We have a deep longing to know where we came from.

The origin of humankind is an age-old puzzle that the brightest scientists still seek to solve. But at another level, many of us have the opportunity, now more than ever, to know our genealogy in depth.

The origin of humankind is an age-old puzzle that the brightest scientists still seek to solve. But at another level, many of us have the opportunity, now more than ever, to know our genealogy in depth.

This is my story and it starts with my dad, Michael Mirrilees, when he was eight years old. He still remembers the day he realized that he had a family history older than his grandparents. It was the same day he met Uncle Jimmy. Since then, Michael has pursued the history of the Mirrilees surname and his relations.

In Michael’s own words, “This all started in 1966 when the Reverend James B. Mirrilees visited America from Aberdeen to learn what had become of his two uncles, William Merrilees and James Merrilees, who came to Chicago around 1912. Uncle Jimmy tracked down my mom and dad through the telephone directory and we went to Chicago to meet him.

“To an eight year-old, Uncle Jimmy was as fascinating as anyone I could imagine. He came from a place called Scotland, spoke with an accent I had never heard, and wore a minister’s collar. I was surprised to learn that we were somehow related, I hadn’t quite connected the dots.”

The Reverend James Mirrlees and his wife, Margaret The Reverend James Mirrilees, “Uncle Jimmy” and wife, Margaret.

Michael, a Scottish enthusiast, was so enraptured by Uncle Jimmy as a child that he never forgot his seemingly-strange relation. As a teenager, Michael started to write to Uncle Jimmy, who had returned to Scotland. They were pen pals for five years, amassing some 200 letters, before Michael invited Uncle Jimmy to come and see him.

Uncle Jimmy’s second visit lasted the month of June in 1982. This time, he experienced life on the farm and rode a horse for the first time. Though Michael notes Uncle Jimmy had a critical spirit, they enjoyed each others’ company immensely.

Count Robin de la Lanne- Mirrlees

Twenty years later, Michael realized Uncle Jimmy was over 90-years-old and he wanted to see him again before it was too late. In January 1994, Michael traveled to Aberdeen, Scotland, to see Uncle Jimmy. While there, Michael met more extended relations, who took him all around Scotland to where the family had spent the last 200 years.

In Uncle Jimmy’s letters, there were often stories and news clippings about a man named Count Robin de la Lanne-Mirrlees, who was close friends with author Ian Fleming and supposedly on whom the James Bond character is based.

Pictured at a society event in the 1950. Count Robin de la Lanne-Mirrlees at a society event, circa 1950.

Count Robin (1925-2012) was Richmond Herald of Arms to Queen Elizabeth, personal friend to King Edward who abdicated, god-son of the 11th Duke of Argyle, and the godfather to the 13th Duke of Argyle. He was truly a 1900’s gentleman, in every sense of the phrase. Refined, affluent, well-to-do and well-connected, he lived a grand life yet had a kindred spirit.

Michael, intrigued by the stories he had read over the years about this man, such as his days working as a spy for MI6 or Secret Intelligence Service of the U.K., set out to find him while visiting Uncle Jimmy in 1994.

Meeting Count Robin required some effort. Michael had to travel to the Count’s island in order to rendezvous with him but it was well worth the trip. Besides being a fascinating character in his own right, Count Robin solidified an idea Michael had been dreaming up.

Count Robin was actually an adopted Mirrlees. His mother, a French countess, married General Mirrlees, who treated Robin as a son and served next to him in World War II, commanding an Indian artillery regiment. As he grew, Robin’s fascination and passion for being a Merrilees and Scottish culture grew.

While on the Count’s Island, Great Bernera in the Outer Hebrides, the two men shared their enthusiasm for being Merrilees and their desire to know more about their family history. The two decided Michael should begin a family newsletter and contact people of Merrilees descent from around the world.

The First Merrilees Family Association Newsletter

“Upon my return to the US, I went about contacting every Merrilees household in every English speaking country (some 600 households) to learn if there was an interest in this idea. I began with a newsletter and encouraged readers to send in articles for publication…” recalls Michael.

