Hollywood starlet Reese Witherspoon wants to retrace hers, Kiefer Sutherland is fiercely proud of his and American president Barack Obama can trace his back to 1164.
When it comes to the subject of ancestry, it seems a growing number of A-list celebrities have been flying the flag for Scotland, with tales of distant relatives hailing from Celtic shores.
And it’s hoped that many of them will see the Year of Homecoming as the perfect opportunity to come back to walk in the footsteps of their ancestors in 2009.
Whether it’s the Witherspoons from East Lothian who crossed the Atlantic in the 18th Century and eventually signed the Declaration of Independence, or the Sutherlands from Glasgow who moved to Canada and produced award-winning father and son acting duo Donald and Kiefer – there are plenty of tales the rich and famous will tell you about their ancient Scottish kinsfolk.
One of the most high-profile figures to claim roots in the Scots Diaspora is Republican senator, John McCain. During the presidential election he even claimed he was directly descended from Robert the Bruce. It was an impressive, but ultimately unfounded boast and one that numerous people have tried to claim after discovering Scots blood in their family.
President-elect Barack Obama has Scottish roots on his mother’s side. Mr Obama’s ancestor, Edward FitzRandolph, is said to have emigrated to America in the 17th century. According to genealogists, his ancestry can also be traced to William the Lion, who ruled Scotland from 1165 to 1214.
Numerous celebrities with Scottish heritage, including billionaire tycoon Donald Trump, have lent their support to tourism drives such as Scotland Week in recent years. Many have endorsed and will be attending the Homecoming Scotland celebrations which take place this year.
With the rich and famous tripping over each other to prove their Caledonian heritage, just what is it about Scotland that makes them – and millions of other people from around the world – want to trace their roots here?
“I think a lot of the interest is because Scotland has a well-established public profile around the world,” suggests Stuart Reid, who runs Edinburgh-based genealogy firm Scottish Roots. “There are a lot of people who know about the country and have an almost romantic desire to be linked to it in some way.
“I don’t think it’s a recent trend, although there’s no doubt Scotland has remained in the public eye over the past decade thanks to high-profile celebrities and films.
“Over the last 25 years there’s always been a fairly high demand from people wanting to research their ancestors from Scotland, although the internet has made it easier and even more accessible in recent years.”
Stuart believes another reason people from overseas look to Scotland to trace their lineage comes down to a desire to feel connected to an ancestral homeland.
He said: “I suspect there are people in relatively ‘new’ countries like the USA, Canada and Australia who feel the need to have some historical links with what they see as a ‘homeland’. Because there is a well-documented history of European migration to these countries, the obvious ethnic groups to look for heritage are the ones who moved there en-masse, such as the Irish, Scots and Italians.
“Many of these people want to discover things such as where their ancestors lived and will go as far as trying to research where their great grandfathers worked in the late 1800s or coming to Scotland to see if their ancestral homes still exist. For them, it’s a desire to find a missing piece of the jigsaw about their family history.
“They are fiercely proud and interested in their Scottish roots, rather than being intrigued by the idea of tartans and clans.”
According to genealogists, there are estimated to be anywhere between 25 and 80 million people worldwide who can lay claim to having Scottish roots. Genealogy itself has become one of the key sectors of Scotland’s tourism industry, and every year thousands of people come from across the globe to search through archives and track down birth and death certificates as they try to trace their families’ Scottish ancestry.
In the six years since the 1901 Scottish census records were put online in 2002, around 714,000 people from around the world have signed up as registered users in order to try and delve deeper into their family trees. Others are expected to browse images of the original 1881 Scottish census records, which have also just been published on the world wide web.
Many more are also expected to use the brand new, dedicated genealogy facility at the General Register Office for Scotland in Edinburgh – called Scotland’s People Section and unveiled in 2008 – over the coming years.
Millions of people with Scottish ancestry are also being urged to visit the country and re-trace their heritage as part of the upcoming Homecoming Scotland celebrations, taking place throughout 2009. Set up by the Scottish Government to celebrate the 250 anniversary of Robert Burns’ birth, the year-long tourism drive aims to celebrate Scotland’s great contributions to the world as well as encouraging ex-pats and people with Scots heritage to visit their “homeland”.
Of course, when it comes to heritage, it helps the draw of Scotland and the ability to say that one’s family hailed from the country, has become something of a romantic ideal in recent years.
Blockbuster movies such as Braveheart and Rob Roy may have helped to promote historical Scotland in the early-to-mid 1990s, the appeal has continued to flourish in the following decade through the numerous high-profile Scottish actors and personalities that have become popular with audiences across the globe.
Chris Paton, a professional genealogist who runs Scotland’s Greatest Story, argues that popular culture helped make Scottish heritage attractive.
“You can’t discount the legacy of something like Braveheart”, he says. “Before it was released in cinemas, people tended to be proud of having Irish heritage – but Scottish lineage soon became just as popular and trendy thanks to Hollywood.
“However, this isn’t the only reason for the appeal. Devolution, in particular, has helped people across the world to rediscover Scotland’s identity and there have been many successful tourism drives such as Tartan Day that have been aimed at promoting Scotland abroad.
“A lot of Americans, as well as people from Canada and Australia, are starting to realise that their nations’ histories are founded on Scottish immigration and that heritage is something that has become more accessible thanks to the internet.
“There’s now an undeniable appeal about Scotland that isn’t just the standard tartan and shortbread image. People do see it as an important and attractive part of who they are and where their family came from, and this is why there are so many celebrities happy to promote their links to Scotland.
“With the Homecoming celebrations this year and a continued Scottish presence in modern culture and the arts, I can’t see that changing any time soon. The appeal of looking for Scottish ancestry will be popular for many years and I’m sure we’ll see a lot more people highlighting their family history’s links back to Scotland in the future.”
Notes to editors:
Homecoming Scotland is a special tourism event featuring over 300 events taking place across Scotland to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns. The event was launched on Burns Night weekend (25 Jan 09) and runs to St Andrew’s Day (30 Nov 09).
The Homecoming Scotland drive is split into five themes: Robert Burns, Golf, Whisky, Great Scottish Minds and Innovation; and Scotland’s rich culture, heritage and ancestry. The next major Homecoming event is Whisky Month, which starts on May 1.
The event is backed by major marketing campaign from VisitScotland across 40 countries using, advertising, direct mail, PR, e-communications, events, radio and TV