Scotland: Tracing Ancestral Trails

Scotland: Finding your routes where millions of Americans came from

By Kristi Girdharry

Lynn Rudberg, shown with her husband Tim at Stirling Castle, set out to discover her Scottish roots with the help of Scottish Ancestral Trails.
Lynn Rudberg, shown with her husband Tim at Stirling Castle, set out to discover her Scottish roots with the help of Scottish Ancestral Trails.

“Scottish Ancestral Trail, the only Scottish-based luxury tour operator focusing solely on Scotland, creates specifically tailored vacations for people based on their own family research,” says Tracey Legat, Marketing and PR Consultant for Scottish Ancestral Trail.

“They can take you to the villages where your ancestors lived, the church where they were married and the dockside from whence they left. They can also arrange meetings with historians and genealogists to help you gain a better understanding of Scotland of the time,” Legat says.

“With the continued interest in family genealogy these types of specialized vacations are a natural progression.”

Scottish Ancestral Trail is owned and managed by husband and wife team Peter and Lesley Gray and is based in Dumfriesshire in the southwest of Scotland.

The business came about after the Grays researched their own family trees. The subject was fascinating to them, so they set forth on a venture to capitalize on their passion and to help others who shared their same curiosity.

As Lesley Gray says, “We found that tracking down the remote places where our own ancestors came from very time consuming, despite our familiarity with the country! We started to think how much harder it must be for visitors from overseas to find these places in the time frame of a short holiday.”

Where They Came From

Scotland is rich with ancient history, lovely scenery, and wonderful places to travel, but it used to be considered a place to avoid… Maybe that’s why so many Scots found their way across the Atlantic.

A family outing on Loch Long around 1920.
A family outing on Loch Long around 1920.

The first Scots started emigrating to America in the 1600s. There were waves of immigrants during the Cromwellian Civil War and the Jacobite rebellions. They came for different reasons: some were criminals facing prison or execution, while others were simply poor and looking for a better life somewhere else.

Today, as with many distant relatives of immigrants, the Scots have flourished all over the country. This has left some people wondering where their relatives came from. Thanks to Scottish Ancestral Trails, people looking to follow the roots of their family tree have access to professional help and the trip of a lifetime.

Affirming Our Identity

Lynn Rudberg, 65, of Batavia, Illinois, started researching her Scottish genealogy in the 1980s. “Who knows why some of us become obsessed with our ancestors. Perhaps it’s a matter of affirming our identity,” she says. “At any rate I really had not made much progress on my Scotland ancestors as their names were so common, and I had enough to keep me busy on this side of the pond.”

Peter Gray's great-grandmother spinning wool on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides in the late 1800s
Peter Gray’s great-grandmother spinning wool on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides in the late 1800s.

Last spring, Rudberg hired a genealogist and was able to find some clues to her paternal Grant family in the Highlands. Around this same time, she read about Ancestral Trail in Family Chronicle magazine.

“I think it was last August that I finally e-mailed Lesley, and we began working on a plan for us to visit the area where the Grants came from.”

It Adds Up

“The only difficulty was deciding to spend the money to make the journey. I never have added it all up! Naturally it was costly since we had to travel Scotland from the middle, to the top, to the bottom, and back to Edinburgh; and then we wanted to visit London for a week.

“Lesley was very patient with me as I hemmed and hawed. She was quick to respond to e-mails and just so helpful in general. By last November we knew we were going for certain. I had been in correspondence with George Grant from Glenfarclas [a distillery Rudberg learned about through her queries] and was able to meet with him when he visited Chicago in late November. We indeed are distant cousins.”

Traveling like this does add up, but there are ways to keep your costs down. Keep in mind that the cheapest times to travel to Scotland are during the off-season which is November 1 – December 12 and December 26 – March 14. In the past few years, airlines have been offering great deals during these times. Also, remember that flights are less expensive during the week than on the weekends.

Peter and Lesley Gray of Scottish Ancestral Trail
Peter and Lesley Gray of Scottish Ancestral Trail.

Scotland winters may be rainy and cold, but the winter season might give visitors a more honest view of Scottish life. You will get a chance to see Scots going about their everyday lives largely unhindered by tourist invasions.

Additionally, many hotel prices drop by a significant amount. Also, by arriving after the winter holidays, you can take advantage of post-Christmas sales to buy your fill of woolens, china, crystal, silver, fashion, and handicrafts — so you can spend all that money you saved on other accommodations!

