A Dad Solves One Mystery and Discovers Another

This post is continuing the story from Ed’s last post.

Our family headed to Edinburgh, Scotland, for a two-week vacation partly to find out if my wife’s ancestor Robert Morrison had a bust in the lobby of the University of Edinburgh. The bust’s existence was according to family lore. The 1891 Winnipeg Canada census showed that Robert had been in Edinburgh in 1884. It seemed like I was on the right track.

My plan was to spend one day out of the two weeks and to try to verify or disprove the story of the bust.

Looking back, I realize I was not then familiar with the old Yiddish phrase “Man plans, God Laughs.” I am much more familiar with this phrase now, after doing years of genealogy research.

Since we were going to be there two weeks, we had some of my wife’s family over for the first week and then our kids over for the second week.

What that meant was that we ended up seeing all of the big tourist items twice. We took the tour of Edinburgh Castle twice. We saw Holyroodhouse twice. And we walked the Royal Mile twice as much as the average tourist.

At one end of the Royal Mile stands majestic Edinburgh Castle. This is where the Stuart dynasty originated with Mary Queen of Scots lowering her son, the future King James I of all of Great Britain, out of a window and off to safety. During the Scottish War of Independence, Robert the Bruce’s nephew Thomas Randolph captured the castle in a daring raid by climbing up the seemingly impassable rocks on the backside of the castle. The castle is the center of all things Scottish (in my opinion) and is a pivotal location in the history of the country.

Then there is Holyroodhouse, which is another large castle at the other end of the Royal Mile. This castle belongs to the Queen of England, and that’s where she stays when she comes to Edinburgh.

We stayed at a nice apartment in a good location, about one block off Princes Street in downtown Edinburgh. When you exited the front door to the street, you were greeted with a view of the majestic castle high up on the hill. Knowing just some of the long history, I got a small shiver every time I saw it.

The timing of our vacation was during what is called the “Fringe Festival.” This is billed as a music festival, but it includes lots of other events as well.

Despite all of the wonderful diversions, I picked a day when many of the family were going shopping and headed to the University of Edinburgh. I started my search with the University Library.

Now, the University is a short walk from Princes Street, but the exact location of the library building was not obvious among the many university buildings, so I ended up asking someone where the library was located.

My guide pointed it out and politely asked where I was from in the U.S. I started with “Pennsylvania,” but only when I mentioned “near Philadelphia” did his eyes light up, and he exclaimed “Rocky!”

I encountered this same phenomenon again in Scotland, and also in Ireland on a separate trip. That movie made an impact on Great Britain.

Once in the library, I explained what I was about to a gentleman behind the counter. This gentleman seemed very put out by my reasons for coming to the library, and he questioned me incredulously as to whether I had an appointment of any sort or did I just think I could come in and “something something bespoke something…”

I didn’t really understand what “bespoke” meant exactly, but I did get the impression that he believed I should have called beforehand and made an appointment. Then my cell phone went off, which did nothing to brighten his mood.

Finally he referred me to a section which had yearbooks and historical information on the university itself

I perused that section in a systematic way, but wasn’t finding any clues when what occurred can only be termed a genealogical research miracle occurred.

The annoyed man had complained to one of his colleagues how another Yank had come in expecting to be waited on hand and foot and wasn’t that the worst and so on, and the colleague came over to me and asked directly what I was doing.

After explaining again my purpose, this librarian pointed out the most important books in the section and said she would be back.

I was looking at the books she pointed out and seeing the name Robert Morrison listed and feeling like I was on the trail.

This librarian was the yin to the first librarian, just the complete opposite. In fact the first librarian could have been named yang and I believed there was no doubt he was a yang.

The nice librarian returned as promised and showed me a handwritten note which had been left by someone else who had been researching the same person, Robert Morrison.

The note said, “Robert Milner Morrison had been born in St. Thomas Virgin Islands and had obtained two degrees at University of Edinburgh before teaching for a short time at the University.”

The note was signed and dated 1991–fifteen years earlier!

