Family History / Miscellany

Back to the Old Country

butte hall TRN

I was on a plane from Philadelphia to Glasgow, the city of my ancestors. In two days, my daughter, Ariel Rose Nelson, would graduate from Glasgow School of Art. “We”—the Nelson family—left the city four generations ago, and some of us have been looking back ever since. And looking ahead.
Ours is a common enough Scottish story, but it’s a new story each time to the next generation that makes the trip. It’s also a common enough American story, since we all began somewhere else and millions of us feel this urge to locate our origins. Going back to the remote source of our DNA helps to explain why we’re here, and who we are.

I’m also drawn to the shear romance. On July 2, 1867, Ariel’s great, great, great grandparents, Alexander Nelson, a journeyman joiner, and Jeanie Callum, were married by Rev. Woodrow Thompson of St. Luke’s Church, 23 Hunter Street, Glasgow. Alexander was 24 years old, son of Agnes Punten and James Nelson, ploughman. Jeanie was 23, one of eight children of James Callum, shoemaker, and Jane Cave. On their honeymoon, she and Alexander emigrated to Toronto, eventually settling in Buffalo, New York. And that’s about all we knew about “our” departure.

Their son James named his son Robert, who named his son Robert, who named his son Todd, who named his youngest child Ariel. And she decided to go to the old country as a third year college student to finish her degree in graphic design.

She is the third Nelson to go back to the old country. I was the first. During my own year abroad at Stirling University in 1976, my grandfather (the elder of the Roberts) came to Scotland, his first ever trip out of the U.S. Grandfather had instilled in me the modest amount he knew of our Scottish roots. Who were “our people,” back beyond living memory? Clan Gunn, of Norse origin, has always been part of the answer. Who and where are the distant relations of our clan? Not sure. But surely there are cousins. Our mission: find family records in the registry house in Edinburgh. We did.
Grandfather and I enjoyed a reunion of sorts when we opened a leather-bound ledger and read the page where, in an antique script and fading ink, Alexander and Jeanie’s wedding was recorded. Lacking the birth dates or locations to search parish records, we were blocked. Nowadays, from my house here in Philadelphia, I can open the same exact ledger with my computer and see the same script, and wonder the same thing: are there cousins? Digital reunions won’t suffice.

The Callum-Nelsons must have been typical of their social class in 19th century Glasgow. Evidently, Scotland held no promise. It must have required great courage or desperation or both to leave family, friends, and the known world and set out for America by ship. They never saw their homeland again, though Jeanie’s Glasgow accent never faded and, according to grandfather, she still called her childhood friends by name sixty years away from the playmates of her youth. She lived to age 90.

The occasion of my trip to the city of the ancestors stimulated some energetic research. I was bound and determined to find some Callum or Nelson cousins—and I did. The Callums have dispersed to as far as Australia and as near as Nottingham and Glasgow, where cousins still abide. We’ve exchanged genealogical tidbits and photos. Until just recently, Alexander’s family eluded me, until I located him at age 7 in the 1851 Scottish census. There was the family, with the right parental names and siblings, including a younger brother named James.

What’s more, I’ve even found their houses. The census gave me a location, and courtesy of Google Earth I can descend on the village of Spott, Dunbartonshire, and see the little stone cottage in which Alexander and his siblings were counted. The row of houses sits amid the fields that James Nelson no doubt plowed. A few more clicks and I found the cottage where he was born, not far away. It seems as if their lives were lived within a fairly circumscribed area—except for the son that up and left for America and started this whole grand arc of family dispersal…and return.

So it’s a reunion of sorts: me, grandfather, Jeannie, in memory and desire. No one stays behind in the digital age. If 19th century marriage records traverse cyber space, so can we. If we can’t see farther into the past, perhaps we can work from 1867 to the present? I’d like nothing more than to talk with a descendant of the folk that remained in Glasgow, and I now know the name of a Callum cousin with whom I share a great, great, grandfather. A digital reunion simply won’t suffice. I’ like to look them in the eyes.

And so Ariel received her diploma: Bachelor of Fine Arts, Hon. Great-grandmother Jeannie be amazed, because it’s as far from her home in the East End of Glasgow across town to the university as it is from Philadelphia back to the old country—an unimaginable, romantic voyage that took four generations to accomplish.

Todd R. Nelson Head of School at The School in Rose Valley, Pennsylvania.