Category Archives: Odds & ends

Happy Valentine’s day

A 1920s Valentine card
A 1920s Valentine card

It’s Valentine’s Day today which, after Christmas, is the biggest card sending day of the year.

Like other celebrations, Valentine’s Day has very long history; however no-one seems to be sure of its origin.

There were many early Christian martyrs named Valentine three of whom were remembered on 14 February:

  • St Valentine of Rome who died around 270AD in a Roman prison.  One legend says he continued to perform marriage ceremonies after they were banned by the emperor (who wanted to increase the number of bachelors, as they were supposed to make better soldiers than married men).  Another legend says he died for refusing to give up his faith.  A third legend says he gave a note to a young woman (a jailers daughter in some versions), signed “Your Valentine”.
  • St Valentine of Terni, who is said to have been killed during the persecution of Emperor Aurelian.  A bishop who performed miracles, healed people, and was persecuted and beheaded around 170AD.
  • A third St Valentine was martyred in Africa with a number of companions.

Another possible source of inspiration is an ancient Roman fertility festival Lupercalia, which used to be celebrated on 15 February.  In medieval times people believed that the middle of February was when birds started their mating season.

Whatever its origins, the oldest known valentine still in existence today is a poem written by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt.

In Great Britain, Valentine’s Day began to be celebrated widely around the seventeenth century. By the middle of the eighteenth century, it was common for friends and lovers in all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes – so much so that in 1835 the secretary of the Post office in England was complaining about an additional 50-60,000 letters being sent.

The introduction of the Penny Post in 1840 made it possible for more people to afford to send items through the post. Valentine card production became big business and cards sent during this period were often beautifully made and decorated.

In the United States the first commercial valentines, made of embossed paper and lace, were sold in the 1840s by Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts whose father operated a large book and stationery shop.

Some local traditions have grown up in Britain:

  • Jack Valentine disappears into thin air after knocking at the door and leaving gifts in Norfolk. Children are as likely as adults to receive a visit.
  • According to Welsh folklore, ornately carved lovespoons were traditionally made from a single piece of wood by a young man as a token for his sweetheart to show his affection and intentions. Each segment of a lovespoon can have different symbols, and each symbol has a different meaning.  Sailors would often carve love spoons during their long journeys, which is why anchors were often incorporated.

If you’ve ever wondered why some gifts are supposed to be romantic here are a few pointers:

  • Lace is apparently romantic because women’s handkerchiefs used to have lace around the edges. If a woman was interested in a man, she’d drop her handkerchief, allowing him to pick it up and giving them an excuse for formal introductions.
  • The romance of flowers has its roots in their use as a language, a fashion popular in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Each flower would have a meaning: violets – modesty, faithfulness; yellow tulip – hopeless love; snowdrop – hope; red rose – I love you; daisy – innocence, loyal love.
  • Chocolate is supposed to have various effects, ranging from inducing happiness to acting as an aphrodisiac.  This is an exaggeration. Chocolate does contain some compounds that are linked to feelings of love, but the digestive process hugely reduces their effectiveness!

To find out more or see examples of antique valentines try:’s_Day

And if all of this is a bit too sickly, The National Archives has a piece about a crime of love at Huntingdonshire archives.


Of haggis – both wild and domestic

It’s Burns Night tomorrow and the last night of the haggis season, so it’s time to go haggis hunting!

The haggis season runs from 30 November to 25 January when they go into hibernation.

The Wild HaggisRemember that wild haggis are shy creatures who only appear at dawn and at dusk so patience is needed. The rural haggis has two short legs and two long legs to make it easier to run round hills. It feeds on heather, blaeberries, turnip and potatoes. A rare variety of haggis is the urban or Tartan haggis which lives on a diet of shortbread. In the last 10 years a further species, the virtual haggis, has appeared which can be hunted online.

Those who are anti-hunting can make their own haggis using this traditional recipe 1:


the large stomach bag, the smaller bag and the pluck (including lights, liver and heart) of a sheep, beef suet, oatmeal, onions, black pepper, salt, water.


Brown and toast a breakfast-cupful of oatmeal in front of the fire.   Clean the large bag thoroughly and soak it overnight in cold salted water.   In the morning put it aside with the rough side turned out.   Wash the small bag and the pluck and put them on to boil covered with cold water, leaving the windpipe hanging out over the pot to let out any impurities.  Let them boil for an hour and a half, then take them out and cut away the pipes and any pieces of gristle.   Mince the heart and lights, and grate half the liver.  (The rest of the liver is not required).   Put them into a basin with half a pound of minced suet, one or two finely chopped onions, and the oatmeal, and season highly with black pepper and salt.   Over the whole pour as much of the liquid in which the pluck was boiled as will make the composition sappy.   Fill the large bag rather more than half full, say five-eighths, as it requires plenty of room to swell.   Sew it securely and put it into a large pot of hot water (to which half a pint of milk is often added).   As soon as it begins to swell, prick it all over with a large needle to prevent its bursting.   Boil steadily, without the lid, for three hours. Serve very hot without any garnish.

