WORKING on my family tree a couple of winters back, I traced the Scottish side to 18th-century Forfarshire.

Late into the night I tried to keep family branches straight, sometimes with a flurry of excitement but ending up in a genealogical cul-de-sac.

One one occasion at about 3am someone came into my bedroom.

I screamed, but no-one was there. It was bizarre, it felt so real. Was this a ghostly visitation or the imaginings of a befuddled mind lost in history?

My attempts at genealogy were continually hampered by the way everyone in the past had the same names, aggravated by the fact that fathers would pass on their exact names to their sons. In Scotland, people were distinguished by by-names, using physical features such as “big”, “ginger”, “wee” or other characteristics.

Frequently their formal names would be forgotten. Nor does it help when searching family history that if a child died young the next child would often be given the same name.

I looked for the name Anderson, which could suggest a Nordic origin. It turns out to be one of the most common surnames in Scotland.

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My great-grandmother, Isabella Anderson (born in Arbroath, 1876) was the daughter of a sea captain, Alexander Anderson (born in St Vigeans, 1846) who married a loom weaver, Jean Carey Scott, from Kinnell.

His father was also Alexander Anderson (born 1816), who had another daughter Isabella Anderson (born 1837). Someone called Jean might also be called Janet or Janett. Spelling was still a flexible art. At that point I hit a brick wall.

I decided to go to Arbroath myself, and look at the parish records. More importantly I wanted to, in the words of Van Morrison, “smell the sea and feel the sky”. To walk in the imprint of my ancestors’ footsteps.

St Vigeans Church is on a hilltop near Arbroath. People have been worshipping there since AD700, when Pictish monks founded a monastery on the site. You can find the St Vigeans Sculptured Stones Museum, a collection of Pictish stones, opposite the church.

I booked a charming Airbnb, “Standing Stones”, a but and ben, two-roomed cottage in the same row.

I explored the church graveyard using a map kept by the parish. Tombstone engravings wear down remarkably quickly, within three or four decades. There are various projects to digitalise gravestones to preserve the information.

With the popularity of DNA kit testing, tourists are using heritage research as a motivation to visit their ancestors. A kind of Google Maps for graves, this project in England – DEBS – has lottery funding, and in Scotland Scottish Monumental Inscriptions were doing the same thing.

Helen Grant of Kennaway, Fife, created Scottish Monumental Inscriptions in a labour of love. She said: “We started in the 90s, pre-internet, pre-digital or smart phones. My friend Janette and I would rent a caravan and go out in the wind and rain to document and photograph gravestones then develop the pictures.

“One weekend we managed 16,000 photographs. We’d wear waxed coats and take an umbrella, although we were sometimes attacked by seagulls.”

She is now retired and this vital on-the-ground work needs to be taken up by someone else. Helen passed on her data to Ancestry, My Heritage and Find my Past websites as well as The National Library of Scotland.

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Back in the church graveyard, the tombstone I was looking for didn’t seem to exist anymore, though it was clearly marked on the St Vigeans Kirkyard map.

I took a boat out to Bellrock Lighthouse, the world’s oldest sea-washed pharos, to view the coastline from the North Sea.

The waves cracked against the side like a cannon going off. A lighthouse keeper would usually stay for a month, alternating with two others. If seas were rough, fresh food couldn’t be delivered and they’d live on hardtack and beef stew.

As a food writer and chef, I had to explore the home of one of the protected foods of Britain, the “smokie” – a hot-smoked haddock for anyone who is uninitiated.

Arbroath, formerly Aberbrothock, a contracted Pictish-Gaelic name meaning “mouth of the boiling water”, has the sweet reek of oak, burnt charcoal and saline wind.

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I visited Alex Spink’s smokery at 7am while they were building the fire for the smoking. The cured haddock are paired, then tied with hemp twine and hung over a wooden lathe or “kiln stick”. Hemp naturally contains oil so the string doesn’t burn, but it is difficult to get hold of nowadays.

The area was a flax spinning centre in the 19th century. My great-grandmother Isabella Anderson was a flax spinner according to the census. Men fished and women spun.

