Heritage Travel in Scotland – Travelling Through Your Family History

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Tracing Scottish Ancestry - House ruins on the Isle of Lewis

Heritage travel in Scotland? What’s that? Basically, it’s the idea of planning a trip to Scotland around your family history, or at least part of it!

Many visitors to Scotland feel a profound sense of connection with the country because they know they had ancestors from there. But Scotland isn’t a small country really, and there’s a lot to be said for being able to visit a particular place and know that a bit of your family history comes from there. With a little bit of research, many people find that they can do just that!

Having traced my own family history in Scotland and visited locations where my ancestors lived, I understand first hand how powerful that can be for people who really take an interest in these things. Even for those who might not have been interested before, a visit to Scotland can change that!

I’m still working to piece even some things together and build more connections, but I wanted to share my journey through my family history in Scotland and some tips for those of you who want to start your own research. 

My family history story

Finding out the stories of my ancestors and family past has always intrigued me. I’ve been lucky enough to have some of my family tree done by relatives, but I’ve also spent a lot of time filling in the gaps through research I’ve done myself.

Growing up as a New Zealander of European descent means that my family history within the country itself only extends so far, although I can lay claim to some of my ancestors being on the first official New Zealand Company boats to arrive at Petone, near Wellington. Thanks to the relative youth of New Zealand as we know it today, I have the ability to trace my family through not-so-distant records to places further afield, that sounded so much more exotic and interesting to my young self.

I think this gave me an interest in places overseas from a young age, especially also as one branch of my family tree also only extends as far as my grandfather, whose parents were born in Scotland and moved there with his older siblings before he was born. The idea that I might one day get to visit where they came from was both exciting and amazing. You might even say this is where my travel bug began!

Outside ancestral family home in Shetland
My Dad, my brother, and I outside the place in Shetland where my great-grandparents lived before they moved to New Zealand

While I know that family history holds absolutely no interest for some, for others born in countries far from their ancestors, like New Zealand, Australia, the United States, and Canada, it seems to be held into with a firm grip as a description of who they are. I have never claimed to be Scottish, or English, or French, or possibly even Scandinavian, but I do acknowledge that these places are parts of my family history and ones that I am keen to explore further.

Over the years I’ve taken several trips that have combined my love of travel and tracing my family history, visiting the places that I had at first only heard of in the pages of archives.

My mother and I visited Tasmania, and amongst our travels to the most popular destinations there we also added a day trip to a small, nondescript town, simply because it was the birthplace of a great-great-grandmother.

Part of the reason I moved to Scotland in the first place is that I felt a bit more of a connection to it than I did to England. It’s the place where my relatives most recently moved to New Zealand from, in the 1920s, and it was mentioned much more frequently as part of my heritage growing up.

I’ve seen the house that my great grandparents built after moving to New Zealand, and it was priceless to me to visit the house they left on Unst in Shetland, the northernmost inhabited island of Great Britain. Visiting also meant I was able to do further research into local archives and then use online resources to find maps that had the names of houses where my family lived as well. 

House ruins in Skaw Unst Shetland
One of a group of houses now in ruins where my ancestors may have lived

So what’s my point in all of this? Basically, learning about your family history can enhance your travels, especially if you’re going somewhere that you want to visit anyway but where you might be able to find a more special connection. But where do you begin and how do you plan a heritage trip to Scotland?

Tips for Planning a Scotland Heritage Trip

Take advantage of online family history resources

The easiest place to start planning a heritage trip is from your own home. There are so many resources online now, although some are free and some are paid. But as more and more records are released into the public arena you’ll find it easier to trace your family tree.

While it is possible to go directly to records like Birth, Marriage, and Death Registers or a Census, you can also use websites that have collated those all in one place, like the following:

Decide what family line you want to trace and then start with someone whose full name you know, and an identifying factor about them like a date of birth, death, or marriage. From there you will hopefully be able to start finding information about them that will lead you to their parents, and so on.

Viking Boat on Unst, Shetland

Make sure you keep records of what you find and where you found it! It can be a nightmare if you fall down a rabbit hole but then can’t figure out where you found that information again.

While the big sites are great for exploring your family tree as they have a lot of the records available in one place, don’t discount using other sources too. For example, someone in Shetland has taken the time to compile all of the available family tree information for anyone from Shetland, including people who lived there in the past and moved away. You can find it at https://www.bayanne.info/Shetland/ if you think you have family from there. Such an amazing resource!

Here are some Scotland-specific sites to try:

With the information you find you will hopefully be able to place your ancestors in specific locations that you might be able to visit for yourself!

Blackhouse Village on the Isle of Lewis

Take a DNA Test

Taking a DNA test isn’t going to help you identify past relatives, but it will give an idea of the regions they were from, plus if you’re interested in connecting with living relatives then there’s that possibility too!

I’ve toyed with the idea of taking an ancestry DNA test since I knew they existed, so I was ridiculously excited to receive one as a present last Christmas. It was amazing to see the breakdown of my ancestry, confirmed as 92.3% Great British and Irish and 7.7.% North and West Europe. Not terribly exciting, of course, but still is for me!

