Family History or Fairy Story?

Ian Shankland, UK

My interest in family history began in a casual way, when I was chatting to an uncle I hadn't seen for a while and exchanging news on members of the family. After a while my wife Anne - totally lost with all the different names that cropped up - asked in desperation "Who on earth are all these people?" We drew a family tree for her, and from then on we were hooked.

Family stories

We started, I imagine like most people, with the stories that had been handed down through the family. A couple of generations back, so we were told, the Shanklands had come from Dumfries in Scotland to Castle Eden in Co. Durham, England; my great-great-grandfather William Shankland had moved, with his family, because the local landowner wanted only Scotsmen to work for him. When the family moved down, a sister (or sisters) were left behind in Scotland. William and his wife Catherine had died quite young, in England, and their eldest son Thomas (my great-grandfather) had brought up the rest of the family. Thomas was the only one of the family who had had children of his own. One brother, Robert, had married a woman in South Africa who was believed to have been a confectionery heiress, and had later moved to Australia, where he died childless. Other brothers were William (Bill), who had never married, and Walter, who married late in life and had no children. The remaining members of the family, John and Janet, had both died at about 21.


All these names were confirmed by a slip of paper pinned into a family Bible, listing the birth dates of William and Catherine and of each of their children - including the quaintly named "Elsabeth", the firstborn. Was Elsabeth the sister who had been left behind in Dumfries?

My oldest relative, my grandfather's sister, confirmed that she had had an Aunt Catherine and an Aunt Elizabeth, "who had married a Shepherd". (This again tied in with the story of sisters left behind in Dumfries). She also had a tartan rug made by her aunts from "wool from their own sheep". I ignored the clue about the sheep farming, and spent a considerable time searching for the marriage of an Elsabeth or Elizabeth Shankland to anyone called Shepherd, without success.

Eventually, on a trip to Scotland to look at the records held at New Register House, I discovered that Elizabeth had married a man called Barbour, who was by profession a shepherd. I also found that Elizabeth was born illegitimate, and her birth was legitimised when her parents married about a year later. She had apparently been brought up by her maternal grandmother rather than by her own parents, and after the rest of her family had moved to England she got married and had children of her own. Well, so far the stories were almost right. But I still don't know who Aunt Catherine was.


There were other stories about Robert, the brother who had lived in Australia. He had apparently emigrated to New South Wales as a young man, but had made a trip home in 1897 as part of the NSW Military Forces; my grandfather remembered this as he had been called out of school to meet his uncle from the colonies. He had a fruit farm in New South Wales. However, we are also told that he married in South Africa, and that his wife was subsequently murdered - a neighbour who had tried unsuccessfully to seduce her had shot her dead!

Robert lost touch with the family in England for many years, but contact was re-established soon after the Second World War as the result of a newspaper advertisement. Consequently we still have several of his letters, some of which cast light on the English stories but very little on his own. He mentions his birthplace at Shotton Hall Farm, as "the farm our father managed", and another big house where "our Jenny" (Janet) worked. This confirms that William Shankland did in fact work as a farm manager, as we had been told. In fact I discovered recently that in the 1850s the Scottish farmtouns were at the forefront of agricultural development so that Scottish farm managers were much in demand throughout Britain. This makes sense of the family story we were told of William's move south.

As for Robert's own story, of his life in South Africa and/or Australia, we still don't know how much of this is true. However, group member Joan Wright of South Africa, when I related the story to her, sent me details of Robert's military service in South Africa - so I know he was there and that a South African wife is a possibility.

Scottish Ancestry

This particular generation - the sons and daughters of my great-great-grandfather William Shankland - had given me plenty of anecdotal information, some of which at least had been backed up by research. However, I wanted to get further back, and find out about William's own parents. Here, of course, I could depend only on documentary evidence, with no hints from family stories.

The Family Bible had told me when he was born - 1827 - but not where; from a Census I discovered that he had been born in Applegarth Parish, in Dumfriesshire. The Register for Applegarth gave the birth entry, a facsimile of which is shown below. It gives neither the father's or mother's Christian name, and an unexpected variant of Shankland for the (mother's) surname. Now here I could really do with a few family stories to fill in the missing data!

Register Entry

I have tried to decipher the scribble under "Residence", but the best I can do is "Mary's Cleuchheads". There is a place called Cleuchheads near Applegarth, but Mary's? I studied a large-scale map of the area, and toyed with the idea that it could be "Nether Cleuchheads", which I could pinpoint on the map, but fresh study of the register entry doesn't support this interpretation. As a result, with all this data on Shanklands held in our Shankland data base, I am stuck on my own family line at 1827, in a place called Applegarth!


Of course, documentary evidence is not the only indication of relationship. In most families there is some physical characteristic that shows through from generation to generation. My wife tells me that she can see the "Shankland forehead" in a photograph of my great-grandfather as well as in myself and my father. Similarly, my father remembers meeting a Dr. Shankland, apparently not related to him, whose daughter bore a striking resemblance to his (my father's) aunt at the same age. I have often thought it would be interesting to build up a collection of pictures of the various Shankland clans we come into contact with in our Shankland One-Name Group, to see if such family likenesses do in fact show up.

Some family characteristics seem to go a very long way back even into undocumented history. As a child I remember being conscious of - and embarrassed by - the shape of my head, which is flattened at the top and back of the crown. I was once the centre of attention in a museum when Anne, gazing down at an iron age skeleton, remarked "Oh look - his head is the same shape as yours!" Some years later, when we were in a pub in Dumfriesshire, she did it to me again and commented about the other people there: "They've all got flat heads like you". (My wife is a southerner born and bred, and has a "long head".)

Maybe the head shape is a Celtic characteristic? Can I draw any conclusions from this? Or weave some family stories of my own?

Flights of fancy

Recently (in my spare time from family history research) I've been reading about some researches into the Arthurian legend, which suggest that King Arthur may have been a Romano-British leader who was based not at Glastonbury but around Carlisle, near the Scottish border with England. One researcher put Arthur in Dumfriesshire itself. Avalon means "a place of apples". Applegarth means "garden of apples". Furthermore, Applegarth Parish, where my ancestor William was born, is about 8 miles north-west of Carlisle.

Nowadays, Applegarth Town is just a few cottages. The church, though, is big and impressive, and still gives its name to the Parish; before the Normans came it was a Minster, an important ecclesiastical administrative centre. Was Avalon Applegarth? Was King Arthur there? Even more importantly - did he have a flat head?

Do I share a common descent with King Arthur? Now that is a fairy story!

Ian Shankland, September 1993

The story continues in The Mystery of Mary's Cleughheads . . .