Family Myths



The Raeburn Connection or Scotch Mist?


The family’s one great claim to an historical association has always been a supposed connection to Sir Henry Raeburn (1756 – 1823), Scotland’s ‘National Artist’, see here. There is no documented evidence to substantiate this claim, which appears to be based upon memory and information passed by individuals from one generation to the next. I thought it interesting to try to verify the claim if only because I continue  as the proud bearer of this honored name.


Sir Henry Raeburn 1756 – 1823.


The McNamara Raeburns are supposed to be descended from William Raeburn, the brother of Sir Henry Raeburn, who was born in Edinburgh in 1751. This claim cannot be substantiated because our adult Raeburn forebears who came from South Shields can be traced back to about the time of the birth of William Raeburn in Scotland. To emphasise the point, the adult Raeburn forebears of the McNamara family were living in South Shields at the time when William Raeburn who is supposed to provide the family association with Sir Henry Raeburn was born in Edinburgh. One has to ask how did the myth or story that our paternal grandmother, Nana, was a distant relative of Sir Henry Raeburn come about or was invented.

One possible explanation is that even nowadays it is not uncommon for people with a slightly unusual name to assume or claim a link with a more famous ‘name’ when there is no foundation what so ever for doing so. For example, I have given up caring when people assume that I must be related to Kevin McNamara who was an Hull MP.

A second speculative possibility is that since census records indicate that the name Raeburn was not uncommon in the Durham and Tyneside area there could have been other Raeburn families in the region who had or claimed to have an association with Sir Henry Raeburn so therefore the ‘McNamara’ Reaburns assumed that this applied to them also. A  web search indicates that it is not at all uncommon for people to claim an ancestral link with Sir Henry Raeburn, see for example .

Another possibility is that at a time when written records were sparse and there was a substantial amount of illiteracy and people relied very much on memory for their life stories it could be a rather smart move to use the name Raeburn to imagine an association with a famous Scottish family and enhance the family’s status among the family and within the community. This could apply to Nana’s mother and Nana herself. It would have given the family a degree of respectability and standing in society and help gloss over first, the obvious family heritage rooted in coalmining and second, the McNamara link with Ireland, at a time when there was considerable prejudice against Catholics and Irish immigrants. Nana was always at pains to emphasise that our McNamaras had their roots in Scotland and she certainly had a firm anti Catholic and Irish prejudice. I incline to this view. Without doubt forebears on Dad’s side of the family would have been, to put it bluntly, socially and educationally inferior to those on the distaff Stringer side. The McNamaras did have their roots in Ireland, there were very likely to have been Roman Catholics in the family and Nana’s forbears were rooted in the northern coalfields. There was at least one major scandal in the family history. Hence plenty of motive to retell the family record to make the family look more respectable.


We Came from Scotland


The Raeburn myth is not the only one on Dad’s side of the family. There is the general ‘we came from Scotland story’. As young children I remeber that Dad took Frank and I to Edinburgh where we visited a tartan shop on Princess Street. We were bought Clan Frazer tartan ties on the grounds that we had some legitimate claim to be descended from the Frazer Clan, see  here and here, for example.


Hunting Frazer Tartan


And I can remember as a child being told on a number of occasions that a forebear served as an officer with Nelson on the Victory during the battle of Trafalgar and there was an Admiral knocking about in the background as well – could have been the same person. This provided an explanation for me going to sea.

For my part, I would need some very strong evidence to convince me that the family link to Sir Henry Raeburn was anything more than Scotch mist.