When Paul Sibbald investigated his grandmother’s Shetland ancestry, he uncovered a possible link to a giant of literature. Matt Ford finds out more
Paul Sibbald searched his grandmother’s Shetland ancestry and found a possible link to a literary giant
aving an itinerant childhood can create a strange sense of detachment. “I spent a lot of my childhood abroad,” says WDYTYA? Magazinee reader Paul Sibbald. “My father worked for what is now called GCHQ and on the couple of occasions we were back in this country we lived in different places.
“At home we never really talked about family; it just wasn’t something we did. Even as an adult, when I was based in London, I never really thought about who my ancestors were.” Paul certainly had no inkling that they were powerful Scottish lords with links to high politics – and perhaps even one of that nation’s greatest writers.
When he retired, he moved to Liverpool to be closer to the city – and football team – he loved. Although he knew that his father had some roots in the area, he had no details. “I used to go to the football with my father to watch Liverpool FC, but he never took us to see anything related to the family,” says Paul.
“It was only after I moved back here that I really began to dig about, and I found all sorts: the house where my father was born and brought up, all about my grandfather’s 40-year career at Lever Brothers, my great grandfather’s pub, my grandmother’s family grave and connections to cousins.”
Enjoying his new-found family knowledge, Paul turned his attention to the few things his mother, Irene, had revealed about her side of the family.
“She had told us that my grandmother, Geordina, came from a land-owning family in Shetland,” says Paul. “She also said that Geordina’s father, Robert Thomas Charles Scott, was a laird and that we came from the Scott family, related to the Buccleuchs. The first thing I did was dig out a family tree chart created by Robert Thomas Charles some time in the early 1900s, given to me by my cousin Stuart.” Immediately, Paul realised that he was on to something.
Mining a rich seam
The Scotts were a rich and important family and, as such, there was a great deal of material already out there for him to draw on to fill out the tree.
“On archive.org, I found The County Families of the Shetland Islands by Francis J Grant, published in 1893, and in these I came across the Scotts of Scalloway, of Scotshall and my own grandmother’s House of Melby,” he says.
Paul also found Sir Robert Douglas’ two volumes The Scots Peerage (1764) and The Baronage of Scotland (1798).
“Now I had more Scotts than I knew what to do with!” he says. Les Buckalew’s website Border Clan Scott ( james.com/border_ scott) also provided 29 generations of the history of the Scotts’ families.
“Because it was such a famous family, the information was all there,” says Paul.
“I didn’t have a ‘ brick wall’ as such; I was overwhelmed. The challenge was how to work out how my lot fitted into it all. In the end I was able to trace my maternal ancestors back to the early 12th century; back to the time of the reigns of David I of Scotland and Henry I of England.
“I was aware that these earlier generations should be viewed as, at best, a guide providing clues for further research. But I love the detailed work and crosschecking; it’s part of my character to be meticulous. I was in financial publishing before I retired, so I’m used to checking facts. Attention to detail doesn’t faze me at all.
“For example, on Ancestry, one person puts something on their tree, and then everyone copies them. Suddenly you have 10 people claiming that a particular individual was born on a particular date, or whatever. Then when you come across a document that contradicts the group, it’s quite difficult to unpick where the truth lies. But it is absolutely essential to do so.”
As he worked through the data he had gathered, Paul was able to establish links to some fascinating characters, particularly Sir John Scot, Lord Scotstarvit (1585–1670) – his 8 or 9x great grandfather, depending on which line that you follow.
“He was Director of Chancery, Lord of Session and Privy Councillor to James VI of Scotland and Charles I of England and Scotland,” says Paul. “He continued at the centre of national life until the establishment of the Commonwealth in 1649 and the subsequent rule of Oliver Cromwell.
“I’m currently watching the BBC series Wolf Hall and thinking to myself: ‘This is the same kind of thing as Sir John was doing’. He wasn’t in as powerful a position as Thomas Cromwell, of course, but he was immersed in the court, and very involved in political intrigue and infighting. Sir James Balfour described Scotstarvit’s public character: ‘He was a busy man in foul weather, whose covetousness far exceeded his honesty’.
“He was said to have suggested changing feudal tenures in Scotland to Charles I
I was able to trace my maternal kin back to the 12th century and the reign of David I of Scotland
to increase royal revenues and free the gentry from domination by the nobility and was influential in the policy of removing nobles from the ordinary lord of session. There’s so much more to find out; I’m sure I’ve only just scratched the surface with him.”
