(in which the transcriber speaks to A) the living progeny of Mona Kent and Charlie Tennant) and B) others who perhaps neither knew that the Macquoron Gairdners of New Zealand and the Tennants of Ayrshire existed nor thought to ask. He states his purpose and answers his own question about why after reading the fifth letter, these letters were not caste aside and recycled.)
On a grey, drizzly autumn morning in 1983, I found myself poking my nose around burial plots at Alloway Church in Ayrshire, Scotland. I was in the company of Charlie Tennant, my father, then aged eighty. He was bent over, searching for the gravestone of John Tennant, one of our ancestors who had[PW1] lived in these parts in the 17th Century.
Alloway graveyard was the setting for Rabbie Burns’ epic 1790 poem, Tam O’Shanter. We eventually found the weather beaten gravestone. With [PW2] great difficulty, we could make out the dates on the headstone. They matched the hand-written notes, which my father was carrying. I looked up. He was filled with an excitement that I had seldom witnessed. He had matched dates with his own eyes. He’d found our ancestor’s resting place.
I was proud of his accomplishment, but at the same time bemused that a gravestone could evoke so much emotion. I am the first to acknowledge that funerals and burial plots are important markers in the life of any family; I see them as the time and place when a family comes together to turn another page in a [PW3] life cycle. But what was it, I asked, about this weather beaten, four hundred year old gravestone that evoked so much affect in my father’s eyes?
Before leaving, we wandered around the graveyard. It wasn’t hard to imagine ghosts popping up behind the gravestones in the middle of the night. Ghosts and a distant past are what I associate with cemeteries and I suppose, I found my father’s interest a little macabre. I gave some thought to the passing of time, to the divide between the dark world beneath our feet and the soggy turf that supported us that day. But these thoughts were brief. I felt little connection, if any, with [PW4] the deceased.
We spent two days together in Ayrshire. We visited the nearby Burns Cottage. We went into the town of Ayr and there my [PW5] father pointed to a building where he had taken his first post as a bank manager in the 1920’s. We drove North to Kilmarnock past rolling hills, hedgerows, fields stocked with cattle and others with freshly turned sod. My father was drawn to these surroundings and kept mentioning that these were the fields from where we had come. We were people of the land; “humble farming folk” was the description that I remember.
If our roots belonged to the Ayrshire farmland, he also reminisced about our connections with local historical figures. My father’s full name was Charles Dalrymple Gairdner Tennant. According to his research, Tennants had attended the birth of Rabbie Burns, Scotland’s romantic bard. The ministries of the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, a Reverend William Dalrymple, who had sired nine daughters, were widely circulated at the beginning of the 19th century. Several generations of Gairdners played central roles in the local banking system. By birth, across a period of two or three hundred years, our ancestors were directly connected with Ayrshire. My father, I now understand, was arguing that these places, these people, were central to his identity.
I remember, as a youngster, being inquisitive about our origins[PW6] . Where a particular story made reference to a politician or a successful businessman, I was quick to attach that name to my threadbare resume. While the association was simply an accident of birth, I was still quick to notch it on my belt and enhance my self-esteem. But that was about as far as my curiosity took me.
Since we separated early, (I had moved to Canada when I was 18,) my attention to my father’s retirement interests was intermittent. On recollection, we had never visited Ayrshire as children. But I still remember, the oft-repeated story, how my father came to become a banker.
At age 10, his grandmother, Hannah McNair Gairdner, the widow of the senior manager of a prominent Scottish bank, had taken my father aside and told Charlie that he would be the next family representative with the bank. The story was told as if this esteemed bank, the then Union Bank of Scotland, was a family fiefdom and decisions from the matriarch were considered irrevocable. However my brother and I aligned with more progressive thought about individual choice. We bristled at the notion that family could determine a person’s future.
I share these anecdotes about burial plots, the determinants of my father’s career and my own ambivalence about genealogy by way of engaging a question that puzzled me, and may puzzle others. Besides the unsurprising fate of birth, what was the continuing connection between Charlie and Mona, and theirs between New Zealand and Scotland? Were they simply occasional pen pals?
There can be no answers, of course and we can only speculate. But what I have come to understand, from Mona’s letters in particular, was a sense that her selfhood was also strongly shaped by her Scottish heritage, by her experiences living on remote farms, and by her love of reading and letter-writing. When these are juxtaposed beside her contacts with Maori culture and New Zealand history, there is something primordial about her life story. She knew from where she came and it is well articulated in these letters.
