Out of Obscurity

This month, a few more-or-less random weekly observations on the matter of heritage, as Westminster celebrates its 70th anniversary year.

Some years ago I had occasion to visit Scotland, where about half of my ancestors came from—which makes me a typical western Pennsylvania Presbyterian, by the way. In preparation for the trip I invested a little time and money in a genealogy program and managed to trace my Scottish roots to 18th century Paisley and Glasgow.

That’s not very far back, as ancestry goes, but I figured once I arrived in my ancestral land I’d be able to dig much deeper and turn up all sorts of fascinating facts about my heritage. I asked around and learned where to find local records, then went to visit the little office that kept track of such things. I told the man in the office that I was visiting from the US, which I’m pretty sure he had already figured out, and added that I was trying to see what I could learn about my Scottish ancestors. I forget his exact words, but the gist of his response was, “We get a lot of these requests. You probably come from a long line of obscure peasants, and you’re not likely to find out very much about them.”

I related this brief conversation to my wife, apparently rather crestfallen, and she replied, “What were you expecting to find? Kings?” Well yes, actually. Some sort of nobility anyway, along the lines of Brave Heart. There may in fact have been some illustrious past deep down in the gene pool, but for the time being, at least, the details were lost in the mists of Scottish obscurity.

I’ve thought about that occasionally, especially whenever I’ve been inclined to pick up the trail of my ancestral cold cases once again. Gwenn’s question was a good one, though: What were you expecting to find? And more to the point, perhaps, what difference does it make?

In one sense, it makes no difference at all. Even the most impressive family histories have peaks and valleys of illustriousness. Some ancestors do better than others. Even ancestral greatness doesn’t guarantee anything noteworthy about the present; and conversely, ancestral obscurity doesn’t preclude a sudden outbreak of accomplishment. Who remembers Brave Heart’s great-great-grandfather anyway?

On the other hand, part of me still wants to trace the connections—not because I expect to find any crowns, but just because there’s something about knowing where you came from that helps to map out your place in the universe. Our connectedness helps us to know who we are. We are, in more ways than one, nothing if we are not connected.

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