation, the fear. But breaking through the randomness, I knew I'd walked where my ancestors walked. I'd found my family's name - however tenuous the connection.

In the days that followed, I continued to follow the trail of the Scott and Hills families and found far more signifncant things than the name on that grave, but nothing touched me quite so much as meeting "Margaret Hills" on frozen ground beneath a moonlight sky.


So who was Margaret Hills? Once I got home I did the necessary research and I found she was an aunt by marriage, of my Margaret Hills.

My Margaret's father, Adam Hills the pauper fisherman, had at least two siblings. One was Elizabeth Hills, born 1786, and another was William Hills, born in Cheswick in 1784.

William Hills, like my ancestor Adam, was a fisherman. Some time around 1815 he married a young woman called Margaret Black and they lived together in Ancroft. They had three children, but their little boy Thomas died aged three in 1824. The family lived in Ancroft until at some time after 1832 they moved two miles closer to the sea, to William's original home of Cheswick. That's where the family of four can be found in the 1851 census:

On November 6th 1855 Margaret Hills (nee Black) died aged 73 and she was buried in her home of Ancroft. The headstone I found some 154 years later remembers her, her little son Thomas, and daughter Susannah Hills who died a spinster aged 60.

When I looked again at the dates, one final link became clear. William Hills had married Margaret Black around 1815, and a few years later when William's brother Adam (my ancestor) had a baby daughter, they named her Margaret.

Which meant that my ancestor had been named after her aunt - whose grave I found quite by chance one day, far from home, amidst the sunset, the snow and the spirits of the past.


  1. What a wonderfully descriptive narrative. I felt I was walking with you on your journey of discovery. You're a marvellous writer and I look forward to reading your books. Lisanne xx

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