John Nicolson MP: I’ve always loved family history

I’ve always loved Hogmanay. The sense of new beginnings. An excuse for a big party out with family and friends – or even just a wee jig up and down the hall carpet at home with Jackie Bird in the background.

This year we drove to
Ullapool for the famous
ceilidh held there every New Year.

Dancing isn’t voluntary, and wall flowers aren’t permitted. Gay Gordons move on seamlessly into Dashing White Sergeants, and before you know where you are, you’re Stripping the Willow and wishing you hadn’t eaten Christmas pudding an hour before.

My mum came with us this year. She loves dancing, but was lamenting the fact that she can still twirl but can’t seem to hop for the pas de Basque.

She’ll be 91 in May so is being overly self critical I think.

Generations of my father’s family lived in and around Ullapool. My great great grandfather Charles McLean was the first minister of the Parliamentary Church there, and I still have the exquisitely written founding documents from 1829.

The Thomas Telford Church was one of 32 built across the Highlands, funded by a government worried about wandering Catholic priests ministering to crofters who’d been cleared from their land.

If family folklore is to be believed, my own ancestors were cleared from their land not in the clearances, but for choosing the wrong side in the 1745 Rising (well perhaps the right side – but the losing one.)

The farm house they lost still stands, but these days it’s owned by the editor of a London-based tabloid, and has recently trebled in size.

The story might be apocryphal. My granny, Charles McLean’s granddaughter, had a keen sense of the
romantic.

In any event, when the Rev. McLean left Ullapool he moved to the Isle of Harris and to the beautiful Scarista Church, overlooking a long sandy bay, and out across the Atlantic. It’s an idyllic spot.

Lucky visitors can, these days, stay in his former manse, now a wee hotel.

I’ve always loved family history and uncovering lost secrets. I recently read and transcribed the letters my mum’s father had written home to his mother from the trenches in the Great War. They date from the outbreak of the war to the moment an officer rode up on his horse and told the men they could lay down their weapons because the war was over. With no job left to come home to, my grandpa volunteered for the army of occupation, and spent Christmas in a German family’s home in Cologne.

His sister wrote from
Glasgow to tell him she’d been to the vaudeville and seen a Charlie Chaplin impersonator.

“Who might I ask is Charlie Chaplin?” my grandfather wrote back.

Who knows how many of our ancestors we’d have liked? But because of their struggles and triumphs, because of their survival often against the odds, they’re the reason we are here in 2016.

Happy New Year.