[the uninitiated are advised to note the danger of a too sudden assault on the “chieftain o’ the pudden race”.]

I’ve actually made this recipe and can recommend it.

Although people used to think that haggis came from France (as a result of the “auld alliance”), no-one really knows its origins.   One theory is that the ancient Romans used to make a haggis-like dish; another is that it came from Scandinavia; while an early printed recipe appears in The English Huswife by Gervase Markham, printed in 1615.

Whatever its origins – have a good Burns Night!


  1. The Scots Kitchen by F Marian McNeill


Thanks to Katrina McQuarrie over at Kick-Ass Genealogy I’ve been playing about with digital scrapbooking this evening.  Her latest blog post is all about using your computer to create a digital keepsake which you can easily post online or print multiple copies of to share with your family.

This is what I came up with…..

Celebrating my grandparents' marriage in 1925Celebrating my grandparents’ marriage in 1925

Thanks Katrina, I’ve now found another displacement activity skill to learn!


*** Snow ***

It’s snowing again and, as usual, the south of England has come slithering and sliding to a standstill.

I’ve made my fair share of “don’t know what things are coming to”, “I remember when…”, “when I was a kid…” type comments; including a “southerners don’t know what snow is” conversation with a Geordie lady at the bus stop – but I’m not sure that our ancestors coped any better than we do.

Take this from the 17th century…

January 1695

Monday 28th. I took horse in the morning betwixt seven and 8 being resolved if possible for Edr [Edinburgh]. it snowed all the time as we went to Dunse…we had very deep snow and very oft were forced to walk above the knees in snow whc toild me very much. yet God be thanked we had a clear day and now blowing so that we mist not the way.

[An Album of Scottish Families 1694-96 by Helen and Keith Kelsall; 1990, Aberdeen University Press, ISBN: 008040930X]

or this from the 19th century…

Edinburgh Dec. 18.

The frost, which set in on the 6th inst., supervened on the severest snowstorms by which Scotland has been visited for 21 years. A continuous fall for 24 hours, followed by intermittent showers extending over several days, covered the streets of Edinburgh to the depth of two or three feet… the snow in exposed places was drifted and piled up in solid wreaths five or six feet high. The street traffic was either wholly stopped or greatly impeded, and for several days the running of the tramway car was entirely suspended… This has come very hardly on the poor, especially on those who are engaged in open air labour – on masons, gardeners, and day labourers, who have been for two or three weeks frozen out of their employment. Then the ravages of disease have been greatly increased, especially among those who are ill-fed and underclad, and also among the very old and the very young of all classes.

There have been several deaths from exposure.

[The Times, Wednesday, Dec 20, 1882; pg. 3; Issue 30695; col E]

or this from the 20th century…

The height of drifts in Shetland are shown by this photograph, taken yesterday of John Henderson (13) and his dog behing the boy's home at Yanlop.  [The Glasgow Herald.  Monday, January 26, 1959.]
The height of drifts in Shetland are shown by this photograph, taken yesterday of John Henderson (13) and his dog behind the boy's home at Yanlop.

[The Glasgow Herald.  Monday, January 26, 1959.]

Maybe we never have had it so good!


Glamorous in flannel

Happy New Year!

Tidying up after visitors in this house always seems to involve books in some way.  Today I came something that I’d forgotten about and which seems appropriate for this freezing weather:

Flannel dressing-gown with silk revers, trimmed with lace
Flannel dressing-gown with silk revers, trimmed with lace
At this cold season of the year I cannot conclude without drawing attention to some of the useful and homely flannels suitable for dressing-gowns, blouses , etc. Viyella, I certainly think, takes first rank.  It is obtainable in such fine makes, and does not thicken or shrink in the washing.  It is brought out in a variety of such pretty shades and designs, a happy contrast to the old idea that the  real virtue of wool was indissolubly wedded to a tone of dirty blue-grey, or else to a terrible fiery red, suggestive of almshouses.

The wise manufacturers of the day know well that they must forge ahead with Dame Fashion, who is changeable as the winds, and fickle as a butterfly.  Consequently, new patterns in this said Viyella are ever being brought to our notice, and we now can obtain most delightful and really smart garments, sufficiently warm and cosy in texture to satisfy the demands of the most rheumatic or invalid.

(The Lady’s Realm, January 1899)

The brand name Viyella was registered in 1894 to describe an innovative fabric made of 55% Merino wool and 45% cotton and which was the first fabric to be given a brand name.  The name Viyella came from the Vi Jella valley, near Matlock in Derbyshire where the company of William Hollins had a spinning mill.

The original company was founded in 1784, and still exists today under the name of Viyella and you can find a short history here


Too late for a Scottish passport!

Among the records in Edinburgh City Archives are records of passports issued by the Lord Provost of Edinburgh (class SL165, dates 1845-1916).

Apparently Edinburgh Town Council issued passports, or certificates of good character, to its inhabitants from at least the 17th century. They were issued by the Lord Provost under his authority as Admiral of the Firth of Forth.

