I grew up having no real awareness of my ancestry nor did I know anything about genealogy. What little I knew about my family background formed a patchwork without any definite pattern. As a child, I had of course heard lots of different personal and place names mentioned but had no sense of how these were connected to my own existence. Besides, there were only a very few family members who seemed willing to speak about my forebears. Luckily, that all changed when the book project began in earnest. From that time on whoever I approached for information or family documents generously offered as much help as they could. So at this point I wish to thank everyone who supported us!
I had always been vaguely conscious that my great-grandmother, Alice Thiele, came from Scotland, that she had travelled to Germany to complete her education, had married a German and had remained there for the rest of her life. I knew too that there had been a famous brother and that they were said to have come from a very “pious” family. Various names, like Nellie, Lucy, George and Will, were bandied about but at first no one made any effort to explain how they were related or what stories lay behind those individuals. My own mother and her four siblings showed not the least curiosity about their ancestry – a state of affairs due mainly to my grandfather’s military-style attempts to drill them all into memorising their family tree, beating them harshly if they failed instantly to identify their “noble ancestry”! And so it came about that in the end all his children reacted by rejecting such obsessional family pride.
During my grandfather’s lifetime it became virtually obligatory in Germany to demonstrate and indeed prove one’s Aryan descent, so he fanatically hoarded the family records, far more than was necessary, amassed them into albums and issued orders that everything relating to the family should be handed down from eldest son to next eldest, in strict succession. If the latter had no male descendants, all this documentation was to go to the next “worthy” male family member. Grandfather William started this process by sending the whole mass of material to his eldest son William who had emigrated to Canada soon after World War II. But all the accompanying instructions quickly cured William junior of any natural inclination to find out more about his family history. Even his own children and his brother Martin showed no interest at that time. So after some years, William sent the parcel off to Spain where his sister Ruth, my mother, was living. I cannot say whether she did much with the papers beyond giving them a cursory glance but she did at least make a brief visit to Scotland where she found some of the places where the Smith family had lived. And so the door was opened slightly.
Then my mother died suddenly and about a year later a very large cardboard box containing all the available family records and documents was handed over to me. At that time I was still busily at work as a midwife and there was very little time for me to do more than take a very quick look at the masses of photographs, letters and hand-written memoirs. Yet even then I felt a strange quiver of excitement. Though at first I had no idea what I could or should do with all this material, I soon realised that within all the meaningless jumble of names and dates there lay a wealth of fascinating history, often touching, sometimes thrilling, and always enlightening. Don’t people say that life itself tells the best stories?
In 1998 I went to Scotland for the first time. Some former school friends had invited me to join them on holiday and so four of us girls set off together. I fell in love with the country instantly. Though it was October and both the climate and the landscape were by then typically autumnal, Scotland immediately became for me the quintessential land of open spaces, fresh air and friendly people – a place where one could be alone without ever feeling lonesome. We visited Aberdeen and its art gallery, where some of the paintings of my Scots forefathers were said to be housed. But my hopes of seeing them were dashed on that occasion since none of them was on display. However, we did find our way to the small village of Keig, located the parish church and explored the graveyard with its Smith family tombstones. It was a first tentative step.
The following year I repeated the journey, this time with my husband, Rüdiger. Naturally we went back to the art gallery in Aberdeen and this time we were more fortunate. Although we still didn’t actually view the family paintings, we met one of the curators, Jennifer Melville, who knew at once what we were talking about. I had brought some old photographs which gave credence to our halting explanations and Jennifer then began to speak about the Smith family – and especially about my great-grandmother’s brother, William Robertson Smith – with such enthusiasm that by and by I realised that there really was something important behind all the fuss my grandfather had made about his family history.
Jennifer recommended several books for us to read and showed us a copy of the diary kept by William and his friend, the painter Sir George Reid, during a visit to the Continent in 1876 when both men had journeyed through Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. And it had been on that occasion that my great-grandmother, Alice, and her sister Lucy were taken to Frankfurt-on-Main to complete their education. Jennifer then told us that as recently as 1994 an international conference had been held in Aberdeen to commemorate the centenary of William Robertson Smith’s death. We agreed to stay in touch and I was assured that whenever I had a question I should simply ask her! So it was Jennifer Melville who really gave me the first impetus to start properly with my family project, as I called it. I now felt certain that this would prove a worthwhile challenge.
Alice’s memoirs were of course far more accessible and immediately interesting to me than the complex life and work of her famous brother. She had been an inveterate writer all her grown life but always in German, having married Hans Thiele in 1883. Indeed Alice had mastered the language so well that she was able to give tuition in German to children in Frankfurt. There was nothing spectacular in her writings – they were all written explicitly for her five children. However, I eventually came across a real treasure in the shape of three hand-written brown exercise books, describing the life of her Scottish family during her childhood and youth. After I had read these several times it became my firm intention to revise and edit these small manuscript documents, together with an account by Alice’s father of his early life and education.