Michael looked up names in every phone book and any early Internet search engine he could find. The key to his success? He used every spelling variation of his last name from mail addressed to him over the years. This cast a wider net and today, the Merrilees Family Association proudly recognizes 130 spellings of the surname.

The first newsletter of the Merrilees Family Association was sent just after New Year’s of 1996. It began with an introduction by Dr. Robert S. Merrillees, who had gone to Scotland in the late 1970s to find his roots. After much research in local records and by word of mouth, he came to find the Merrilees cottages, a small row of humble yet picturesque stone buildings outside of Edinburgh along the Firth of Forth.

The Merrilees Cottages, outside Edinburgh. Watercolor painting of the Merrilees Cottages by Carolyn Merrylees.

While outside of Edinburgh, Dr. Merrillees found a record of the Merrilees crest and motto, “I bide my time,” accompanying a man ferrying his lass across a wild river. He also discovered Merrilees is an actual place that stands so-named to this day.

“Merri” means pleasant and “lee” means field. The area known as Merrilees in Scotland is a vast pasture-like expanse of land.

The first newsletter was a success. Michael sent out 600 letters and received 200 responses. He was puzzled however. There were an overwhelmingly amount of Merrilees family members in the United Kingdom, but none of his responses were from the UK.

The Mystery of the Silent Brits

Michael’s wife, Bunny, was outside doing yardwork and rushed in to answer a ringing telephone. Smudged with mud, she was confused by the men with funny accents on the other end of the line. They introduced themselves as Bill and David Mirrilees and said they wanted to talk to Michael.

According to Bill and David, Michael’s newsletter was not the first Merrilees letter to reach the UK. Several years prior, there had been a scam letter sent out from Ohio promising a comprehensive family tree for the Merrilees line for the price of 25 British pounds. Intrigued, many Merrilees had sacrificed the money, only to later realize they had been duped.

The Ohio Merrilees scam had made them distrustful of the genuine Merrilees Family Association Newsletter. The MFA newsletter not only came from the U.S., but it claimed to be from a relative and asked for money to subscribe. Billy and David were calling to verify Michael’s authenticity and, upon earning their trust, offer their help.

The Ohio Merrilees scam had made them distrustful of the genuine Merrilees Family Association Newsletter. The MFA newsletter not only came from the U.S., but it claimed to be from a relative and asked for money to subscribe.

Bill and David had already been scavenging through records for years–births, deaths, marriages –trying to piece together their family tree. Throughout years of research, they complied 33 unique family trees in Scotland, all with some variation of the surname Merrilees.

Michael, Billy, and David combined their collected records (Michael had genealogies from the 200 newsletter responses) and discovered the 33 original families could be condensed to 22 families.

A MFA Newsletter Response A response to a MFA newsletter, from Uncle Jimmy.

As the three continued their genealogical research, Bill and David became the mediators for the MFA in the UK. They are given credit to authenticating the MFA to European Merrilees and helping gain both trust and momentum overseas.

As readership grew internationally, Michael, Bill and David decided the MFA needed a gathering so everyone Merrilees could meet their relatives. Michael suggested in one newsletter that a gathering be held in Edinburgh, Scotland, during a long weekend in 1998.

With the idea of “stellar success being a turnout of 50 Mirrilees” family members, Michael traveled from the U.S. to Edinburgh to meet his family. The first event of the weekend was to meet in typical Scottish fashion–Friday night at the pub.

The First Merrilees Family Association Gathering

To Michael’s shock and elation, over 215 Mirrilees arrived at the door of the small Scottish pub. Michael describes the atmosphere of pub that night. “Nothing matches the excitement of the first gathering, where in one room you heard all the different varieties of English spoken by South Africans and Kiwis and Aussies and Canadians and Americans and Scots. It was really just a magical room to be in.”

The attendees of the first MFA Gathering, 1998, Edinburgh, Scotland. The attendees of the first Merrilees Family Association Gathering in Edinburgh, Scotland 1998.

By being able to meet in person, Merrilees family members soon realized that their relatives overlapped with others, and they compiled more family information. The 22 unique family trees shrunk overnight–literally–to 11 unique families.

