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Issue 1 - Ancestral home

Scotland Magazine Issue 1
March 2002

 

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Ancestral home

There is a saying in Scotland that it costs you nothing to find out who your ancestors are, but it costs a fortune to keep it quiet. That may be true, but Scotland is a small country with under five million inhabitants and if there are any skeletons in the closet, the likelihood is everybody already knows about them.

It was my father who researched the Martine family tree during his retirement. His findings provided a fascinating read in a mundane kind of way. For example, some Martines share a Bolton graveyard with Robert Burns’s mother, brother and sister, but that is as far as the association goes, so far as I know.

For anybody who mistakenly thought the Martines were French aristocrats, there are generations of East Lothian blacksmiths, tanners, brewers and doctors stretching back into the 14th century to dispel the illusion. But what it provides me with is a sense of belonging to somewhere special, despite the old family home in Haddington having become the local police station.

The one thing about being born into a small town community or rural family in the south-east of Scotland is you invariably married locally. You were buried there too. Nobody ever travelled far from home in the days before Britain acquired its Colonies and it became both fashionable and necessary to do so.

Highlanders and West-Coasters were more adventurous, either by choice or demand – but where would Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA be today without them? It is estimated over 27 million people in the world today can claim Scottish ancestry.

And this is exactly what Scotland’s tourist authority, VisitScotland, has in mind with the launch of its latest initiative; a web portal to encourage people of Scottish descent around the world not only to research their origins, but to return to the homeland and see for themselves where it all began.

Perhaps it is a symptom of growing older but genealogy has been identified as the fastest growing pastime in the western world and, according to statistics, 50% of visitors to Scotland who make enquiries at Area Tourist Offices boast a family connection.

It doesn’t matter if you’re in Darwin, Dallas or Doncaster. By going online to www.ancestralscotland.com, a world of possibilities opens up. If you know the name of a Scottish ancestor and roughly when they were born, married or died, information from the General Register Office for Scotland should set you on the right track. There are also links to parish records, recommended reading, information sources and people who can help.

But that alone is not enough. Once the investigation is underway, there is no excuse for not following it through, and there has never been a better time to visit Scotland.

I recently read Alistair Macleod’s poignant book No Great Mischief in which he tells the story of a red-haired, black-eyed Highland family who set sail from Moidart in 1779. Across the Atlantic Ocean they settled in ‘the land of trees’ where they soon became a separate Nova Scotia clan, with its own identity and history. Brought right up to date, the narrator visits his dying uncle in Toronto who remembers the great stories of his people and their resilient battle with the land; men forever in exile from their homeland.

It reminded me of characters I met when I attended the Halifax Tattoo, then followed the Cabot Trail around Cape Breton to end up at the Antigonish Highland Games. There are also the friends from the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games in North Carolina and National Tartan Day celebrations in New York and Washington.

Everywhere I’ve been in North America, I’ve met people proud of their Scottish descent. What amazes me is that only a handful of them have ever set foot in Scotland.

Now is the time, I think, to put this right.