Who do you think you are?

You may, or may not, have seen the TV show by this name, which started as a British show in 2004 and spawned any number of international offshoots (America, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Ireland, South Africa, Israel, Netherlands, Norway, Russia & Sweden all have adaptations of this program).  It’s about ancestry and genealogy – in case you haven’t heard of it.  Each program features a well known celebrity/personality who traces their family-tree back in time to uncover something (usually) humbling about their origins and ancestors.

I haven’t ever thought about tracing my family tree with any amount of dedication – although my Mum started looking into it recently.  My Dad’s sister has been a little more active on the other side of the family, but I’ve not been keeping up to date with the latest findings.

It is something I am beginning to develop more of an interest in, but for now – what I want to share with you is not “Who do I think I am?” but more along the lines of “Why do I think I am (what I am)?”

What do I mean by that?

Have you ever wondered why it is that you like what you like, do what you do, disliked some subjects at school – but could ace them, enjoyed other subjects – but flunked them?  I do, all the time.  I think back to when I was a child, trying to work out the influences around me that might be behind the reasons why it is I love photography, sketching, knitting, sewing, rocks, spewing volcanoes and travelling.  Why did I become a Geologist, of all professions? – A gold-exploration Geologist to be more exact.  I’d never met a Geologist until I started my studies at university!  And why are there certain countries that I have found myself drawn to – compelled to visit; South Africa having the strongest pull?

In addition to those musings, I have realised that I behave in certain ways and have mannerisms that no-one else in my family does.  My siblings love to tease me and claim I was adopted(!), but it’s my Mum who throws me off balance when she comes out with comments such as “You get that from your Granny”, or “You are just like my Mother”.  I never met my Gran – she passed away 10 months before I was born.

Some influences are pretty obvious.  Dad loved his photography.  It was inevitable that by age of 2 I would have had my very own Fisher-Price camera on which to “snap” away on.  I’ve continuously owned a (real!) camera of one sort or another to this day.  Dad is also a pretty good artist, although doesn’t have nearly enough time to pursue this interest.

Knitting: Well that can be from just about any female relative I’ve ever known!  Mum tried to teach me when I was 6, but I got too frustrated with dropping stitches and unravelling my work to actually ever finish anything.  I re-taught myself when I was 30, and have been happily knitting on and off since then.

Sewing: I love sewing, but I can’t remember my mother (or any of my aunts) having taught me.  I learnt it at school and still make clothes for myself (that I wear!!).  This is where another connection to my Gran pops up.  She was a Seamstress.  Her husband, my Grandpa, was a Tailor.  I never met him either.  He passed away when I was just 6 months old.

Just about every single family member travels.  My Dad travelled around the world as a navigator in the Air Force.  That would probably explain my love of maps – to the point where my current workload as a Geologist is in GIS (Geographic Information System) i.e. Map-making.  My Mum emigrated to America when she was 21, only returning to the UK when her mother’s health began to fail.  I guess the idea of travelling to far-flung places, and not just for holidays, was never not an option.

But none of the above explains why I chose to study Geology or up-sticks and move from Scotland to South Africa.

It was only after I applied, and was accepted at The University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg to study my MSc in Geology, that my Mother decided to offer further family information.

Wits University (East Campus) Geology Dept on right... (Source: Wikipedia)

My Gran, the one I never met, was born in Glasgow.  I knew that.  I’d known that for as long as I can remember.  Mum used to tell us stories of visiting her Grandmother (a scary old dame – by all accounts!) in Glasgow.  We grew up in a small town in the north-east of Scotland and Glasgow was the “Big City with Bright Lights” that we could only ever dream of!  It never occurred to me that my Mum’s Mum had lived anywhere else but Scotland.  And indeed, she had not.  BUT… she was conceived in Johannesburg.


When I decided to go to South Africa, my folks were temporarily living and working in America.  In my usual fait accompli way, I announced to my parents where I was heading, without actually discussing any decisions regarding my future with them beforehand.  So when my mother revealed this family gem to me I asked her why she hadn’t told me the story before.

Her reasoning was that she didn’t want to influence my decision on where I would end up, but that she always felt that I (out of the three of her children) would be the most likely to live in South Africa!  Anyway, it turns out that my Mum’s maternal Grand-parents lived in South Africa, but returned to Glasgow after the death of one of their infant children, and just before my Grandmother’s arrival in this world.

So, then the question that remains to be asked is this: “What were my Great-grandparents doing in South Africa?”

Two words: Gold Rush.

Langlaagte Farm where gold was discovered in 1886 (Source: Wikipedia)

My Great-grandfather was a prospector on the Witwatersrand, seeking his fortune through gold.

Johannesburg as my Great-grandparents would have known it in 1896 (Source: Wikipedia)

Johannesburg as it is today (Source: Wikipedia)

So close, yet so far apart (Source: Google Maps)

However, for every rich man who struck gold, there are a dozen or so more who don’t.  My Great-grandfather was apparently one of the latter.  After returning, empty-handed, to Scotland – he rushed off (if you’ll pardon the pun) after the birth of my Grandmother in a second attempt to seek his fortunes, this time in an American gold-rush.  He was never heard of again.

Despite the disconnections (by which I mean family members who never met each other to pass on direct information or knowledge), it would appear that my becoming an all-travelling, all-sewing, gold-exploration Geologist was an inevitability.  My destiny, if you will.  I feel that in coming to South Africa I somehow completed a circle and tied up some loose ends.  It’s a strange feeling, and one which I am not entirely sure I can put into words.

There is one more thing I guess I ought to do, in honour of my Great-grandfather (and hopefully put the family fortunes onto a new (shinier) track), and that’s “Strike it Rich”!

Temporarily abandoned workings at a modern-day gold-rush in Mali

Do you have a family history that you feel defines your destiny?

4 thoughts on “Who do you think you are?

  1. This is an amazing story! The connections to South Africa and gold exploration between the generations is quite unique. Especially since you hadn’t been told the story initially. From what you say about your parents too, your sense of adventure is obviously a family thing.

    1. Travel is most certainly in our blood! I haven’t even gotten into the history of my Dad’s side of the family, other than I do know of one thing (also only found out AFTER arriving in South Africa) – My Gran-dad was torpedoed off the coast of Namibia during WWII (he was in the Merchant Navy) and spent 6 months “marooned” in Cape Town!
      I secretly suspect some distant relatives may exist here…. 😉

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