10-17-2008, 03:51 PM
IT FEELS a little silly to be knocking on the door of an Aberdeenshire council house, when your mission is to track down any remaining traces of an American icon who changed the world.And sure enough,Denis McDonald greets my enquiry with a gentle chortle. Over the years,the building contractor, who has come to the door in his slippers, has fielded plenty of questions from pilgrims who have been blown this far north in their search for an Elvis Presley connection.
Now he stands, hands tucked into his boiler suit, surveying the row of one-and-a-half-storey houses. "Well," he says in a drawling Doric accent. "It isn't Memphis is it?"
Lonmay is, indeed, a long way from Graceland. But this parish, it is generally agreed, is where the ancestors of Elvis Presley - the king of rock'n'roll - have their roots. Not that you would know it to look at the place.
This small cluster of council houses is a staging post on the way towards the bigger Aberdeenshire towns of Fraserburgh and Peterhead. The settlement itself is an artifice, a combination of farm buildings and modern bungalows that took the name from a railway stop. But while the last train from Lonmay left several years ago, thanks to some determined genealogical research and the chance pattern of emigration, it has now been woven into the mythology that surrounds the name of Elvis.
From time to time, drivers can be seen pulling over on the busy A90 to have their picture taken next to the road sign. Otherwise, there is little for a rock'n'roll pilgrim to find in Lonmay. There was a flurry of publicity a few years ago, when it was firmly established that the Pressleys of Lonmay were the same as the Presleys of Tupelo. Since then, says McDonald, the fuss has died down.
The real touchstone for Elvis fans can be found about a mile away, in a graveyard down a country lane, past the old manse. Even here, there is little to see among the rows of lichen-covered headstones. There are certainly no Presley names; the original family would have been too poor to afford tombstones. But here, beneath the seal-grey clouds and cornfields, can be found the roots of the musician who became the biggest cultural icon of the 20th century.
The centrepiece of the walled graveyard is the free-standing archway that contained the door of the16thcenturyparishchurch.Beside it is a section of mortared wall that would have been part of the original building. It was on this spot on August 27, 1713, that, according to the parish register,Andrew Presley and Elspeth Leg exchanged marriage vows. Nine of their children were recorded in the register, but it is generally accepted that there was a 10th son, Andrew, born about 1720, who made his living as a blacksmith and left Lonmay for the New World, ending up in Anson County, North Carolina, in 1745.
Like most graveyards, Lonmay's is a place that lends itself to poignant reflection on the lives of the people who lie there, and the conditions that might have led their descendants to leave the land of their birth. The Presleys' is a classic emigration story: from rags to untold riches, within six generations.
In America, Andrew had a son, also called Andrew, born around 1765, and his lineage can be traced forward over 200 years to a shack in Tupelo, Mississippi, where Elvis Aaron Presley was born to Vernon and Gladys Presley on January 8, 1935. Elvis Presley, the king of rock'n'roll, has Scottish cousins.
Elvis was actually born the second of identical twins - his brother was stillborn and given the names Jesse Garon. Elvis grew up as an only child, closely bonded to his mother with whom he lived, just above the poverty line, in Tupelo and later Memphis. From July 1954 - when he recorded That's All Right (Mama) in Sun Studios as a dedication to his mother - until his death at Graceland mansion on August16,1977,Elvis Presley shone brighter than any other star humanity has produced.
Thirty years on from his death at the age of 42, he remains a potent force. As the first global superstar he became the most recognisable name and image on the planet. For those too young to remember him at the height of his powers, it is hard to imagine the impact of young Elvis's arrival. He was the first musician to marry the blues of the black south, the gospel sounds of his childhood and the country influences of America's European settlers. He was a white boy singing the blues laced with country and tinged with gospel, and he did it all with a hip-swivelling sexuality that set an agenda for a musical and cultural revolution.
