Posted on 17/02/2018 Category in Blog

The Scottish National Dictionary was published in ten volumes between 1931 and 1976. The compilers sought out many individuals from all over Scotland who were experts in their local dialect and had a profound knowledge of local history, and could explain Scots words as they appeared in print from 1700 until 1976. The mission of this elite group of individuals was to record, share and promote these words within the context that they were originally written.


My great-aunt, Jeanie Craik Rodger, a primary school teacher in Forfar, was one of the first expert compilers recruited. She was born in 1905 in Forfar and had a very strong Angus accent. Her family had lived there from time immemorial. She collected the vocabulary, accents and stories of her charges, and stories from local folklore.

Agnes And Jeanie Rodger 2 1937

Jeanie is shown on the right with her younger sister, Agnes Mary Rodger, who died in 1937 of pulmonary tuberculosis, just 23 years old.

One of her most memorable works was Lang Strang­ – a book of rhymes and children’s games published in 1948 based on local tales from Forfar – one of the greatest hits was ‘a bedtime story’ where trousers are ‘stuntifiers’ and the cat is ‘Old Killiecraffus’. Jeanie then went on to write a regular column in Forfar vernacular for the national Scots Magazine under the pen-name of ‘Mary-Ann’.

When compiling her entries for the Dictionary she came across a number of words with a specific medical terminology, such as ‘bairn-bed’ for a womb.  Some were local to Forfar, but others came from many other parts of Scotland.

As a medical historian I have always had an interest in these ancient terms – some are quite amusing in their frank descriptions. Males had cods, courage-bags, culls, bollocks or knackers, pintles, whangs and wallies! And females had bairn-beds, fud, crappins, craig of the creel, egg-bags, wheeries and problems with their breists or briskets.

Other worrying names are ‘by anesel’ meaning completely mad, and ‘curly wingles’ when apparently you think your guts are doing somersaults. At least you would know your ‘hurdies’ meant your bum.

I am proposing to develop an inventory of Scottish medical terms as part of a Pinpoint Ancestry development to appear on our website soon. All out-kneed people with reeking oxters, peerie-winkled, hertie, driddly and kittle or lap-biggit people are apologised to.







Posted on 12/04/2017 Category in Blog

I have been attending WDYTYA Live for many years, but this year was the first time that I’ve given a talk.  I’ve spent the last twelve months co-writing a book entitled ‘Lunatics, Imbeciles and Idiots – A History of Nineteenth Century Insanity in Britain and Ireland’ which has just been published by Pen & Sword History.  My co-author, John Burt and I were able to give a companion lecture at WDYTYA Live to raise awareness of the valuable records available when researching ancestors in nineteenth century lunatic asylums.

As new authors, we believe we have written a worthwhile book but,of course until we start to see the reviews it has been difficult to determine how much it will be enjoyed by the reader.  So, it was very gratifying to be able to see people buying it and providing us with positive feedback. 

Without doubt our talk and the book launch was the highlight of the three day event for me.  However, getting together with old friends, meeting new ones and assisting on a couple of stands as well as spending time as an ‘expert’ on the Welsh desk was equally gratifying.

Genealogy can be a fairly isolating career in some respects – I seem to spend my day researching the dead which is fascinating but, it’s good to be able to get away from the desk and meet like-minded living people.  WDYTYA Live is the perfect annual event.  This year was certainly no exception with a wide range of excellent talks on offer and many genealogy exhibitors and professionals to consult.  The Register of Qualified Genealogists (RQG) attended for the first time and provided not only a list of their members but also mini-talks on a range of fascinating topics.  These will be made available on their website and are definitely worth watching.  The RQG also used WDYTYA Live to launch their new Journal with an interesting first edition about the London Silversmith family, Mewburn by Ian G. Macdonald of the University of Strathclyde.

As always, the event was both brilliant and extremely tiring at the same time – thanks to my Smart Bracelet I was able to work out just how far I walked each day and averaged about 10km!  So despite the fantastic food we ate I still managed to lose a few pounds which has to be a bonus.

Posted on 03/04/2017 Category in Blog

The First World War has always fascinated me – not only because of the tragic loss of human life – but also because my paternal grandfather enlisted in October 1914 and managed to survive the entirety of the conflict.

A missing family member often provides the catalyst for fascination and a desire to find out more about them.  And this was certainly the case for me as my grandfather John Capper died six years before I was born.  I had photographs to look at, his war medals to cherish and his grave to visit – what I didn’t have was his first hand account of his life.

Why did the youngest son of a farmer from North Wales feel the need to enlist at the start of the conflict?  Conscription wasn’t enforced until 1916, so what was his incentive?  His grandfather had visited France in the 1860s to deal with the estate of his elder sister – the family still talks about this trip.  Did my grandfather want to visit France for this reason?  Was he compelled to do his duty to King and country and fight for freedom?  Or did he merely wish to go on what he thought would be an adventure that would be over by Christmas?  No one could answer that question apart from him and unfortunately it was too late to ask.

