Saturday, 30 October 2010

Surname Saturday - the cautionary tale of McIntyre

Surnames are the tools of our trade as genealogists, but we shouldn't set too much store by them, and I don't just mean all the mis-spelllings and variants. Does anyone remember the film Local Hero? An oil tycoon wants to build a refinery in Scotland, and sends one of his executives to sweet-talk the locals. He chooses a man called McIntyre, thinking that a Scotsman would be particularly well-suited to the task. It is incidental to the plot that McIntyre only came have that surname because his Hungarian immigrant ancestor adopted it to sound more American. I used to tell this tale to my genealogy classes as a warning that you shouldn't get too hung up on the origins of a surname, in case an ancestor had simply chosen it, just like McIntyre.

Little did I know that I would have a McIntyre story of my own. It took me 20 years to locate the birth certificate of my great-grandfather, Robert Collins.His marriage and death certificates (both in Scotland) indicated that he was born around 1881, son of Patrick Collins and Jane McAtee. Patrick was dead before Robert married in 1907, and the family story was that Robert was born in Paisley, but the family came from Ireland. I tried everything, but the family could not be found in any census, and I seemed to have a set of great-great-grandparents who weren't married, were never born, and didn't die, in Scotland or Ireland.

Then I found my great-grandmothers application for poor relief in Glasgow because Robert had gone AWOL for a few months, leaving her with two small children and no money. The details given here corroborated the information I already had, with the added detail that Robert's mother Jane had gone to Canada in about 1905,and that her maiden name was McIntee, not McAtee. This was enough for me to track her down on a passenger list, with her married daughter's family, and gradually I pieced the family together, with yet another variation on Jane's maiden surname, McAttee. At last I found them in the census, including the elusive Robert, who turned out to be 7 years older than I had thought! So now I found his birth certificate at last, in 1874, not 1881, and it's a beauty. I found him inthe index as Robert Collins, but to my surprise the certificate read "Robert McIntyre  (or Collins) (Illegitimate)", and for parents' details "Jane McIntyre...widow of Patrick Collins, engineer, who died in March 1871".

So now I don't know who his father was, but he certainly was not the Patrick Collins who appears on all his documents. That's another puzzle to solve, and now I have my very own McIntyre story! And any interest I may have in the history and origins of the Collins surname has nothing to do with my own family history.

As a postscript to this, I noticed that in the 1881 census the Collins family were in the same house as another Irish family headed by a Thomas McEntee. This may just be a coincidence, or they may turn out to be related, recorded, with another spelling of the name. I'm not sure what to make of that one, I'm still investigating!


  1. A fascinating hobby, isn't it? and you have got my dream job, working for the National Archives. Nice to see another UK genealogist.

  2. Ros, it's my dream job too, and I know how lucky I am to have it - took me quite a long time to get here, though.