Tell Me an Old Story – Thursday Thoughts

Photograph of an almost question mark in a campfire flame, accompanying "Tell Me an Old Story" - a Thursday Thoughts blogpost from historytrace exploring what lies behind your family lore and oral traditions. Copyright www.freeimages.com / Rachel Kirk.What lies behind your family lore and oral traditions?

Following up “Quintessentially Speaking” our Thursday Thoughts post last week exploring the idea of family sayings and expressions, this week I want to ask you about the old stories that have been passed down within your family.

Perhaps calling them “old stories” immediately questions their veracity. But are they really just stories or are they full of details based on real historical events and the experiences of your ancestors? Or are they perhaps a combination of both? Over time as they have been passed on like a Chinese whisper have they subtly shifted form?

In Western societies traditions of storytelling have not always survived and yet in some places around the world long memories are preserved in both spoken and written form by various people groups and cultures. A familiar example is the Genesis flood story preserved by the Abrahamic religions. Or the Gimuy Walubarra Yidinji Peoples who for thousands of years have told their story of the origins of the Great Barrier Reef in Northern Queensland, Australia. Their account has been shown to closely correlate with geological and oceanic changes in the region now recognised to have summerged the coast laying foundations for the reef, recently explored by David Attenborough in his Great Barrier Reef BBC One series.

Family lore passed down within families is not of course restricted to something spoken. The details may have been committed to paper in previous generations already. But in our digital age fixed on data capture and interpretation, sharing and preserving family lore in traditional and digital form has never been easier.

In your family’s annual cycle of events when do you sit around your metaphorical family campfire and take the opportunity to share family lore?

Perhaps next time you have a family gathering you could ask for the old stories. Or maybe when you gather with friends you could ask them about the old tales which form part of their family heritage. Make something of these opportunities to gather together and share. And don’t forget the performance element in sharing oral traditions either. I have recently been really fascinated watching the BBC Two series The Story of China which interweaves clips of public storytelling to present centuries-old accounts of historical events and personages brought to life so vividly by the narrator.

Another way to bring your family lore to life is to consider exactly what lies behind your family stories.

Examples of family lore which I have had shared with me often fall into a number of categories. Ranging from brushes with fortune, associations with royalty or celebrity and tales of former grandeur or infamy, to accounts of historic or momentous national and personal events.

Before you start to unpick your family stories, write them down or better still record them whilst they are being told which will preserve the narrator’s unique emphasis and inflections. Ask your family members questions: where they think the stories come from, who told them and how they interpret the information. Are there people, places or events mentioned in your stories which you could research to uncover the historical background?

Have the stories been passed down word for word, content correct or partially lost in transmission, as timeframe and location have become hazy and details interchanged as they were transmitted? And what kind of a story is being told?

Of course it is important to explore the specifics of the account but also look at the general shape of the information. Does it point to an event or an experience? What is the overarching message which the story wishes to share with subsequent generations? Is it a significant family life event, an emotion, a call to commemoration, a survival story, a tale of loss or a triumph?

In order for the story to have warranted being passed down as family lore it must have had great significance for both its originator and subsequent descendants alike. What is the significance of the story for you and how will you transmit it?


Great Barrier Reef with David Attenborough, Episode 1, BBC One 2016.

The Story of China, BBC Two, 2016

Hannah Gill, historytrace, 25/02/2016

Historytrace can help you to explore your family ancestry and get behind the old stories to uncover the historical events which impacted and shaped your historical family. Do get in touch using the Contact page of this website if our services could help you explore your family heritage on a deeper level.

We are currently running a competition on our historytrace facebook page to win a 2 hour family history research session. Open to all (remote session available for international winner), just requires a like and a comment. Competition closes 31st March 2016.

You have been reading the historytracings blogpost “Tell Me an Old Story – Thursday Thoughts”. Copyright text: www.historytrace.co.uk, 2016; copyright image: freeimages.com / Rachel Kirk.

If you enjoyed reading this you may also be interested in “What Nonna Said” and our Research Your Own series.

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