Friday, 18 June 2010

Don't argue, the lady has a gun!

The expressions on the faces of my teenage daughters when I mentioned last night that they had an Auntie Latifa was a little incredulous, for the most obvious of reasons. They'd only ever come across one Latifa before, on the television screen. Actually, it's not quite accurate - Latifa was a younger sister of their great-grandmother, and therefore their great-great aunt.

Image © and courtesy of the extended Binnie family
Latifa Middleton and Gamila Binnie,
standing next to the cannon Mons Meg,
Edinburgh Castle, Scotland, June-July 1932
Image © and courtesy of the extended Binnie family

When I asked them if they wanted to see a photograph of her, their eyes took on that "what-ev-a" expression so familiar to me when the topic of family history is raised, and the conversation moved on. However, a photograph of sisters Latifa and Gamila is particularly appropriate to display this week. Latifa's youngest daughter Madeleine and her husband Bill have just made their first, long planned "pilgrimage" (from California) to the country (and village) where Latifa and Gamila were born and grew up.

Courtesy of Find My Past's recent World Cup Widows temporary free access offer (presumably widowers and sundry atheists allowed too), I was able to discover more about the visits that my wife Gill's grandmother, Latifa and their sister Farida made to the United Kingdom in the 1920s and 1930s. The passenger lists that I've found give details of the family's inter-continental movements, providing a solid framework on which to arrange the anecdotal stories which have been handed down. I've written about this over at my other blog La Diaspora Continua.

According to the notes that I made from discussions with Gill's Aunt Maud when I scanned her collection of old photographs in 1998, the photograph was taken in Edinburgh in 1933. Maud's mother was then heavily pregnant with her fifth and last child John, who sadly died at the age of only two. Using the passenger lists mentioned earlier, I've been able to correct that date a little, and narrow the trip down to a six week period in June and July 1932.

Image © and courtesy of Peter Stubbs
Mons Meg and the view from Edinburgh Castle,
A 19th Century engraving
Image © and courtesy of Peter Stubbs & EdinPhoto

Having visited Edinburgh Castle with my sister on a rather dreary day in August 1987, I vaguely recall seeing cannons, but can't remember any details. However, Peter Stubbs on his excellent EdinPhoto web site has a Mons Meg page with several images of this particular enormous example reproduced from postcards from soon after the turn of the century, and a slightly older engraving (reproduced above).

Image by Yatton courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
Mons Meg, Edinburgh Castle, Scotland
Image by Yatton courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

More recent photographs, of which there are hundreds on Google images, show Mons Meg mounted on a very different wood and metal carriage, which is believed to approximate the original carriage construction. It appears that the mounting was changed some time between Latifa and Gamila's visit in the summer of 1932 and another snapshot of some children sitting on the cannon taken c. 1945.

Image © star1950 courtesy of East Lothian Museums
Mons Meg, Edinburgh Castle, Scotland, c.1900-1910
Image by star1950 courtesy of East Lothian Museum

Photographs of such pilgrimages play an important part in the establishment of links between us and the lands of our forebears, as well as in the maintenance of contact with distant cousins. Sometimes they are the only tangible references that we have to pass on to our descendants. When we visited Lebanon in 1997 we took hundreds of photos, and I'm sure that Madeleine and Bill will share some of theirs too, in due course. I hope they will be appreciated by those generations to come, and will perhaps encourage our descendants to learn about the lands that shaped their ancestors, perhaps even to make their own pilgrimages.

I intend to discuss this aspect of photographs in our family collections in due course, and how they may be combined with other documentation to provide a better sense of connection with one's ancestors. I will also be illustrating several examples from my own family collection over at La Diaspora Continua.


Mons Meg by Wikipedia

Bombards: Mons Meg and Her Sisters (Royal Armouries Monograph)


  1. Wow. Very cool blog you have here!

  2. Thanks Astrid. Nice to have you as a regular reader, and I look forward to reading about the great photos on your blog, particularly those from Norway and Italy, somewhat out of my area of experience. My Dutch grandparents visited Norway in the 1920s, and I have a photo album documenting their holiday, which I will draw from here some time in the future.

    Regards and best wishes, Brett

  3. Very nice photos. Are those real? I never see a huge canyon in my whole life. With that you destroy one building.


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