Any family history is like a river. Its origins lie in countless small burns fed by the rain and distant mountain springs, all feeding into one another and becoming increasingly interconnected until eventually they form one great stream. Looking backwards we can see that multiplicity of sources while ahead we can only guess at the river’s future course. Those were my feelings as I became immersed more and more deeply in the various branches of the family. Then in the spring of 2002, while carrying out some research on the internet, I had an unexpected surprise: on one inconspicuous web site I found a complete doctoral thesis about William Robertson Smith, eminent Hebrew scholar, editor of the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and pioneer of Biblical criticism in Britain. I wrote to the author, Gordon Booth, and had an answer by return. We were both delighted for Gordon had previously been unable to trace any living descendants of Robertson Smith’s family. From then on the correspondence grew in scale and frequency until, rather like my river image, it became a flood. I told him about my project and he confessed that he had cherished the idea of writing a short popular biography about WRS, but had found a scarcity of material on Smith’s early life. So it seemed natural to pool resources and work together, beginning with Alice’s reminiscences of her strict Victorian upbringing within a large family at the Free Church Manse at Keig.
Along with my cousin, I planned yet another visit to Scotland – being warmly welcomed on this occasion by a hitherto unknown branch of the family who were descendants of the Scottish painter James Giles. Gordon and his wife had also invited us to be their guests in Aberdeen and so we spent three wonderful days discovering all the places associated with the Smith family, their homes in Keig and Aberdeen, the churchyards where their mortal remains had found a last resting place, and the various memorials to Robertson Smith, not least the fine stained glass window in Kings College Chapel. And of course we constantly discussed our main topic: how to incorporate Alice’s memoirs in a book.
The first difficulty was that Alice’s extensive notes were all written in German. I had typed these out and smoothed the text but now all this material had to be translated into tolerably good English. After some hilarious disasters using language translation software, I decided to rely on my own skills and sent the results bit by bit via email to Gordon, who revised the text again and again until it read more naturally. And whatever I lacked in knowledge about Scottish culture or church history in the 19th century, he was able to tell me or could find out at Aberdeen University’s Queen Mother Library.
Where Alice had left unintentional gaps or had assumed knowledge on the part of the original readers, we took the liberty of supplying additional details from a range of sources available to us. Her brother William’s correspondence with family members, some in my own or my family’s possession, some at Cambridge University Library, proved invaluable; in addition there were other very useful documents and photographs in the family archives. Otherwise our guiding principle was always to avoid introducing any fictional element. Curiously enough, I ended up writing almost as fluently in English as Alice had written in German.
My great-great-grandfather, William Pirie Smith, and his wife, Jane Robertson, had eleven children altogether, of whom Alice, born on April 27, 1858, was the ninth. In 1845, shortly after the great Disruption of 1843 within the Scottish Church, her father had given up his comfortable post of head teacher at the West End Academy in Aberdeen to become the first Free Church minister in the rural Aberdeenshire parish of Keig and Tough. The parish lies within beautiful, gently rolling countryside west of Aberdeen, and the village of Keig itself lies close by the river Don, spanned there by one of Telford’s finest bridges. The Free Church and its manse lay a good mile or more south of the village, however, and were conveniently near Whitehouse, a small station on the Great North of Scotland Railway’s branch line to Alford, opened in the very year of Alice’s birth. Behind the manse, Alice’s favourite hill, Cairn William, rises up from the fertile Howe of Alford and she vividly describes the view from its summit of the snow-capped Cairngorm mountains to the west and the North Sea to the east. The manse itself was quite isolated, yet for the Smith children it was a wonderfully peaceful environment in which to grow up and Alice’s love of the surrounding garden is very evident throughout her memoir.
In the thirteen months preceding Alice’s birth, her mother Jane had lost two children. In March 1857 a boy was stillborn and in the following October her four year old daughter Eliza died. We only can guess how Jane must have felt during her subsequent pregnancy. As Alice’s tale unfolds, death becomes an ever-present feature of life at the manse.
Within the family, the children fell into three groups by age and all were educated at home. The three eldest, Mary Jane, William and George, were the intellectual stars. All highly gifted, they were an especial joy for their father who placed the highest expectations on them. From an early age they were accepted by the parents as equal partners in family discussions. For the younger ones though, they were to be unattainable examples. In the middle came the two sisters, Ellen and Isabella. Both were devoted to their household duties in the manse, perhaps partly through temperament, but also by reason of their mother’s uncompromising training. Ellen was talented, outgoing and capable, Isabella very shy and reserved, totally without academic pretensions yet expert in the role of housekeeper. And then came the four youngest: Charles, Alice, Lucy and Herbert. As she tells us, Alice’s first conscious memories begin with Bertie’s birth.
To complement Alice’s picture of the Smith family we have incorporated another hitherto unknown manuscript memoir, this time by the father, William Pirie Smith, and written down by Lucy and Alice at his dictation in the late 1870s. Very formal and antiquated in style, it is in complete contrast to Alice’s writing but well illustrates how a gifted yet impoverished young Scotsman could achieve academic distinction through the kind of dogged persistence and self-help then being advocated in the works of Samuel Smiles. Alice’s father writes with great solemnity and at times with a degree of complacency yet without intrusive piety. Unconsciously too, he betrays many of the personality traits which his daughter Alice very candidly describes – in particular his nervousness and obsessive drive for achievement.
Now let both daughter and father speak for themselves!