Highlands & Islands

Leith singer tracks down lion tamer ancestor in Inverness

Dean Owens Image copyright Ewen Weatherspoon
Image caption Dean Owens at his ancestors grave in Inverness

A singer-songwriter has tracked down the grave of a circus lion tamer ancestor with help from an audience member at one of his gigs.

Dean Owens, from Leith, knew that his great great grandfather Ambrose Salvona was buried somewhere in Inverness.

After telling this to his audience at Perth's Southern Fried Festival, Inverness resident Judi Menabney came forward and offered to find the grave.

Salvona's resting place has since been found in Tomnahurich Cemetery.

Owens' research of his family tree influenced the writing of Dora, a track on his Nashville-recorded album Into the Sea.

The song is about his grandmother, Dora Salvona Owens, who grew up in a circus that Salvona started in Scotland.

Salvona was thought to have arrived in Scotland from Italy in the company of a dancing bear, sometime in the late 19th Century.

'Colourful character'

Owens' lyrics of the song include the lines: "Somewhere way back there's a lion tamer/Ambrose and his dancing bear/He's buried in the Highlands/but we're not sure where."

Ms Menabney works for High Life Highland, an organisation that runs archives, registration and family history services on Highland Council's behalf.

With help from her colleagues at the Highland Archive and Registration Centre in Inverness she was able to find the grave in one of the city's largest cemeteries.

Family historian Anne Fraser said: "It was great fun investigating Ambrose's story.

"He turns out to have been a very colourful character - which may not be a surprise - but we have also finished up raising as many questions as we've answered."

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Salvona's gravestone inscription recalls his former career as a lion tamer

The staff at the centre found out that Salvona was married twice and was the father of at least 10 children.

He was 80 when he first arrived in Inverness and was, at the end of his life at the age of 88, a resident of a poor house that later became Hilton Hospital and is today a block of flats.

'Very grateful'

Salvona appears to been a popular figure in the Highland town. A procession of people carried his body to a prominent position at Tomnahurich following his death on 13 October 1917.

The inscription on the gravestone acknowledges his career as a lion tamer.

Owens said: "I can't believe the final resting place of my great great grandfather has been found.

"I'm very grateful to Judi, Anne and their colleagues for all the work they've put into discovering his story.

"I'm delighted they want to use it and my song Dora - which started the search - in their own presentations."

The singer added: "You really don't know what's up there, way up in the family tree. And maybe there's another song in that."