Having ancestors from the Scottish county of Perthshire is what I like to think of as an inalienable human right. Despite my dodgy Northern Irish accent, in my own tree I am positively tripping over them, and within the last decade I have found all sorts of drama concerning my Perthshire relatives. For starters, my three times great grandmother saw her untimely demise at the hands of an axe killer on her brother’s farm in the mid-19th century, an act that drove her brother insane. And then there’s one of my personal favourites, a Perth based Paton weaver ancestor who signed up to a militia unit but then refused to go to Ireland to put down the 1798 rebellion (along with half of his regiment), because he was, well, just a wee bit bolshy really!
One of the greatest joys in carrying out research into all of this has been my regular visits to the A. K. Bell Library in Perth, which houses Perth and Kinross Archive. Over the years my interest in Perthshire soon developed from a purely family history based perspective to one which was more academic, and whilst studying for a university based genealogy course a couple of years ago, I made frequent trips to the archive to research the history of Perth’s handloom weaving community. It was during these visits that I got to know a man called Ken.
“Who’s Ken?”, you might ask. (Or as people here in North Ayrshire might ask, “Do ye no ken Ken?”!). Ken’s a big lad, a proud Fife man to the corps, and at the time was working for Ancestry.co.uk to digitise material from the Perth and Kinross Archive. On each visit, about every half an hour or so, he would walk past me very quietly in the search room carrying a box, and head out towards a quiet booth at the other end of the floor. Half an hour later he would return with it, only to pick up another and walk back out again. He did this day in day out for several weeks, slowly working his way through some of the most amazing records from the county’s history that you will ever have the pleasure to consult. I got to know Ken and would touch base with him on each visit, occasionally going for the odd pint or a quick lunch, marvelling not only at his impressive knowledge of Scottish trade unionism, but at his sheer tenacity in digitising endless reams of stuff – just so that you and I could one day do our research from the comforts of our own homes.
And here is that day at long last! Indexed through Ancestry’s volunteer based World Archives Project, I can now view many of the records collections online that I watched Ken scan so meticulously. Hurrah! No longer will my hands become filthy as I work my way through old collections such as the individually folded household returns from the 1802 Militia Act survey records! And now I can view with ease the returns from the 1766 and 1773 surveys of inhabitants for the burgh, the Register of Deeds’ entries for Perth from 1566-1811, historic school registers from across the county, and much more.
But why should I have all the fun?! Not everyone has roots in God’s favourite Scottish county, but fortunately our man Ken was indeed a very busy soul, for after Perth he moved on to his native Fife to continue his efforts at the Library and Archives service there – so there’s also a chance to see a Dunfermline almanac from 1866, a Kirkcaldy war album with portraits of over two hundred native Fifers, and other records from the ancient Kingdom. And for the whole of Scotland, there are some rare treats indeed, including the Fasti Ecclesia Scoticanae, with biographies of Church of Scotland ministers going back to the Reformation of 1560, and from the Middle Ages the Register of the Privy Council of Scotland (1545-1632) and the Register of the Great Seal (1306-1651), covering the business of the Scottish royal court long before the Union with England, with records on land transactions, acts of incorporations, pardons and much more.
It is a great example of how organisations such as Ancestry can help to democratise access to locally held records, how archives can work with commercial vendors to help share their holdings with the world, and how the public can help to make that content more readily available themselves through projects such as the World Archives Project, reaping benefits for their participation as they do.
But when you visit the new collections online, spare a thought for the likes of Ken from Fife, and all the other Kens around the world, standing over scanners with endless patience to make our family history research just that little bit easier!