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May I Introduce to You . . . Vivienne Dunstan

Come meet genealogy blogger Vivienne Dunstan, author of Viv's Ancestry Blog, in this interview by Tessa Keough at GeneaBloggers.

Come meet genealogy blogger Vivienne Dunstan, author of Viv's Ancestry Blog, in this interview by Tessa Keough at GeneaBloggers.

I have the pleasure of introducing you to Vivienne Dunstan and her five blogs, (quite an impressive feat). Viv gives us a brief overview of each of them as follows: “I actually have five history or genealogy blogs. The main one ( is for my academic historian’s musings (I have a PhD in history), which is somewhere for me to vent on ideas that occur to me – a very useful outlet! The next blog ( is for my general family tree stories, about my ancestors and those of my husband. I started this largely to share the stories with my cousins, but also because I think they are interesting stories in themselves. Another main blog is for my Cavers one-name study ( I’m registered with the Guild of One-Name Studies and research the surname Cavers, which originates in Scotland, and my particular focus is pre-1900. I’d like to compile a book based on my research – because of my computer science background I’m a bit skeptical about current websites and data formats still being readable in 50-100 years, so want some book copies deposited in suitable libraries. But the thought of writing a whole book is scary, so I’ve started to write it one blog post at a time. I post a mix of lineage write-ups (genealogies I’ve figured out) and strays and other interesting stories. And my final two blogs are for my Melrose (Roxburghshire) and Coldingham (Berwickshire) Scottish one-place studies, ( and and are mainly used to blog about new resources as I put them online.”

A Little About Viv

“I live in Dundee, a city on the east coast of Scotland, but originally come from the town of Hawick in the Scottish Borders. My first degree, from St Andrews, was in computer science. But after I fell long-term ill with a progressive MS-like illness at 22 I switched to studying history, part-time, with the Open and Dundee Universities and picked up three more degrees (bachelors, masters and doctorate). My PhD looked at reading habits in Scotland circa 1750-1820, and my academic history interests are mainly 17th, 18th and 19th century Scotland, with a focus on social, cultural, urban and reading/book history. I can’t work with my disease, but am lucky to have an ongoing honorary research fellowship at Dundee University, which is helping me to publish my research in academic journals. I also speak at academic history conferences.”

How Viv Got Started in Genealogy

“I was lucky to start really young in genealogy. One of the earliest books I got was Kathleen Menhinick Dewey’s “Monster at the Top of the Tree: How to Make Your Own Family Tree” which was published in 1975. A few years later, at about age 7, I could draw from memory the Scottish royal family tree from Kenneth MacAlpine through to the current Queen Elizabeth – I remember one day sitting out in the patio outside our house with a big bit of paper filling it with the royal family tree! But my genealogy bug started properly at about age 12. My granddad had recently died and left us lots of family papers. And then my history teacher, in my first year at secondary school, set us a project to draw up our family tree, with the best winning a Mars bar. I won! And I was hooked.

My Dad took me to the General Register Office for Scotland in Edinburgh, and we started tracing my Scottish side of the family (Mum’s side), working through original civil registration certificates, parish registers, and census returns. I think you were supposed to be 16 at the time to do research there – but no one threw me out! And one thing led to another, I would go to the local archive centre as a schoolgirl in the Borders, and spend many happy days poring through local records looking for references to my ancestors. Though having said that, school history classes often didn’t appeal to me, though I studied history to O-Grade (the then Scottish age 16 certificate/exam). It took me falling ill after my first science degree for me to start studying history at university, and that wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for my school teacher setting us that family tree project which got me hooked on archival research. That teacher gets a big thank you in the acknowledgements at the front of my PhD thesis.”

Viv’s Thoughts on Blogging

“I think there are a few different schools of thought regarding blogging. Some people advocate blogging to a timetable, so blogging every week, or setting themselves a challenge to blog daily for a month. Others, like me, prefer to blog as the idea occurs to them. And I find that I have enough ideas that I want to expand on, as much for my own benefit as anyone else that my blogs keep going well enough. Equally though I never feel under pressure to blog more often – it’s something I’m extremely relaxed about, and let happen as it will. I also find my blogs helpful as a writing practice tool. And having a different blog for each of my history/genealogy interests is useful, so people can tune into what they want, rather than get a wider variety of topics in a single blog. So for example my fellow Cavers surname researchers can subscribe to my Cavers blog, while my cousins are more likely to subscribe to my general family history blog, where I write stories of our shared ancestors.”

Viv’s Tips for New Bloggers

“My number one tip would be don’t be frightened! Blogging can be a lot of fun, as frequent or infrequent as you want, and about whatever you want to write about. So don’t feel as though it’s an exam – that can lead to blank page syndrome where people are scared to start the writing. Just relax, and let the words flow. It can be helpful to jot down a list of things you might want to blog about, but in a very relaxed way, not as a scary list that you must then work through.

The other advice I’d give is don’t get too worried about which blogging platform to use, whether Blogger, or WordPress, or something else. To be honest they’re all fairly similar, and the content is what counts. Also don’t be intimidated by a getting started blogging book, which at least for WordPress can often tell you far more than you need to know, and make basic blogging look much scarier than it is. I found my blogs very easy to set up, just by going straight to the WordPress site and working my way through the options there. In hardly any time I was writing and blogging happily. So just get on with it, and have fun.”

