As any family historian worth his or her salt will tell you, research can lead you down all sorts of weird and wonderful avenues.
While it is all too easy to be seduced by the information available on the internet, the real fun in tracing your family tree is from getting your hands on original documents, held by archives and local studies centres, along with the chance to ‘walk in the footsteps’ of your forebears and to connect with the ancestral homeland.
People will travel far and wide to do so. The first Year of Scottish Homecoming in 2009 demonstrated the worldwide interest in Scottish roots. With a second Year of Homecoming scheduled for 2014 preparations are already beginning to take shape. As part of this process, a free facilitated workshop will take place at the Kintore Arms Hotel, Inverurie, Aberdeenshire, on 15 March, 2012, with author and broadcaster Nick Barratt as guest speaker.
With other speakers from VisitScotland and local organisations, the aim is to increase awareness of the potential of ancestral tourism among hoteliers, bed and breakfast proprietors, tour guide operators and the like, as well as to establish partnerships for future joint working.
According to VisitScotland, there are approximately 50 million people worldwide who can lay claim to Scottish ancestry. By extension, the North-East, with around 9% of the Scottish population, might therefore expect almost five million of these to have family roots in the area – that’s a big potential market. It is further estimated that ancestral tourism is worth around £75 million per year to the Scottish economy, with ancestral tourists tending to stay longer and spend more than the average visitor.
The workshop, made possible with money from the European Regional Development Fund, is the brainchild of the Aberdeen & North-East Scotland Ancestral Tourism Partnership, a consortium of regional archives, museums and family history organisations. The members range in size from large institutions such as Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Archives and the University of Aberdeen’s Special Collections, through to much smaller voluntary organisations like the Portsoy Salmon Bothy and the Family History Society of Buchan.
A tangible example of an ancestral tourist is Bev Clarke, a librarian from Tasmania. In 1989, Bev had traced her ancestors back to her 3x great-grandfather Alexander Coutts, but had hit the proverbial brick wall familiar to so many ancestor hunters, and thought she would never be able to find anything more about his family history. The only information she could find at that point was that he had been a compositor, had died in Hobart in 1859 at the age of 47 and had been born in Scotland.
However, more than 20 years later, an internet search gave Bev a starting point to research much more and eventually led back to the birth of her 6x great-grandfather in 1699. Bev found that her Alexander Coutts was the third generation of the same name. His grandfather was the son-in-law of Alexander Ross, poet and schoolmaster in Lochlee, Angus. Bev was related to a man who was famous in his own lifetime and also influenced Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns. The poem for which Ross is best remembered is Helenore or The Fortunate Shepherdess, first published in Aberdeen in 1768.
At that point, May 2010, Bev was planning a holiday in Europe. Her discovery resulted in a change of holiday plans to include a visit to Aberdeen and the North-East of Scotland, a part of the country she had never been to before.
Half the battle of ancestor hunting is knowing where to find the records that are relevant to your research. This is where a single, first port of call can be so important. The website of the Aberdeen & North East Scotland Ancestral Tourism Partnership www.northeastscotlandroots.com, is just such a resource. Bev Clarke used the website, which has an accompanying booklet titled Routes to Your North East Roots, as she was preparing her trip.
Once in Scotland, Bev went first to Edinburgh, to the Scotland’s People research centre and the National Library of Scotland. Her research then took her to the North-East where she became a regular at Aberdeen City Library’s Local Studies section. She also made good use of original records at the Gordon Highlander’s Museum, Aberdeen City & Aberdeenshire Archives and the excellent resources of the Aberdeen & North East Scotland Family History Society.
As an important part of her visit, Bev wanted to visit Lochlee, to see the old kirkyard where her famous ancestor and his wife are buried, and perhaps to see the ruins of the old schoolhouse which online searches suggested might still be possible. She enlisted the services of professional Blue Badge tourist guide Elma McMenemy and at first booked her for a day visit to Lochlee and other places of interest.
Elma became fascinated by the story, and before Bev had returned to Tasmania, they spent seven days touring likely locations across the North East, as well as visiting some of the area’s other historical attractions, including the castles of Drum and Craigievar.
As with many ancestral tourists who visit the places that loom large in their family trees, Bev was taken aback by the overwhelming emotion she felt during many of the visits. Indeed, the whole area gave her such a sense of her past that she found it almost impossible to leave. So much so that she altered her plans, and instead of visiting Oxford to explore another branch of her family, she extended her stay in the North-East.
Now back in Tasmania, Bev is researching further and has already booked flights to Aberdeen for a visit in September and October 2012. Her story is a tangible demonstration of how a person’s quest for their family history can translate into an ancestral tourism experience: she needed a tour guide, accommodation and sustenance, all of which mean income for local businesses.
It is also a great example of how a family historian, armed with the right information, will make use of different archives, local studies centres or museums to compile the information they are looking for. To facilitate this ‘joined up’ experience, two preconditions are required: firstly, those organisations need to work cooperatively and market themselves together. Secondly, accommodation providers, tour guide operators and others in the tourism sector need to be provided with information so that they can confidently point the ancestral tourist in the right direction.
Ancestral tourists have a good geographical spread. They do not simply stick to cities where the main archives, libraries and family history societies tend to be located, but they go to the towns, villages and rural communities where their ancestors came from. This means that smaller organisations, where the genealogist can often glean really detailed, juicy information, have an important role to play, as do the communities where they are located.
By recognising the needs of the ancestral tourism market and by organisations big and small joining forces to cater for it, the family historian as well as the economy of the region can benefit.
Phil Astley is City Archivist for Aberdeen City & Aberdeenshire Archives and chair of the Aberdeen & North East Scotland Ancestral Tourism Partnership. He lives in Newburgh with his wife, three children and a seemingly ever-growing menagerie of pets.Tweet
This is an article from the March 2012 edition of Leopard Magazine. To read much more like this every month, subscribe to Leopard Magazine.