You Can Go Home Again
Here are 6 steps to help you locate, research and get the most out of visiting the land of your ancestors
I had always thought I was mainly Irish. I mean, with a name like Patrick Pattison I was sure I should bleed green. But was that true? At 68 I was determined to find out.
I knew there were some Scottish ancestors on my mom's side of the family, but details were sketchy. She was only 4 when her father, my grandfather, William Stephen Dave, died in 1926.
We had three or four photographs of the strikingly handsome Scotsman but he was 65 when my mother was born. I would often say to friends "I may be the only one of your contemporaries whose grandfather was born before the Civil War!"
That's about all I knew, though — that and family legends of his once owning real estate in downtown Los Angeles that he traded for a less-valuable apricot orchard and later for a rabbit ranch.
Such tales are not uncommon among long-time Southern California families, but I wanted to know more.
Return to Your Roots, But Where?
I had been to Europe many times for business and pleasure, first by hitchhiking through England, Germany and Norway in the early seventies and later working on Disneyland Paris. For some reason it never occurred to me to visit Scotland, the one place I knew we had some family roots.
This past year happened to coincide with my two daughters having landmark birthdays. One was turning 30 and the other 40. What better way to celebrate these occasions than to visit the "homeland"? But how could I find a specific place to visit, a location that was relevant to my grandfather? Even if I did find it, would anything still be there?
I needed to do some serious detective work in advance.
The only information I had was an old family tree my sister-in-law had created 30 years ago; worryingly, it said my grandfather was from either Elgin or Glasgow, which are 190 miles apart. It was not much to go on, and what would I do with that information? Simply show up in each city and query strangers? I needed to do some serious detective work in advance.
Then it occurred to me to approach this like an investigative reporter. Being the host of "The Best of California," a nationally syndicated travel TV show that explores the history of the Golden State, I decided that I had some of the tools needed to figure this out. I could even use this on my show — and, indeed, this adventure became a segment we titled "The Highlander Comes to California."
My grandfather wasn't rich, famous or particularly distinguished, so would there be any trace of him between his birth in Scotland in 1857 and his death in California in 1926? Little did I know that my research would touch on Watergate, a bagpiper and an ironically themed nightclub.
Organizing Your Research
To begin, I broke down my detective work to 6 steps that hopefully might be useful to you:
1. Finding Data: Genealogy is all about dates and records. There are many ways to access them. Some genealogical research services like Ancestry.com charge for their services and can be pricey.
I didn't know much about Facebook groups but have learned to appreciate them as a powerful resource.
I did use paid services toward the end to fill in some blanks, but I wanted to start out by seeing what I could accomplish for free. So, I started my quest where I have the most "friends" — Facebook. I didn't know much about Facebook groups but have learned to appreciate them as a powerful resource.
A search of Facebook groups turned up four of them devoted to "Scottish genealogy." I "liked" them all and posted my grandfather's photo along with his date of birth and date of death on each one. Group members responded quickly, and one person in particular sent me a trove of documents, including census records and information about my great-grandfather. His name was Davie Innes (more about Davie later). The documents also confirmed that he was from Elgin and not Glasgow.
2. Local Resources: Once we knew that Elgin was our Scottish "hometown" I took a stab and contacted the folks at the Elgin Library to see what they might know. It was another jackpot.
It turns out that Scottish libraries have Heritage Centers that keep historic records, and for 10 pounds they will conduct a preliminary search and estimate the cost of copying and sending documents you want. Scott Reid was our contact at the library in Elgin and after I told him during a Zoom call what we were looking for, he found more records.
I also contacted people at the local newspaper, the Northern Scot, to see what they might know and let them know I was planning to come over. They wanted to do a story on our visit since genealogy is popular in Scotland.
3. Finding a Location to Visit: Once Davie Innes had provided me with information about my great grandfather, the library was able to come up with census data that had a couple of addresses. One was the house in which my great-grandfather had died and the other was The Royal Hotel of Elgin, which he had owned in the 1850s while also working as a veterinary surgeon. I could hardly wait to get to 195 High St., the hotel's address: would it still be there?
I was enthralled by the idea of this night club where my great-grandfather once ran a hotel and my grandfather helped out as a "wee" boy.
4. Keep Asking: You never know where information may come from. I asked Alistair Whitfield, a reporter for the local paper, if he knew anything about 195 High St., and he surprised me by saying he knew the current owner. It was no longer a hotel, but a nightclub and movie theater owned by a friendly fellow named Ron Farquharson. He said he would be happy to show me around when we came over. I was enthralled by the idea of this night club where my great-grandfather once ran a hotel and my grandfather helped out as a "wee" boy. I was already thinking about buying my kilt.
5. Use Travel Experts: Now that I had a specific destination, I had to decide an itinerary, including airline reservations, ground transportation and hotels. I was overwhelmed by trying to make all the pieces fit, so I turned the chore over to professional travel agents who specialize in travel to Ireland and Scotland.
6. Connect The Dots: Surprises awaited us in Scotland. First, Davie Innes learned my family had a connection to Audrey Felt, wife of the FBI agent nicknamed "Deep Throat" who helped reporters unravel the Watergate scandal. Second, records available on Ancestry.com showed that Davie Innes and I were distant cousins.
We became instant friends and Davie helped us shoot video for our TV show. We also explored the city, picked up research at the library and enjoyed a private bagpipe performance by Ben Mortimer, another Facebook connection, near the ruins of the 11th century Elgin Cathedral.
But what about 195 High Street? What potential mysteries did it hold? We were off to see the current owner with my daughters Jessamyn and Liza and my newly discovered cousin Davie in tow. Once there, we found the nightclub that had taken the place of my great-grandfather's Royal Hotel was called "Downtown USA" and decorated with Route 66 signs and Elvis and Marilyn Monroe murals.
It was a perfect cultural exchange. We loved it.