Hitting the Norman: Tracing Your Roots on Ancestry.com (in a hurry)



A few years ago my sister contacted a genealogist to research my Mother’s family tree. After months of painstaking research she got back a large scroll with generations of our Robertson heritage. This scroll sat in its tube for some time until one day I got hold of it and decided it would be a good idea to incorporate this into some research I had been doing on our father’s side. This involved setting up an account with ancestry.com and starting to build my tree.

Talk about a can of worms!

First of all let me say I think ancestry is a great website. I have two issues with it though; first of all since they are not on great speaking terms with the records office in Scotland. Mainly down to the fact that the records office have their own ancestral research facility called ‘Scotland’s People‘ and it’s a paid for service so they are not hugely keen on handing over all their data to Ancestry for free so they can then charge for its use (you can sort of see their point). The second issue is that Ancestry builds some of its data from user’s trees. This means that it’s easy to let mistakes creep in. Of course if you are meticulous in your research and only allow ancestors onto your tree after they have been cross-referenced and quadruple checked then it’s not a problem.

If you are a bit lazy like me then you might get some surprises!

My attempts to go back on my father’s line (Moffet) did not take me very far, only a few generations. Part of the problem came down to spelling. Being descended from simple folk on that side (miners and farmers mostly) they were not terribly literate and so the spelling of our surname tended to vary from one generation to another and even in the one family birth certificate surname spelling among siblings was all over the place! Eventually I hit a total brick wall, my best guess is that I came across an illegitimate birth and the whole thing fell apart but who knows.

Now I had this Ancestry account for another 10 months and a bit of confusion what to do now. What’s that they say about idle hands?

Presented with a dead end on one line I started taking a few zig zags to see where they took me. Still following what they call the ‘pedigree’ line; parents, grandparent, great grandparents and so on. Now this is where the lazy bit comes in. looking for quick results I decided to use Ancestry’s ‘tree hints’. The website looks at the people you have added and searches other member trees, if it finds a match then it lets you know. You can then use their data to add members to your tree. Using this method you can build up a lot of relatives in a short time.

At first the results were interesting but each one would take me back a few generations and then run out. Nothing to see here, move along…. Census records only go back so far and before that you have parish records, which are pretty hard to read unless you are an expert so anyone doing amateur research tends to find it hard going after that.

Unless you hit a wee bit of blue blood that is.

The great thing about the upper classes, the landed elite is that with so much property they had to be sure of who they were handing the family jewels down to. Not so much of an issue of your inheritance was a wonky kitchen table and few bits of ‘manky’ crockery but if it’s a few hundred acres and a big ‘hoor’ of a castle that’s another matter! For this reason family records were kept meticulously. Also ancestors would turn up in charters and other documents so they are a lot easier to trace.

My bit of luck came while following a line back on my grannies side of the family, Granny always tended to think she was a bit above the rest of us (well she has been for a while now) Always centre stage in her fur coat! Well it turned out she had a point after all!

Her great Granny was called Margaret Eaton, going back another few generations the name changes to Aiton, go back another few generations and William Aiton strikes it lucky and marries Mary Campbell who it turns out is descended from the chiefs of Clan Campbell of Loudon


Now that I’ve tapped into a line of nobility there is frankly no turning back. My first impulse was to head off to Loudon Castle and set up the siege towers and claim my birth right, couple of problems with that; first of all we are talking 12 generations. Imagine each descendant had 5 children and each of them had 5 children (big families were more common then than now). Turns out there are a LOT of us! I guess maybe I could claim one brick of the ancestral home. Oops another problem, Loudon castle is the site of an abandoned theme park. Looks like I’m descended from a character in a Scooby Doo mystery (peels of mask to reveal the old caretaker)!

Black Agnes: 'I fart in your general direction'

Black Agnes: ‘I fart in your general direction’

So off I went on my travel back trough time adding ancestor after ancestor, after ancestor, after…hang on! Just how many could I add? Turns out the answer was A LOT! Again the maths kicks in; 2 parents = 4 grandparents = 8 Great Grandparents = 16 Great Grandparents. After 10 generations you have over a thousand! Blimey. What became fascinating was that as I delved back further I began to uncover some gems from the past. People who I read about in the history books but people it now appeared I was descended from. For instance Black Agnes Dunbar:

 Agnes was one hell of a woman! Living in the 14th century she was the daughter of the Earl of Moray, a friend of Robert the Bruce. She held Dunbar castle while under siege by the English. According to legend, as the English fired volleys at the castle ramparts she would walk along with her handkerchief and flip the dust from them with nonchalance! She would stand and berate her English attackers without getting as much as a scratch! I’ve always thought Agnes was the inspiration behind the cheeky French knights in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Speaking of famous women another important one to turn up on the tree was Annabella Drummond. Annabella was consort to king Robert III and mother of King James I of Scotland. And of course if you have tapped into the Royal Stuart line then that line will of course take you back to Robert the Bruce or as we like to call him great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, Grandad!

Now it’s a funny thing that! For years I’ve had emails at ScotClans from people saying ‘oh yes of course I’m descended from Robert the Bruce’, well by the looks of it most of us are! I remember hearing a few years ago about the descendents of Charlamagne. Emperor Charlamagne who was doing his ’emperor thing’ around 700AD had an unbroken line of descent, every European royal family is descended from him and at least 14 US presidents have traced their line back there too. In fact research suggests that if you have white European ancestors then he’s your daddy, or rather your great, great, great, oh you get the idea!

