Alexandria Graphic Artist Creates a Scottish Historical Story

Ellen Hamilton reads a high-level description of her upcoming film portraying Scottish migration at a Scottish tea held in her home. (Photo: Amanda Socci)

By Amanda M. Socci

It was a dark and dreary land in the 1100s. Day after day, dark, dreary, cold, and damp, raining nearly every day, and dampening more than just peoples’ spirits. People were scattered, living in poverty, getting by in primitive mud huts. Monks lived independent, simple lives, building things near the river, using a waterwheel to harness its natural force for power.

By the 1600s, the waterwheel, the mill, and daily life had improved significantly. The dark and dreary land became industrialized and everybody worked hard. Most were farmers tending to the land and producing crops to the best of their ability. Others learned to spin flax to make linens.

In the 1700s, industrialization reached new heights as the textile industry developed. Workers received shipments of cotton imported from North America. Multiple cotton factories were erected; the big, square, modern structures provided plenty of space for workers to spin, weave, and bleach cotton. Then, 1707 became a pivotal year, as the dark and dreary land became part of a much larger land. This geographical restructuring created new opportunities. Ships were now allowed to dock. People were able to trade with people from other lands and to start using money for the first time. New opportunities brought new freedoms, including the freedom to leave.

The Story Begins

This is a Scottish historical story, called “Why They Left: A Scottish Migration.” It is being painstakingly researched, analyzed, written, and assembled by Alexandria-based graphic artist Ellen Hamilton. Ellen fell into the creation of this unique historical story through a series of coincidences that seemed to fall out of the sky and into her lap with precise luck.

Ellen Hamilton talks about her film at a Scottish tea held in her home in late September. (Photo: Amanda Socci)

It started in 2001, when Ellen married her husband, Andrew, who was born in Scotland. Visits to in-laws in Scotland and the permanence of Scottish themes and culture became a regular part of Ellen’s life. Eventually, she started asking questions about her own cultural roots. She had long associated her own identity with British ancestry, but something felt not quite right.

Ellen’s maiden name, McCaskill-Johnson, sounded more Irish than British. However, her own research led her to the vastly different conclusion that she was, in fact, of Scottish descent, after learning that her grandfather was a minister of the Presbyterian Church in the early 1940s. According to Ellen, “No one said the Church of Scotland is Presbyterian,” but she made the connection between the Presbyterian faith and Scotland anyway. This would be the first of many hypotheses that would turbocharge her Scottish migration story.

Ellen’s digging into her personal ancestry brought about a love of history and archaeology. That love manifested itself professionally when the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce chose Ellen’s graphic design firm to represent it at the Alexandria Archaeological Commission. After dedicating many hours of volunteer service to the commission, Ellen’s mix of business savvy, historical curiosity, and fact finding was about to explode in another country.

In early 2014, Ellen went to Scotland with her husband. She hosted a dinner party for Andrew’s friends and discussed her adventures in volunteering with the Alexandria Archaeological Commission. One friend gave Ellen a hostess gift that would initiate the explosion: a historical book, Renfrewshire, providing an archaeological background and telling the tale of what could have happened to the Scottish people in a particularly dark and dreary land to make them want to leave.

Ellen Hamilton shows off one of the many maps from Renfrewshire, the book depicting the archaeology and lives of people living in the lowlands of Scotland in the 1700s. (Photo: Amanda Socci)

Ellen pored through the dense book for nearly one year, with the same feverish excitement as a metal detector looking for treasures in the sand. The book went to great lengths to offer maps and give descriptions of the southwestern part of Scotland, including the suburbs of Glasgow. That part of Scotland was called the lowlands.

When reading the book, Ellen knew that there was a significant difference between the northern part of the country, the highlands, and the part described in Renfrewshire, the lowlands. Though she couldn’t put a finger on it, Ellen theorized that the “lowland region is so populated, there must be more history.”

