As the archivist for a military museum it is a truism that one quickly comes to dread certain surnames, loaded as they are with the baggage of failed searches. For the Black Watch it is the surname Campbell, or McLeod, or Mackenzie…or any of the various clan names and the hundreds of derivations thereof. For every James Mahdjoubian or Bertie Snowball, both fine Black Watch men, I can give you hundreds of Private A Campbell’s. This veritable army of ‘Crooked Mouths’ all invariably were born ‘somewhere in Scotland’ and had a mother named Mary. At this point, the enquiree looks at you, their eyes filled with hope and expectation, ready for you, as the professional, to relay the full tale of their ancestor time with the regiment. You know, “just like they do on the telly…”
Whilst I realise that my plight is far from unique, I dread to think what my colleagues south of the border think about the surnames Smith or Brown, I think I, along with hundreds of other beleaguered colleagues, can claim some level of uniqueness in the sheer number of times we encounter this day after day. The feeling of dread that comes over one as we are left floundering in the sea of names, staring at the visitor opposite you, preparing yourself to prick their bubble of hope and tell them that there are too many people with that surname serving in the Regiment, is one that never fails to hurt.
We are nice people, archivists…honest. Apart from that bloke who wouldn’t give me a copy of a document relating to Napoleon and a goat on a tin roof, but that is a story for another day. Nothing gives us so much pleasure as relaying the story of an unknown relative to a family…really nothing does. But the times I am able to do that pale like a white chocolate Scrooge seeing the Ghost of Christmas Past, compared to the number of times I have to disappoint the family, and this rambling monologue is an appeal to help prevent this from happening to any more people.
This Christmas as we overindulge in turkey and mince pies, and sit back on sofas doing our best impressions of a bean bag, spare a thought for all those lonely photographs, sitting in their frames, forgotten in albums gathering dust on the bookcases, or waiting in a folder on a desktop, never accessed. These millions of snapshots of history they need our help this Christmas period. So why not find it in your heart to get off that sofa, or even better designate the less full family member to do this, the one who did not eat their sprouts for example, and get those photos out. The collective brain power of a roast potato fuelled family can achieve marvellous things, and I strongly believe that with this one act we can go on this festive season to achieve greater things, perhaps even, dare I dream, to write down the family stories. Do this, and I promise you that you will lift a frown on an archivists face, and hand them a, silvery star lit, way out, from the darkness of the ‘Sea of Many Names.’