Within those regions, it breaks them down much further, including some places which were no surprise given my knowledge of my family tree, like 10.6% Orkney & Shetland Islands and 7.7% Cornwall, but some that were like 14.7% Northwest England where I have no knowledge of relatives, and only 2.5% Irish where I thought I had many more! It also says I have relatives from other areas in Scotland like the Northwest and Aberdeenshire, which spurs me to find out more about how and when. 

Mullapund Shetland Scotland
My Great-Great Grandparents house in Shetland

There are a few different options for at-home heritage DNA testing kits as well, depending on what you’re looking for. I did LivingDNA because it gives a good break down of Great Britain, although it did lump Ireland into one place so I would be interested in seeing if another test would break down that too.

Here are some options:

  • LivingDNA – Can give results that show DNA from your paternal and maternal line (paternal only for men) and breaks down Great Britain into smaller regions.
  • AncestryDNA – The best chance of connecting with relatives as so many have taken the test
  • 23andMe – More focussed on health reporting but does give the option to connect to relatives
  • Family Tree DNA – Also offers paternal and maternal lines
  • MyHeritage DNA – Includes online tools for comparing family trees to other possible living relatives

Researching Scottish Clans

People with Scottish Ancestry also have the option of undertaking research based on their surname, or the surname of one of their ancestors. This sort of name-based research might not be exact as you won’t know exactly how much your family was involved with a clan, but it can tell you a bit more about a part of yourself now too! 

Clans were created through ancient traditions and by about the 13th century were pretty firmly established in the Scottish Highlands. Clan chiefs (or Lairds) held quite a bit of power as they were often in charge of large pieces of land that groups of people lived off. While “clan” is the Gaelic word for “family” or “children” the people weren’t always necessarily related and sometimes just adopted the “clan” name because of where they lived. 

The clan system continued for several centuries until the Battle at Culloden, where the Jacobite Rebellion was defeated by King George II’s troops. The combination of this and the Highland Clearances that followed led to the dissolution of clan life. 

However, if you have a family name that was a well-known clan, you may be able to trace them back to a particular part of Scotland that you can then visit for yourself! 

Gravesite at Culloden Scotland
Culloden Battlefield, Inverness

My maiden name is Thomson, which is the most common spelling in Scotland. However, because my family came from Shetland it’s quite likely the name may have been as a result of the Scandanavian convention of naming sons after their father (Son of Thomas = Thomason = Thomson) rather than because they were a part of a particular clan. I need to do more research into this myself! 

A note on clan tartans: Many of these were established in the 19th century. Clans may have worn very similar tartans because they were made from wool dyed at their home, and they would have had similar materials to work with, but they likely looked a bit different to now. That doesn’t mean you can’t wear a tartan now and be proud of it, however! 

Map out places to visit

Once you have some concrete places to visit that you know are related to your family ancestry then you can map out where they are and start planning your visit! You might find this takes you off the beaten path or to somewhere you never previously considered, but in my opinion, it’s worth it if you’re interested in your heritage.

Have a copy of your family tree accessible during your travels

Of course, you can take paper notes with you, but at the very least have online access to a copy of your family tree and details so that if you’re looking to find out anything while you’re travelling, or want to remember exactly what someone’s name or birthdate was, then you can access it.

I’ve definitely been caught out when we passed an old cemetery on a trip and decided to stop and look at some of the headstones and the names sounded familiar but I couldn’t say for certain if they were relatives.

List out documents you already have and things you’re looking for

If you’ve hit a brick wall in your investigations or you know there’s a document you need but can’t find it or get it sent to you abroad then make a note of it to take with you.

Uig, Isle of Lewis - Cemetery

Visit local archives

Adding in a little heritage investigation time to your trip isn’t a bad idea! In Tasmania, my Mum and I visited the local archives and I finally found out the name of an ancestor I just couldn’t trace before for some reason.

When we visited Unst in Shetland we went to the Heritage Centre and found a huge handwritten family tree already compiled that included my great grandparents. It even had little notes about the houses they may have lived in, which helped us with further tracing. There were also original documents available at the Shetland Museum & Archives in Lerwick about property ownership that couldn’t be accessed online or found anywhere else.

If you do want to visit local archives then it’s worth making a note of their opening times and contacting them in advance if you’re looking for something specific.

Planning to a heritage trip can be a little daunting, but if you have the time to do the research in advance then it can make for an amazing and special occasion!

Sonja x 

2 thoughts on “Heritage Travel in Scotland – Travelling Through Your Family History

  1. Yvonne says:

    This is a very helpful post, thank you. I do enjoy tracing family history and visiting actual places ancestors have lived. It’s an amazing ‘feeling’ to see sites and areas they were in, even though they may have changed quite a bit from when they actually lived there many years before, it is still nice to imagine they may have walked on the same path that you are standing on.

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