At times, it appears that one's ancestors have done their hardest to elude the family historian's grasp; birth year's apparently increasing as the years unfold, spellings as arbitrary as those found in a school exam, the list ins infinite.
Sometimes, however, in the very last act they perform on this Earth, an ancestor can unwittingly unlock a whole new landscape that unfolds before us as beautifully as any hand-crafted chart...
I was searching for my Isle of Harris (Scotland) ancestor Malcolm Kerr (born c1823) using the powerful, albeit pricey, www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk with mixed success: no record of his birth in the Old Parish Registers which wasn't a total surprise given that the records from the Gaelic-speaking islands are few and far between, rather more success with his second Marriage and with his childrens' subsequent records, but no sign of him in the 1851 & 1871 censuses and as for his Death?
Well, this was where Malcolm did me a huge favour (almost as big a favour as the one he done in siring my great Grandmother!) for he died in the middle of December 1898, at the age of 76, not peacefully in his home in Stornoway but at sea, as befits an elderly sea-dog in his dotage, perhaps?
The singular significance of this circumstance was not the location, in the sound of Kerrera, near Oban, nor the cause, Heart Disease, but the existence on the record of of a five-letter name and a five-digit number: CREST 44427.
The Crest, as I later discovered in the Maritime Museum in Greenwich where I was vainly searching for Malcolm's Masters Certificate (Ships Captain who were wholly engaged in Coastal Trade were exempt from certification) was a 47 Net Tonnage Ketch. In translation, she was a small two-masted ship probably about 25 metres from stem to stern (80 feet in 'old money'!) built in Ramsay on the Isle of Man in 1863????
Although this was a major breakthrough in that it told me something of Malcolm's seafaring days, it begged even more questions: Who owned the Crest?, who was her Master? (Malcolm was listed as a 'Hand' on the Death Certificate), what trade was she plying? And, most of all, what the heck was a 76 year-old man doing off the West Coast of Scotland in the middle of Winter!
Eventually, after having visited every website in the Country that might possibly give me a clue: was he engaged in Herring fishing, was he involved in Trade, was he smuggling...or, perhaps, a combination of all these!, I stumbled upon the Maritime History Archive in...Newfoundland.
Now, much as I had by now become obsessed in my quest to discover all that I could about Malcolm, a trip to Newfoundland was definitely out of the question. It came as a great relief, therefore, to learn that the Archive is searchable online SO LONG AS YOU KNOW THE OFFICIAL NUMBER – but for Malcolm's untimely death, this vital detail could never have been know to me.
I vividly recall typing 'CREST' followed by '44427', checking each for errors, and then gingerly lightly tapping the return key...
...Oh my God, not only did the Archive possess documents, they had some covering the all-important period between 1898/99 that was crucial to my research.
Next, I decided to cover all my bases, and placed a request, via email, for scans covering the years 1896-1899. I don't know why I added the previous couple of years, but was very glad that I did...
With amazing haste, a reply was received and, a couple of weeks later (and about £70 lighter) my PC shook as the weight of the papers hit the email 'hallway'...
The emotional impact was even greater when the details revealed that the owner of the 'Crest', and her Master, were non-other than Alexander John Kerr, Malcolm's son and my great, Great Uncle! This remarkable man, the ancestor whom I had grown to respect and love in equal measure, had died as Bosun assisting his own son in his profession.
It was only later, after I had located my cousin who is Alexander John's granddaughter, that I was able to read his own obituary from the Stornoway Gazette and learn that the Crest was but one of several vessels that Alexander John had owned and sailed until he retired from that and became a Pilot, assisting others in the treacherous seas along Scotland's Western shores.
It was also my cousin who, when I made my first visit to the isles, showed me this photograph of Malcolm Kerr, born 1823, Direcleit, Isle of Harris, Scotland, died 15th December 1898, Sound of Kerrera, Near Oban, Scotland, but where is he buried???
To be continued...