Researching a lost village

How do you research a place that no longer exists?

My WIP begins in a tiny Scottish coal mining village gone from existence some fifty years plus. A common enough story in Scotland. Mighty bings that once dominated the backdrop of such villages have all been removed and little remains as evidence of the hundreds of coal mining villages once dotted across the country.

Research – according to one dictionary – means the diligent and systematic inquiry or investigation into a subject. Sounds pretty dull. Not so.  I’ve found the research for my WIP, a young adult crossover novel, to be anything but… Spellbound more aptly describes it – from day one.

The passion I feel for the settings and era of my novel keeps drawing me back to learn more. Sometimes I have to give myself a serious slap and close the window on research to get some actual story writing done. I can see and hear my characters and place them in the moment I’m researching. Never more so than during my recent research trip to Scotland.

I was able to confirm much of what I’d investigated previously, though I did discover a couple of my “Scottishisms” were incorrect. The matter of a few miles can change the way of referring to the simplest of things. For instance, I was calling my protagonist’s mother Mam, but in Lanark, I’m told, it should be Mum or ma or maw. Also I learned that babies are called weans in that part of the land, not bairns as they are known further east. Small details, yes, but, regardless of  fiction, they must be correct.

I spent time in the local heritage centre and library going through old files and newspapers and found references bearing out my previous library, internet and personal interview research. Old ordinance maps showed the layout of the village and surrounding landscape, not to mention some very un-PC references to the nearby town Poorhouse and lunatic asylum. I was fortunate to meet with a local ranger and spent several hours with him poring over old photographs of the mining village and its inhabitants while he regaled me with stories and invaluable connections to place and time.

Travel takes us not only over the seas to new lands but into new places in the mind. Sights, smells, sounds, the mystery written in the face of a passing stranger all combine with the promise of story. As an avid writer, I was ready and open to catch them passing on the breeze. And, boy, did they come.

On the banks of the Strathclyde Loch I found the village come to life. Echoes of the past vivid in my mind and unbeknownst to me my husband snapped the photo seen here of me intent on writing a scene on the spot. I was so engrossed I didn’t even notice when it started to rain.

Most importantly, I also felt a strong emotional connection to my grandmother and her family that for me was not altogether unexpected but overwhelming in its intensity. I visited the cemetery where my grandmother’s  baby sister was buried in common ground and words cannot explain the deep peace and sense of satisfaction I found in being there.

Now, on with the writing…

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Karl Craig

I read your blog about your great-grandfather working in the mines at Bothwellhaugh. I am a descendant of a Lithuanian family that migrated from Lithuania to Bothwellhaugh between 1901 and 1904 . My grandmother, Petronėlė Juze Šugžda, was born in November 1901 in this small rural village, and was the daughter of Jonas Šugžda and Petronėlė Melninkaitė. Along with two older brothers and a half-sister, the family moved to Lanarkshire, where all the men became hewers. Two more brothers were born in Bellshill, and all four of the boys later went to New Jersey, although one eventually returned to Scotland with his Scottish wife.

My grandmother remained, and she married George Brown McKay, a trade-union organiser and, I have always been told, a foundation member of the Scottish Communist Party (with John Maclean). My mother, an only child, was born and raised in Bothwellhaugh before moving to Polmadie. She married in 1949 and later that year I was born. Mum, Dad and I all sailed for Australia in 1950, but have returned many times for holidays and visits.

My grandmother had a half sister, Ona (aka Annie) (d/o Francišcus Simanavičiūte and Petronėlė Melninkaitė), and she came to Bellshill with the family too. She later married a Jonas Zinkewičius, and he was almost certainly one of the ‘Conventionists’ who returned to serve in the Red Army after the Anglo-Russian Military Convention of 1917. Family gossip is somewhat hazy about his activities during WW1, and some of his children had always believed he had been in the British Army. However, his granddaughter has possession of a letter from the Russian Government that reports his death. Here is a translation:

“This certificate is given to citizen Annie Zinkewičius, wherein it is certified that her husband, John Zinkewicius of the government of Suvalki in Lithuania, was admitted to Soviet Hospital No.15 on December 7th 1921 after a relapse into illness from which he had been suffering, namely Typhus. He died on December 12th 1921 in above mentioned hospital.”

