Bonita Couper has lived all of her life in Alberta, Canada, and has always kept a fading black and white photograph of an old yet mesmerising couple. Growing up, Couper was surrounded by ornately framed antique photos and wondered who the people behind the faces were. On the back of one of the images, a caption reading “Pop’s grandparents” stood out to her. For decades she asked for the story behind it but no one could tell her about the couple in the photograph, until one day she set out to find the answer herself and her genealogy trail began.
The mystery of the unknown faces in the ageing picture was uncovered when she found herself in Thurso, Scotland, surrounded by long lost relatives in 2008. They identified the faces as her great-great- grandparents. She had been corresponding with her English cousin, Alice, for years and, although they had never met, they knew they had their DNA in common. Choosing to share a holiday together to dig up their past, they set off on an ancestral trail that would lead them to the craggy edges of northern Scotland.
They quickly discovered that Couper’s grandfather had died in 1990, the names of his own parents and the subjects of the photo buried with him. His daughter ,Couper’s mother later had the photograph professionally framed and hung it in the spare bedroom of the family house.
“Mom has a whole bunch of old family photos from all sides of the family hung in that room,” says Couper. “That was the one photo that we didn’t have names for so it always fascinated me. I knew they were a part of me but who were they? I always felt a rush of warmth going in to that room. My roots are in that room and I guess that’s how looking at the photographs makes me feel, rooted. It felt wonderful to finally have a name for them.”
“They kept saying it was wonderful that it took a Canadian cousin to bring the Scotland cousins together. They shared stories of their parents and grandparents and I frantically tried to write it all down.” As a result of Couper’s trip, her cousin Alice is planning a trip to Canada to meet her relatives.
Couper is happily settled back in Alberta with her family. Not only has she found long awaited answers to her questions, she has also found her heritage, extended her family and been able to put her mind to rest. All of this has been made possible with the help of genealogy experts who are forming holidays around the world for people interested in tracing their ancestry.
For her search, Couper enlisted the help of an independent operation, Scottish Ancestral Trail, which is based in Moffat, Dumfriesshire, in southwest Scotland. The owners, Lesley and Peter Gray, say their own eexperience of tracing ancestry led them to provide the personal service. Though it is possible to learn about your ancestors through online archive sources or by birth, death, marriage, military, school, police or hospital records, the Grays know that it can be difficult.
“Sometimes all we have to go on is an old bible with a name inscribed on it, or a mention of church or parish that their great-grandpa used to attend, or an old photograph with a date,” says Lesley. And if the search leads to a different country there are more obstacles to overcome.
For someone tracing their ancestors in an unfamiliar land, culture shock is not uncommon. The Grays’ aim to minimise this engaging people with the countryside where their ancestors once lived.
“Their homes and workplaces tell you much more about their lives and what made them the people they are,” Lesley says.
Couper provided Scottish Ancestral Trail with a list of her family’s villages, farms, and a pedigree chart. With those, the Grays researched and planned her entire itinerary.
“At the time I was planning the trip it was just going to be me in Scotland,” says Couper. “I didn’t want to be wandering around cemeteries on my own, trying to read road maps, look around and take it all in, all the while remembering to keep to the left side of the road.”
The Grays discovered that Forss House in the west of Thurso, where Couper’s great-uncle David was groundskeeper for decades, was now a bed and breakfast, where Couper stayed for a few nights on her trip.
“My great-grandmother lived there during the last few years of her life and I stayed in the room next to hers. Her room is a storage room now, otherwise Mrs McKenzie, the owner said I could have had it,” Couper says.
Each heritage tour or holiday is prepared and designed meticulously to the clients’ needs, which sometimes means years and months of research and planning. Occasionally the Grays deal with sensitive or secretive family histories; for people in the genealogy business, it’s a labour of love.
Scottish Ancestral Trail was inspired by the couple’s gruelling search for Peter’s ancestry.
“We knew it would be no mean feat but when we get to see relatives meet for the first time or are able to see someone rest flowers upon a great- grandfather’s tombstone that they never knew, and see their eyes glisten, it just makes it all worthwhile,” Lesley says.
There is a multitude of thank you messages from around the world on Lesley and Peter’s website. You can see how many people they have been able to help by arranging chauffeured transport, booking accommodation, historians, guides, genealogists and taking guests to forefathers graveyards, homes and churches.
In 2009, Scottish Ancestral Trail teamed up with VisitScotland, the nation’s official tourism organisation, for Homecoming Scotland. The campaign saw an influx of ex-pats respond to its invitation to “come home” to reconnect with their Scottish heritage in celebration of Robert Burns’ 250th birthday. The Homecoming Scottish Cup was broadcast in 40 countries and more than 400 events took place around Scotland to promote “I am a Scot” invitations. The initiative targeted a tourism revenue of $44 million and succeeded in reaching an audience of 95 million in North America and Australia alone. As a result, 46% of homecomers came from overseas to reconnect with their homeland.
Much of the recent public interest in uncovering family routes has been down to the BBC and its hit programme Who Do You Think You Are? It has pulled an average audience of six million viewers in Britain and is entering its eighth series this year. An American version released in March attracted major Hollywood names like Sarah Jessica Parker, Spike Lee and Lisa Kudrow.
Sue Hills, veteran director and producer of Who Do You Think You Are? runs a luxury heritage tour business called Ancestral Footsteps, based in Kent.
She says: “Ancestry is such a big business because of the impact of the internet and of the success of Who Do You Think You Are? It is very accessible right now. It’s become a talking point. People are keen to connect to their roots in this age of not even knowing their neighbours.”
With the company, she has helped trace the histories of celebrities like Alistair McGowan, Griff Ryhs Jones and Barbara Windsor. She has travelled with Susan Sarandon to New York and Italy to search for information about the American actress’s missing grandmother and helped Jerry Springer trace his family history in Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic.
She says: “Jerry Springer unexpectedly met a cousin from a branch of family he thought had been killed in the Holocaust.” The harrowing story she uncovered of Springer’s jewish relatives perishing in the Holocaust is not uncommon. Rooting up the past does not always lead to good news, as Stephen Fry and Carol Vorderman also found out when looking for their ancestries on Who Do You Think You Are? The programme followed as Fry dug into his own history and the holocaust, bringing him to tears. Vorderman, whose father died whilst filming the series, said upon finding her Welsh and Dutch roots: “You shouldn’t leave it too long really to be in touch with someone so important in your life; That’s what I learnt. It’s like closing a circle.”
Genealogy holidays are not just for the rich and famous though, as Couper and her transatlantic have family have proven.
She says ,“my only advice for anyone wishing to embrace their past is to keep digging and asking those difficult questions and the answers may just surprise you.”
Series 8 of Who Do You Think You Are is currently being filmed, to be shown in late 2010. Scottish Ancestral Trail can be found online at: www.scottish-ancestral-trail.co.uk
Words by Nargis Lalee
Photography by Bonita Couper and Scottish Ancestral Trail