So it was one evening while fooling around on the Ancestry site, adding relatives that I came up with the game called ‘Hit the Norman’ (remember the title of this blog, it seems like years ago now doesn’t it). How to play ‘Hit the Norman’

Take an ancestor on Ancestry.com and start heading back along one line, keep going till you can’t go back any further or until you find someone with a suspiciously French sounding name who’s birth place was somewhere in France some time before 1050! Well done you have found one of the Norman conquerors and you get 10 points and a cuddly toy!

Of course now I have a family tree with around 3,000 direct ancestors in it and I have NO IDEA how far back I’ve been able to go, some lines go way back to the 700s and beyond with names like Ethelwulf and Fulke LeStrange. Not names you hear being shouted up the street these days “haw Ethelwulf, come in yer tea’s oot!’ or ‘Fulke! Stop hitting yer wee sister (Grizel)’.

Of course this can all get quite obsessive, addictive even! Hours have been spent frantically adding relatives to the point where I’m seriously worried about how much of the internet I’m going to need for all this! Seriously they might have to give me a quiet bit all to myself where I can’t bother anyone. On the plus side it has made trips out more interesting; a day out to Roslyn castle becomes more interesting when you know you are descended from the St Clair’s who built it and the famous chapel nearby, mind you some places have a bloody cheek charging me to get in when I own the place!

So where do I go next? Clearly this is a task akin to emptying Loch Lomond with a teaspoon (with a hole in it). This could literally go on forever so maybe its time to look at a more defined area, maybe just limit myself to a few generations and see what detailed information I can find on them. This is in a way more interesting than knowing you are the 26th great grandson of King Whatshisname.

Tracing my Mother’s family who came from Wanlockhead in Dumfriesshire I discovered some amazing human stories, families of 13 children many of whom died in infancy, families who ended up in the local poor house and the story of James Robertson. James was born on Wanlockhead in 1803 but died in Inkerman Pennsylvania in 1869. John had immigrated to the USA taking his family with him. All but one that is. Of his 11 children one son John didn’t go, this was because at age 25 John was already dead leaving a wife and 4 children. For some reason his wife Isabella Milligan did not go with the others and stayed behind to suffer severe poverty as a widower in a small lead mining village, nevertheless her spirit survived and through her our family were descended.

So maybe that is the lesson after all. Not to celebrate the kings and queens and landed gentry but to recognise some of the incredible strong women, without whom none of us would be here!

Rodger Moffet (Rodger knows a fair bit about clans but clearly hasn’t much of a clue about genealogy as he readily admits)


About rodger moffet

Rodger is the Director of ScotClans. Expert in all things clan and tartan.

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7 thoughts on “Hitting the Norman: Tracing Your Roots on Ancestry.com (in a hurry)

  1. Dorothy Landoll

    Hi cousin!! Yep, a lot of us go back to Robert the Bruce, the St. Clairs, James “the Good” Douglas, etc., along with the ones we might not want to claim! I’ve been doing this since the early 1960s (days of microfilm and letters). I’ve discovered the lesson is to learn about the awesome people in history we’d never have heard about otherwise. Just think how much history our kids here on this side of the pond would learn if they set the kids on a journey to search their family.

    When we were in Scotland (sigh, back some 10-12 years ago now…), I did – oops, tried to do – some research on our McDuffie/McDonalds that came from Skye. Unfortunately they apparently didn’t live on Skye as they told their kids back in 1765 – I think they just named that island because no one had heard of the smaller one they actually lived on. But nothing more than we already had – at Armadale Castle they suggested we go island hopping and checking local churches. Aw, but, there was no time or money – next time.

    Ancestry.com is good if you look for confirmation but too many just put in stuff – can that mom REALLY be younger than her son? Did they have a type or a wrong connection there?

    • JamesLeeStewart

      Are you kidding …I’ve been a member of the Church for 47 years and I still can’t park in the lot unless I’m there on official business. But I’m there a lot and it feels like a second home. Go ahead and park Rodger I’ll vouch for you ! I’ll get em to waive the Abraham clause !

  2. Kelley Davis

    I followed the same path and discovered that I was decended from every royal house in Europe prior to 1500. I figured that millions of others could also claim this because, as you stated, there are so many ancestors. Oh well, guess I won’t give up my day job. Well at least my son thought it was neat that we were desended from both Robert the Bruce and Edward the I. Although he would have rather the ancestor had been William Wallace.

  3. John Ferguson

    I have been searching the site for my ancestors and at one point found myself linked to almost every Royal House in Northern Europe. Some serious double checking and it appeared that one of the hints provided was seriously wrong, they had included offspring that didn’t exist and someone else had used the right names but they were the wrong people. My Royal background,while it existed, seemed to contain every Royal line in Europe and stretched back to the pre Christian era. Although it was all a fantasy I discovered so much more about Scottish history and realised just how multi cultural our country is. When I got into the serious work of building a validated tree I found the most amazing tales of strength and tragedy and much more depth in the lives of the ordinary everyday Scots.Oh and Irish and English Flemish and French.

  4. Kent Bankhead

    I too have tried tracing my ancestry through ancestry.com and other sources–hitting dead ends around the 1700’s, when, I’m told the records were destroyed in a fire. Bankheads were thought to originate around Kilmarnock–or Northern Ireland–depending on which source you believe; however, Bankheads are listed as a sept of the Boyd clan. If any one has more information on this, I would be most interested. Thanks!

  5. Tanya Cole

    Fascinating and I like your humourous perspective on it all. I am definitely down the rabbit hole and stuck! I can’t get past my ancestor on the paternal line. John Mackenzie born abt. 1757– Died 1829 in Ceres, Fife, Scotland. I wonder whether the battle of Culloden impacted on movements of the Mackenzies around this time. Would love to be able to trace back to see if were part of the highlander McKenzies!


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