FF: Bruce, before we start, I did a little reading in preparation for this interview. I never knew that you were a neuro-scientist.
BD: Oh, that was a long time ago, when I had a brain.
FF: I had to smile, because it made me think of the old joke, you don’t have to be a brain-surgeon…
BD: (laughs) … but it helps! Yes, I won a prize as “Scotland’s most promising neuro-scientist”, and I spent three years in psychiatry, this side of the table! Where did it all go wrong, eh? (laughter).
Actually there’s an interesting point in there. I don’t have any evidence for this (laughs), but a number of us have speculated that biologists are disproportionately represented in Professional genealogy, it’s a desire to taxonomise, and genealogists are comfortable with ambiguity, qualities that you don’t find in mathematicians, physicists, engineers and so on.
FF: So, how long have you been a genealogist, and when did you get started in genealogy?
BD: 20-odd years professionally, almost my whole life as an amateur.
FF: Tell me about the early years?
BD: I started when I was five years old. Do you remember, when we were kids, somebody would always give our parents a baby book for every child. It had an envelope where you could put the child’s first tooth, a lock of hair, and all of that. Inside the front cover of mine was a tree and no one had filled it in. So I went round pestering everybody in the family for dates, and places and names. Interestingly, one part of the family thought this was hilarious, but the other side went “ohhh, you don’t want to be looking into that son, you never know what you might find.” Exactly the two responses that we find to genealogy out in the wide-world, today.
What I discovered was, that nobody knew much, beyond my grandparents talking about their parents, and maybe their grandparents. There wasn’t very great detail – they just didn’t know names, dates and places . They said “We come from Devon”, or “We’ve always been in Fife” – that kind of thing, and some of it was conjectural. The best part of it though, was that my maternal grandfather, who didn’t want to talk much about his family, began to tell me stories that his grandfather had told him about the Crimean War [1853-56]. If you think about it, grandparents who were born about 1900 were brought up by parents who were Victorians and would have had Victorian values, and if you’re a Scottish Presbyterian, quite a lot of those come down to you anyway (laughs).
FF: You say ‘twenty-odd years’ as a professional genealogist: how odd have those years been?
BD: Well, being a professional genealogist is always odd, it’s continuously odd. You need to be able to deal with constant change. Do you remember back in the days when there was no training, and no real way of genealogists getting together? [Professional genealogists] used to pick up clients almost by chance.
I was fortunate, in that I was spending a lot of time in America, which I still do, and almost everyone said the same thing which was “we’re descended from Robert the Bruce, Mary Queen of Scots, William Wallace, etcetera. And I used to say “would you like me to find out how accurate that is for you.” So for the first ten years of my professional career, all my clients were overseas.
FF: And did you ever find anyone who was descended from one of the Bruces or William Wallace?
BD: (laughs) Everybody is descended from William Wallace, Mary Queen of Scots, or Robert the Bruce by some line or other. But there’s nobody called Stuart descended from Mary Queen of Scots, there’s nobody by the name of Bruce descended from Robert the Bruce, because those died out in the male line. So to those who say, I can get my genealogy back to Charlemagne, I always say, “sure you can, but can you document it?”
FF: One of the projects that you’re most closely associated with, is the Masters in Genealogy in Strathclyde University.
BD: I suppose people first started to notice me about ten years ago when I started the first post-graduate professional Masters level course, in the University of Strathclyde.
FF: Why and how did you decide to set it up as a post-graduate-level course?
BD: Well let me answer the how of your question first.
I went looking for a training scheme or a qualification and I couldn’t find any. I was doing something else in Strathclyde at the time, and the Project came to an end. I was talking to one of the senior people in Strathclyde who said “what are we going to do with you then?” And I said, “well do you know there is no University teaching proper genealogy in the whole world”. And he said “gosh I was watching that on the telly last night. Looks fascinating. Off you go then.” So if he’d been watching the football, none of this would have happened. (laughter).
We started with £5,000 and six months to get it right. We were always going to have a Masters course, but we staged it. We put up a post-grad certificate, and the next year a post-graduate diploma, and two years after that a Masters. Originally they were actual physical classes in a classroom, but we developed online classes alongside. And eventually after four years we did away with the physical classes, and it was all done online. It immediately proved a massive success.
As for the reason we set it up as a Master’s course? Well, no undergraduate department would touch it. No one else could see the point, until I was introduced to a fabulous person in the Centre for Life Long Learning, and she said “this is excellent, let’s do it and embarrass them all.” (Laughter) It’s much easier to get a post-graduate course on the books than an undergraduate one. The other question people ask me is why is it an M.Sc. and not an M.A., and of course in Scotland and I think in Trinity [College Dublin] as well, an M.A. is an undergraduate degree.
FF: Exactly. Everyone has the right to apply for their M.A. within twelve months of graduating.
BD: Don’t you have to eat three dinners at high table or something?
FF: That’s no great hardship, especially when there’s good wine at the table. (laughter).
FF: So, tell me, what do you enjoy most about being a professional genealogist?
