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The tangled Tartan web which links Dundee to Spider-Man star Zendaya

Movie star Zendaya's family history traces back to the City of Discovery.

They were born 100 years apart and while Douglas Whitelaw entered the world in poverty in Dundee, one of his descendants has subsequently become a major actress and singer in the United States.

Yet, though there is no apparent connection between the young Scot, who emigrated to Canada in 1911 at the age of 15, and Zendaya, 25, who is one of the stars of the new Spider-Man movie, they are part of the same family tree in a tangled web which even Peter Parker would be proud of creating.

Just as in the Marvel comics and film canon, the road to fulfilment is never straightforward. But now, Claire Stoermer, the mother of the Hollywood actress, has revealed that the latter’s maternal great-grandfather, Douglas Whitelaw, was born in Tayside in 1896 and lived in Dundee during his formative years with his parents before moving to Vancouver in 1911.


Father and son made the same trek

The Whitelaws toiled hard to escape from the endemic poverty which gripped so many people like a vice in the early days of the 2oth century.

But it was a tough challenge and, determined to improve their quality of his family’s life, Douglas’ father, Harry Tulloch Whitelaw, and then his son both embarked on the gruelling and often dangerous journey by ship.

Claire said: “He [Douglas] was about 15 when he left Dundee and went to Canada, arriving first in Halifax, and then taking a train to Vancouver where his father had already set up a business as a certified public accountant.”

He was, by all accounts, a bright, outgoing fellow. But he hadn’t been involved in business for long before storm clouds started reverberating across Europe and cast their grip over the globe during the First World War.

The youngster was a hero in conflict

Although he was barely old enough to join the army at the outbreak of hostilities, it was clear young Douglas was committed to joining the ranks of those who flocked to the fields of France, Belgium and other parts of Europe.

So he enlisted with the Canadian Highlanders, who were among the myriad fresh-faced soldiers who arrived unaware into the carnage of the trenches.

Douglas showed his mettle during the campaign, but was eventually forced to return home to Canada with shrapnel wounds after being shot in the shoulder during intensive fighting between his regiment and the enemy.

But that was a merciful reprieve which allowed him to resume his life and fall in love once the ceasefire had finally been declared.

At this point, the story becomes as intriguing as the most labyrinthine of thrillers. Claire has spoken of how the young Scot met and was smitten by a Canadian woman, Thelma Ray Kelly.

The couple soon married and their daughter, Daphne Carol – Zendaya’s future maternal grandmother – was born in Vancouver in the 1930s.

While Douglas and his family settled permanently in Canada, she gradually made the decision to travel to America to study and the rest, as they say in Hollywood, is history. Or at least the start of it.

As Claire said: “She met my father and that’s why the family is here”.

A melting pot of ethnic backgrounds

In recent years, Zendaya has been the recipient of numerous accolades, including a Primetime Emmy Award and other honours in music and film.

Her movie roles include the blockbuster musical drama The Greatest Showman, the superhero film Spider-Man: Homecoming and its sequels, the computer-animated musical comedy Smallfoot, the romantic drama Malcolm & Marie and the recently-released science fiction epic Dune.

Zendaya as MJ in No Way Home.

She has been romantically linked with Tom Holland, who plays Spider-Man in the smash-hit franchise, but Zendaya has become an icon in her own right, taking the music world by storm and becoming a charity patron, businesswoman and political campaigner with her own foundation.

With Scottish and German ancestry on her mother’s side and African-American ethnicity in her father’s lineage, she is one of the biggest ‘influencers’ on social media with nearly 20 million followers on Twitter.

And yes, she knows about her roots with Victorian working-class Scotland.

Will we see her here in the future?

Her mother has talked to the woman who was born Zendaya Maree Stoermer Coleman in 1996 about her links to the city of jute, jam and journalism.

And, as she told the Daily Mail: “When I was about 16, I went with my mom to Scotland and we loved it. We did all the touristy stuff and we found out about the family tartan, which is called Drummond.

“Zendaya knows about her Scottish heritage and is proud of it. She hasn’t been to Scotland yet, but I know she would love to visit some time.”

It probably won’t happen for the foreseeable future, given the combination of the pandemic, her hectic schedule and litany of commitments.

But if her rise to fame sounds like a Disney scenario, that is probably because Zendaya began with the animated studio and quickly made her name there.

A name extending all the way back to the Whitelaws in Dundee as they strove to find a better life across the Atlantic.