Viv’s Favorite Blog Posts

“I’m going to give three examples from three different blogs.

One post which meant an awful lot to me, and resonated with many other people, was the obituary I wrote for my PhD supervisor Professor Charles McKean (RIP Professor Charles McKean – a personal recollection). He was held in high regard by those who knew him, and I wanted to express my own thoughts after he died. This write-up was widely reposted and retweeted, and also reported in the local newspaper. I also got some lovely comments in response from Charles’s PA, and from my and Charles’s history colleagues at Dundee University.

Very recently I wrote a blog post describing the World War One service of my great-grandfather John Dodds (Remembering great-granddad’s WW1 service, 100 years after he enlisted). It was then almost exactly 100 years since he had enlisted, in the earliest days of the war, and I wanted to share the story of his service with others, including my cousins. This post is going to be republished in an upcoming academic WW1 website recounting the stories of ordinary Scottish soldiers.

The third post is from my Cavers one-name study blog, and is the result of the Y-DNA tests for three different Cavers branches (A third Cavers branch matching in Y-DNA project results). I started a Y-DNA project as part of my one-name study, and it was really good to get volunteers, and to report on the early results like this. Not least because the results were such that they will hopefully encourage more people to come forward to be tested in future.”

Viv’s Time with the Ancestors

“I don’t get to do as much genealogy now as I’d like, mainly because of my progressive illness which knocks me out for much of the time. I’m lucky that I started researching so young, before I got too bad. In particular it is now very difficult for me to spend long periods in archives, so I’m increasingly reliant on online sites like Ancestry and ScotlandsPeople, and other digitised records. I’m a bit of a magpie when it comes to genealogical research, flitting around my many different branches. If I get stuck with one I can easily switch to another. Recently I made great breakthroughs with my dad’s English and Irish ancestry, and am having particular fun researching those lines now. I’m also making fun breakthroughs now about relatively recent ancestors thanks to the British Newspaper Archive digitising local papers from the Scottish Borders.

Viv’s Favorite Ancestors

“I like them all, but a few stand out, including the ones I’ll mention here.

First there’s my ggg-grandfather John Usher Somner (1829-1879), who had an illegitimate daughter in 1844, my gg-granny. John was in many ways a gateway ancestor for me, opening up an increasingly intriguing line of gentry, aristocratic, noble and royal ancestors. If it wasn’t for him in my tree I’d be stuck a long time ago.

One of his ancestors was James Veitch of Glen and Bowhill (ca1700-1761) who seems to have been a particularly bonkers Jacobite laird. I blogged about him, and the bizarre names he gave some children (Boys Lilias and Theresa in The Family Tree).

Another fun ancestor, Logan Henderson, spent time in Russia during the time of Empress Catherine the Great. He seems to have been a bit of a con man, at least when it came to garden design, but he was apparently an expert in fireworks, which must have been quite something to see back in the 18th century (An Expert on Fireworks in the Family Tree).

And I can’t not mention my ancestor Sir Robert Logan of Restalrig. He was a Berwickshire laird, in southeast Scotland, and died in 1606 of the plague. But he was later convicted of treason, plotting to kidnap King James VI, and Logan’s remains were dug up and brought into the Scottish parliamentary chamber in 1609 to be sentenced. Wow! Gory or what. His children, including my ancestor, were disinherited. It’s because of that family link that con man in Russia Logan Henderson was given his first name.”

How Genealogy Has Improved Viv’s Life

“Genealogy has given me a hobby that I adore, and opened up an academic quasi-career that I would never have followed, without being hooked as a child on genealogy. It’s also made me appreciate more about the past, and has taught me much about logical deduction from clues and evidence.”

What Viv Loves Most About Genealogy

“Mainly I enjoy the detective hunt. I love solving puzzles, chasing ancestors through the paper records, and piecing things together. I often describe my Cavers one-name study as a giant jigsaw puzzle, which I’m trying to solve – but probably never will fully! But genealogy in general is like that. It is addictive and hugely fun.”

Viv’s Time Capsule Message

“I have no children, but for my relatives in future, and anyone else reading this: researching your family tree is a lot of fun. But don’t neglect the present. Talk to older relatives while you still can. Write up your own family’s experiences, and deposit them with a local archive who would gladly receive them. And pass them down to younger members of your family. Oh and be careful about digital records. If you have family photos and stories on the computer try to keep them in a format that your descendants will be able to access. There is a lot to be said for physical copies of things, and there are good reasons why it is paper records we have of ancestors today. And make sure you keep proper backups of your digital data, both onsite and offsite.”

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Please take a moment to head on over to any (or all) of Viv’s blogs. Leave her a comment letting her know you stopped by. I have gotten to know Viv through the Guild of One-Name Studies and her study as well as her writing on a variety of topics has added to my understanding of content and methodology (and been a treat to read). Welcome Viv, it’s great to have you here!

© 2014, copyright Tessa Keough. All rights reserved

Tessa Keough divides her time between Arlington, Virginia and Portland, Oregon. She got hooked on researching her ancestors after seeing a pedigree chart at a family reunion. She shares her paternal genealogy at The Keough Corner, her maternal genealogy at Scandia Musings & More, and technology and methodology tips at her YouTube channel TessaWatch. Are you a genealogy blogger who would like to be interviewed for the “May I Introduce To You . . .” series? If so, contact Tessa via email

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