BD: The ability to dig into a whole range of primary source documents that most people don’t know exist. One of the things that disturbs me about watching undergraduate history students being taught, is that they hardly ever get to primary sources. Genealogists deal with nothing but primary sources, all the time. It’s an incredible buzz, especially if you’re digging into un-indexed records which nobody’s looked at for hundreds of years, until you blow the dust off.
There’s so much stuff locked up in archival boxes in various places that nobody ever gets to. The real killer for me was getting all the Retours – that’s the missing piece of the puzzle in Scottish genealogy, tracing where did all the land go.
FF:Can you explain what a Retour is.
BD: Sure. Up until 1868 in Scotland, a will or testament could only deal with moveable estate: cash, crops, furniture, knives and forks, pictures and so on. Immoveable estate was handled by a completely different process, formally called the Retours of Services of Heirs. They’re not available anywhere, easily, and yet there are entire genealogies locked up in there, that don’t appear in birth/ marriage/ death records. And they go from 1544 up to 1860s, when the system was changed.
[Bruce prepared the Retours Abbreviations for publication in three volumes] *They’re like telephone directories, each one over 800 pages in tiny print. You could stun a burglar with them, they’re huge. [laughter]
FF:So is that your area of specialization?
BD: Other people would say Teaching, writing, broadcasting, because that’s where they would tend to bump into me. What I like most is palaeography, getting into the old curly writing, and making sense of it. I must have a freak brain, because I find it very easy to read almost anything. (laughs).
But also I’m a major fan of Heraldry, often discounted as the ‘floral border’ around genealogy. But again, there are entire pedigrees bound up in coats of arms.
And because I’m specialised in that I advise people getting coats of arms legally registered in Scotland, re-matriculating old coats of arms, getting clans and families to find the right chief, and all those things.
FF:Indeed. Did you see the story this week, of what is supposedly a portrait of Shakespeare, his identity supposedly revealed in the little heraldic device underneath?
BD: First off, although Shakespeare did get arms for his father in 1596, it’s a far cry from what’s in the picture. I’ve seen the picture and to me it looks like a classical man holding a plant! It could be anybody. I think someone has found a good way to get a bit of publicity out of this.
FF:Can you give us a genealogy tip or method that you always recommend to people?
BD: Yes, and this is not only for overseas people, but in Scotland too. You cannot do Scottish genealogy from Ancestry, or Family Search or any of the commercial sites. Can’t do it. The reason is, the records are only available on [the website] Scotland’s People and related sites. Scotland won’t hand them over, we make too much money out of it, which is quite right! It drives the commercial providers absolutely crazy.
But hardly anybody knows these great sites exist, or how to use them. So it’s a mission of mine to go out there and say: it’s all here, you can get it, and it’s not difficult.
FF:Tell us about your role as Track leader for Scotland, in the British Institute?
BD: I want to show people there’s so much more to documents than just a name and a date. People often take just take the bare bones of a document, but in fact there’s a great more in there. Censuses are one of my particular interests, because there’s so much social and economic information buried in a census. There’s a column recording the number of rooms with windows in a house, and of course that’s a wonderful thing, because it tells you so much about living conditions. One of the exercises I do, is to take people from an 1861 Census, through all the [published] censuses, and up to the present day with a Google Maps aerial shot, and there’s the house, and you can see exactly the number of rooms it has.
Then helping people navigate in the LDS Library, and showing them a few “secret places.”
FF: What can people expect to take away with them, if they attend your course?
BD: It’s going to focus on how to find people, how to find places, and how to find inheritance records – and that’s a particularly interesting one.
FF: Do you have any good stories from inheritance records?
BD: Yes, quite a lot of the work that comes in to me, starts with a story that the house and land should have come down to my side of the family, but it went to the other lot, can we get it back? I always, always say to them from the beginning, there’s nothing and never was, just trust me on that one, but I’m happy to spend your money, finding out, and proving it to you. (laughs)
The best story I know was similar to the caseof Jarndyce vs Jarndyce , where the side of the family that *did*inherit the money, spent most of it fending off legal battles from the other side, so that by the time they got to the end of it, and it was clear that [title] was right, there was nothing left. And the only real property had been vested in one of the daughters, who was to stay in it as a life-renter until she married or died. She decided not to do the first, and didn’t do the second for a very long time. She outlived even some of her grand nieces and nephews, so at the end of it, there was absolutely nothing.
FF: Are there any peculiarities about land law in Scotland?
BD: Yes, Scotland was a feudal country until 2004, nobody owned land, it was all owned by the crown, and then there was a chain of heritable possession beneath that. So until recently, it was possible to trace land possession through this chain because every time land was sold or passed on after a death, there’s a piece of paper that tells us this, and this is where the Retours come from, and incredibly recondite system that generates a piece of paper every time the land changes hands, for 300 years. It made searching an absolute joy, because all changes had to be registered.
FF: So, any parting words.
BD: Seek and ye shall find. Seek badly and ye shall find rubbish, false connections, unsupported assertions and outright fabrications.