Singer Lulu doesn’t have any ambition to find royal connections when she sets out to research her family history. “I have no high-falutin’ ideas,” she says. “I’m not waiting to find out I’m really a princess! I know!”
What she does want to do is learn more about the life of her mother, Elizabeth. In particular, she wants to know why her mother, the middle child in a family of seven children, was “given away” as a baby and raised by a foster family. “I don’t think my mum had the answers,” reflects Lulu sadly as she begins piecing together what happened.
Official documents offer clues to help put the story together. A death certificate shows that Elizabeth’s mother, Helen Kennedy Cairns died at the age of 31 from peritonitis. In her hometown of Glasgow, Lulu meets with her uncle, Jim, and cousin, Eleanor, and learns more. Elizabeth didn’t learn she’d been fostered until she was in school, when her cousin, Eleanor’s mother Nelly, sought her out. “Your mother ran away screaming,” says Eleanor.
At Springburn Railway Depot, Dr Jim Smith revealed surprising secrets about Lulu’s grandfather Hugh Cairns.
Having thought she’d never met her grandfather, Hugh Cairns, Lulu is surprised to see a picture of herself at a family wedding they both attended. In another picture, she sees that Hugh had a prominent scar on his cheek. But who were Helen and Hugh? What were their lives like?
It’s not a happy story. While Elizabeth felt “abandoned” at growing up apart from the rest of her family, her sister Nelly called her “the lucky one”. That’s because life with Hugh after Helen’s death was hard. He drank heavily and was often absent. The children would steal food and milk from doorsteps to survive.
It’s doubly sad because Hugh and Helen seem genuinely to have loved each other, their relationship crossing the sectarian divide – Hugh was Catholic, Helen Protestant – at a time when this was frowned upon in Glasgow. Their first two children were born out of wedlock, but an “irregular” or civil marriage in 1925 legitimised the children, but none of this explains why Elizabeth was fostered.
The reasons for this gradually emerge from Lulu’s research. Employment records show young Hugh was an unskilled labourer who was in and out of work at Springburn Railway Depot. Later, his family paid for his passage to Boston, but he came back because he missed Helen. Over 10 years, prison records show, he was in jail 10 times. The scar, it seems, may have come from gang violence at a time when the razor was a favoured weapon.
One of these occasions was in 1928, around the time Lulu’s mother was given away. Helen, meantime, was reported to have “disappeared”. It’s a sad tale of family breakdown but there are some lighter moments. The McDonalds, who raised Lulu’s mother, gave her a stable home and one official report notes Elizabeth was “very pleased with herself” after a first day at school. “I’m crying and I’m laughing at the same time, I can just see her,” says Lulu.
Lulu also researches the life of her great grandmother. Also called Helen – “I think she looks like me, she has a wee fat face!” – she turns out to have been a leading light in the Orange Order, a formidable woman so respected that her daughter’s relationship with a Catholic doesn’t seem to have affected her standing.
Also, discovers Lulu, at Rutherglen Cemetery grandmother and great grandmother were buried in the same grave. Perhaps, says Lulu, “There is a bond that wasn’t broken.”