And speaking for my father, even though a significant portion of this correspondence with Mona is missing, it is my sense that uncovering and spreading the word about the links between his own family and the history of local communities in Scotland became something of a mission. Learning more about the extended connections with the Gairdner pioneers in New Zealand was the kind of discovery that would have fueled his own research and writing. Charlie and Mona were kindred spirits.
And so finally, I turn to my own interest in broadcasting these letters on a blog.
Recently, I came upon a book titled “Shores of Discovery: How Expeditionaries have constructed the World”. It is a history of thoughts concerning the travels and discoveries of our predecessors, and how their stories have shaped history and our modern world. There is a chapter about the discovery of the Antipodes. And in his conclusions, the author, Eric Leeds, writes that:
…history is our relation to the dead. The job of any real historian, paid or unpaid, is to discover what this relationship is, on a personal and collective plane. Our relation to the dead is clearly one of memory, in which the living confer duration, substantial afterlives upon retired historical actors now at peace in their graves that mark our meaningful territories, stations on our itineraries of old and new worlds.
Leeds belongs to a school of historians who argue that we can better understand ourselves with some knowledge of how the past has evolved; a sentiment with which I concur. He suggests that as we learn about “the sources of our sameness and humanity” with our ancestors, and then consider our differences, we will gain a better understanding of what [PW11] “makes this age and time unprecedented and our generation, warts and all, unique.”
Certainly Mona and Charlie were connected by their interest in childhood memories and, as I was to understand later, Mona was also a prolific letter-writer. She took great pride in her Scottish roots and while the Gairdner fortunes in New Zealand had ebbed and flowed, she attached great importance and spoke with authority about those links to the “old dart”. It was as if, in her mind, New Zealand and the United Kingdom were still tied by an umbilical cord. I was persuaded by her writing.
While I know little about New Zealand, both Mona and Charlie’s letters have piqued [PW my interest. I’ve gained an appreciation that I have familial ties, past and present, with the Antipodes. Where once I saw these islands as remote travel destinations, I’ve come to view them differently. Like Canada, they are a land with which I have extended familial connections.
With all the advances in modern communication, I can acquire additional knowledge and awaken these connections at the touch of the keyboard. But there has to be a starting point for learning. Transcription of these letters has served as a spark. And indeed, for a period of about two hundred years, letters played a critical role in connecting the four corners of the globe.
I am misunderstood if I imply that Mona and Charlie’s letters are essential reading. That is not my point. Both Mona and Charlie gave weight to letters, writing down the past and passing on ancestral knowledge to their grandchildren. They both felt certain that one or two of the “Grands”, as Mona called them, would benefit from this gift. These letters are one of their legacies and hopefully, in this media, they will be within easy reach to the next generation. The Gairdners of Ayrshire and New Zealand have a story to tell.
A FINAL WORD
(In which the transcriber speaks to fact checking, footnotes and style)
After transcribing these letters, a friend asked if I had given the project a name. The title that crossed my mind was “Fragments of Memory with Footnotes”. The letters are in essence, fragments of memory from Mona and Charlie’s past and they are now interspersed with another’s footnotes.
Mona and Charlie are no longer around to speak to and expand upon these memories. But one would expect readers, particularly those who knew Charlie and Mona, to have different reactions to the events and stories that they describe. Some, if they’ve forgotten or are unfamiliar with the stories described, may enjoy being reminded of events of long ago. While others, whose own memories jar with those presented by Charlie and Mona, will question their reliability.
Family lore that we acquire in childhood stays in our memory far longer, I understand, than any more recent stories we are told. When we are young, we take them for cash; myths, stories, reality merge as truths. And as we find reading these letters, much of the exchange between Mona and Charlie is about rediscovery and fact-checking their own Gairdner memories. The two had access to libraries, family papers, their little “black notebook”, and the Bailey Book. Their sleuthing makes for entertaining reading.
But today, sleuthing of this kind has become even easier. Many of us have access to digital media. Information, which would have taken Mona and Charlie weeks to uncover, now sits at our fingertips. Any Google Search will bring a mountain of information that changes by the day. A search for the name “Captain Robert Gairdner”, Mona and Charlie’s Great Great Grandfather, will bring up fifteen references across three or four screens. A connected reference to a 2004 book “Seekers of Truth: The Scottish Founders of Modern Public Accountancy” written by a T. A.Lees offers [PW15] seven pages of packed information concerning the lives of notable Gairdners of Ayrshire. Many are the same persons mentioned in Mona and Charlie’s letters.
Fact checking has become a whole lot easier and, as is the case in all history, new facts reshape the way we understand the past.
St. Catharines, Ontario