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Issue 32 - Making the journey

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 32
April 2007


This article is 11 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Making the journey

In the last issue we looked at how to about researching your family tree. But how do you go about actually visiting the home of your ancestors? Dominic Roskrow reports

If you‘ve been bitten by the genealogy bug and decide that you want to take your enthusiasm to its logical conclusion and actually travel to the land of your forefathers, then you should heed three pieces of advice: prepare for your trip properly, don’t cut financial corners when employing a travel company, and be prepared for the emotional rollercoaster which will surely follow.

In the last issue we outlined how to set about compiling your family tree, and we suggested that a substantial investment in time was required in order to achieve very much. That same sort of commitment should be invested when planning a trip, too.

“Once you have compiled your family tree you need to start researching the places you want to visit,” says Peter Gray, who has run the company Scottish Ancestral Trail with his wife for the last three and a half years.

“It may be that you can get a company in Scotland like ours involved to help you draw up a comprehensive itinerary. Certainly there should be a flow of emails between people in Scotland and the person travelling there weeks and even months before so that everything is planned properly.

“It’s amazing but there are people who turn up and knock on the door of the local registry offices expecting them to be able to tell them all about their great great uncle Jimmy or arrive in Edinburgh expecting the information they want to be to hand. It’s just not going to happen that way.

“Planning a route around Scotland is important, too, because it’s very hard to get a proper sense of how long it takes to travel from place to place just by looking at a map.

Ideally you will have made contact with the people who can help provide information so that they are expecting you when you arrive and have already been able to source the sort of information you are looking for.

“And anybody setting out on this journey should have a clear idea of what they want to achieve. For some people it’s about finding out about individual ancestors, for others it’s about visiting places associated with the family name.

But what you ideally want to get out of the trip is not just another set of statistics and dates – much of that stuff is available through the internet.

What you want is information about how your ancestors lived and worked, and to visit the place where they are buried, and see the buildings they lived in, or the schools they were educated in.

Perhaps to visit the place from where their ancestors first sailed from to America. In some cases we’ve even been able to trace newspapers carrying adverts for the very crossing that a person’s ancestors took.” So before doing anything else it’s important to visit places such as and Such research can have an additional benefit, too. Lyn Rudberg from Illinois, for instance, discovered through her research that she was related to the Grant family who own Glenfarclas Distillery. Indeed, she met George Grant in America before she travelled over to Speyside and visited the distillery. In another case another American discovered they had links with the Laphroaig Distillery on the west coast isle of Islay.

Whether you’ll be fortunate enough to have family connections in a whisky distillery is a matter of conjecture of course, but the chances certainly rise if you invest the time to find out as much as you can.

An increasingly popular way of doing this is through DNAName Projects. Most clan websites now talk of this method, which involves taking a sample of your DNA and matching it with specific regions of Scotland. This method can throw up some real curiosities and information way beyond the hard data stored in archives.

“Last year we had some Johnstons who had traced their ancestors and it turned out that they were from very close to Moffat where we are based,” says Peter.

It’s a false economy to make the journey to Scotland for only a short period of time or to unnecessarily cut corners to save money. It’s quite possibly a once in a lifetime opportunity to discover something about your past, so make the most of it.

“If you can afford to do it, choose a company that can accompany you on your trip or drive you round and one which can plan your trip so that you get the most out of it. And of course the longer you spend in Scotland, the more you’ll experience,” argues Peter.

Scottish Ancestral Trail, for instance, pitches itself at the top end of the market but works alongside companies to organise the itinerary and accommodation as you’d expect. The drivers take a camera so that each stage of the trip can be recorded and put on to disk with a musical background. A scrapbook of each trip is made, perhaps containing old maps from the period of a visitor’s ancestors as well as the route the visitors took while in Scotland, and the company sets up meetings with local historians and librarians in advance.

Which brings us to the third piece of advice – be prepared for the emotional rollercoaster that such a trip will involve.

“You want to travel with a company that will offer more than a holiday,” says Peter.

“You want people who will help you understand something of how your ancestors lived and worked.

“Many people come over here and see this beautiful country and they can’t understand why they left it in the first place. They need to understand that at the time of their ancestors, working on the land was a bloody awful way to live, and working in the factories was even worse.

And that getting on board a leaking boat that may or may not make it across to the other side was still the better of two evils.

“But just standing where their relatives stood, and knowing that they saw the same hills and fields can be very emotional.

Standing by the quay from which their relatives first sailed can reduce you to tears.” On one occasion a couple came from the rough and tumble of Detroit and traced some relatives to a little parish in Kelso. They discovered their ancestor had looked after the church there at one time and visited it with the church warden, who unlocked the building with a big old key. When the warden told them that it was the original key and the only one the church had ever had, they realised that their relative would have unlocked the church door with that very same key.

Genealogy has become increasingly popular in recent years, so much so that VisitScotland is investing considerable time and effort in promoting it as a tourist option.

Few who do come in search of their forefathers leave disappointed. Many of them leave enriched, stating that they feel more complete in some way.

“Few regret the time and effort once they’ve done it,” says Peter.