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Prospering in the Genealogical Eire

In which our hero attempts (and fails, for the nonce at least) to pin down those 'pesky' Irish Buchanan's, but nonetheless contrives to hatch a cunning plan ...

The Buchanan's are, for the most part, a Scottish clan, originating from the lowest stretches of the Highlands (as opposed to the highest stretches of the Lowlands - an important cultural, if not geographic distinction), about whom a goodly deal has been recorded over the years. Tracing your Scottish Buchanan ancestry should be no harder than backtracking any other Scottish family line, and may well prove easier than most. Not so, however, if you are one of those "pesky" Buchanan lines whose antecedents spent a disproportionate amount of time across the ditch in Ireland.

To explain, almost any attempt to track down a Buchanan line will involve some Irish heritage. After all, Anselan O'Kyan, the progenitor of the Clan, at whose door at least some of the blame must therefore lie, was an Irishman, effectively an O'Neill, the son of one of the petty kings of Ulster who is supposed to have migrated to Scotland to fight the Danes, in or around 1016AD, in return for which Malcolm II, then in the twelfth year of his reign, granted him a swathe of land around Loch Lomond. That this may have been no more than a convenient origin myth notwithstanding, various cadet lines moved back to Ireland both immediately prior to and during the Plantation, and then my own grandfather, who had been born and raised just outside of Omagh in Country Tyrone, settled on the west coast of Scotland after the Second World War, leaving me, and many like me, with a veritable ping-pong match of a genealogy to unravel.

And, as anyone who has dipped their toe into the waters of Irish genealogy will tell you without the slightest urging, the fire which wiped out Dublin's Public Records Office in 1922 (ironically, the year in which my grandfather was born) took with it many of the few remaining records which would allow us to piece our family jigsaw puzzles back together, leaving us at the mercies of locally held parish registries, and often with no extant records at all.

That lack of centralised records, combined with a disinterest in family history which would appear to have taken hold for at least two generations, has left some twenty-or-more cousins and I at an impasse. We can trace our line back through five, arguably six generations, but beyond that we are left with only speculation. That the Presbyterian Church in Ireland had no real legal standing under the Penal Laws prior to 1840, with its members often being ministered to in their own homes, rather than in larger church congregations, while births, deaths and marriages were sometimes performed by Presbyterian ministers, and sometimes in the local Church of Ireland, only serves to muddy an already cloudy pool of scant records.

And so, I have sat at this impasse for the better part of twenty years now, corresponding occasionally with any of those twenty-or-so cousins who find themselves in a similar quandary, edging one step forward and two back on occasion, but mostly standing stock still.

Then, just last week, someone mentioned (entirely in passing) George Buchanan, onetime tutor to James VI, and in so doing set my memory a-twitching. Now, I'm reasonably familiar with 'Cousin George', as I used to refer to him when I was studying at St Andrews. We robed up for Chapel on a Sunday morning beneath his portrait, after all, and the fact that both he and I were balding and bearded was more-than-occasionally commented upon. I also knew from dimly recollected research that George's branch of the family, the Buchanans of Drumikill, had been one of those who had dispatched numerous second (and occasional bastard) sons across to Ulster to make their fortunes, thus making it entirely possible that there was some tenuous connection between his line and my own. Attempts to recollect exactly how tenuous that link might be led me to dust off my copy of William Buchanan of Auchmar's Historical and Genealogical Essay on the Family and Surname of Buchanan, originally published in 1723 (reprinted in 1775, 1793, 1820, and 1849, the reprinted versions of which are each available online should anyone find themselves with the time and inclination to peruse the work in its entirety).

Having tracked down the portion I was looking for on George, I paused to wonder how many references there were in total to Irish off-shoots of the family. A couple of hours later, I had my answer - twenty-five, give or take an occasional name change. So, I thought, if we have twenty-five potential starting points for upwards of seventy-five percent of the Buchanan's in Ireland (allowing that some would, in fact, have anglicised their surname from the Irish O"Bohan and its associated septs, making them an entirely different proposition), might it be possible to work forward through some of the more promising lines, and see where that takes us?

Given that William Buchanan wrote his original essay in 1723, and we have been able to sketch our own line back to at least 1790 (and, with a little speculation, a generation further back than that), might it not be possible to make some headway by trying to work forward from William's twenty-five starting points? With something like three generation to fill the gap, it seemed more than worth a try.

Now, to be realistic, there are two or three of those entries that relate specifically to families in County Tyrone. I will start with those. Other entries, particularly for the neighbouring counties Derry and Donegal, might prove of interest too. But there is every chance that I have set my feet on a road that will benefit others more than it does myself. Nonetheless, my plan is to spend some time in the coming months trying to work each of those twenty-five leads forward, and to tie in as I go other Buchanan lines I have stumbled across and discarded over the years, in the hope that we can produce a clearer picture of the Clan as a whole in Ulster, and in particular in the Country Tyrone area. The results, piece by small and possibly disjointed piece, will be posted here, under the Genealogy tag here on my website. Wish me luck, or pour me a large one - I'm likely to require a liberal dose of both before I'm through!


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