Looking for more in Your Stories?

Granny's People

Author: Lesley Haughton

It’s a hot July day in 1995 and we are trundling the pram around the graveyard. Her new grandson, flushed cheeks and damp curls, is star-fished, now cool under the canopy. She tells me Granny Taylor, who lived in the cemetery cottage, rattled her children in their prams along the gravel paths as a cure for colic. We find the gravestone and then find more and, detached but deeply connected, reflect on the inscriptions and remember other visits and other times. We’re already walking in their footsteps.

I have a fascination with old graveyards. I trace my fingers across the weathered and lichened stones, mustard blotched grey and white, and feel the engraved lettering, like braille, but shallowing and softening, the stone gradually returning to its original form. The beloveds and much loveds and dearly misseds. “What will survive of us is love.” 1

No. There’s more. The tilt of a chin, the hand-in-a-pocket casual stance, the curl-up on a chair, the green eyes, the curly hair. The gregarious affability, the life and soul of the party, but also the perceived aloofness, the shy reticence and the absolute inability to dance like no one is watching. There’s also the incapacity to be still. “Do you always have to be doing something?!” That, apparently, is also down to Granny Taylor who couldn’t bear idleness and would throw a sock in need of darning at someone if, heaven forbid, they happened to be doing nothing. We’re hamsters on wheels, but also have a deep-rooted disbelief in our abilities. We had imposter syndrome before anyone even thought of the name and truly believe, despite evidence to the contrary, we’ll never be quite good enough.

Does our skill in handcrafts, in sewing and knitting and crochet, come from the weavers and the lacemakers and the tailors of our past? A talent honed through necessity to survive, painstaking work over long hours in dim light for little reward, passed on in our genes? At this, we do excel. From hand-knitted children to a Buttonhole dream. Does her tireless passion to produce from the soil stem from our farming past and generations of grandparents who worked the land? Hers isn’t just a pastime; it is a need, a part of her being, and she would wither without it. We discover a writer: Francis Love, 19th century weaver, freemason and published poet. Is that where I get my words? I’ve learned them, read them, studied them, classified them, defined them, taught them and, very tentatively, written them.

We don’t realise that July day that the adventure we are embarking on will not only click together the jigsaw pieces of the past but will also become a memory that will be laid down in our shared history.

Our quest begins one Saturday morning in the local library. We quickly become skilled with the microfiche readers, can navigate the International Genealogical Index like pros and are adept at deciphering handwriting in the Old Parish Registers.

Our investigations take us further afield to examine more records and discover more inscriptions. We scramble down a hillside to find a gravestone before, in years to come, the stones themselves eventually slide down into the water. Our expressed excitement at eventually finding a missing link brings the family history centre worker to our computer one evening. “They want you to find them,” she tells us matter-of-factly. Our eyes lock and then we turn back to stare at the computer screen, stifling the urge to laugh, but actually, deep-down, wanting to believe her. And then to Register House where we wear white gloves and reverently handle documents that haven’t been touched for decades, certainly not by blood relatives. We walk along the sands of Lunan Bay and through the fertile farmland of Ayrshire, building up the picture of the past.

We uncover the dates – the beginnings and the connections and the endings. We add and subtract and make sense, despite the misspellings and the omissions. She records it all in the blue book. The pictures start to become clearer. Family ties are evident through the informants and witnesses, and causes of and ages of death settle our story in the social history of Scotland. We follow our families across the country, from birth to grave, tracking them in census returns and discussing for hours the why and the where, the how and the who, and the other unanswered questions.

Improbable stories passed down through the generations gain solidity and life as we see the hearsay become a medically grim black and white truth: Thomas who caught a cold when he was playing football in the rain with his friends... and died. We see it. Thomas aged 21, died 27th February 1905, cause of death – gangrenous throat. We see the strange coincidence, just one of many we uncover, of another Thomas, an uncle, whose timeline also ends abruptly. Thomas aged 19, died 29th July 1872, cause of death – asphyxia due to bronchitis. We see, reused, the names of infants who couldn’t survive the fragility of a 19th century childhood. How sad to lose not only a life but also an identity. Lawrence born 1810 is survived by Lawrence born 1813.

They look at us through the lens of the past not yet aware of what their chapter will contain: aproned and beaming at the door of a holiday house; caught unawares by a street photographer; formal and still in frills and flounces. We peer at the faded handwritten identification on the back and scrutinize the grainy images for family resemblances.

And so, to the generations we will never know, know this. Know that you are part of more and your story is waiting to be uncovered. The whispers of your future are stitched to the spirits of our past, interlinked like the warp and the weft. Always there, like the birds that follow the plough.

1, P. Larkin, ‘An Arundel Tomb’, in The Whitsun Weddings, Faber and Faber, London, 1964, pp45-46.