By Willi Heidelbach (Flickr: Puzzle2) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Willi Heidelbach (Flickr: Puzzle2) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Losing records is the stuff of nightmares for records managers and archivists and many are willing to pay a lot of money to companies who will help protect against that. From the user point of view, as a keen genealogist, one of the most frustrating problems I encounter is that of lost records.

But when is lost really LOST? Sometimes when we say something is lost what we actually mean is that it has been mislaid, perhaps it has been misfiled or someone has taken it away without filling out the appropriate paperwork. At other times it may be something that has been forgotten about that we only realise was lost when it is rediscovered. Take for example the case of the “lost” concerto (circa 1730) by the famous composer Antonio Vivaldi which was discovered last year in a collection held by the National Archives of Scotland. The document was mostly unknown except for a mention of it in an 18th-century sale catalogue of a Dutch bookseller. There was no record of its latter custodianship and, in time, people forgot that the score still existed. So can we say that it was really lost?

Other cases of lost documents have been through physical disasters such as flood, fire, or even the ravages of war, and in other cases through negligence, or deliberate sabotage. Sometimes these can be restored, or copies found, but in the worst case they are unique documents which have been totally destroyed. In 1922, during the Civil War, the fire at Public Records Office in Dublin, many documents destroyed. Prior to that, the British Government were responsible for the destruction of the 1861 to 1891 irish census records. Sadly, the majority of these records were irredeemably lost but some have been replaced by copies which were held elsewhere, or by substitute records with similar information.

Diagram of a family tree showing a question mark where the father should be

In my case, the paternity of my great grandfather, David, is a great unsolved mystery. His birth certificate states the dreaded word “illegitimate” and a blank where the name of the father should be. My great great grandmother, Maggie, went on to have another 2 illegitimate children and the Biggar Kirk Session minutes assiduously recorded her “fornications” at the time. So it stands to reason that there should be similar records for her alliance with David’s father. But although David was born in Biggar, Maggie was not living there before his birth. Using my powers of detection, I worked out that he was conceived around November 1860 when the 18 year old Maggie was working as a dairymaid on a farm in Traquair. Full of excitement that the mystery would be solved, I headed off to the Scottish Records Office, only to discover that there are no Kirk Session records for Traquair at that time, there are “gaps” in the records. I don’t know why that is. Perhaps the books were mislaid or damaged and thrown away. Secretly, I like to believe that the family rumours are correct and that David’s father was someone from the aristocracy, with seniority in Government. Someone like that could, as happened in Ireland, arrange the destruction of records in order to protect his reputation. The family rumours do help point to other lines of enquiry, but so far no evidence has been found. However, as with the discovery of Vivaldi’s score, I fervently hope that the evidence is not LOST and that somewhere out there is the document that will solve our family mystery.