History documents only the famous; genealogy records us all. Standard history devotes too much attention to the imperious, the self-assertive, the pompous, the deluded and the attention seekers – whereas genealogy is a level field. It’s slightly comforting to know that we’ll all feature in several family trees thanks to rigorous central record keeping both on paper and digitally – the efficiency and resolve of these bureaucratic agencies in garnering information is second only to the Canada Revenue Service.
Most doctors are trained to elicit a family history at a first consultation. The American Medical Association suggests this should include first-degree relatives (parents, siblings, children) as well as second degree (grandparents, grandchildren, uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, half-siblings) and third degree (great-grandparents, great-grandchildren, great-uncles/aunts, first cousins). This part of the history should take you less than an hour at first consultation. I don’t know anyone other than a medical geneticist who has time to cover all those kindred with dates, causes of death and serious illnesses, but most try with a general question: “Any illnesses that run in the family?”
And most of us know causes and dates of death of our own first-degree relatives and a few of our second-degrees, but beyond that we depend on oral family history. But there are gaps: untimely deaths, migrations and displacements. Recording centrally on paper or digitally is best. My friend, Dr. Alex McPherson, upbraided me years ago on a delay in writing a paper on a clinical trial of BCG immunotherapy in malignant melanoma: “If it’s not written and recorded, then it doesn’t exist,” he’d say. That’s correct for modern science, but I’m not so sure about family history stories – inaccurate these may be in specific details but perhaps relevant in a general kind of way.
Anyway, I hope these intergenerational family stories contain whiffs of truth because my father used to say: “Aye, the word in Leadhills, Lanarkshire, Scotland, is that Andrew Barton Paterson was a relative.” Andrew Barton Paterson is a bit better known to the world as “Banjo Paterson” and really well-known as the author of Waltzing Matilda – the unofficial Aussie national anthem.
We’re descended from a lead, coal and gold mining family. My dad was a mining engineer who helped develop the hydraulic pit prop, an improvement on sticking thick trunks of wood from the pit’s entrance to the coal face to prevent tunnel cave-ins. He got a PhD for his work and talked at mining meetings. At gigs in Australia, he’d casually mention that a distant relative might be Andrew Barton Paterson, otherwise known as Banjo, who was the son of a Scots immigrant to Australia from Lanarkshire. This information brought a buzz of interest, and usually it was unnecessary to buy any drinks after. Banjo was a 19th-century Aussie poet, journalist and author. I’ve continued this stretching of oral family history by telling my kids about Banjo. My son named his lovely black Malamute dog Banjo. Banjo died last year and was sent over the Rainbow Bridge with full honours.
“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” – Arthur Conan Doyle
So, this is decidedly not the way to start a family tree, as Conan Doyle’s quotation succinctly summarizes. You should start with yourself and work backwards, and this is where real genealogy fits in. Enter Ms Sheila Duffy, a friend from my Edinburgh University days, with whom I re-connected. Ms Duffy is a professional family genealogist consulted by interested families looking for ancestry but also by lawyers handling “intestate inventories” looking for relatives to receive the worldly proceeds of a deceased relative.
But I was determined for a quick hit: Banjo was the eldest son of a Scots immigrant from Lanarkshire, Scotland, one Andrew Bogle Paterson, likely arriving in Oz around the 1850s or 60s. His eldest son, Andrew Barton Paterson, was born in 1864. He trained as a lawyer but made his name as a journalist, war correspondent and poet – and he took the penname of "The Banjo" after his favourite horse.
His well-known works are The Man from Snowy River and Waltzing Matilda with many other poems of Aussie outback life. But the jaunty Matilda tune was actually composed by one Miss Christina MacPherson, whom Banjo met at a party at her home. He heard Christina’s tune and was inspired to write the famous lyrics. Following this super-harmonious collaboration, Banjo was suddenly asked to leave the MacPherson property, leading some to conclude that he (already betrothed to another) had engaged in a scandalous liaison with Miss MacPherson. But this is all idle rumour.