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'Tartan Butler' helps visitors trace their roots

Courtesy of Rocco Forte Hotels

The Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland, stands behind Andy Fraser, its recently anointed "Tartan Butler" who helps guests learn about their family history.

America may be a diverse nation, but one thing most of us share is that our ancestors came from other countries. And many of us share a curiosity to learn more about those long-lost relatives.

The Rocco Forte’s Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland, recently announced its newly anointed "Tartan Butler," a concierge named Andy Fraser who helps guests learn about their family history during visits to Scotland.

"It’s something I quite enjoy,” said Fraser, a Scotsman and longtime fan of Scottish and clan history, who has been informally assisting guests for some time on how to track down their Scottish ancestry. “Before I knew it, it really took off,” said Fraser. Both the position and title were recently formalized by the hotel. 

Many Americans have Scottish surnames, and when they come to Scotland, wish to research their clan’s history, Fraser said. “We’ll sit down and have coffee. I plan itineraries to where their clan originally was from, where they ended up; I help with accommodations,” he said. “I just give whatever information I can.”

Sometimes it’s as simple as walking guests across the street from the hotel to the ScotlandsPeople Centre, where digitized copies of birth and death records as well as  coats of arms are archived — going back almost 500 years. Fraser also arranges drivers and tour guides, organizes customized tours, and helps guests identify family tartans and arrange to have kilts made with the traditional clan designs.

Fraser’s interest in genealogy began when he researched his own Scottish ancestors, which he traced back to 11th century France. Such research can unearth some surprising results, he said. Two of Scotland’s more popular surnames — the MacDonalds and the Mackenzies — originate from “clans who were at war with each other over land,” he said.

Americans who share those surnames often want to visit Morar, in the Scottish Highlands, where a famous massacre took place in the 17th century between the two clans, a picturesque region of remote villages, where public transportation is limited. “It’s such a long drive there,” Fraser said, “but it is spectacularly beautiful to walk through the munros,” or mountains.

Prices vary depending on guests’ needs. Once, he chartered a helicopter, Fraser said. And some guests are particularly fond of including whiskey distilleries in their touring plans. “That’s the one thing I always get from Americans,” he said.

For travelers interested in tracing their own roots, Paul Nauta, public affairs manager for FamilySearch.org, a free, nonprofit, volunteer-driven website sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, offered some tips to get started: 

  • Begin with your own family. “The number one thing to do is to contact your oldest living relatives,” Nauta said, and also talk to other relatives. "Write down everything they know about family history. And gather family documents, like birth certificates, marriage records.” As you start asking around, it isn’t unusual to find relatives who have informally been family historians, he said. “They often have the proverbial shoebox with a lot of information and old photos in it.”
  • Contact local groups. FamilySearch Centers, FamilySearch’s network of 4,500 facilities that offer public access to genealogical records, are located in more than 80 countries, Nauta said. And many communities have history and genealogy organizations and local libraries that are excellent sources for research. Many of them “have people who love to help you,” Nauta said, people who have done their own searches and “love to pay it forward.”
  • Use online resources. The Internet has made family history search so much simpler and faster, Nauta said. On Facebook, for example, people can easily search others with the same surname globally. Other sites, like FamilySearch.org, offer more than 500 free courses and online ask-a-question forums to connect with a community of people worldwide who can help you with your personal research for free, Nauta said. Other sites he recommends include: RootsWeb, ancestry.com, archives.com, findmypast.com and myheritage.com. The site deadfred.com helps to identify old photos, such as the date and region of origin.
  • Contact archives abroad before you travel. If you plan to visit archives in another country, get in touch in advance of your trip. In many countries, the record custodians or archivists do not like drop-ins and require appointments, Nauta said. “Elsewhere in the world, there is not necessarily open access and it is not so public-service oriented.”
  • First and foremost, have fun. “Stay organized, be patient and realize it's going to take time,” Nauta said. “Realize that less than 20 percent of the U.S.'s genealogical records are searchable online today, and less than 5 percent of the world's,” but millions are being added online weekly, he said.

Cheryl Hargrove, president of HTC  Partners, a consultancy specializing in cultural heritage tourism, said obtaining legal documents is important, as they “can verify original spelling of names and locations, which may have been altered over the years,” and that it is also a good idea to take copies when traveling to ancestral homelands for validation and further research.

Hargrove also suggests checking family Bibles, scrapbooks, wills and photographs for information, and recommends the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

“You can also hire a professional genealogist to help with your search. Ancestry.com can connect you, or you can also contact www.globalgenealogists.com for accredited professional researchers,” she said.

But perhaps Nauta’s best advice is this: “Beware,” he said. “You’ll get hooked.” His own family research began in the early 2000s when some preliminary digging began a journey that ended in a small Bari region town in southeast Italy called Cagnano Varano, where his grandfather was born and raised before coming to America in the early 20th century. “Like millions of people, I had an innate yearning to know my roots,” he said.

A younger-generation Italian relative had seen Nauta’s genealogy posted on FamilySearch.org and contacted him. “He had my last name and told me, ‘We're related.’ He put me in touch with the town archivist who contacted me and said, ‘You and I are second cousins, and you’ve got first cousins still living in town, who would love to meet you,’” Nauta recounted. “It was such a great emotional experience for all of us.” 

Soon afterward, Nauta spoke on the phone with a number of relatives and later traveled to Italy. “It was like we had never not known each other,” said Nauta, who has since been back many times and has taken several family members. “Our family has become so much bigger and closer; it’s given us a legacy to live up to,” he said.

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