Ellen’s intrigue with the book Renfrewshire fueled a desire to learn more. Her budding interests in ancestry, history, and archaeology bloomed exponentially. She had to get to the bottom of things, because she knew there was a lot more to the story than had been previously written. The book inspired Ellen to believe that a lot of “human history and human development happened in the densely populated lowlands” and she felt it was her job to tell the story.

The Turning Point in 2015

Between late 2014 and early 2015, after countless hours spent reviewing Renfrewshire, Ellen wanted people to know about the fascinating facts she had unearthed about Scottish people and her hypothesis about why people emigrated from the lowlands in the 1700s. Though the book was certainly the firecracker that started it all, another coincidence was about to skyrocket her project.

In January 2015, Ellen was sitting at her kitchen table with the Alexandria Times newspaper. She read “Out of the Attic,” a column, dated January 8, by Lance Mallamo, then director of the City of Alexandria’s Office of Historic Alexandria. It described a building at 329 N. Washington Street, referred to as the Old Leadbetter house and listed some facts about its former dweller, William Gregory. Gregory was a well-to-do Scotsman who sold wool products manufactured in his family’s factory in Kilmarnock, Scotland.

The small town of Kilmarnock was already a mainstay in Ellen’s mind. She had read much about it in Renfrewshire. And that’s when the lightbulb lit up in Ellen’s head, except it wasn’t nearly as inconsequential as a lightbulb, more like a supernova whose luminescence had intensified. Now Ellen could put together the pieces of her historical puzzle by using a face—the face of William Gregory and his ancestry— to support her own meticulously researched conclusions as to why the Scottish people migrated from the lowlands in the 1700s.

The Story Becomes a Documentary Film

After reading Renfrewshire and the “Out of the Attic” newspaper column, Ellen became passionate about the history of Scottish people living in and eventually leaving the lowlands area. However, Ellen is quick to specify her drive by clarifying, “It is a job; it’s work…[it’s] not a passion project.”

Ellen Hamilton shows off Renfrewshire, the archaeological book that started it all. The colorful tabs help distinguish important points! (Photo: Amanda Socci)

In 2016, Ellen created a new job opportunity for herself by dedicating time, energy, and effort to telling her story. She chose documentary film as her media of choice and started creating a timeline, a list of attainable goals, a marketing plan, and a business plan to accomplish the many discrete tasks needed to create and finish her story.

Ellen’s professional background served as the perfect backdrop for this project. She had trained in graphic design for the traditional print market and slowly began to learn emerging technologies in web design, animation, and video. She joined two prominent D.C.-based film and video professional organizations and began attending meetings, learning about the process, and asking lots of questions.

Ellen’s longtime friend and neighbor Margaret Kennedy has become Ellen’s right-hand woman and chief advisor throughout this process. A former journalist, Margaret now operates Old Town Productions, an independent film and video company in Alexandria. Ellen credits Margaret with teaching her essential interviewing and film editing techniques, which she has incorporated into the making of her documentary film.

Ellen has spent two years interviewing historians, delving into the intricacies of William Gregory’s rich ancestry, writing her script, and marketing the release of her film. She created a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for production costs. She also hosted fundraisers, including a dinner and a Scottish tea, to both promote the film and raise funds to pay for professional services to finish the film.

Ellen recently finished recording voiceovers for the film and is in the rough-cut stage of doing technical additions and revisions. She anticipates that the final product will be 50 to 60 minutes long and plans to release it before the summer of 2019. She will hire a distribution company to distribute the film in the United States and Scotland.

Though this newspaper article about Ellen and “Why They Left: A Scottish Migration” introduces the story, the complex historical conclusions lie with Ellen herself.

Ellen is delighted to share her work with those who are of Scottish descent and want to learn more about the ancestry of people who lived in the lowlands in the 1700s. She is ready to reveal how William Gregory fits into her detailed research about the improvement of the waterwheel in the 1600s, the revolutionary industrialization in the 1700s, and the subsequent migration of people from the lowlands.

Those who are interested in reading about the full story of Scottish migration are encouraged to visit the film’s website and subscribe to Ellen’s newsletter. Funding to finish this project is needed. Those interested in donating may do so directly at this website via Paypal or at the GoFundMe page.