Tracing your Scottish ancestry can become an obsession. It starts with curiosity about who your great-great-great-grandmother was (someone named Isobel, you think) and before you know it you are staying up until the wee hours of the morning diving deep into an online genealogy resource, fully engulfed in the excitement of finding the next branch of your family tree. Searching online for your ancestors can be an exhilarating experience but have you ever thought about making the daily life of your ancestors come alive by getting away from the computer and doing your research in person? Holding real documents from times gone by and seeing artifacts with your own eyes can bring the past alive and provide a deeper understanding of how your ancestors might have lived.
In-person visits to museums and archives to look for sources that are not directly connected to your family can add to your family history research, by expanding your knowledge of daily life in specific regions and time periods. Let’s use Scottish ancestry and a trip to the National Records of Scotland and the National Museum of Scotland as examples, with tips for visiting each.
Searching for your Scottish ancestors often leads to a trip to Scotland. In fact, travelling to Scotland specifically with the goal of following ancestors’ footsteps is so popular with Scottish diaspora that the national tourism organization, VisitScotland, has a section on their website dedicated to ancestry travel with family history resources and a downloadable guide. If you decide to make the trip to your ancestors’ homeland, set aside some time for research at local museums and archives and, with some advance preparation, you will end your trip understanding more about how your ancestors might have lived than you did when you arrived.
Visiting archives in person requires some advance research. Read each archive’s unique regulations and requirements and do some preliminary research of their online catalogues before emailing them with information about your research or a list of items you would like to see. This will allow archive staff to confirm they have what you need and to organize retrieval of any documents housed off-site, making the most of your visit and their time.
The trick to expanding your knowledge about how your family may have lived rests in resisting the urge to search their catalogues for your family! Instead, look for collections on topics or areas that relate to your ancestors, whether through similar occupations or geographical area. If you are new to archival research you might be overwhelmed by the number of available documents on your topic, especially if it is a general one. Consider narrowing your search to personal documents, such as letters or diaries, or precognitions (witness statements), as these are often easier to digest and give interesting glimpses into daily life. As for topics, if your ancestor was a farmer on the Isle of Mull, for example, you might look for documents relating to sheep or crofts in the area. If your ancestor was a schoolteacher in Sutherland you might search for records associated with the Scottish Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SSPCK), the Gaelic School(s) Society, or parish schools.
When you arrive at the archives and you begin reading the documents, think about whether your family may have gone about their daily life in the same way, or experienced similar pressures. This type of comparative research will broaden your historical knowledge while challenging what you know – or what you think you know – about how your ancestors may have lived. Plus, the experience of being up close and personal with real documents from the past is something no computer can replicate. Making a trip to see the real thing in the country of your ancestors is an experience like no other.
Visiting the Historical Search Room in New and General Register House at the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh is one stop on your Scottish ancestry trip not to be missed. If you are a budding genealogist, chances are you might want to join other family history researchers at the well-known ScotlandsPeople Centre, also found in the same complex; however, it is the hidden Historical Search Room that I think has the best hidden treasures!
Up a set of curved cement stairs and behind heavy – and closed – wooden doors, a quiet room with wood panelling and an ornate ceiling waits for your researching pleasure. Here are my tips for using the Historical Search Room:
- You will need a reader’s ticket to access the material so pack passport-style photos to take with you on your first visit.
- Bring a book. Archive staff are very efficient but when it is crowded your order may take a bit longer than you had expected, so use your time wisely.
- There is no WiFi access on site.
- On your way to their café there is a lovely walled garden with historic plantings; a nice resting spot if the weather is favourable.
After visiting the national archives, consider adding the National Museum of Scotland to your family history trip.
Located in downtown Edinburgh, within walking distance of New and General Register House, this museum is a cultural institution that I never seem to tire of given its size, scope and fascinating collection. If your goal is to add to your knowledge of time and place then, like visiting the archives, think ahead about what parts of the museum’s collection might enhance your understanding of the history of your family. Would your crofter ancestor have used the same farm implement on display? Would they have eaten from a similar plate, or perhaps something less decorative? Is the hat in the case like the ones you have noticed in family portraits? Seeing artifacts in person can spark your curiosity about your ancestors and bring history to life. Here are my tips for visiting the National Museum of Scotland:
- With three restaurants and three gift shops on site it is the perfect spot for a cuppa and a gift for grannie.
- Entrance and WiFi are free.
- Scotland’s history is displayed over six floors in one wing. Divided by time period, it also has cases specific to occupations or practices (such as medical, or public houses), which makes it easy to track down the category of objects you are interested in seeing.
On your way home from your trip, reflect on what you have seen and how it might relate to your own family history. Whether the experience has given you new ideas for your genealogy research or widened your understanding of history in general, seeing artifacts and archives in person rather than solely through a computer screen enables you to connect more deeply with your past and the past of your culture. Whether you are searching for Scottish ancestors or ones from other countries, use these tips to plan your next family history vacation. And if your travels take you through British Columbia, I encourage you to visit and support the museums and archives in our beautiful province. Online ancestral research is necessary, but nothing beats the real thing.