Agency mustn't profit from our family stories

Despite growing up in Elgin, I've never ­ventured much further north of Inverness. That changed this weekend when my partner Jenny and I went on a bit of pilgrimage to discover more about her family's history.

Tuesday, 9th October 2018, 6:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 9th October 2018, 7:27 am
Researching your family tree can prove to be a surprisingly expensive business. Picture: Getty

The rain lashed down on Killearnan Church, east of the Muir of Ord and high enough up for the spire to bear down on the Beauly Firth. There in the grounds, covered in moss, was the gravestone of one Kenneth Macintosh, Jenny’s great-great-great grandad who died in 1888. It’s not the oldest of her discoveries – she’s traced one line of her family tree back to the 1740s – but there’s enough information available to mark it as one of the saddest.

The engravings on the stone were heavily weathered, but thanks to the painstaking art and love of a volunteer who’d traced the markings and ­catalogued them online, we could see that Kenneth had been laid to rest with three of his children, all of whom had died before him.

Using the Scotland’s People ­website, the girls’ death certificates could be found. All three died of typhoid, two within 24 hours of each other in 1876. These were hard and desperate times in the Highlands.

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Our ability to explore our own ­history is vastly improved by the ­internet and the devotion of those who have made their life’s work the cataloguing of the past.

The National Records of Scotland is a non-ministerial department of government. Since 2011, it has been charged with running the census and holding all the registers. The website Scotland’s People had a huge overhaul in 2016 with more than 200,000 new items added to its system. It’s a ­phenomenal resource that should make us beam with pride – until you discover the hidden costs.

Because it’s not free, not in practice anyway, and it is highly addictive. In fact, having watched it work at close quarters it’s got more pull than a puggy.

You can look at indexes for free, but that’s like reading the spine of a book and never knowing the story. The day of Kenneth Macintosh’s death is free to find, but if you want to know what he died of, that’ll be six “credits”. That same certificate will tell you what he did upon his death, but not what he did with his life. That’ll be another six credits to look up the census and that’s how you track movements across the land.

Ken wasn’t always a crofter, he’d been a groundsman on an estate two miles down the road, ten years before. That’s another six credits. Each credit might only be 25 pence, but it soon tots up. There’s no subscription fee either. Surely it would make sense to pay a larger sum once a month to have unlimited access to these files? The work has already been done; the files are there. The only argument against it would be it would generate less money.

I appreciate these are hard times for public services, but the annual accounts for the National Records of Scotland shows that the body took in £6.5 million last year through the website. That’s 26 million credits. That’s hundreds of thousands of heart strings.

Intriguingly, the annual report doesn’t state how many individual users of the site there were last year – only that there were 65,000 more users than the year before. So it’s hard to work out what the average spend is per user, but it’s clear that it’s too much. That same report boasts that the body took in £750,000 more than it expected to last year from customers. Customers? That’s surely not the language we want to see from a government agency whose job is to preserve the past and record the present.

Preserving who we are and where we’ve come from is one of the most important things we can do as a nation. Those stories of the past inform our future, so why does it have to be a commercial enterprise? Who do they think they are?