Some years ago, I began to research the history of my father’s family, which originated in the island of South Uist, in the Outer Hebrides. With the help of the records in the General Register Office of Scotland, which holds copies of all the statutory birth and marriage and death registers, and old crofting records, I made a lot of progress, and traced several hundred ancestors, from the small crofts on the weather-beaten Atlantic coasts of the western isles, across to Aberdeenshire and Peterhead, and the fishing harbours and shipping docks.
I’d had a good start with the MacPhee side, because the islands were sparsely populated, and all it needs is one or two good clues, like a relatively unusual name (there were only two Penelope MacPhees in the whole of recorded Scottish family history), and the links between people and their stories can be built up.
But I’d also been aware for a long time, that I knew very little indeed about my mother’s side, and the history of the Lindsays. I had very little to go on, for there were hundreds of candidates for my grandfather alone in the statutory records, and without knowing anything about his parents, there was no way to home in on my grandfather in the birth registers, which would have given me the further clues I needed to his ancestry.
Yet I have learned that it is sometimes the most insignificant-seeming clues that, taken one with another and put together, begin to unpick the whole puzzle and lead to new discoveries. This is how it happened with the Lindsays.
It started around this time last year, at Christmas time. I had a telephone call from my two beloved aunts, Mary and Margaret. I’d been talking to aunt Mary, telling her a story about my grandmother’s love for Gorgonzola cheese, when she mentioned to me that my grandmother Maggie Lindsay’s birthday was on the 7th December, that it was the same month as my grandfather’s, and he had been born in 1882. A few days later, aunt Margaret phoned, and I’d been telling her how my daughter Lindsay had been named in honour of her great-grandmother, Maggie Lindsay. Aunt Margaret said, “You know, I’m not named Margaret after your granny, I’m called Margaret after my grandmother, and my middle name’s McGill. And my grandfather was a shepherd.”
It took a few seconds for it to dawn on me that this, taken with what aunt Mary had said about grandfather’s birthday, when put together, were the most exciting and unexpected clues. The thing was, I’d always assumed, without knowing why, that although Maggie Lindsay came from Ireland, my grandfather was from Glasgow. But now, knowing that aunt Margaret’s grandmother was a McGill and not a Reid, this must mean that the Lindsay side weren’t from Glasgow at all, since there’s no shepherding in the metropolis. With these clues, I was able to trace a line back to Hugh Lindsay of Argyll, who was born when Bonnie Prince Charlie was still living.
Until I began this research, I had no idea that my grandfather had any brothers or sisters, other than Donald, who had lived with my grandparents in Glasgow in the years up to his own death. I traced at least five, and I have tried to find out what happened to each of them. When I discovered there was a younger brother Duncan, I knew then where the name of my uncle Duncan, the youngest of my mother’s brothers, came from.
The most I knew of him was that he’d been born in Kildalton, on the island of Islay, on the 11th December, 1882, and had been an apprentice blacksmith in Paisley, but there was no record of what happened to him after than, and I could find no trace of a Duncan Lindsay who had been born that year, and who had also died in Scotland. This was unexpected, because the Scottish records system is one of the best and most comprehensive in existence. This could only have meant that he died abroad or at sea. Many months of diligent searching turned up exactly … nothing. This was threatening to become my second genealogical brick wall, a dispiriting prospect, for the first had taken three years to crack through.
Eventually, I traced him through British Army archives when, as the Great War loomed larger, he enlisted in the 5th Battalion the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders.
On the 10th of May, 1915, he was sent with his regiment to France, and two weeks later, the regiment was moved to Loos, in Flanders, to take part in a huge six-division strong attack on enemy forces that had become known as the Big Push. At 9pm on the 24th, General Sir Douglas Haig confirmed the attack orders, which included secret plans for the first use by British troops of poison gas.
By four o’clock in the following morning, Sunday 25th September, weather conditions had deteriorated, but Haig gave orders for the gas attacks to proceed. Heavy British shelling of enemy positions began, and by 5.50am, a fifty foot high blanket of gas edged slowly towards, though not reaching, German positions, but was virtually motionless in British assault positions. The 9th (Scottish) Division pushed on to attack German observation points at Hohenzollern and Fosse. The 7th Seaforths reached Fosse just after 7am, and on their left, the 5th Camerons, Duncan’s battalion, reached Fosse in the face of fierce crossfire to join the Seaforths. German machine-gunning was ferocious, and their grenades far more effective in close combat than the British. The 8th Black Watch were to join the Camerons and Seaforths as reinforcements, but suffered grievous casualties from the crossfire the Camerons had endured, so that the Brigade could not continue its advance, and some regiments had almost all officers hit within the first few minutes. Although the 12th Royal Scots made progress towards the front with few losses, 11th Royal Scots were entirely wiped out by heavy machine-gun fire. When German artillery opened fire, gas canisters were destroyed, releasing more poisonous chlorine gas. Losses were heavy. It was here, on this day and this place, that Duncan fell, killed in action.
After months of searching, I had found him, at two o’clock one morning, only to lose him again an hour later in the noise and calamity and poison chaos of a battlefield in Flanders. He was 32. When I wore my poppy on Remembrance Sunday this year, I remembered him, my great-uncle, Duncan Lindsay, 1882-1915.