Rudberg’s Trip Begins

“So the last week of May 2006, off we went,” Rudberg says excitedly, “First of all, we hit the UK during a two-week period of sun and wonderful weather, and that really helped. Lesley and our driver, Jim, met us at the airport in Edinburgh.

“That first day is kind of a daze, and I recall just feeling disbelief: am I really here? Jim whisked us off to our hotel, which was located right off the Royal Mile. After we had settled, Lesley appeared and explained our itinerary.”

Lynn Rudberg is shown inside Drumcoltran Tower, where one of her ancestors once lived.
Lynn Rudberg is shown inside Drumcoltran Tower, where one of her ancestors once lived.

Rudberg then explained how this was actually the “final” itinerary, for the Grays had been keeping her up to date via e-mail as to how the trip would play out.

“On the second day, she had arranged for a local historian to walk us up the Royal Mile to Edinburgh Castle and to give us a short course on ‘the Mile.’ That was so very interesting.”

The Royal Mile is Edinburgh’s oldest street, connecting Edinburgh Castle with the Palace of Holyrood House, with more than 35 historic buildings, museums and other points of interest along the way.

“The third morning, Jim picked us up and was with us for the rest of the week. Neither of us wanted to attempt driving UK style, so this was a major factor when planning the Scotland trip. Jim was wonderful: good sense of direction (and humor!), patient, prompt, and he certainly added to the success of the journey.

“We headed north toward Grant country. While in the Highlands, we were able to meet with George Grant again, tour the distillery, visit churches my Grants had attended and cemeteries where they had buried their dead.”

Stunning Moments

The church where Lynn's ancestors worshipped and were married
The church where Lynn’s ancestors worshipped and were married.

“Lesley had managed to obtain permission for us to visit Lynbeg, the farm where my immigrant John Grant had been born in 1816 and where he grew up. The current owners only visit occasionally, so I was able to take my time there. That really was a stunning moment… literally walking in my ancestors’ footsteps. Lesley had set up an appointment for me with a local genealogist who was able to give me background on the area and the Grant family.

“We spent two nights in a darling small hotel where we were served delicious suppers and breakfasts. I have special dietary needs and the Grays had passed this on to each place where we stayed.

“Driving south we visited Elgin Cathedral, Loch Ness, Glen Coe, Stirling Castle, and Roslyn Abbey. We had one night in Stirling then on to Dumfries. My husband was able to play 18 holes of golf, and Lesley joined me as we visited Kirkgunzeon. It is a very small village… just a sight to see with a small stream running through it and the church on the other side of the bridge.

A typical 'black house' in the Scottish Highlands
A typical ‘black house’ in the Scottish Highlands.

“Again, I saw where my ancestors had been christened, married and buried. The Kirkpatricks had been blacksmiths in the village, and Lesley had arranged for us to have coffee with the current blacksmith’s wife! I loved this village… think I left a bit of my heart there! Jim drove us around to various farms where family members had lived and later I met with a local genealogist who, come to find out, is a distant cousin, too!”

The Journey of a Lifetime

“As we said at the time, we never would have found the small winding roads in the Highlands leading to churches and farms, nor would we have been able to locate the farm areas in the south. Jim was so great: he had maps he seemed to study every night and knew where he was going at all times. The Grays had actually driven up north to scout out the area — finding the hotel, farms, and churches so that no time would be wasted.

“When it was time to head back to Edinburgh, it was difficult for me to let the countryside go. Lesley and Peter invited us to stop at their place for tea and to say good-bye. I told Lesley the only problem with the trip was that there wasn’t enough time. She expected that and said, ‘Most everyone has the same complaint.’

“It was the journey of a lifetime… that’s for sure. If I had to pick out a highlight or two it would be the time spent at Lynbeg and in Kirkgunzeon. It was astonishing to me that I was actually there… and if I could, I would return tomorrow!

“Ancestral Trail really did a wonderful job planning our journey for us. Lesley and Peter are a joy to work with and we would recommend them to anyone.”


Using professional guides may not be the least expensive option when researching your family tree, but when it all adds up, the time and effort saved is truly worth it. There are always going to be places where it helps to have “one of the locals” helping you out.

You can contact Scottish Ancestral Trails by visiting their website: The Grays also have staff working in the US in case you’d like to directly speak with someone.

Kristi GirdharryKristi Girdharry is a writer living in San Francisco.

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