Making the most of visiting your Ancestral Lands

Dr Bruce Durie advises on starting your search for Scottish ancestry.

Exciting time! You have booked your ancestral tour, got your travel tickets and headed for the airport. But how much preparation did you do before booking? Not just packing, but having all the information at your fingertips to really make the best of your experience.

There’s no question that anyone who comes to Scotland has a good time. The culture, the stunning scenery, the visitor-friendly towns and cities, the welcoming inhabitants, the food and drink and even (most of the time!) the weather – they all add up to an unbeatable experience. And yet, many visitors say it could have been so much better if they had thought a bit more deeply about what they wanted to achieve.

So, start here – possibly as much as a year beforehand – and build yourself a unique ancestral experience that will last a lifetime.

1. Who are you, really?
You may have a well-worked-out family history and know exactly what your Scottish background is, in which case, congratulations. Most people, though, rely on stories from kinfolk, unreliable family trees online, imagined histories and sometimes outright invention. It only takes one elderly great-aunt to say: “I was told we were connected to Mary Queen of Scots”, and it sets a whole bunch of hares chasing.

Fortunately, Scotland has the most complete and easiest to access set of family history resources on the planet. Do not rely on and, as they simply don’t have the full range of necessary Scottish records. See Ten Top Tips For Starting Your Scottish Family History and take it from there.

2. Or, hire a professional genealogist
Scotland has an excellent network of professional and qualified family history researchers, and many are members of the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG). Go to, select “Search by Location”, enter “Scotland” and choose. First, you may have to find a genealogist local to where you live, to track down your “Gateway Ancestor” – the original emigrant from Scotland.

Once you’re ready to engage with a genealogist in Scotland, it may be best to find someone who lives near your area of interest or your ancestral heartlands, so…

3. Where do come from?
Some ancestral tours are general and will give you an excellent excursion based around historic castles, the Stuart Kings, the Outlander books and so on. But what about something really bespoke? It would be dreadful to find, after you’re home again, that you drove straight past that crucial graveyard, battle-site, village or farm where you ancestors lived and worked.

Do not necessarily settle for a tour of the Highlands – not everyone came from there. In fact the majority of Scottish emigration was from the Lowlands and Borders, and had nothing to do with the Clan system.

It may be that your family’s story is even better than you think. For instance, the Borders is the Loire Valley of Scotland, with a stunning collection of castles and grand houses, picturesque small towns, glorious food and drink… and a vibrant, bloody history every bit as good as anything the Highlands has to offer. Fife and the East Coast Lowlands (which go as far north as Aberdeenshire) are fairly dripping with history and the visitor attractions to match. Plus, if you’re in the right place, you can continue your research on the spot.

If you don’t know where your surname originates from, take soundings from the appropriate Clan or Family Association back home, or ask the Family History Society near you, or where your first immigrant ancestors lived after emigration. Find your appropriate Clan of Family Society at, enter your surname and scroll down to Clan Links. There are specific surname area maps there. Also try the links at Alternatively, PublicProfiler ( will tell you where your surname was clustered in 1881.

Is there anything going on during your visit? It would be terrible to miss that Gathering or Games, or music festivals. Most events will be listed at

4. Use local resources
Hit a brick wall? Run out of online records to search? The chances are the answers to your family story are in a local archive or other repository. Before you go, get to know the Family History Society local to your area of interest in Scotland and ask them where would be best to search. Start at The Scottish Association of Family History Societies ( Once you have identified the correct resource, get in touch – you may need to make an appointment ahead of time to visit an appropriate collection or graveyard, but that’s all part of your preparation and planning. Tell your Tour Company or Guide so it can be built in.

5. Tour guide?
You may be joining a large, pre-organised tour, or you may have contacted a Scottish tour company for something more bespoke. Jamie, Lord Sempill has both package and custom-built tours at

6. Dress for the part
It’s likely at some point you’ll be tramping over some fairly challenging ground – even just going to a graveyard – so sensible walking shoes are essential. The weather can be, let’s say “changeable”, and you could encounter four seasons in one day, even at the height of summer. Light waterproofs and layers of clothing are the answer.

And for evening wear? If you have a kilt, by all means bring it, but remember it will add to the weight of your hold baggage. Most people go for “smart-casual” with something like a tartan shawl or scarf for ladies or a crest-pin for men.

So, will your ancestral experience last a lifetime? Actually it won’t, because you’ll be back!

Dr Bruce DurieThis information was kindly supplied by:
Dr. Bruce Durie BSc (Hons) PhD OMLJ FSAScot FCollT FIGRS FHEA
Genealogist, Author, Broadcaster, Lecturer
Shennachie to the Chief of Durie
Shennachie to COSCA
Honorary Fellow, University of Strathclyde
Member, Académie Internationale de Généalogie