Commercially he was the most successful recording artist of all time, selling over a billion records worldwide. In 2005, his estate grossed $45 million, making him the highest-earning deceased celebrity (the spot was filled by Nirvana's Kurt Cobain the following year). Thousands of fans still flock to Graceland annually. They will be there in their thousands this month for the 30th anniversary of his death. But here in Lonmay, things are strangely quiet.
The original connection between the Elvis Presley family tree and Scotland was established several years ago by the writer Allan Morrison, who melded established knowledge about the singer's ancestral roots with research conducted by genealogical enthusiasts and family members in the northeast. Previously, it had been claimed that Elvis's people hailed from Paisley, but this was never substantiated. Ireland, Wales and Germany all had claims on him before Morrison settled the dispute.
Ironically, Elvis Presley only once set foot once in the land of his forefathers, during a very short stop at Prestwick airport in 1960 on his return from military service in Germany. During his lifetime, he left America just twice.
In the northeast of Scotland, there are plenty of Pressleys, Preslys and others known by variations of that name. But only one of them, former Scottish golfer Jack Pressley, comes forward to say that he has made a definitive connection to the King.
The sprightly 91-year-old is a musician himself. He played saxophone and clarinet in big bands in Glasgow during the second world war, before returning to Fraserburgh to open a sports shop and concentrate on golf, one of his many passions.
On the mantelpiece in Pressley's Fraserburgh living-room, there is a wedding photograph of his grandson, Steven Pressley, the Celtic defender. In front of him are several large sheets of paper, the size of sea charts, which trace his own family history back to the crossroads with the Presleys of Tupelo.
"I had this thing all rigged up but I never thought for a minute that we were connected to Elvis," he says. "Because with him spelling his name differently I assumed we were different Presleys." But when journalists turned up at his door carrying the Elvis family tree, it was a simple matter to cross-reference the Andrews in each one. Jack, though, is convinced that the researchers identified the wrong Andrew as the crucial link, and that the official story is a generation out.
"I'm sure it was the wrong Andrew they've got. It was a nephew of the Andrew that got married at Lonmay who went to America," he says, his fingers tracing the line through hundreds of years. "See here - Vernon Elvis's father and me were born in the same month in 1916 so I could be Elvis's father," says Jack, referring to parallel family lines.
But while he might share genetic heritage with theKing,JackPressleyhaslittlerespectforhis distant cousin's music. "The guitar's a great instrument, Segovia and all that, but not in the hands of these *****s," says Pressley, an undoubted musical purist. "A couple of guitars and a drum, this rubbish that Elvis came out with bores me to tears. Berry, Goodman, Duke Ellington, all of them are perfect but this business with the guitars and The Beatles and all that is just gruesome stuff. There's no tone or colour, you see. They're not listening to each other." It seems rock'n'roll never made it to Fraserburgh.
LOST in genealogy, if not lost in music, Jack Pressley's own family is a testament to the continuing story of emigration from the northeast. He is expecting his eldest son, also Jack, to come home from Charlotte, North Carolina, in a few days' time. "When he moved abroad I said there wouldn't be many Pressleys there but he said there was a page-and-a-half of them in the phone book. They must have been busy, these relatives of Elvis."
A little further south, in Old Meldrum, there are a few Preslys - a different spelling - but those I speak to show little enthusiasm for the Memphis connection. "I'm no exactly sure that I'm related to him," says Jim Presly, of the Meldrum Heritage Society and a man with a keen interest in history. "You'd really have to DNA the old man to find that out but I know the Preslys are all related in some way." When pressed, he says that his sister, who lives in Houston, is more interested in the subject than he is.
One local man who knows his stuff about Elvis's Scottish ancestry turns out to be a fan of the King. Jack Pressley may have his charts, but Stuart West has the tomes on family records. On Aberdeen's appropriately named King Street, buried in the rooms of the North East Historical Society, West has all the genealogical information he can lay hands on.