I obtained his attestation papers from the National Archives in London – I was lucky, although he had enlisted as a Private with the Cheshire Yeomanry, he was promoted in the field and became a 2nd Lieutenant in the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment.  As a result his documents were available for research.  The majority of attestation papers were destroyed in the Second War and are known as the ‘Burnt Collection’.  Very few remain, but there is a substantial collection for Officers.

So I have been able to read the official version of his war service which has been a bonus, but of course it doesn’t contain his own testimony of his experiences during that time.  I am by no means unique in this respect, many people researching their families will be in the same situation.  At least I have been able to obtain records about my grandfather, and war diaries that will help me construct in my own mind what his life was like on the battlefields of France.  There are also living family members who remember him well but these are becoming fewer with every year that passes.

John Capper c1917

John Capper 1917

John Capper WW1

John Capper with a fellow officer 1918.









I have researched many families in the course of my work and always pause when I see a generation of sons born in the 1880s and 1890s – knowing that inevitably some of them will have enlisted as my grandfather did.  And so, if I discover that they were involved in the conflict I always note it.  These men deserve to be remembered even if they didn’t marry and leave children who would one day wonder what they were like.

Posted on 27/03/2017 Category in Blog

After several years’ research and countless hours of scribbling I’ve just taken delivery of an advance copy of a book I’ve been writing with friend and colleague John Burt.  Coincidentally, the book arrived on Epilepsy Awareness Day.

Lunatics, Imbeciles and Idiots began following our M.Sc. dissertations in Genealogy at the University of Strathclyde and snowballed as a result of the rich sources and fascinating social history that emerged as we researched nineteenth century asylums.  We quickly realised that we were researching a very special subject – a taboo topic and one that most families endeavoured to forget if there was any hint of insanity in their family.

Thousands of men women and children were admitted as pauper patients to asylums in Britain – quickly to become a forgotten group of people shut away from the gaze of society and shunned as individuals to be feared.  In nineteenth century Britain, mental disorders were little understood and ‘mad-doctors’ or ‘alienists’ as they were called endeavoured to determine the cause of their ‘insanity’ in an attempt to cure or curtail it.  Conditions such as epilepsy and post-natal depression which today are cured or managed by modern medicine invariably led at that time to a stay in an asylum.

The nineteenth century saw progress in the medical understanding of epilepsy but the condition was considered incurable.  A diagnosis of epilepsy, as well as having a physical and biological impact on the body and brain, also affects the economic, psychological and social aspects of an individual’s life.  This impact would have been all the greater during the nineteenth century when medication was limited and the prospects for individuals with uncontrolled seizures were bleak.  In 1857, Sir Charles Locock (1799–1875) discovered the anti-convulsant and sedative qualities of potassium bromide and it was regularly used to treat epileptic seizures and nervous disorders until the discovery of phenobarbital in 1912.

Despite early advances in the understanding of epilepsy, the prognosis for patients remained unfavourable and many became long term patients and died in asylums.  Epileptic patients were admitted occasionally hoping for a cure but generally because they could no longer be cared for within the home or workhouse.  There is evidence from asylum case notes that an asylum was a better option than the workhouse, particularly if the asylum had purpose built provision for those suffering from seizures.

Despite an improved understanding of epilepsy in the nineteenth century, reading asylum accounts of epileptic patients is particularly harrowing.  When sisters, Esther and Violet Gosling arrived at Parkside asylum in 1894 they were having frequent seizures and were unable to take care of themselves.  Esther expressed a wish to enter the asylum because she wanted to be cured – which wasn’t likely, but, it must have provided her with hope.  Esther and Violet were relieved from Parkside back to their family home after a six month stay during which time they received no treatment or cure.  Both sisters died within two years from seizures.

Another pair of siblings admitted to the asylum were Mary Jane and John Robert Percival.  Mary Jane was only 10 when she arrived at Parkside in 1890 diagnosed with both Imbecility and Epilepsy.  She had previously been resident at Altrincham Workhouse but her seizures (which were attributed to fright) led to a transfer to the county asylum.  Her younger brother John Robert was only 7 when he was also admitted to the same asylum in 1898 suffering from the same symptoms.  It is unlikely that the two met – segregated by the asylum system on opposite sides of the building.  Both died in Parkside from pulmonary tuberculosis in their early 20s.

Researching and writing ‘Lunatics, Imbeciles and Idiots’ has been an emotional journey but one we’re glad we embarked upon.  Research into epilepsy remains ongoing, but today the prognosis for those who have the condition is much better.  Improved medication, understanding and support is now available and epileptics are no longer shunned from society or locked away because of their seizures.  The Epilepsy Society has been active for 125 years and continues to fundraise to provide life-changing services to those with the disorder.Book Cover

Posted on 20/03/2017 Category in Blog

How many of us order death certificates to enhance our family research? I suspect that more birth and marriage certificates are purchased in England and Wales because of the details they provide about another generation in our family tree. But information about deaths can really improve our understanding of family life.

