Lebby Campbell’s heart swelled as she strolled through Inveraray Castle on the mountain-fringed shores of Loch Fyne. Although she was in the Scottish Highlands, thousands of miles from her home of Charleston, South Carolina, the 34-year-old administrative assistant felt a sense of belonging.
“You read about the history of your ancestors, but when you get there and you’re on Campbell lands, it brings it all to life,” she says. “Everything hit home. I felt a sense of pride and awe and a real connection with my ancestors.”
The axes and broadswords displayed beneath a ceiling studded with the family crest made her think of blood spilt in bygone battles, Campbell says. The emotional pull she feels to this place is the driver behind what the industry calls ‘ancestral tourism’ – and in a small country such as Scotland, it’s a valued source of income. Scotland has a population of 5.4 million. But more than 50 million people worldwide have a family link to the country, and the Scottish government wants to attract more of them to visit. “There’s plenty of potential to grow this market,” says Noelle Campbell, international marketing manager of official tourism body VisitScotland.
In 2016 alone, numbers of overseas visitors to Scotland increased by 6% from the previous year – a bump accentuated by north Americans wanting to visit their ancestral homeland. The trend was in part boosted by the popular television drama Outlander, much of which is set centuries ago in war-torn Scotland.
Ancestral tourism isn’t a new concept. When I was growing up in the Scottish countryside, visitors from across the globe would turn up at our door and ask my father, a Church of Scotland minister, for help in tracing their family roots. A walk round the tombstones in the ancient church graveyard and a look at parish records would reveal whether they were descended from farmers and fishermen or paupers and renegades.
But today, researching family heritage has become simpler. The internet has made it so much easier, in fact, that genealogy is now one of the most popular online hobbies globally.
Drawn mainly from the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – historical destinations for Scottish emigrants – ancestral tourists are an economic boon for the nation. In the first nine months of 2016, visitors from these nations generated a total of £524m ($678m) for the Scottish economy – and for almost 50% of them, an ancestral connection was one of the reasons for making the trip, according to a recent study by VisitScotland.
Typically, ancestral tourists stay longer than other travellers and disperse throughout the country on itineraries linked to family history, bringing income to places beyond the classic sightseeing routes, Campbell says. They also often travel outside July and August, so their spending comes outside the high season.
Which is why, alongside majestic scenery, magical islands, castles, culture and traditions, VisitScotland’s pitch includes advice on how to ‘walk in the footsteps of your ancestry’. It is also why so many tour operators offer to help visitors pursue family stories. The Scotland-based operator Clan Chief Tours even offers to arrange and interpret DNA tests.
Christine Woodcock, who runs Genealogy Tours of Scotland from her base in Ontario, Canada, signs up groups of travellers a year in advance to help them prepare for trips costing from $3,000 Canadian dollars ($2,200) upwards. Christine’s mother was one of 20 siblings raised near Edinburgh, Scotland. She emigrated to Canada as a nurse when Christine was three years old.
The minute my clients step on Scottish soil they have an overwhelming sense of belonging – Christine Woodcock
In the six years since Woodcock began leading Canadians of Scottish descent across the Atlantic, she has seen interest grow hugely, she says. “Regardless of how many generations back the connection is, the minute they step on Scottish soil they have an overwhelming sense of belonging, a feeling that they’ve come home,” she says of her clients. “I imagine it to be similar to an adoptive child who has never known their biological parents and meets them and finally knows where they belong.”
For centuries, Scots have left their homeland – some in a spirit of adventure and discovery, but many more fleeing poverty or oppression. Between the 17th and 19th Centuries, some were transported to Australia and the Americas on convict ships.
One of the biggest waves of mass emigration came during the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th Centuries, when tenant farmers were forcibly evicted by landlords looking for bigger income. But throughout the 20th Century Scottish families settled across the globe, and continue to do so today.
While much research about family roots can be done online, on Scottish soil the story can be fleshed out. And in a country where distances are not great, it’s easy to follow the trail to the church one’s grandparents, great-grandparents or earlier generations belonged to, and to the town, village or glen where they lived. “I tell everybody: ‘Your ancestors are waiting on the shelves, you just need to come and find them’,” says Woodcock. “The wealth of information that is available in some of the records is mind boggling.”
Professional researchers call 1855 “the golden year”, says Iain Ferguson, manager of Edinburgh’s ScotlandsPeople Centre where Scottish birth, death, marriage and census records are kept. That’s because in that first year of compulsory registration, far more information was asked for than in subsequent years. Old parish registers date as far back as 1553 but not all have survived intact, says Ferguson. Some were borrowed for legal purposes then not returned and others stored in damp, rat-ridden cellars.
While there’s been a sizeable uptick in visits to the ScotlandsPeople website, 14,500 people visited the search rooms between April 2016 and March 2017. There, staff help with conundrums like surname variants – Ferguson says that even a seemingly straightforward name like his own has about 10 different spellings.
Even in the search rooms there are moments of poignancy. In the Glasgow City archives a woman in Woodcock’s group discovered records of two babies who had died. “They weren’t buried in a paupers’ grave. Their parents paid for a grave. She knew they couldn’t have afforded that and it told her how important those babies were to them. She was tearing up,” says Woodcock.
For Lebby Campbell, the family connection is many generations distant, but the connection to her clan is very much alive. (For many centuries, up to the 1746 Battle of Culloden, Scotland was run by the clan system – clan meaning ‘family’ or ‘children’ in Gaelic). Through the Clan Campbell Society, Lebby has made friends at home in South Carolina, as well as in New York City and further afield. “We call ourselves ‘kinsmen’. I’m part of a big worldwide family,” she says.
Voice aglow, she describes meeting current clan chief Torquhil Campbell, 13th Duke of Argyll – as he manned the cash desk in the gift shop of Inveraray Castle, his ancestral home. “I felt like a 13-year-old meeting Justin Bieber. It was surreal,” she says.
On their website, VisitScotland suggests itineraries for touring the glens, castles, battlefields and other sites associated with particular clans. “It’s a thrilling experience for people to touch the walls of their clan seat or visit the lands in which their ancestors held sway centuries ago,” says Noelle Campbell.
Awash with the music of drums and bagpipes, the colour of tartans and the spectacle of unique sports such as tossing the caber, Highland games and clan gatherings particularly have huge pulling power for far-flung descendants. So much so that 16 clans have received Scottish government funding to run events this summer.
But while the chance to explore the haunts of long-departed family can be an illuminating and moving experience for many ancestral tourists, not everyone finds what they are looking for.
“One woman was really quite determined that she was descended from Mary, Queen of Scots but when she came to Scotland she couldn’t find any connection,” says Woodcock. “I always tell everybody: ‘Not every Wallace was a William.’”
This story is a part of BBC Britain – a series focused on exploring this extraordinary island, one story at a time. See every BBC Britain story by heading to the Britain homepage; you can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.