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Digging Up Your Roots Top Tips: myths and family stories

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Dr Bruce Durie | 14:34 UK time, Friday, 14 January 2011

Family standing by tree

1. I suppose the question I'm asked most often is: "Am I descended from Robert the Bruce?"

And the answer is usually "Absolutely - because we all are." He had 12 children and just on statistics, if each of them had 2 children and so on down the generations that's a potential 3.2 billion people alive today. Take out India and China and that's almost everyone else on the planet! Ultimately, we're all related at some level, right back to the first tribe who walked out of S. Africa. But the real question should be "Can I prove I'm descended from Robert the Bruce (or William Wallace, Henry II, Charlemagne etc.) and is there any documentary proof?" Not usually, no.

2. "We came over with William the Conqueror."

Oh really? Not many did, and we don't know who most of them were. The various lists of Norman knights who fought at Hastings are largely inventions. More likely is descent from one of the many Normans who were given land in England in the years after conquest - but remember that William never conquered Scotland, although many Anglo-Normans were brought up here by David I in the next century. However, again documentary proof may be hard to come by.

3. "Here's a photo of your Gran-dad and he looks just like King George - one of our ancestors was a chambermaid who got pregnant by Edward VII (or someone)."

Well, I'm not saying it didn't happen, but if every royal by-blow I've been told about was real, the various Princes must have had a busy time of it. Really, for a while EVERYBODY tried to look like Edward VII, George V and so on - it was the fashion for the familiar beard at that time.

4. Don't ignore family stories - but don't take them as gospel either.
Use them as a starting point for proper research. Often the real story is better than the one you've heard.

Why do families have these stories and myths? It isn't that they make up lies, and often there's a grain of something that really happened buried in the myth. Humans are natural story-tellers, and stories help to differentiate one family from others, drawing the family together by creating what oral history researchers call a community of memory. Where family stories are absent, it can be hard for parents to help children establish their place in the complex intergenerational mix of the family and the wider world outside the intimate circle. So "Your great-great-grandfather was a pirate/highwayman/sheep-stealer" is a natural response to that.

When I was young, I was told: "Years ago, we used to own all the land around here". It turned to be more or less the case, but not exactly!

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