Most of us have ancestral roots in various parts of the globe. For some, arrival in Canada was fairly recent and you might still have ties to your family’s original homeland. For others, the move was made centuries ago and the connection is much more remote. In either case, tracing your history can be a fascinating pursuit that might provide the inspiration for a very enjoyable future trip.
Family Tree Research
One of the easiest ways to get started researching your origins is to sign up for a free trial on a site like Ancestry.ca. (Just remember to cancel the subscription before the free trial ends or you’ll be charged at renewal). If you’re lucky, you’ll discover that one of your relatives has already done all the hard work and put together a detailed and accurate family tree. And you might even come across photos you’ve never seen before of long deceased relatives.
If nobody has sorted out the family lineage yet, there are loads of resources to help you although it can be a little daunting to scour all the records. Experiences will vary and you might make a few wrong turns or end up at a dead end, but it’s worth the effort to see what you can find.
If you’re less interested in precise names, dates and places and mainly just curious about your ancestral background generally, consider ordering one of those DNA test kits. (Occasionally they go on sale so sign up for their emails if you want to wait for a discount.)
I understand the accuracy of these is not perfect, but they can still give you at least a ballpark breakdown of the regions of the world that show up in your genetic material.
My parents both got their DNA results back recently.
We live in a part of the country with a lot of Scottish heritage. I conducted a brief assessment of Scottish population density by casually scanning all the overtly Scottish surnames in my three high school yearbooks along with the preceding three years from my brother’s. There are lots of common Scottish names like Cameron, Campbell and Fraser appearing in every graduating class, usually multiple times. No name can top MacDonald though. There was an average of 9 MacDonalds in a typical class of around 120 or so students. Add those to all the other Macs like MacDougall, MacEachern, MacGregor, MacIntosh, MacKay, MacKenzie, MacKinnon, MacLean, MacLellan, MacLennan, MacLeod, MacNeil, MacPherson etc. and it becomes very apparent just how many Scots took up residence in this area.
(Side note: Although he doesn’t have a Scottish surname, there was at least one well known film & television celebrity among the graduates. You’d recognize him from his most famous character who sports very strong corrective lenses, has an affinity for felines and a penchant for profanity.)
Due to my own family tree full of Scottish names, I was not surprised by my parents’ DNA results:
Here are my mother’s estimates…
And my father’s…
No, they were not related!
Along with the Ethnicity Estimate shown above, you’ll also get access to a list of DNA matches and a map showing where in the world they live – if they’ve opted to share their location. I saw that my mother has a distant relative in Aberdeen who is 100% Scottish. According to Conan O’Brien (who apparently is 100% Irish), to be 100% of something is quite rare and might have, um, negative implications as he discusses in this Late Show appearance.
For a few people, the DNA matches can be a little more enlightening than expected. There is an AncestryDNA forum on Reddit where you can seek guidance if you find yourself faced with a surprising result or commiserate with others who dealt with a similar situation.
Visiting the Ancestral Homeland
Once you have some firm or not-so-firm details in hand, you can set about planning a visit to places that were familiar to your forebears. Having more information is obviously better if you wish to see exactly where your ancestors lived. Knowing the names of specific villages or towns can certainly help you get off the beaten path and track down your origins.
However, this isn’t absolutely necessary in order to get a sense of the surroundings and what life might have been like and what prompted them to take off for Canada. If you know the general vicinity, or even just the country, it can still be a very interesting experience to visit and learn the history in light of your connection. It’s just my opinion, but I think checking out where you came from can add significant meaning to a trip.
If you’re a keen traveller, I suggest you explore the possibilities around visiting a region from your family history. Maybe even incorporate it into a trip to another destination. For example, if you’re going to France for a couple of weeks, you could fly WestJet Halifax to Dublin and stay a few days to embrace your Irish-ness before continuing on. You might decide to return someday for a more extensive trip, but if not, you still got a taste.
My Scottish Travel Experiences
While I was in the south of England in the summer of 1996 on a study abroad program, I was determined to get to the highlands of Scotland for a weekend. I had the name of a village and I knew there was a rail line that reached it so I took off on the long journey northward. I changed trains in London, Glasgow and Inverness and finally disembarked – the only person who got off at that stop.
I stayed at a small B&B with very friendly owners. I took their dog Sam for long walks along the river and pondered what it must have been like to make the decision to leave. Was it an easy decision or a difficult one? What were the conversations with friends and family like? So many Scots left in the late 1700s and early 1800s on a harrowing journey across the north Atlantic knowing they would likely never return or see their kinfolk again.
I made more trips to Scotland since then including one with my parents where we visited the coastal village from which many highlanders departed.
Every visit to Scotland has been wonderful and I would love to go again.
I think it’s important to point out that while your DNA results may be interesting and satisfy some curiosity, they might not reflect your cultural identity. Sometimes people are dismayed at the outcome of their test because they assumed they were primarily of one origin when they are actually of another. Perhaps it’s best to think of it as having the potential to open doors, but not to close any. Your family customs and cherished traditions are just as genuine even if you find out that your DNA doesn’t quite correspond to expectations.
If you’ve been on the fence about whether to plan a future trip to your ancestral home, I urge you to look into making it happen when the time comes that we can all travel again. In the meantime, use the resources available to gather up helpful information to guide your planning and lay the groundwork for a memorable pilgrimage to the motherland.