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By Gabbi Armstrong
Communications Project Manager for the North Coast 500
Published: 13th June 2018

Retracing Your Roots

Ever wondered who your ancestors are? What did they look like? Who did they love? How did it all lead to you?

Discovering your ancestors and their stories isn’t always easy, but it can be a whole lot of fun. All along the North Coast 500 are museums with local people who can help you start your journey into your past.

Reconnect with your Scottish ancestors and imagine the thrill and emotions of walking in their footsteps and learning how they lived their lives! Stay a while and explore the NC500 from a base or choose a few bases around the route..there is so much to discover! Did you know that tracing your family history and roots is one of the most popular past times in the world!?

You may know a lot already and want to delve deeper to see where and how they lived or you may know very little at all, armed only with a name and an area they once inhabited. The better organised you are the more likely you are to succeed in your quest for information. Having a list of objectives linked to specific names, dates or locations will help enormously.


With over 20 museums across the Highlands, here are a few that offer services to help you discover your Scottish Ancestry:

Dingwall Museum, Dingwall

Dingwall Museum is located inside its biggest exhibit: the Town House on the High Street. Built in the 1730s by and for the Burgh Council it also housed the school and jail. Local-government reorganisation in the 1970s removed most town councils, including this one, which was subsumed into what is now the Highland Council. Open six days a week during the summer (May-Sep), visitors can see displays on life in the area, the Burgh Council meeting room and a military room specialising in the 4th Seaforth Highlanders and Major General Sir Hector MacDonald. The collection also includes thousands of photographs that you can browse your way through!

If you are seeking information about Dingwall ancestors; who they were, where they lived, what they did, or perhaps where to find any memorial to them, please get in touch with one of the museums trustees. Contact information can be found here – http://www.dingwallmuseum.co.uk/museumtest_003.htm There is currently no charge for your initial enquiries.

Photo: Andrew Dowsett Photography, Dingwall and Ben Wyvis

Dingwall, as its Norse name suggests, is still a centre for local government and is a major shopping centre, as one of its Gaelic names (Bailechaul) implies. So come and see the hill the Vikings debated on, walk around the town to spot the cobbles, names and other living memorials to the past and talk to the people who are Dingwall’s present and future!!

Historylinks, Dornoch

Historylinks Museum is located in The Meadows area of Dornoch. Tucked behind the Castle their interpretive displays, historic objects and local tales give you a precious insight into the lives of ordinary and not so ordinary folk in Dornoch.

The museum is a member of VisitScotland’s Ancestral Welcome Scheme and although they hold limited records they can advise people on where and how to access information on family history. Their records include some Census and Labour records, Valuation records, Commutation Rolls and Rolls of Honour. They also hold information on The Forbes and Ross families of Sutherland and The Rosses of Creich. Where they can’t help, the museum will refer you to a local Genealogist who specialises in not only researching family trees but also finding out where exactly people lived (there is a cost for this service based on individual requirements). Contact the museum for more details – [email protected]

Photo: The Dornoch Area Community Interest Company, Dornoch Castle Street

Timespan Museum and Contemporary Art Centre, Helmsdale

Timespan is located in the historic fishing village of Helmsdale on the east coast of Sutherland. It is an essential stopping place for visitors before heading north along the coastal route or venturing inland to the scenic heart of the Highland Clearances landscapes. Timespan can bring descendants together for a chat over a cup of tea and arrange archaeologist-led trips into Kildonan to see the old townships and longhouses, now deserted. Travel through the museum to explore the extraordinary local stories and histories of the community and learn how they built their lives on northern soil and sea.

Timespan offers both assisted and unassisted family history research services for people searching for ancestors in East Sutherland. Their public archive holds extensive genealogical sources for Sutherland and their highly experienced genealogy team can undertake research on your behalf. A selection of the information they hold includes census reports, parish records from 1790, graveyard records, maps and a database of detailed records of several East Sutherland families. They may even have photographs of your ancestors’ crofts and houses. Details and costs of their services can be found here – https://timespan.org.uk/trace-your-roots/

Photo: Timespan, Helmsdale

Tain and District Museum

Tain and District Museum & Clan Ross Centre is situated in the historic town of Tain on the North East Coast, in the grounds of the medieval Collegiate Church of St Duthac. Tain is in the heart of Clan Ross Country, both the museum and the pilgrimage centre feature the role played by the Clan in this area since the 13th century.

The museum has records of many local families from the 19th century with some of the Ross family trees dating from as early as the 14th century. They also have a great wealth of local knowledge and can help people find places associated with their family such as homes and ancestors’ graves. They generally ask for a donation if they are able to help.

The museum is also able to supply a lot of background history of Tain and the surrounding area of Easter Ross covering many of the reasons why people left here to travel abroad to start new lives.

Tain is a great base to explore the wider Easter-Ross peninsula which is home to some of the most stunning Pictish standing stones to be found anywhere in Scotland.

Photo: Tain through Time

Wick Heritage Museum

Located on the North East point of Scotland’s most Northerly county, Caithness, Wick Heritage Museum tells the history of Wick with particular focus on the herring fishing industry. The museum is described as a ‘Tardis’ of artefacts with many of its rooms run by volunteers, each with a knowledge of the town’s history – visitors can choose a guided tour or simply browse. The Museum is also home to the internationally important Johnston Photographic Collection. (www.johnstoncollection.net)

The many volunteers are happy to help with any of your genealogy enquiries – ideally those seeking genealogical information should email in advance ([email protected]).

There is also the Caithness Family History Society (http://caithnessfhs.org.uk) which can help fur-ther with your enquiries.

Photo: Ian Horne, Wick

Strathnaver Museum, Bettyhill

Strathnaver Museum is an accredited volunteer run museum located in Bettyhill on the north coast of Sutherland. The museum tells the story of the Highland Clearances, Clan Mackay and the wider social history of the area know as Mackay Country which stretches from Melvich in the east to Scourie on the north west and as far inland as Altnaharra.

The museum offers a genealogy research service at an initial charge of £10 but where enquiries need more in-depth research, the museum will notify you of likely costs before proceeding.

Strathnaver Museum covers a significant geographic area and the landscape is littered with evidence of previous habitation, useful maps are available to view in the museum depicting the locations of pre and post clearance villages. A useful app Venture North produced by Venture North and museums and heritage groups across Caithness and Sutherland is available to download for free and helps show users where they will find sites associated with family history eg. Clearance villages, Graveyards, war memorials.

Photo: Strathnaver Museum, Strathmore Valley Sutherland

Gairloch Heritage Museum

Located on Scotland’s Northern West Coast in the county of Ross-shire, Gairloch Heritage Museum takes you on a journey through time showing how local people lived and worked in Gairloch through the ages. Marvel at how stone age and bronze age people existed with relatively limited technology and primitive utensils. Examine the crofting tools of a more recent age that still relied on skill rather than technology. Imagine locals joining in an impromptu ceilidh at the end of another hard day on the croft, sustained by the produce of the dairy but fuelled by the product of the illicit whisky still. Or reflect on the relief of the seaman as the beam from one of the largest lenses as-sembled by the Northern Lighthouse Board guides him to safety without the help of radar or satellite navigation.

The museum has a useful archive and library facility for genealogical research, but it does not employ a genealogist. There is no charge for the use of this facility, but donations are always appreciated, and visitors wishing to trace their ancestors must make a prior appointment with the Curator.

Photo: Gairloch Heritage Museum, Gairloch

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