In a room full of newly found relatives, accents and lots of Scottish food, the air was electric. A special treat was the presence of the famous Count Robin de la Lanne Mirrlees. Amidst the excitement, Count Robin got up and called everyone to settle down. He nominated Michael to become the Clan Chieft of the Merrilees Clan and the voting was a unanimous yes.

Michael’s first action as Clan Chieft was to appoint chieftains for each continent. They would act as on-the-ground MFA planners and host national events each year. Every five years, the MFA planned to gather internationally, alternating continents so everyone had a better chance to afford the expense of travel to the gatherings.

DNA Testing

During the next five years leading up to the second gathering, the idea was introduced to have DNA tests done to see if all the Merrilees were biologically related, or solely connected by a common surname.

There was a potential danger in this–if the results showed that most Merrilees were not biologically related, the MFA could lose member enthusiasm and participation. However, if the results proved a biological connection amongst most members, it would be incredible and useful in the pursuit of a genealogical family tree.

Copyrighted Merrilees Tartan 11 Most popular ways MFA members spell their surname on copyrighted Merrilees tartan, sewn by Lady Merrylees.

Eventually, the decision was made to have the DNA testing done for everyone who consented. A recent breakthrough in DNA testing had made the process very affordable. Through Family Tree DNA, Merrilees’s from all over the world sent in saliva swabs and waited for the results to be processed.

At the 2003 Edinburgh Merrilees Family Association gathering, Michael was pleased to announce that every single person who had had DNA testing done was a blood relation.

The Merrilees Clan was in fact, wholly related to one another by name and by blood.

Now with the excitement still growing about the Merrilees Family Association over a decade after its inception, the fascination of family tree construction began. Working off the original records found by Bill, David and Michael, combined with the DNA results, people all over the world were discovering who were their closest Merrilees cousins.

Through annual national gatherings and Celtic events, such as Céilidhs (pronounced kay-leez) and Highland Games, different branches of the Merrilees Clan grew closer in their respective countries. Merrilees family members wrote in about having distant cousins visit from afar and shared old (or new, depending how you look at it) stories.

The spellings of the surname Spellings of the surname still in use today, signed by various MFA members.

In 2008 the third international Merrilees Family Association Gathering was held in Dunedin, New Zealand. Because of the monetary expense of traveling internationally, each gathering attracted new Merrilees to the association and provided an unforgettable experience full of long-lost family members, new friends and lots of whisky and storytelling.

In 2013, the MFA took a break from land gatherings and spent a week on an Alaskan cruise for the fourth international gathering. The extended time–all previous gatherings had been long weekends–and confinement on the ship created the perfect atmosphere for family members to chat.

Michael recalls, “Chatting was the only thing people wanted to do. It was so lovely to just chat away with a long lost cousin that everyone on that boat could have stayed another week and been perfectly content.”

Looking To the Future

At the end of the cruise in 2013, Michael Mirrilees stepped down as Clan Chieft was succeeded by Bob Merrilees of London, England, affectionately referred to as “TV Bob.” A television production genius and trivia-game whiz, Bob is now the active Clan Chieft of the Merrilees Family Association.

Among recipes, biographies of family members, birth and death announcements, the newsletter became another thing entirely. It became a magnet that attracted Merrilees from all over the world.

The Mirrilees and his daughter, Emily, pictured at a Robert Burns Supper, hosted by the Chicago Celtic Society Thank you Dad for initiating and creating the MFA, for being my role model of a leader and showing me exactly why I should be proud to be a Mirrilees & a Scot.

Uncle Jimmy passed away in 2007, Count Robin passed in 2012. No one lives forever. Now, a new question looks the Merrilees family in the eye – Who will carry on these new traditions for the Merrilees clan? Will the Merrilees family tree grow and prosper to the next generation? This is the great challenge each generation faces — the challenge of continuity and adapting to change; not just surviving, but thriving.

I find myself not at the top, but in the middle of the climb of my family tree. In more ways than one, I am looking up to the future and watching branches continue to grow as I type. I firmly believe that the next generation will nurture the Merrilees Family Association, enjoying the beautiful pasture of our family history and continue on as an international unit.

Like the family crest, Merrilees must fight the currents of life and hold on to their heritage. After all, a Merrilees stands by our motto, “I bide my time.”