It seemed a great scheme to see how many diverse and interesting ancestors I could crowd into an oversized banquet hall or line up around a King Arthur vintage round table with holders of Trivial Pursuit cards strategically placed at appropriate intervals to keep the conversations lively.
However, I decided that a successful scheme would require far fewer guests and a much narrower focus.
In the end, I decided on a cozy table for four; the guest list included only three of my young Scotsmen ancestors who had fought and were taken prisoner in 1650 by Cromwell’s army at the Battle of Dunbar.
These courageous men — Alexander Cooper, William Gowen, and Peter Grant — were among the few prisoners of war who survived the forced death march to Durham, packed aboard the ‘Unity” and transported to Boston as indentured chattel to work either in the Hammersmith Iron Works in Saugus, Massachusetts (opened in 1646) or Berwick, Maine, where they cut timber for building or to be turned into charcoal to feed the work’s hungry blast furnaces and forges, or worked at the Great Works saw and grist mills.
The general questions about life in Scotland would be the low-hanging fruit of questions — plentiful and most informative, providing clues to the past.
Where was your home in Scotland? Who and how many were in your family? What was your occupation? What was your home-life like? Did you grow your own food? How did you make your clothing? Did other members of your family fight in the battle? Who? Why? What was their fate? Are there any healers or midwives in your family? Musicians? What do you know about the witchcraft scare? Did you return to Scotland? Did you bring any family members to New England?
What can you tell us about mid-17th-century Scotland?
(The basics come from the Scottish Archive for Schools)
17th century Scotland looked very different to today: it was predominantly rural, the landscape being made up of clusters of small farms, surrounded by narrow strips of cultivated ground (rigs) in an otherwise barren landscape. There were few trees or hedges, but plenty of bogs, mountains and moorland. There were very few roads, with access generally being by muddy tracks that were frequently impassable due to the weather. Most of the farms were quite small – usually less than 300 acres in total. Individual families lived on as little as 20 acres and survived by subsistence farming.
Agriculture was a community affair where groups of tenants worked together to look after their livestock and shared equipment to grow their crops, mainly barley and oats. Settlements grew up around churches, castles and mills, where local crafts and trades flourished.
None of this is unexpected. Medieval Scotland outside of then newly-forming urban centers was much the same.
But then I began to think: what do I really want to know?
Here at my imaginary dining table was the opportunity of a lifetime to explore the wonders of the time machine: how much about life in Scotland before Cromwell’s civil war do these men know?
For example, do they know why they fought this final Battle of Dunbar at Doon Hill? Would they be amazed to see — through the magic of the internet, of course — that they had fought on a hill with an amazing panoramic (and stragetic) view of the landscape?
What did they know about prehistoric Scotland, about the ancient Mesolithic, Bronze, and Iron age sites near Doon Hill amidst which they had fought the bloody battle? Had they and their ancestors had as much curiosity about these sites as generations since have had?
Too many questions, way too little time.