The phrase “done to a turn” derives from the half-hour it takes for the haddock to turn golden brown. The lathes are then lifted out and switched around to smoke the other side. Gary, the head smoker at Alex Spink and Sons, does this every morning. He also smokes and colours haddock fillets, hanging them in a dark cupboard – they look like delicate but yellowing handkerchiefs hanging up on a line.

They also hot-smoke salmon, but it’s nothing like the bland stuff you buy in supermarkets, rather it is a mahogany-hued deeply oaked piece of “red fish”.

Most of the fishing families are called Spink (Scots for “active” or “agile”), Cargill or Smith and even today you will see several smokie establishments called Spink. Everyone is related but sometimes, laughed a local tradesman, the families are rivals: “They all can’t stand each other.”

At Arbroath Signal Tower Museum, a display showed that women traditionally wore red-striped skirts and blue flowery blouses and, according to one 18th-century cobbler, had bigger feet than the men.

Before the development of a harbour, the doughty wives of Auchmithie would carry their menfolk on their backs to and from their boats in the sea, skirts kilted up, so the men’s feet remained dry. As a result these women were known as “muckle backit” or “big backed”.

The fishwives were responsible for selling the fish, with long rounds inland and up the coast.

A fisherman would never marry outside his community. He needed the skills of a woman brought up to the life: someone who could shell and thread 4000 mussels on 1400 hooks as bait on a daily basis.

While I love the idea of being the feminist descendant of a gynocracy, my female ancestors seemed to be more involved in the hemp industry.

In the 18th century, the Earl of Northesk refused permission for the Auchmithie fisher folk to move to Arbroath, claiming they were his serfs or vassals.

IT went to court and he won but the law was later overturned and the fisherfolk moved to Arbroath in 1829. Auchmithie still stands, a wild but picturesque village on the edge of a cliff. I ate at a family-run restaurant called The But ’n’ Ben.

The most popular dish on the menu is the Arbroath Smokie Pancake. It’s worth the journey just to experience this speciality but I’ve recreated the recipe here for readers to try at home.

I tracked down an address from the census, 7 Barbers Croft, between the abbey and the harbour, yet the old buildings were gone, replaced by a new housing estate. Speaking to a local woman, she remembered the old house from her childhood: “There was a red-headed man, an Anderson.”

Hearing this, I felt an uncanny chill. “The fisherfolk from Auchmithie didn’t mix with anyone else: they had their own culture and ways,” she recalled.

Later, I went to Donegal in Ireland to explore the origins of the Irish great-grandfather who married Isabella Anderson. She left Arbroath at the age of 14 to live in Glasgow, in a tenement that is now demolished.

She eventually met my great-grandfather Michael Rodgers from Donegal. They came from exactly the same kind of background and landscape – coastal, wild, gusty, small. They were well-matched but Isabella was disowned by her family for marrying a Catholic.

Isabella married twice, the first time to a man who was conscripted into service for the First World War. I’m not sure what happened, but during that time she took up with my great-grandfather and had two children out of wedlock.

That’s another thing about genealogy: you realise that far from the rigid religious life one assumed, living together as common law husband and wife wasn’t rare.

Eventually they did marry, and later moved to London, where our family remains, having made the journey from Pictish fishers and weavers to Cockneys.

As is usual with pancakes, the first is often imperfect. The shape and texture will improve as you continue. Serves four.

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55g plain flour

140ml milk of your choice

One egg

pinch baking powder

pinch salt

a pat butter

For the sauce:

600ml double cream

One Arbroath Smokie, all bones and skin removed, flaked

pinch mace

white pepper to taste

bunch Parsley for garnish

Instructions – for the pancakes: Mix the pancake ingredients together, leave to rest for 20 minutes. For the sauce – In a pan on a low heat, pour in the double cream and warm. Add the fish, mace, pepper, parsley

To make the pancakes - Butter the pan lightly. Pour the pancake mix into a pre-heated large flat crepe or frying pan, sliding the mixture around so that you have a thin layer.

Allow to cook slowly so that the underside goes golden and bubbles a little. Flip over the pancake carefully and add the sauce.

After a few minutes cooking so that the other side is a light golden, fold the pancake over the top so that it is a semi-circle. Serve hot.