Using Travel to Discover Your Heritage

“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow deep, to know our heritage – to know who we are and where we came from.  Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning.  No matter what our attainments in life, there is still a vacuum, an emptiness, and the most disquieting loneliness.” — Alex Haley, Roots

Aside from travelling for leisure, or with the purpose of volunteering, I also would like to travel to the lands of my ancestors to try to dig up some figurative “bones”.

Ever since my maternal grandmother’s death in 2007, I have clung strongly and passionately to the idea that my family must not forget where we came from. This past year my family also lost my grandmother’s brother, the last relative of his generation. With his passing came the end of an era.

In my downtime I have been researching both my maternal and paternal lineages. My family background has always been of interest to me. Being a first-generation Canadian, I have always tried to dream up the landscapes of my parent’s youth, and their parents, and so on.

Anyone who knows me well enough knows the little party trick I like to play. It’s called “Guess My Heritage”. Looking at me, one might think that I’m a typical Canadian girl. However, looks can be deceiving, and barely anyone ever guesses right (although, after this I might have to retire my little game).

I know I touched upon my heritage in a previous post, but I decided to share it in detail with all of you as it has greatly influenced some of my ideas for future trips. This might be a long post, but bear with me. I know it might also sound more personal than travel-related, but I’m going to eventually get to a point by the end of this.

And now, a brief history on the Macnie, Livingston, Fernandes, and D’Ornellas families that I come from…

Both sides of my father’s family stem from the Highlands of Scotland. I am currently in possession of my paternal grandfather’s family tree that begins in Calziebohalzie, Stirlingshire, in 1680. Although this tree represents the family that the Macnie’s married into for the most part, it still allows me to trace back to my great-great-great-great grandparents, from which the tree begins (with a Dewar marrying a Buchanan).

When I first became serious about conducting family research I began by Googling “Calziebohalzie” simply because I had no idea where in Scotland it was. To my amazement the first search result from using that one town name brought up a gentleman’s website that showcased his own tree and research. His site not only had the ENTIRE family tree that I was in possession of, but also provided me with dates and locations that my version was lacking. I found out that the relatives on this side of the family had mainly all resided throughout the counties of Stirling and Perth, with Callander, and Kilmadock showing up in the records quite frequently. There’s even a family cemetery in Stirlingshire somewhere.

My paternal great-grandfather from the Macnie side immigrated to Guyana from Glasgow to work with the Presbyterian Church, bringing along with him his wife. They settled in Mahaica, where they had three children. They then moved to Georgetown where he was a Reverend at St. Andrew’s Kirk. In the early 1920s he returned to Scotland to continue his work in the church in Loth — a parish so far north into the highlands that it looks like it might fall into the North Sea. From Loth they transplanted to the parish of Angus, where my great-grandfather passed away in 1929.

One of his son’s, my grandfather, fought in WWI with the Seaforth Highlanders, a regiment of the British Army associated with large areas of the northern Highlands of Scotland (Guyana was still part of the British Empire at the time). He was stationed in France and fought in the trenches, something which I couldn’t imagine doing at his age (he would have been 19 at most). After the war he returned to Guyana and eventually become Commissioner of Police in Berbice. He was involved in Guyana’s war effort during WWII, and at one point was acting Governor of Antigua.

Around this time my grandfather met my grandmother in New York City. My grandmother had moved there from Vancouver to work as a stenographer. I’m not too sure how they met, but obviously I’m glad they did. The two of them settled in Guyana, had my father and lived there until he was ten years old (my Dad was born in Vancouver though, my grandparents having travelled back to Canada to be with my grandmother’s family leading up to the birth). From Guyana they moved to Barbados where they lived for another ten years until my parents met, got engaged, and immigrated to Canada. His parents sadly passed away shortly after my parents settled in Toronto.

My paternal grandmother’s side of the family, the Livingstons, are originally from Oban, Scotland. I was reminded of this on my recent trip to Vancouver when it was recounted how my great-grandfather moved to Canada, first settling in Saskatchewan and then eventually British Columbia, marrying a Canadian in the process. In an effort to avoid a lengthy post I won’t go too much into detail about the Livingston’s, but if anyone is interested you can read more on this side of the family here.

