The Genealogy File:What’s In a Name?

A Castle and a Stone

For Archie Girvan, late of Nanaimo, BC

Photo on 2013-09-28 at 11.18 AM

Archie Girvan’ s First Gift-A Poor Man’s Legacy to Heritage

Penkill Castle the Replica and the Real


Archie’s Gifts-A Castle and a Stone

Archie’s Girvan’s demise was hardly unexpected. His gaunt, stretched figure, his melancholic demeanor and chain smoking habit, as well as his age, seemed to suggest that his tenure in the many and diverse lands of the living was insecure. Nor was his passing a personal tragedy, I barely knew the man.

My first contact with Archie was a phone call, out of the blue, that I received a decade ago. The caller, identifying himself as Archie Girvan, was overjoyed to find two other Girvan families in the local telephone directory. The caller was convinced that we were related, pointing out that our common name betrayed an inevitable conclusion:  our family origins were the coastal town Girvan, in South Ayrshire, Scotland.

Over the short period of my relationship with Archie, a mere 3 years, my somewhat cynical take on the notion of ancestry, “what’s in a name?” was not enough to deter Archie’s enthusiasm for the town of Girvan and the region of Ayrshire. He had collected materials about that part of Scotland: brochures, maps, general trivia from a variety of sources. Archie had no one with whom to share his passion for genealogy. His wife, a full-blooded Aboriginal, was profoundly deaf and his Aboriginal children had no interest in their father’s research into the European part of his ancestry. Consequently, when Archie found another Girvan within reach, he determined that I would be the repository of his enthusiasm. Archie would phone a couple of times per week, frequently late in the evening and would recapitulate, in great detail, the research that he had done since he discovered his interest in genealogy. He would  tell of the contacts that he had recently made with employees in an office at Maybole -if my memory serves me- an office that stored the records for vital statistics in the region of South Ayrshire.

At first, as my part of the telephone dialogue initiated by Archie, I was somewhat complicit, sharing the fact that John Girvan, an uncle of mine, had also been smitten by the genealogical bug and had undertaken extensive research into our family origins in the South Ayr Region. John had even traveled from Kingston, Jamaica to Girvan, Scotland before his death as part of that research. In fact, I had participated in a project with Gloria Akin (nee Girvan) to do something with the data that John Girvan had collected. The result of this collaboration was a document which I named with typical tongue-in-cheek hyperbole “Girvanopedia.”  This simple, home made publication  contains short biographies, written by Gloria, of those of our European ancestors for whom there was sufficient documented information from John Girvan’s research. Of course Archie was delighted to hear that story and to find in John Girvan, a kindred spirit as well as  possible kinfolk. Over time, however, I was unable to sustain his single minded focus on Girvan, the place, and tried to distance myself from his passion. When I emphasized that my own roots are more properly Caribbean than Scottish, Archie countered that his heritage was predominantly Aboriginal but he still celebrated his links to Scotland.

Shortly before his death, Archie invited us to his home. He had been contemplating moving from his apartment in Nanaimo, B.C. His living quarters had been greatly reduced by the many objects that he had been hoarding among which were flags, pennants, maps, and general trivia of the plastic kind that souvenir stands import from China; things that he had collected about South Ayrshire. To facilitate the move, he was giving away some of the objects which impeded movement in the small front room and hallway of his duplex.

At the end of the meal and before we left, Archie presented me with 2 objects: the first, a replica of Penkill Castle (see photo of replica above and check the link of Penkill, the real castle). The second token that Archie’s left with us for safekeeping was a flat stone worn smooth over the passage of time by  water’s gentle but frequently tenacious and always persistent embrace; the kind of stone that one would see on any rocky beach or at the bottom of any river, perhaps even the river Invergarvan for which the town of Girvan was named. Archie took care to explain that poverty had obliged his parents to find a way other than the accepted diamond inlaid in gold to express the promise of their durable commitment to each other. I protested to the gifts, suggesting that both articles belonged to his wife and his family as part of his legacy but he insisted that his family did not understand the deeper meaning of those objects. Besides, they all thought that he was crazy at the display of pride for the town and his allegiance to forbears who may have rejected his claim to fraternity in the clan Kennedy, citing his Aboriginal half heritage as a limitation to that claim. I left Archie, accepting to keep the gifts rather than have his relatives throw them away. Archie was happy to leave them in our care. He died shortly after.

I must confess that the passage of a decade since I accepted these gifts has added immeasurably to their value. Penkill Castle, the real one situated a few miles from Girvan, Scotland does not compare to the gift of Penkill Castle, the replica: a poor man’s legacy to his name. Penkill Castle, the replica, remains a display on a window shelf in the sunroom of our Vancouver Island residence; Archie Girvan remains its undisputed Laird, his basso profundo voice powered by vocal chords stained dark brown from decades of unfiltered Players cigarettes still resonates… rebounds… echoing… grumbling cantankerously among thick, stone walls in his castle. We see him every day.


Marriage Stone from Archie's Parents

Marriage Stone from Archie’s Parents


One thought on “The Genealogy File:What’s In a Name?

  1. Pingback: The Genealogy File-Matters of Perspective: Part 2 |

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