One of the few recent TV series that I regularly watch, Who Do You Think You Are? shows us, we are led to believe, celebrities finding out about their ancestors. The fascination of the present series is that, we are told, the celebrities don’t get the chance to rehearse their reactions or think about the facts they are presented with. We’re supposed to be watching their reactions in real time, and who am I to wonder about the trickeries of TV productions – it’s maybe all smoke and mirrors. But fascinating.
Anyway, one recent programme had the actor John Hurt as its subject. He’s one of my favourite actors, with an ability to make me believe in his reality whatever role he is playing. Last night I couldn’t make up my mind if he was being himself or playing himself. Some background: he has always believed that he is of Irish descent, through an illegitimacy involving one of the Earls of Sligo. No harm in that, you say, and it’s true that bastardy features in the ancestry of many of us, myself included. It matters not. However, I get the impression that John Hurt has built up a romantic fantasy background for himself, involving really being Irish. As the programme went on, however, the fantasy unravelled, until it became clear that his family background was itself an invention, created by his great-great grandfather. And John’s reactions as this became clear were to become increasingly petulant and grumpy. It was wholly absorbing, and fascinating to watch.
For most of my own life I didn’t give a thought to my ancestry. It was enough that I knew my parents and my paternal grandparents (I never met the ones on my mother’s side). I vaguely knew that my father’s family had moved to Edinburgh from Aberdeen, but I knew no more than that until fairly recently. Then my cousin’s son (what do you call that relationship?) sent me a copy of the Will family history he had been compiling.
As I read through the list of ancestors, going back to around the 1760s, I was struck by three things. First, that all of them, without exception, lived poor and very ordinary lives, mostly as agricultural labourers, domestic servants, boot-makers and the like. Second, that they lived in the region of North-east Scotland called Buchan, a region I knew next to nothing about. Third, that I was enormously gratified to discover even the bare facts of their lives, their births, marriages and deaths. It gave me a context I didn’t know I had. I am grounded, rooted, thirled to the land. There are no mythic aristocrats in my line, no made-up stories, just ordinary hard-working folk. I also know now that the Will family name goes back at least to 15th century Aberdeenshire, and probably earlier.
Of course, being me, I want to know more. I’ve driven round the towns and villages of Buchan, reading gravestones and learning more about the communities. I’ve sat in an ancient stone circle below the White Horse carved in the side of Mormond Hill, but did I feel, “This is Home,” as John Hurt said he exclaimed on first visiting Dublin? No I didn’t. I thought, “This is beautiful; I will remember it; I will write about it.”