First of all: Why the name “Red Book of Scotland”?
Within Gaelic culture it was usual for genealogical information to be written down in a “Leabhar Dearg,” or “Red Book,” the red being representative of the colour of blood. Thus there is the Red Book of Clanranald and then later works such as the Red Book of Menteith and in view of that tradition, by far the most appropriate name for a project of this nature was the “Red Book.”
The Project’s Origins:
The Project first took root in the mid-to-late 1980s. Searching at that time for evidence-based works of genealogy it became apparent to me that little existed and none of that was modern. The story that body of work told was of how from its heights during the days of Sir William Fraser, John Maitland Thomson and their equally as worthy contemporaries, over an ensuing period of nearly one hundred years, genealogy as a discipline worthy of having an integral place within Scottish historical research had declined to such a degree that it had become regarded by mainstream academia as far more of a "hobbyist" pursuit than a necessary part of their own curriculum. This not only impacted on genealogy’s good academic standing but it also had a corresponding negative effect on the publication of works which focused on that particular study.
The skill and class of Fraser & Co., aside, during initial research it also became abundantly clear that many of the assertions made by authors of the Victorian and Georgian eras in their various family histories struggled to compare with facts contained within primary source documentation, and it is unfortunate to have to conclude that much of this can be put down to a deliberate obfuscation and skewing of fact to promote personal agendas such as competing claims to seniority. With such works forming all that there was on offer to those keen to learn more about the genealogical intricacies of Scotland’s old families, those same assertions have been so widely promulgated over the years that to this day they still continue to muddy the waters. Examples of this include Ethel Maxtone-Graeme's misinformation relating to the right of succession of the Carel Naret Oliphant to the Gask estate in the mid-19th century; Amelia Murray MacGregor's attempts to prove the seniority of her own family's descent from Duncan Ladosach; Poyntz Stewart's relegation of the Drumcharry and Garth Stewarts to a junior position to his own in order to claim seniority of the Garth and Fortingal stirpes; the absolute aberration that is the Red and White Book of Menzies, and the complete removal of details relating to the life, marriage and issue of George Essex Montifex Drummond, (died 1887), the grandson and heir of George, Earl of Perth & Melfort, who, having had the audacity to have developed what were then referred to as dangerous "democratic tendencies," turned his back on his family and fortune to live a simple life as a fisherman and ticket-man in New York with his wife and daughter. None of this is to be found within existing accounts of the family – not even the much celebrated “Scots Peerage” - nor is there any mention of his daughter, Mary, the heiress to a substantial inheritance, or her employment as a telephone receptionist.
Such manipulation and sanitising of fact is nothing new, though, and I sincerely doubt that any older manuscript genealogy was penned solely for the purposes of recording facts for the sake of recording them. In his MSS of circa 1692, William, 1st Viscount Strathallan, used the opportunity to ascribe a fantastical early lineage to the Drummonds as well as to refute their origins within the Lords of Loch Awe, and Baird of Auchmedden, (died 1774), quickly goes from declaring in a letter to Sir Robert Douglas that he has absolutely no knowledge of his ancestry beyond Andrew Baird, 1st of Auchmedden, to conveniently asserting in his MSS genealogy of the Bairds that he was the heir male of the Bairds of Posso. This is later further compounded by his grandson, Fraser of Findrack’s deliberate omission of the issue of an elder of Baird’s daughters, so as to open the way to his own family’s claim to be formally recognised as senior representative of the Bairds of Auchmedden.
That is not to say that such works are without at least some use to the genealogist, rather, it is simply to advise that they cannot be taken at face value but must form a useful point of reference at the same time as research is being undertaken in primary sources.
What I also found surprising was just how many families of some note who are frequently encountered in older records have simply fallen off the map and had never been researched nor had their genealogy pieced together and recorded. Not only do they deserve to take their place but historians would do well to note their existence and consider them within their analysis of wider social connections and involvement in events of some importance.
I appreciate that the above summary is a negative one but I can make no apology for that as it is an honest appraisal of genealogical research as I found it back in the 1980s as well for many years afterwards and in point of fact, the entire reson d’etre of the Red Book Project has been to redress this and make available information found within primary sources.
This article used to include a summary of methodology, however, it is impossible to define each point without citing and discussing multiple examples and so they have been removed. A publisher recently approached me with a proposal to author a handbook on the subject and if time permits I may well accept. In the meantime, should you wish to discuss this in further detail, please do get in touch.
A brief word on the somewhat gnarly subject of the Origins of Families: in a majority of cases a complete lack of evidence renders it impossible to definitively state what a family’s remote ancestral and ethnics origins were. As this is generally a hotly debated subject in which “tradition” is conflicted and disputed and now has to contend with the added introduction of modern DNA studies, I prefer to remain within what is proven by documentary evidence and generally limit comments to an ancestor being the “first for whom there is evidence” principally because those are the plain facts, but also because I really do not want to be drawn into lengthy debates to which there can be no real conclusions. If the following examples are considered (1) Abercromby: new evidence I cite within the Abercromby of that Ilk entry proves the earliest named ancestors to have been Nigel and his son and heir to have been named Ivo. Both persons lived in the first period of the 13th century and alluded to in that Ivo’s charter is his grandfather who first acquired those lands, but whose name is not known. That scant evidence offers up no evidence whatsoever either to their immediate ancestry or their ethnicity. Of course, the use of the forename, Ivo, is curious and a person of that name may well be considered to have migrated to Scotland, however, his father’s forename, Nigel, is so popular in Scotland that his choice of his son’s name may also reasonably be explained away as being from his maternal side. The result of such analysis is so inconclusive as to be futile (2) precisely the same can be said for the first identified ancestor of the Murrays, Freskin. He may well have been one of the many people of Flemish extraction to settle in Scotland in the mid-12th century but that claim is simply based on his forename rather than particular evidence of ancestry, and it is perfectly reasonable to consider that that choice of name could as easily have been as a consequence of Flemish ancestry on his paternal side as it was on his maternal side. In view of this, it makes far more sense that I dedicate research to establishing facts as opposed to speculating on that which simply is not provable.
It is a continual source of validation to the Project’s existence when extremely kind comments filter back to me from a variety of sources. These include professional and amateur researchers alike, students, academics, authors, TV production personnel etc. I hope that you too find the Project’s work of some interest and perhaps even some use.
On a final and general note on genealogy, although no academic courses or associated qualifications were available either at the establishment of this project or for at least two decades afterwards, it is heartening that several of Scotland's universities are once again recognising the importance of genealogy and have established degree courses. That offered by the University of Strathclyde appears to be particularly good and, from what I can gather, is far ahead of that presently offered at St. Andrews, therefore, for those of you contemplating enrolling in such a course, I would suggest that the former is worth serious consideration.
10th June 2019.
Help us to do more
The Red Book Project is self-funding. If you find the information useful then please consider supporting us in some way.