The librarian asked me if I knew the author of the note and foolishly I said no, but could I please have a copy of it?

The librarian went off to make a copy and I was ecstatic.

Robert was born in St. Thomas – not Trinidad – and he had graduated and taught at the university. This mystery was all but solved. I just needed to tie up a few loose ends and I could put it in a box and put a bow on it, as they say.

I was tempted to yell over to the first librarian I had met, “Hey Yang, I got what I needed, thanks.”

The nice librarian returned with copy of the note, but she had removed the author’s name. Since I didn’t know the author, the librarian was uncomfortable giving out names and phone numbers due to privacy concerns.

I was faced with the choice of threatening to burn the library to the very ground if she wouldn’t hand over the original note forthwith or to politely and very gratefully thank her for her supremely outstanding assistance. I chose the latter.

So while I didn’t find a bust or a statue of any kind I felt that I was definitely on the right track of the right Robert Morrison. If he had done something notable, whether a bust was cast of him or not, I intended to find out exactly what that was.

I spent an additional two days during the vacation going to the Scottish National Record Office and looking up additional details via their census records and so on. So much for my plan of spending a half-day researching.

The result of all this research was that while there was no bust of Robert Morrison in the lobby of the university, he had attended there and had received two degrees including a doctorate, and had taught there for a time after graduation.

So, my work finished, I was back on vacation in Scotland.

On one of the tours of the castle there was a demonstration of the origin of the kilt. Now most people have heard the joke about the kilt that goes:

“What do you wear under a Scottish kilt?”

Answer – “Boots.”

Looking at Scotland on a map, it is further north than Denmark and not all that far from Norway, Sweden, and …. Well you get the picture.

How on earth would something like the kilt seem like a good idea in that type of weather?

Wool sweaters, blankets, gloves with just a hint of Plutonium, these I would understand.

As it turns out the modern kilt that I and most people are familiar with is a modern form of one of the most practical inventions ever. The guy giving the demonstration did it in the Great Hall in Edinburgh Castle, so the venue really added to the presentation.

The demonstrator started with what looked like a very large blanket, maybe 14 feet long and 6 or 8 feet wide and started folding. At a certain point he stopped folding and donned the blanket and wrapped it around himself and—voila! – he looked just like a person in one of the old paintings of a Highlander. Of course nothing like a modern dress kilt, but very much like a portrait of Rob Roy that you might see. And then he showed how there was a place just under the armpit where you could put stuff and carry it “hands free,” so to speak.

So at night it was your sleeping bag, and then in the morning you would fold it up, put it on, grab a mutton chop that you had conveniently borrowed from the local Laird (with or without their consent) and a flask of spirits, stuff it all in the special pouch under your arm, and you were off.

It was sleeping gear, foul weather gear, and suitcase all in one. And it had a hood!

The demonstrator was great, but about every ten sentences or so he would say something like, “All good highlanders would do such and such and so on,” but end the sentence with “unless you were a stinking rotten lowdown Campbell”.

This occurred throughout the presentation and, as it turned out, he had an ancestor who suffered the ultimate betrayal at the hands of a Campbell clan chief, and this guy was making sure everyone knew where he stood with regard to that family.

The Scots don’t forget.

Another place we went was the writers’ museum. Now Scotland boasts three great writers. They are

  1. Walter Scott of Ivanhoe fame,
  2. Robert Burns the great Scottish poet, and
  3. Robert Louis Stevenson who wrote Treasure Island

These three writers stand above all others and are a deep source of Scottish pride.

Little did I know at this time that all three writers, and even the Campbell clan, would play a role in my researching Robert Morrison and the extended Morrison family tree. But I didn’t know any of that then.

All I knew then was that Robert Morrison definitely did not have a bust in the lobby of the University of Edinburgh, but that he had graduated from the university and had even taught there. This same Robert Morrison had been born in St. Thomas, and he had been important enough or interesting enough for someone else to look him up so many years ago.

Not like you need an excuse to go to the Caribbean, but that’s where we were headed to further explore our family tree. Our next stop was St. Thomas and the U.S. Virgin Islands.