West, a wanderer in his younger days, discovered that the further he travelled from Scotland, the more he became interested in Scottishness. "I came to the same conclusion as Allan Morrison way back in 1995 and 1996, by a process of deduction," says West, opening his files. "There is lots of circumstantial evidence, although Andrew is missing from the parish register. It is very unusual for a father not to give his own name to his first son. I reckon it was just missed off the register, but he is the one."
"People come in here wanting to be related to Robert the Bruce and they're a bit disappointed when they're not," adds West. But he too is somewhat taken aback by the extent to which the Scottish branch of the Presley family is underwhelmed by their connection to fame.
Aberdeenshire, it seems, is more than physically distant from the hype generated by the Elvis industry. But there is atleast one local entrepreneur who has seen the value in Presley's Scottish roots. Not far from the Historical Society's headquarters, on another Aberdeen street, you will find Philip King kiltmakers, whose proprietor, Mike King, produced a special Presley Of Lonmay tartan when that parish's Elvis connection first came to light.
The colours are subtle, reflecting the grey sky, green grass and yellow cornfields of the northeast. King only has a few yards of the tartan left in his shop, but in preparation for the anniversary of Elvis's death he has designed a whole new pattern. And while Presley Of Lonmay was reflective of the place itself, Presley Modern - which is being woven as we speak - is much more of a rock'n'roll cloth.
"Elvis's favourite colours were black, baby blue pink and gold," says King, "so I've combined them all in the pattern." Patiently, he explains how this unlikely combination will work: the black and blue background accentuated by a light blue overpattern and a tiny pink stripe with gold guttering.
The cloth is being made in a lightweight tweed, which will bring the price of a kilt to below £300. Naturally, the outfit would not be complete without the King-designed gold sporran, which is decorated with a Scottish thistle and an American eagle. There is even a skean-dhu to match.
The overall effect might be more Las Vegas than Lonmay: especially if teamed up with a pair of blue suede brogues. But if you're going to wear the Elvis Presley tartan then you have to have a certain swagger about you.
A kilted Elvis is in reality no more emblematic than one in lederhosen. Elvis was of German, Scottish, Jewish and Cherokee ancestry. Everyone wants a bite of him - except, it seems, the population of rural Aberdeenshire.
Perhaps the reason that the story of Elvis's Scottish roots doesn't cause much of a stir in Lonmay is that his is just another chapter in the epic story of emigration that continues to this day. After all, everyone has to come from somewhere and it is very easy to be cut adrift from family and from roots. Stuart West spent a large part of his life abroad, Jack Pressley is waiting in Fraserburgh for his son to come home, Jim Presly is separated from his sister by the Atlantic. Sometimes, though, your relatives turn out to be closer than you think.
In Lonmay's Ban Car Hotel, Janis Joplin is coming through the loudspeakers, silver darlings (herring rolled in oatmeal) are on the menu and, in tribute to Elvis, a tailor's dummy has been decked out in Mike King's full dress Presley Of Lonmay tartan. There is a framed dedication from Glasgow fan club, The Elvis Touch, to whom the hotel plays host on alternate years. "This year they're all going to Memphis so we won't see them,"explains co-owner, Tina Gibbins.
Recognising my Hebridean accent, Gibbins tells me that although she grew up on military bases around the world, her family are from the islands. Her mother came from Stornoway. This is hardly unusual, but Gibbins seems eager to give me more information about her family.
Her mother is Margaret Davies, nee McDonald, who was from Lewis. She has an 80-year-old second cousin who lives in Wellington, New Zealand.Oh, that's interesting, I say nonchalantly, noting another pinprick on the map of the Scottish diaspora and the Elvis story.
But Gibbins continues: "Her cousin's name is Annie. Annie Crichton and her father, Alasdair, was from the village of Swordale on Lewis." Does that ring any bells, she asks? Of course it does.
All day, I have been knocking on doors in Lonmay, searching for the lost relatives of Elvis Presley. And I have ended up finding my own. "Hello, cousin," I say.
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