The idea of a compulsory identity document which had to be carried by all travellers was first introduced in 1792 in revolutionary France where all travellers had to carry state-issued identity documents with them 1

Britain required travellers to have a passport to enter or travel in the country from 1793 to 1826.

From 1794 to 1858 all British passports were issued by the Secretary of State and were only issued to friends and acquaintances, or to someone recommended by a London banker 2.

At this time the more important the passport looked, the more important it was considered to be; wax seals and fancy lettering with a long list of titles which stressed the importance of the official who issued the passport all added to this impression.   In 1850 a British Treasury official commented that those that came closest to the ideal were issued by the “Civic Chief” of Edinburgh 3

The Illustrated London News puts it nicely:

It seems that the municipal head of “Auld Reekie” rejoices in a vast multiplicity of obsolete titles – “Lord High Admiral if the Firth of Forth” is one of the smallest, but all of which are stated at most imposing length in the passport, the effect being to inspire all manners of frontier officials with a deep and pervading awe for this dreadful potentate, and a corresponding degree of civility towards the lucky personages armed with his most imperial mandate. Add to these characteristics a number of vast seals of antique and venerable aspect, and nearly as big as saucers, and the charm is complete. 4

No wonder, in 1855, the Edinburgh Christian Magazine writes:

To peep across the Channel you need not obtain through Lee the bookseller or Coutts the banker in the Strand any passport from the Foreign Office… The passport of the Lord High Admiral of the Firth of Forth known commonly amongst us in Scotland as the Provost of Edinburgh we have always found quite sufficient for such short excursions and is moreover a few shillings cheaper than any other. 5

Seemingly Edinburgh continued to issue its own passports to at least 1913.

I’d love to see one of these impressive documents – I don’t suppose any of you have come across one?


  1.  Documenting Individual Identity: The Development of State Practices in the Modern World by Jane Capaln and John Torpey (Eds), 2002, Princeton University Press, ISBN 978-0691009124
  2. Identity & Passport Service website downloaded 8 Dec 2009
  3. see #1
  4. Illustrated London News, September 6, 1851 quoted in #1
  5.  The Edinburgh Christian Magazine April 1855-March 1856, Vol VII, page 144 from

Make do and mend…with a parachute

We’re all familiar with the stories about WWII parachutes being made into underwear or wedding dresses, but a new twist to this tale has appeared.

A Scottish airman who was shot down over Belgium buried his parachute and escaped through France to re-join the RAF.  Two years later, a family who sheltered some of his colleagues recovered the parachute and used it to make a First Communion dress for their daughter Paulette.

Over 60 years later, Paulette has now traced the airman’s family to let them know just how his parachute was used.

You can read the full story and see a photo of the dress at


New look website and blog

I hope you like the new look website and blog combined.  I’ve even managed to include a link to my own personal family history pages!

It’s been frustrating me that they were all on separate sites, and all looked different.  Now at least this website and my blog have the same “look and feel”.  My personal research pages still look different, but at least they’re linked from here now.

If you look at the footer of this page, you’ll see that I’m now using WordPress to publish everything.  I’ve got to say that I’ve been very impressed with how easy it was to set everything up.  It’s taken an afternoon’s work to do a test install of the software; a final install; convert my old website and import my old blog postings and comments.

Before you start to wonder – no, I’ve no connection at all with WordPress – I’m just an impressed new user.


Stirling ancestors?

If you’ve ancestors from Stirling you might find this useful.

The Old Town Cemetery in Stirling has just undergone a £1.7 million refurbishment. The Old Town Cemetery is at the Top of the Town in Stirling, just below the castle and the Esplanade of Stirling Castle forms its Eastern boundary.

The cemetery expanded outwards from the old Holy Rude Kirkyard between 1857-1859 and, unusually, it is laid out as a pleasure ground for the locals as well as a burial ground. The full story is in the Stirling Observer and there’s also a website for the cemetery which includes a map and details of some of the monuments and gravestones at


Italian family searching for relatives of the British soldier who saved their mother’s life

An Italian family is searching for relatives of a British soldier who saved their mother’s life during WWII.

In January 1944, the pregnant Maria Mancini from the Abruzzo region of Italy needed emergency medical treatment to save her life. A British soldier called Martin drove her to hospital in his jeep through snowstorms and across mined roads.

After an emergency cesearian section, Mrs Mancini gave birth to twin girls. Sadly one of them died a week later. Martin continued to visit Mrs Mancini in hospital, they became friends and he gave her a photo of his own two daughters.

Just after Mrs Mancini and her daughter were released from hospital, Martin was killed in action.

Mrs Mancini remembered and often told the story of Martin’s kindness and friendship to her family. Unfortunately she never knew his surname.

Her daughter, Angela, and her granddaughter are now searching for the two children in Martin’s photo.

Are you, or is one of your relatives, one of these girls. Check the photo and the full story on the Telegraph website at