Mark Twain once remarked that he spent $25 to research his family tree, and then he had to spend $50 to cover it up. That seems apt in my case.
While I so far have not done any substantial research on my family tree, I have been curious about it for quite a while. There are several things in my family’s background to at least suggest that we’re part Scottish. Or so I thought.
On a 2004 trip to Scotland, my Russell family history got more complicated for me when we walked into a coat-of-arms shop on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, about 3-4 blocks from Holyrood Palace. I asked the guy if he had the Russell Coat-of-Arms in stock. He checked his computer and found a different Russell Coat-of-Arms for England, Ireland, and Scotland! So, surprised by this, I didn’t get any of them.
Photo Credit: Calton Hill panorama of Edinburgh City Centre and Castle
We then went to the National Register building in Edinburgh where people can research families and land holdings. Since I didn’t have specific names of relatives who had lived in Scotland, they couldn’t help me. They did refer me to the Edinburgh Central Library, the National Library, but by this time I concluded I didn’t know enough to conduct a productive search. A chipper lady at the Register also gave me a couple of websites to investigate: the National Archives of Scotland and Scottish Documents.com. But looking into those repositories would have been a waste of time with my limited and questionable leads, if they could be called that.
Still, I believe our branch of the Russells has Scottish roots. The circumstantial evidence is:
- Our family was Presbyterian, and the predominant religious influence in Scotland is Presbyterian, and has been for centuries. Ireland is predominantly Catholic, and England is predominantly Episcopalian (the Church of England). The Church of Scotland, seen all over the country except for some of the small Catholic islands near Ireland, is Presbyterian.
- When I was a kid, Mother and Daddy would say, “Put on your Macintosh,” before any of us would go out into rainy weather to do chores. Macintoshes (rain coats) are made in Glasgow, Scotland. I asked 15-20 Scots in different parts of the country about Macintoshes, and nearly all of them knew exactly what I was talking about. Charles Macintosh founded the company in 1830, and it’s still in business. There’s a website for the company, and the raincoats are now very stylish and very expensive. Ours were not.
- The character of our family seems more Scottish to me than Irish or English (fierce independence, friendliness, economy/thriftiness, wit accompanied by mischief that is not unkind—except for some of my previously reported antics driven by genes from somewhere else.) No doubt the Irish and English may rightly claim these traits, too, but Scottish people seem to possess them to a stronger or higher degree.
- Aberdeen was described by Geddes Macgregor in his superb book, Scotland: An Intimate Portrait, as “never, until recently, invaded by Irish and other extraneous elements as were Glasgow and Dundee.” Sensing from this claim that Aberdeen may be closer to “pure Scottish” on the country’s east coast, I checked the local phone book and found only one “Russel,” and about 300 or so spelled “Russell.” I then checked under Shelton, Mother’s maiden name, and only one was listed. Shelton, I found out later, is overwhelmingly English, with a few from Ireland, and almost none from Scotland.
A bit of contrary evidence is that while we were in Ireland, I heard someone on the street greet another by saying,
“Top o’ the morning to you!”
Daddy used to say that all the time, and I hadn’t even thought of it until I heard it in Ireland. A few days later, I asked a few Scots who were about my age if this greeting is common in Scotland. They basically said no, and that if you greeted Scots this way, they would just shrug or nod and walk on, like that would be a dumb thing to say. It occurred to me that Daddy could have learned this from people in Tennessee with Irish roots. Or, this linguistic link could be tied to Scots-Irish history in the Ulster province of northeast Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Ulster Province, six counties in Northern Ireland and three in Ireland.
Improved transportation and intermarriage over the last 200 years or so probably makes sharp distinctions difficult and “pure lines” hard to find. But I believe our family has a good amount of Scottish blood, mixed to some extent with English and Irish influences. Obviously, I may be wrong.
Fast-forward now to 2008, when my cousin in Clarksville, Tennessee, Gorham Russell Adkins, gave me a copy of a Russell family history that I had previously not known to exist. There I found a record of a James Russell, son of Robert Russell, born in 1749 in Virginia. The State Librarian and Officer of Revolutionary Archives in Richmond, W. W. Scott, certified on October 21, 1802, that James Russell was a soldier in Virginia in the Revolutionary War. He attained the rank of Sergeant of Artillery in the Continental Army, making him eligible for a warrant for 200 acres of bounty land from Virginia for his military service. Pretty impressive, I thought.
Then I sadly found that one of my paternal grandmother’s relatives, James Nolen, living in my home county, Montgomery County, Tennessee, specified in his last will and testament that one of his sons, John T. Nolen, among other things, receive
“Three Negroes which I Estimate to him at Two Thousand Dollars. The above amount of Three Thousand Four Hundred & Twelve Dollars and the three Negroes is all that I wish him to have of my Estate.”
An apparent mystery to me was that the will was signed and witnessed on August 15, 1870, four years after Tennessee was re-admitted to the Union on July, 24, 1866, following the Civil War. Presumably the slaves would have been freed at that point, but the subjugation of blacks continued long after the Civil War under conditions that appeared much the same as slavery.
I feel embarrassed to report this, but there it is in my family’s history. Mark Twain had a point.