February 28, 2020
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I went back to the old country to dig up my roots, and I found a cousin

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

I was on a plane from Philadelphia to Glasgow, the city of my ancestors. In two days, my daughter, Ariel Rose Nelson, would graduate from the Glasgow School of Art. My family left four generations ago, and “we” have been looking back ever since. It’s a common Scottish story, but it’s new every time the next generation makes the trip. It’s also a common American story, since we all began somewhere else and millions of us feel the urge to locate our origin. Going back to the remote source of our DNA helps explain why we’re here and who we are. It is our patrimony, passed along from father to son — and to daughter.

I’m drawn to the sheer romance of our story. On July 2, 1867, Ariel’s great-great-great-grandparents — Alexander Nelson, a journeyman joiner, and Jeannie Callum — were married by Rev. Woodrow Thompson of St. Luke’s Church in Glasgow. Alexander was 24 years old, and he was the son of Agnes Punten and James Nelson, a ploughman. Jeanie was 23, and she was one of eight children of James Callum, shoemaker, and Jane Cave. On their honeymoon, she and Alexander emigrated to Toronto, eventually settling outside Buffalo, New York. And that’s about all we knew about “our” departure.

Their son James named his son Robert, who named his son Robert, who named his son Todd, who named his youngest child Ariel. And she decided to go to the old country as a third-year college student to finish her degree in graphic design. She was about to receive her BFA.

Ariel is the third Nelson to go back to the old country; I was the first. During my junior year abroad at Stirling University in 1976, my grandfather (the elder of the Roberts) came to Scotland, his first trip out of the United States. My father never spoke of the Scottish patrimony, but grandfather had instilled in me the modest amount he knew of our Scottish roots. So we set out on a mission to find family records in the registry house in Edinburgh. We did.

We enjoyed a reunion of sorts when we opened a leather-bound ledger and read the page where, in an antique script and fading ink, Alexander and Jeannie’s wedding was recorded. Lacking their birth dates or locations to search parish records, we were blocked. Nowadays, from my laptop, I can open the same exact ledger and see the same script, and wonder the same thing: Are there cousins? Digital reunions don’t suffice.

The Callum-Nelsons must have been typical of their social class in 19th-century Glasgow. Evidently, Scotland held no promise. It must have required great courage, desperation, or both to leave family, friends, and the known world and set out for America by ship. They never saw the homeland again, though Jeannie’s Glasgow accent never faded and, according to grandfather, she still recalled her childhood friends by name 60 years away from their youth. She died in New York in 1934, at age 90.

The occasion of my trip to the city of the ancestors stimulated some energetic research on my part. I was bound and determined to find some Callum or Nelson cousins — and I did. The Callums have dispersed as far as Australia and as near as Nottingham and Glasgow, where cousins still abide. We exchanged genealogical tidbits and photos. Alexander’s family eluded me, until I recently located him at age 7 in the 1851 Scottish census. There was the family, with the right parental names and siblings, including a younger brother named James.

I even found their house. The census gave location, and courtesy of Google Earth, I descended on the village of Spott, Dunbartonshire. There was the little stone cottage in which Alexander and his siblings were counted in the census, sitting amid fields that James Nelson no doubt plowed. A few more clicks and I found the cottage where he was born, not far away. Their lives were lived within a fairly circumscribed area — except for the son who left for America, starting this whole grand arc of family dispersal, and return.

Paternity becomes a reunion of sorts: me, grandfather and Jeannie, in memory and desire. No one stays behind in the digital age. If 19th-century marriage records traverse cyber space, so can we. I’d still like nothing more than to talk with a descendant of the folk who remained in Glasgow, and I now know the name of a Callum cousin with whom I share a great-great-grandfather.

Todd R. Nelson is a writer and bagpiper. He lives in Penobscot.


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