But having notable ancestors certainly didn’t make everything straightforward for Paul, and untangling complex intermarriages was a challenge. For example, his 6x great grandfather John Scott (1700-1765) was laird of the islands of Foula and Vaila, and the lands of Melby, Norbie, Footabrough and others in Shetland.
His sister, Barbara, married Hector Scott of Scotshall in 1725. Their granddaughter, Elizabeth married her second cousin, the grandson of John, also John Scott, in 1780. In the meantime, John’s third wife, Mary, produced a daughter, Clementina, who married her first cousin once removed, another John Scott – of Scalloway, grandson of Hector Scott and Barbara Scott, in 1782.
In 1806, the son of John and Elizabeth, John Scott (b1782), married his cousin, Mary Scott. John and Mary had a son, Robert Thomas Charles Scott who is Paul’s great great grandfather.
“My conundrum is this,” says Paul. “Barbara is both my 6x great grandmother and 6x great grand aunt; Clementina is both my 6x great grand aunt and 4x great grandmother; Barbara’s brother John Scott of Melby is both my 5x and 6x great grandfather. I would be interested to know if my understanding of this is correct and if so, what the correct single genealogical relationship is.”
Despite all the confusion, Paul’s 4x great grandfather John Scott (b1760) provided a link to great literature when, on 7 August 1814, Sir Walter Scott joined him for dinner.
The evening was described in the writer’s diary: “They are very clannish, marry much among themselves and are proud of their descent. Two young ladies, daughters of Mrs Scott’s dined with us – they were both Mrs Scotts, having married brothers – the husband of one was lost in the unfortunate Doris. They were pleasant intelligent women and exceedingly obliging. Old Mr Scott seems a good country gentleman... At Scalloway my curiosity was gratified by an account of the sword dance now almost lost but still practised in the Island of Papa belonging to Mr Scott... One of my three Mrs Scotts readily promised to procure me the lines, the rhymes and the form of the dance. I regret much that young Mr Scott was absent during this visit, he is described as a reader and an enthusiast in poetry.”
It is believed that John Scott’s daughters – the ‘Mrs Scotts’ Sir Walter Scott writes of – Catherine and Mary, were the inspiration for the characters Minna and Brenda Troil in his novel, The Pirate, which is primarily set in Shetland and also includes an account of a sword dance.
“Sir Walter Scott was from the house of Harden,” says Paul. “Sir Walter himself collected a lot of the material on the Scotts of Harden and Sinton and determined the ancestor of their house to be John Scot, son of Sir Michael Scot of Rankilburn and Murthockston.
“I believe that this John’s brother was my
18x great grandfather, Sir Robert Scot. As I’ve said before, these early generations should be treated with caution, but if correct, it would make Sir Walter Scott a very distant relative, my 18th cousin, once removed.” Imagining the lives of his noble Scottish ancestors certainly intrigues Paul. But he is just as interested in the ordinary people that surrounded them, and found reading The Napier Royal Commission Inquiry into the conditions of the Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (1884) particularly fascinating.
“It’s a fantastic document,” he says. “I have no idea if my ancestors were good or bad landlords, but these people had a very tough life. There are no trees on Shetland and every inch of it is hammered by gales and storms.
“Reading through the report was in a way the most revealing aspect of my research for me, because it goes into so much detail.
“It’s laid out in a kind of question-andanswer style and goes through what people have for breakfast, what they earn, what their relationships with their landlords and the landlord’s agents were like. You can spend ages just reading through the testimony.”
And ‘spending ages’ is exactly what Paul is planning to do in the years to come: “This is my winter project now. Family history is a long process and I’m only new to the game.
“I think I am going to stop working on my mother’s side for a while, go back to my father’s, and then come back to her again
www.whc.uhi.ac.uk. with fresh eyes some time in the future. Although, having done some research it seems that a lot of my father’s relatives also seem to have come from Scotland.
“Growing up I didn’t really identify with any bit of the country. But now I find out that Scotland is actually where I’m from, which is strange because I’ve never really been there!
“Now I have got the time, the next step is to physically go to some of these places and walk around the graveyards. I have got all that to come, which should be very interesting!”
A formal studio portrait shot of the Scott family taken in 1910
Paul’s background in financial publishing stands him in good stead as he takes on meticulous
family history research in his retirement