SOMETIMES it takes just one generation to turn a family's fortunes around. Boxer Alex Arthur hopes that, for the sake of his sons, his will be that one.
The former world super- featherweight champion has delved into his family history – and was astonished to find the Arthurs have long been "hooks, crooks and vagabonds," as he puts it.
The research, carried out by the General Register Office of Scotland's Audrey Wyper, took Alex back seven generations to his great, great, great, great, great, grandfather, Samuel Arthur, who was born in Edinburgh in 1784, and is described in official records as a "Hawker of Delph" or door-to-door china salesman.
Alex, 30, who still lives in the Southside where he spent much of his childhood, describes his father's side of the family as "a bit of a bunch, to say the least," and says the family were amused when they read Samuel's occupation.
"We had a laugh about that one, because he was a hawker so the Arthurs were scammers and dodgy characters right back to that day.
"I often think about Samuel, wondering where he actually went around hawking – did he go around the rich areas, hawking round the West End or along George Street?
"One night I was up til 2:30 in the morning looking at it all. Just to know where you came from and what your family were like back then, it's amazing because it's continued, what they were like – they were all hooks, crooks and vagabonds, and they still are."
It's not just hyperbole from a boxer trying to gain a bit of street cred, as becomes clear when Alex reveals some of the family history he already knows.
His father and uncles are now on the straight and narrow, but his dad went to prison for attempted murder – when Alex was about ten – after knifing a man in a street brawl. His grandfather escaped imprisonment after seeking retribution for the death of his two-year-old son, Alex's Uncle Frank, aged two.
Alex explains that his father and uncles had been playing close to the family home in Niddrie Mains Terrace in 1962 when the accident happened: "My dad and his brothers were standing around and he (Frank] was sitting on the side of the kerb. A lorry from the pig farm went past and a flap on the side of the van went and cut his forehead and penetrated his skull. My dad brought him back home and they had to rush him to the hospital, but there was nothing they could do."
One of the brothers, Alex's Uncle Martin, went missing for hours, traumatised by what he had seen, and the boys' father, maddened with grief, went after the driver for revenge, Alex says.
"I think he sat outside his house with a shotgun and attempted to kill the guy on a few occasions but he was let off with it because they deemed him a bit insane after what had happened."
It is not purely a tale of centuries of bleakness, however – Samuel the Hawker had a son, Martin Arthur, born around 1809, who lived in Inglis Court. He was a dealer in stoneware – a step up from being a hawker, which may even have meant that he had his own shop.
However, his son, also Martin, worked as a carrier journeyman, or transport contractor, and died in the Craiglockhart poorhouse (although in an age without public hospitals this did not necessarily mean that he was an outright pauper – he may just have been taken there by his family to die).
Also figuring large in the family tree are the McElhones, a huge Irish family from whom Alex's paternal grandmother, Elizabeth, is descended. Elizabeth's great-grandparents, James and Mary McElhone, migrated to Scotland from the family home of Kildress in County Tyrone in the late 1800s.
The couple had 11 children, but the records demonstrate one of the drawbacks of delving into family archives – sometimes they prompt more questions than answers. Records of James's death in 1900 note: "Body found in the water at Paton's Quay, Port Glasgow."
A brief statement which contains a whole world of possibilities. Given his own experiences of life in the Arthur family, it is perhaps not surprising that Alex jumped to one conclusion when he read those words.
"It's strange – I was a little bit disturbed by that. Right away I thought, 'someone's killed him and dumped his body in the water'."
Audrey also traced three generations of the family of Alex's mother, Corinne, which includes his cousin, the actor Jamie Sives.
Some of this was already known by Alex. He never met his grandfather, Peter Scott, who was a boxing enthusiast and a bookie. Peter passed the business on to his son, Philip, and the family were comfortably off.
Seeing that history laid out on the page made Alex reflect on the strange turns that fate can take. He says: "It's amazing how people get together when you really look at it. My mum was fairly well brought up, they were never short of money, they had a house down in Leith and were from a small family, my mum only had one brother.
"And then you've got the other side – my dad was brought up in Niddrie, there were five brothers and 30 cousins in one street. You wouldn't want to say they were dragged up, but compared to my mum it was probably the case, though they were all healthy, well fed.
"My mum's family moved into town back in the early 70s, late 60s – they were the first tenants of Dumbiedykes when they were first built. They were all at a bar and my dad was up town with all his cronies from Niddrie, probably looking for trouble, and that's where they met."
As with many people, his interest in family history has been intensified by the experience of becoming a father. He and wife Debbie have three sons, Alex, seven, Liston, four, and Machlan, two. He bursts with pride when talking about the kids, and speculates on which might make the best boxer – but is adamant he would rather see them at university than in the ring. Most of all, however, he hopes that, while his own childhood might have been as tough as that of Samuel Arthur, his success in the ring means his descendents will lead a very different life.
"Some things I've seen I wouldn't like to talk about – close friends dying with drug abuse and having the police bash through your house door to take your dad away, your dad coming home covered in blood. Hopefully my sons will never have to know or see anything like that."
The Scotland's People Centre is open on weekdays, 9am-4:30pm. Taster sessions are available from 10am-noon and at 2pm-4pm, first come, first served. Visit www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk.
A taster session to tracing your family history will be held on 28 November, 10am-noon, Wester Hailes Education Centre. The session is free. Book on 0131-458 5959. The course tutor, Alex Wood, head of the education centre, is offering a ten-week course, entitled Genealogy and Family History, running from Wednesday to December 2, 6:45pm-8:45pm, at the centre. The course costs 55 (60+ 22, students 30, concs 12), plus the cost of visits to Register House. Call 0131-442 2201.
THE CHRONICLES OF TILDA SWINTON
THE family history of the next Scottish celebrity to feature in the Scotland's People Centre's Famous Scots exhibition is set to be unveiled next week at New Register House.
Actress Tilda Swinton will be the fifth well-known Scot to be the subject of the exhibition, following comedian Billy Connolly, scientist Sir James Black, rock singer Shirley Manson and actor Brian Cox.
The exhibition, which will open on Tuesday, will reveal that some of the 48-year-old actress's ancestors helped to shape the history of Scotland – and that the Chronicles of Narnia star is directly descended from the "most famous Scot of all".
The Tilda Swinton exhibition will run until November 6 – the previous show, on Brian Cox, closes this Friday. For more information, go to www.scotlandspeoplehub.gov.uk/scotlands-people-centre/famous-scots