I was aware from the death index that my great great grandfather James Armstrong, died at the young age of 48. There was even a family story that he had sat down for breakfast and died in the chair. While it was interesting to be told this information I had no idea whether it was actually true. I ordered his death certificate which helpfully told me that he had died as a result of ‘The visitation of God’ on 9 March 1875. This seemed to cover a multitude of possibilities.

What was actually far more useful and extremely interesting was the Coroner’s Inquest, held as a result of his sudden death. Laid out before me were details of not only the day of his death but also his health up until a fortnight before. The family story that he had died in his chair at breakfast was true. James had felt unwell for two weeks before he died and was taking prepared charcoal to relieve his apparent indigestion pains. On the morning of his demise the charcoal was not effective so he asked his niece to light his pipe for him as he believed this would relieve his chest pains. His niece Ellen heard him fall to the ground within minutes of leaving him, and, after a brief struggle he died.

Details of the inquest were also reported in the local press which provided yet more information about his wife and seven young children. So it’s useful to bear in mind that information about deaths can be just as useful as births and marriages for improving your knowledge about your ancestors and also for confirming whether family stories have been passed down accurately.

James and Mary Ann Armstrong

Posted on 11/03/2017 Tag by , , Category in Blog

I have spent the last few years researching the rich archive of case notes for patients admitted to asylums in nineteenth century Britain and Ireland.  Many people have commented that they cannot imagine why I would be so interested in such a grim topic – am I mad myself?  Perhaps I am – but the research has led me to co-write a book on the subject entitled ‘Lunatics, Imbeciles and Idiots: A History of Insanity in Nineteenth Century Britain and Ireland’, which I hope people will enjoy.

As a genealogist, I am naturally interested in any source of information that provides details about the identity and lives of others in the past.  And, asylum case notes are a particularly rich source of ancestral information including photographs, hereditary illness within family and importantly first person accounts of how mental health disorders affected their lives and wellbeing.

The majority of genealogical sources provide a snapshot of a family on a specific day whether that be a baptism, marriage, burial or a census return.  Medical case notes however, allow us to follow the lives of individuals on a daily or weekly basis for as long as they remained within the asylum.  A good example of this is the case of Esther Eliza Taylor who was admitted to Parkside Asylum in Macclesfield, Cheshire in 1887.  Her case notes reveal that Esther was wilful, stubborn and abusive towards her mother who was clearly at the end of her tether.  However, as well as providing details of Esther’s mental health problems, the case notes also give details of her father who is described as ‘an inveterate drunk who had convulsions as a child’.  Similar convulsions affected all of his children.

Hundreds of thousands of individuals were admitted to lunatic asylums in the nineteenth century.  Many were discharged deemed to be recovered, but others remained there for life.  Due to social stigma, episodes of insanity within a family are quickly ‘forgotten’ or brushed under the carpet.  Subsequent generations may have no idea that their ancestor was once admitted to an asylum.  But, for those of us with an inquiring mind, and let’s face it, most genealogists would describe themselves as nosy, these records are available for research.

The quickest way to determine if you had a ‘lunatic’ ancestor is to check the UK, Lunacy Patients Admission Registers, 1846-1912 on Ancestry.  The patient case notes are held at county archives, but some collections have been digitised and are available to view online.  Cheshire Archives and Local Studies have made their collection of Parkside Asylum case notes freely available using this method.

In order to highlight what a rich source of information these records are, my co-author Dr John Burt and myself will be giving a joint presentation at Who Do You Think You Are Live at the NEC in Birmingham on 7 April 2017.

Posted on 08/09/2015 Tag by , , , , , Category in Blog

Starting your family research is like embarking on a journey – it may take you a little longer to get there if you are older, but, you probably won’t be in such a rush to reach your destination than when you were younger. You may well be a lot wiser with the advantage of your years.

With the advent of thousands of online resources for the budding genealogist, it’s easy to forget that not every record can be obtained as a result of an internet search. Having watched the latest episode of Who Do You Think You Are and seen the delight on Sophie Raworth’s face when she was shown original letters written by her ancestors, it’s definitely worth getting out an about and heading to an archive.

However, the younger you start with your quest, the more likely you will be to have older generations to ask about long forgotten lines of the family. Take time to go through your old family photographs, and annotate in pencil on the back of each one who the people are. Chances are this information will be forgotten very quickly if you don’t write it down.

I inherited an album of gorgeous old photographs when my grandmother died – trouble is, she only ever wrote down the name of the dog featured in each image. I have no idea who the people are. As I connect with newly found third and fourth cousins in my family research, I always make a point of asking them if they have similar images with better annotations within their own collection. Gradually I’m discovering what my ancestors looked like and that’s far more powerful than knowing when they were born, married or died.