He clearly had not joined the British Army, and never returned at the end of the war. His activities with the “Government of Suvalki” may have debarred him from being able to return. There is some thought that he may have sent for his family as “Annie” had at one time packed to leave, but the children remember her in tears after receiving ‘a letter’ (perhaps the one quoted above).

Some of Anna’s children adopted the name Fletcher, and most of these went off to South Carolina, while some grandchildren came to Australia (my half-2nd cousins). My grandfather was one of six British communists invited as official guests to Moscow when the USSR celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1905 Revolution. He died while on a Communist Party sponsored holiday in Romania in 1974, but there is no official certificate of death. Though I don’t share his political allegiances, I do understand the tough times he lived in and his desire for the miners to have better conditions and healthier lives.

It was interesting to read of someones else who is descended from a Bothwellhaugh family.

Karl Craig
Brisbane, Australia

September 14, 2015 at 2:22 pm
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    Dear Karl
    Thank you for visiting “From Hook to Book” and sharing the background of your family’s history in Bothwellhaugh. It seems a place for many seeking a new world in those early days of the 20th century. Our families may have known each other, perhaps even lived in the same row? My great-grandparents John and Mary McConaghy immigrated to from Ireland in 1901. Five of their children were born in Bothwellhaugh, though both sons died in infancy of illness that seemed rife in the damp, ill ventilated poorer row of Store Place.
    Not an easy life in those days and I imagine the miners needed advocates such as your relative for better conditions.
    Two of my great-uncles and families left Bothwellhaugh later than my great-grandparents and migrated to Nova Scotia, Canada. I hope one day to follow them up.
    Best wishes and regards

    September 28, 2015 at 12:23 pm

Karl Craig

Hi Chris,
I’ve been away a afir bit lately, so I haven’t had time

April 18, 2016 at 3:03 pm

Karl Craig

Oops … hit the wrong button! I was saying that I haven’t had much time lately to follow this thread up. 🙂

I just wanted to say that my mother (Patronele McKay) was born at 2 Store Place (in 1929), as were 3 of her cousins. My great-aunt Annie lived there till the 1930s. My grandmother’s family lived at 13 Park Place which was at the western end of the village. My g-grandad (Jonas Sugzda) lost his leg in Pit No. 1 in 1911, and died at that address in 1941.

My grand-uncle Joe Sugzda married Phemie McCaskill from 1 Haugh Place, had 4 kids and all left for New Jersey in 1922. His younger brother John married Jeanie Wallace of 14 Haugh Place (she had been born in The Square). They also went to the US, but returned in 1931 to Bellshill, where they lived for the rest of their lives.

Store Place, I understand, had a pool room on the ground floor, and my family lived immediately above. My g-aunt Annie, I’ve heard, was good at ‘laying out the corpses’ for the local doctor (anything for living), and making waistcoats for the miners. You can bet our families would have known each other!

April 18, 2016 at 3:19 pm
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Hi Karl

Thanks for visiting and sharing more of your family background and where their homes were located in the Pailis.

My grandmother Alice McConaghy was born in No 44 The Square in 1902 and her two sisters Kathleen and Ellen in No 10 Store Place in 1905 and 1906. I believe that The Square was demolished many years before the rest of Bothwellhaugh due to its derelict and unhealthy condition.

One of my joys while researching was finding the film “Bothwellhaugh – Village Life 1962-65 (1962-65)” and seeing the village and village life in the early sixties. Snippets are available online and on YouTube, but I was fortunate to purchase a DVD of the full original movie through the Motherwell Heritage Centre. Though, of course, The Square and, I think Store Place too, were both long gone even then.

I imagine laying out the corpses was a much appreciated and respected job for your great-aunt. Our ancestors were prepared to do many things to help feed and clothe their families. And our mutual families most likely did know each other in that first decade of the 1900s.

Though the living conditions were definitely harsh by today’s standards, from all accounts, those in the Pailis in the early 1900s enjoyed a strong community spirit and life, rare in today’s world. (An aspect I’ve heard through my mother that was rekindled in the comraderie among the many migrants in Wonthaggi at the State Coal Mine.

Best regards,

April 26, 2016 at 5:14 pm

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