14 January 2015

Ahnentafel, Ponder and Provenance

While I am waiting for DNA revelation to strike me as a lightning bolt whereby all comprehension and analysis of results become crystal clear, bwahahahaha ...
... I decided to have another look at the ahnentafel printout a cousin sent me quite a while ago. Because it purported to take some of my Scottish lines back to the 1200s, I set it aside here in the hope that exposing it to a generally inviting atmosphere would self-generate a few clues about its sources.

Didn't happen. Osmosis does not work in all areas of the universe.

So what is an ahnentafel and what does it tell you? The German word means a list of ancestors; it's one type of reference tool used by family historians. Each person in the direct lineage is assigned a number in ascending order. We start with a base person, usually oneself. The father's assigned number will always be twice that of the child, and the mother's twice that of the child plus one. E.g. If I am No. 1, my father is No. 2, my mother is No. 3; their parents are Nos. 4, 5, 6, and 7.
Click to enlarge

The numbers multiply exponentially as each generation doubles the number of ancestors. Each woman numerically following a man will be his wife, that is, mother of a child. Typically, each one-line entry would have dates and places of birth and death. Sources for the information are not normally cited. See The Encyclopaedia of Genealogy.

After reviewing the chart, I decided to re-format it manually with my father as No. 1 instead of myself. That way, the ancestors would be entirely Scottish, and really, that was the focus of the chart anyway. The process was similar to transcribing a document in that I had to think about each entry. For about five or six generations I knew the correlated "paper trail" of research I had done myself.

Once beyond the realm of my own research experience, it was much heavier going than I expected. For one thing, I had thought having about three FRASER lines was complicated but intriguing. The ahnentafel assigns me no less than nine different MACKAY lines. As the names ascend farther and farther back, birth and death information become sparse. Many lines disappear when a dead end/brick wall was reached. The Mackays and a few allied others persisted. And wouldn't you know it ― they frequently married Mackays.
Clan Mackay, Wikipedia
Shall I tell you some of the notable ancestors? ― Eoin Macdonald Lord of the Isles 1321-1387 and his predecessors; Robert II Stewart, King of Scotland, ca.1316-1390; Walter Stewart, Lord High Steward of Scotland, ca.1280; Robert I (VIII) Bruce, King of Scotland, 1272-1329; an unnamed sister of King Malcolm IV ca.1137. It's all lovely and thrilling. I couldn't possibly be more Scottish.

But uppermost I was asking myself, where is this information coming from? Provenance! Contact with my cousin has been lost but she was not a mediaeval scholar nor a specialist in Scottish archival records. It had the ring of arcane genealogies published by Scottish historians in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. My feeling was that someone, some descendant at some time, had copied bits and pieces from those old recorded genealogies ― genealogies with roots in the honourable Highland oral tradition of reciting one's ancestors for generations. A tradition not immune to its own transmission lapses.

I was noticing what seemed to be discrepancies in naming practice, in the period before the early 1700s when surnames per se were unknown. Highlanders were then customarily identified by patronymics, adding father's name and often grandfather's name to their own. A great deal of historical context is necessary to assign such a man to what we now think of as a surname. Idiosyncrasies appear in my ahnentafel such as "Iye Roy (Alexander or Hugh) Mackay ca.1463" and "Iye (Ymar, Ivor) Mackay ca.1305" or "Angus Dow (Duff) Mackay" or "Mac Eth," begging elucidation. Some parentheses may indicate alternate occurrences or spellings of names but the form is inconsistent (and who or what is an "Eth," please? I do know that Iye ‒ pronounced "eye" – was the early name that became the clan name). "Neil Williamson Mackay" for a man born about 1606 strikes an odd note. To my simple mind, would not "Neil MacWilliam Mackay" or "Neil son of William son of Iye" be closer and truer to the Gaelic?

In today's world, we would expect the person's Gaelic identification with a translation in parentheses. Or vice versa. But hand in hand with capturing the oral tradition in writing and familiarity with cultural custom is the issue of spelling the Gaelic pronunciations, firstly in Gaelic. I've no idea if modern scholarly consensus has reached a consistency in that respect, but the resurgence of Gaelic language and literature is surely addressing it. Am I expecting too much information from an ahnentafel? I'm no Gaelic scholar, in case that wasn't clear!

Without belabouring the above points, I found identical forms of address and spellings published in narrative form in The Book of Mackay in 1906[1] and harking back to History of Clan Mackay in 1826.[2] Both have some basis in earlier works, primarily Gordon's Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland, a manuscript of 1630 that was not published until 1813.[3] These were historians who knew their Gaelic. As well as reference to documents, accounts of oral history were also a likely original source of any Scottish genealogy that reaches back so far. It certainly helps that there are heritors (landowners) in the ahnentafel since land inheritance was a most serious matter. Documentation of land and title charters exist for some of the people.

The ahnentafel is littered with place names, the majority referring to what we know as the county of Sutherland, although county delineation came later. Here I found some geographical errors. Strathnaver of enduring northern setting ("Homeland of Mackay") was oddly put in distant Kirkcudbright in 1232. Fowlis was placed in Ross and Cromarty in 1420 although it seems to be firmly planted in Perthshire. Gigha parish was properly in Argyll in 1315 but was suddenly bumped to Ayrshire in 1280. Carrick (as in Earls of ...) was placed in Argyll whereas it was a lordship in southwest Scotland. And so on. 
Those are not cases of evolving name changes nor are they relevant to spelling variation over a long historical period; learned compilers were highly unlikely to have committed such obvious gaffes. Perhaps each new borrowing, personalized by family historians, repeats or adds such pitfalls. However! I am glad to say that the earliest narratives are more explanatory about names and places than an ahnentafel.

Did I mention pedigree collapse? Oh yes: It is visible six times on my particular chart but likely happened more often in the "unknowns." Basically it refers to an ancestor who occupies more than just one entry on a pedigree. The most common example is when cousins marry. They share two mutual grandparents instead of what would ordinarily be four, reducing the expected, purely mathematical, total of ancestors. See "Pedigree collapse" at International Society of Genetic Genealogy.

So how did my cousin find the appropriate link to attach to our mutual heritage? Or did she? I don't think I'll find a DNA match to Robert the Bruce any time soon.

[1] Angus Mackay, The Book of Mackay (Edinburgh: N. Macleod, 1906); available on Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/bookofmackay00mack.
[2] Robert Mackay, History of the Clan Mackay [with lengthy subtitle] (Edinburgh: Andrew Jack & Co., 1829); available on Google books.
[3] Sir Robert Gordon, Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland (Edinburgh: A. Constable, 1813); available on Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/genealogicalhist00gord.

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.


Janice Hamilton said...

I have a copy of one of those arcane Scottish genealogies for my MacGregor ancestors. I took it seriously at first, then it all fell apart. Janice

BDM said...

I sort of went the other way, Janice, sceptical at first but appreciating the research and knowledge of those old historians. It's the connection to me that I question, needing to examine the place of linkage, but I don't have the in-depth background of historical sources.

Janice Harshbarger said...

I've several lines back to Robert the Bruce, etc. also. I have always taken them with a grain of salt, but I've entered the lines on my tree because I won't have time to prove or disprove everything. I've always said that anything "across the pond" is not my original research. But I enjoy reading books about these folks and learning about their world anyway.

BDM said...

Thanks for your input, Janice #2. It's true it would take a LOT of time and specialized knowledge to try confirming all those ancient connections. I don't have a lifetime to do it, either, but as you say just getting to know a bit about their times is interesting.

Roger Harris said...