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Saturday, 26 April 2014


Our old dog used to have what we called a Mad Hour, every day at around 6pm. She would race excitedly from room to room, claws clattering on the old wooden floors of our cottage, pursued half-heartedly by her lumbering humans until we all collapsed in a heap in front of the log stove. It was utterly pointless but exhilarating for her and us, a release of all the discipline and control of our lives the rest of the day. She was a collie, a sheep dog, wired for obedient activity, bred to move only on the shepherd’s whistle. The Mad Hour was her Letting-Go time.

A dog with a bone - Maddy (1993-2005)

I’ve been doing some Bad Genealogy lately, my own Mad Hour. Like all Bad Things it’s not to be encouraged, but it’s been exciting to indulge in. I’ve been allowing myself some wild speculation for a change instead of the usual responsible, painstaking, dogged pursuit of correlated, checkable hard facts. The hard work of the latter is more rewarding in the long run because it deals in accurate truth; but the liberating What-If of the former is a chance to burn off some researcher steam on days and weeks when the facts are just not turning up.

I’ve been stuck at my 5x great grandfather John Gavine (1766-1839), a weaver from Forfar in Angus, Scotland. His is the generation of Gavines that takes me back into the eighteenth century, when records are much less complete. Regular British population censuses, for example, only began in 1841, two years after John’s death.

In the search for any concrete evidence of his parents, I have been casting my net ever wider, searching the birth, marriage and death records in ever increasing circles of space and time, until this week I have just started scooping up ANY Gavine who lived anywhere in Angus or neighbouring Kincardineshire at ANY time.

Scotland’s east coast north of Dundee – Angus, Kincardineshire and Aberdeenshire

I suppose that’s just Mad Genealogy – the Bad Genealogy is when you start to think, “Hmm, surely that Alexander Gavine born in such-a-year and in such-a-place is the same as this Alexander Gavine having children twenty-five years later twenty-five miles away?” It could be, but all you've got is coincidence, not proof.

The Mad Genealogy threw up some interesting results. There are distinct clusters of Gavines, groups of Gavine families living in Gavine hotspots up and down the east coast of Scotland. The Bad Genealogy was in starting to see patterns in the dates and places. I imagined that every time I extended my search another ten or twenty years back in time, the clusters moved a little further northwards towards Aberdeen.

Gavine clusters shown on Robert Dudley’s “Carte particolare della costa di Scotia”, produced in Florence c1647 (image from the Royal Scottish Geographical Society)

I told myself that this demonstrated a historic migration from Echt in Aberdeenshire at the start of the eighteenth century, to Arbuthnott and Inverkeilor in the mid-eighteenth, and into industrial Tayside around Monifieth and Dundee by the end of the century. I began to look for evidence to support this theory, searching for Gavines with dates and places that fit it and ignoring those that didn’t. The fact is that although the clusters exist, they have existed more or less simultaneously throughout my eighteenth century timescale. Sure, a James Gavine married in Monifieth in 1791; but another one got married there in 1678. Sure, William Gavine had a son in Aberdeenshire in 1706; but another one had a daughter there in 1800.

I fixed on one family, midway between Echt and Inverkeillor, which I told myself were part of the earliest stage of that migration. In the 1730s, one family of Gavines lived in the tiny scattered farming parish of Fetteresso, just inland from Stonehaven. Robert Gavine had at least two children born there, Elizabeth (b. 1732) and Robert junior.

From his children’s birthdates Robert senior must have been born around the turn of the century, before the Union of the Scottish and English crowns, before the Old and Young Pretenders, before the two rebellions, the ’15 and the ’45. He died young, on 14th July 1736, in Bogheadly, a township of two or three farms within Fetteresso. He probably did not live to see the birth of his son, who (the parish records show) was baptised on 15th September that year.

Bogheadly Farm, Fetteresso in Kincardineshire, from the south in 2008 (image from

Robert Gavine lived in an ancient landscape. Angus and Kincardine with their natural harbours and fertile soils formed one of the largest of the Pictish kingdoms during the first millennium AD. Nor were the Picts the first to appreciate the area’s qualities. James Smith, a farm labourer, was digging sand from a hillock to the southwest of the Bogheadly farmbuildings one day in October 1863. He stumbled on a stone kist (a small stone-age slab-lined grave 90cm by 60) containing a crouched burial, a beaker and a crescent necklace of black jet beads. The National Museums of Scotland describe the necklace as “an expensive prestige item for ostentatious display, imported from Yorkshire sometime between 2300 and 1800 BC.”

With my Bad Genealogy hat on, I could convince myself that I’ve traced my Gavine line back not just to its early eighteenth century ancestors in Bogheadly but beyond – to its Pictish forebears and to an ostentatious, bead-flaunting Gavine woman from 2300 BC. In reality of course I’m still stuck at my 5x great grandfather John. Good ancestors, bad genealogy. Mad hour over.

Incomplete jet necklace found in a kist burial at Bogheadly, Fetteresso in Kincardineshire (image from the National Museums of Scotland, who now hold the necklace in their collection)

1 comment:

  1. I can hear your claws clattering on the keyboard, Colin! Lovely stuff!


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