So, one side is explained. To sum it up, my father’s side is Scottish-Canadian-Guyanese. Phew.

My mother’s side of the family is a bit easier to layout. All of her side is Portuguese-Guyanese. But, let me explain that hyphen…

Guyana is a melting pot of different ethnicities — Amerindian, Indian, African, Portuguese, Chinese, British and Dutch, just to name a few. Its history of being a former Dutch then British colony can account for this large mix of people – as the country grew and its resources were discovered, indentured labourers were brought in from other countries to work the fields, my ancestors included.

Throughout the 1800s Guyana saw an influx in immigrants from Portugal, most of who came from Madeira, a little island closer to Africa than mainland Portugal. These Portuguese were originally brought into the country to farm sugarcane as they were a mainly agricultural populace who were used to working in similar climates back home. Eventually the Portuguese in Guyana shifted from agriculture to business, and for the most part settled in the capital of Georgetown.

My maternal grandmother’s parents passed away when her and her brothers were quite young, so we unfortunately don’t have many documents or records on them. My family also left Guyana in a hurry during political uprisings in the late 1960s and took what they could, leaving possessions behind. I’ve always been told the family Bible was one of the items that had to be sacrificed. Why this would be sacrificed beats me. However, I do have in my possession my grandmother’s record of baptism, which lists her parents’ names and shows the surnames D’Ornellas and Gonsalves. That’s as far back as I can go on my maternal grandmother’s side. From Guyana my mother’s family moved to Barbados, eventually immigrating to Toronto along with my parents in the early 1970s.

My maternal grandfather’s side of the family doesn’t offer much more insight in our history, either. I do know that my great-grandfather was a businessman in Guyana, owning a general store in Georgetown (this store was actually where my maternal grandparents met as they both worked for my great-grandfather). According to my maternal grandfather’s birth certificate, my family was considered “Portuguese Native Creole”. I kind of like the sound of that! It also shows the surnames of Fernandes and Velloza.

Researching my Guyanese side would involve me having to go to Georgetown to try to search the civil archives. My chances of finding anything are slim. I would desperately like to find out when my Portuguese ancestors sailed over to Guyana from Madeira, but it’s incredibly hard to discern which name on a ship’s log may be that of a relative considering we don’t know either of the family lines past the great-grands. I’ll go to Guyana one day to try to dig up some bones with what little knowledge I have, but it may have to wait for some time.

On the other hand, it would seem that my father’s side it’s all laid out for me. In retrospect, juxtaposing the two lineages and the information available just makes me want to go to Scotland even more. I’d be foolish to pass up an opportunity to research my Scottish lineage given the mountain of information I have at my fingertips. Who knows, maybe I’ll be successful enough in finding my ancestors that it might inspire me to persevere and do the same for the Portuguese in Guyana.

And now I finally come to the point of my rambling – I must go to Scotland. I owe it to my family to pay the motherland a visit. Scotland is already on my travel bucket list, so I’m hoping I’ll be able to cross it off within the next two years.

“ ’S Rioghal Mo Dhream”. That means “Royal is My Blood”. It’s the clan motto for the MacGregor’s, the clan from which the Macnies originate. In the late 1500s to early 1600s the MacGregor’s were outlawed by the British King and it was a capital offence to bear the name. Some were able to maintain the surname (maybe I’m related to Ewan McGregor??), but based on the feistiness of us Macnies, I’m assuming we were some of the bigger MacGregor badasses and were forced to change our name in order to save ourselves. Who knows…this all happened 400+ years ago.

However, it just occurred to me that the family tree I have begins only a few generations after this happened. To own something that dates back 332 years is mind-boggling (I just got a strong urge to watch Braveheart…no wonder I always get chills whenever I hear a bagpipe)…

After writing this post I am more determined than ever to visit Scotland to do more research. Who knows what I might dig up. Maybe I’ll find out my blood is royal, after all 😉

Scotland — I’ll be coming for you soon, baby!


2 thoughts on “Using Travel to Discover Your Heritage

  1. Pingback: Throwback Thursday: Happy Birthday, Gran! | Meandering Mac

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