Home and away: That time I crossed the pond to find my Scottish roots

By Nancy Truman

In 2011, New Zealand-born Russell Crowe made a trip to Scotland to get a bit closer to his Scottish heritage. As it happens, so did I. But it’s not just me and this Hollywood heavyweight setting out on pilgrimages to see the homes of our forebears. Ancestral tourism was widely predicted to be one of the hot travel trends of 2012, thanks to shows such as the NBC TV series Who Do You Think You Are?, which traces celebrity family trees.

For Canadians, Scotland is a popular destination for ancestral travel, as Scots have immigrated to this country in great numbers during the past two centuries or so. On the 2006 Census, 15% of Canadians indicated they were of Scottish origin ­­— myself among them.

Growing up, I remember listening to my maternal grandmother, whose given names were Jean Lindsay, talk about the “palatial home of the Lindsays” in Scotland. My grandmother’s stories were somehow mixed up with Glamis Castle — immortalized as the home of Shakespeare’s Macbeth — but like all stories passed down over generations, ours had become a bit muddled. An ancestral research trip could bring clarity.

While I often browse the racks of kilts in Scottish shops, flirting with the notion of buying one in the Lindsay tartan, it wasn’t until I arrived in Edinburgh that I actually felt like a Scot. No, I didn’t suddenly acquire a brogue, I simply felt I had come home.

In preparing for my trip, I researched the family history in my great grandmother’s Bible. There, I discovered my great great grandmother Jean Lindsay was born in Dundee, County Angus, the heart of Lindsay country. Before my visit, staff at VisitScotland and the Angus Archives went to work searching for her among Scotland’s extensive archives, but lacking her date of birth, or her parents’ names, the search didn’t go far.

That they couldn’t find any relatives or direct links didn’t take away from my enjoying the sites I visited connected to the Lindsay Clan.

The first stop on my itinerary was Edzell Castle in Glen Esk (the largest of the Angus river valleys), a picturesque two-hour drive northeast of Edinburgh. The Lindsay clan acquired its seat here in 1358 through marriage into the Stirlings of Glen Esk.

At Edzell Castle, Jean Blair, a VisitScotland guide, optimistically tells me this could well be the “palatial home” of my grandmother’s stories. The first earth and timber building sat to the southwest of the grander structure that now lies in ruins. Its Tower House and courtyard were built around 1520 by David Lindsay, the ninth earl of Crawford, and his wife, Catherine Campbell, and the plans were completed in 1600 by his son, Sir David Lindsay, Lord Edzell.

The red sandstone tower stands against tranquil emerald rolling hills. This is not the Scotland I pictured — no brooding dark valley and grey stone walls here. On this sunny spring day, a peacock struts across my path, stopping to preen himself. But with no possible mate in sight, he doesn’t reveal his colourful tail feathers. Jean and I are the sole visitors wandering the ruins, climbing the stairs of the tower and peering into long abandoned bedrooms, as the sign informs us.

A south-facing window in the tower frames a magnificent view of the famed Renaissance walled garden that was added in 1604 and restored in the 1930s. In the stones above the garden gate is engraved the coats of arms and initials of Sir David and his wife, Dame Isobel Forbes, along with the Lindsay motto Dum Spiro Spero (while I breathe I hope), which is also spelled out in the English boxwood hedge.

Three hundred metres south of the castle is the Lindsay Burial Aisle. Added in 1550 to serve as the family chapel, the aisle is all that remains of the medieval parish church at Edzell. Do my ancestors bones lie here beneath my feet in a stone burial vault?

My grade school fascination with Mary Queen of Scots comes to mind as I learn that she and her son, King James VI, were regular visitors to Edzell. King James, in fact, bestowed a knighthood on Sir David in 1580.

Sadly, Sir David died heavily in debt in 1610, leaving his heirs struggling for the next 100 years to pay it off. They were forced to sell the castle in 1715 to The Lord of Panmure, whose ownership was short-lived, because he was forced to forfeit the estate during the Jacobite Rising in the same year.

Subsequent research, however, reveals Sir James Lindsay of Crawford, Scotland’s ambassador to England, murdered Sir John Lyon of Glamis in his bed.

But what of Glamis (pronounced Glams) castle? Never meant to be a fortress, Glamis stands on low-lying ground in the lush Angus countryside, just the site for the hunting lodge built for the King of Scots Malcolm I. Today, it is renowned as the childhood home of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the Queen Mother. Joining a tour, I hear tales of ghosts who haunt the castle and visit the rooms used by King George VI and his bride, but na’er a Lindsay is mentioned despite my inquiring after them.

Subsequent research, however, reveals Sir James Lindsay of Crawford, Scotland’s ambassador to England, murdered Sir John Lyon of Glamis in his bed. Sir James Lindsay, as the story goes, believed King Robert II — the first Stewart King of Scots — was slighted by his son-in-law, Sir John Lyon, to whom he had given the district of Glamis for services to the Crown and had named Chamberlain of Scotland, the then most important office of the Crown. Not, I’m sure, the connection my family had in mind.

At The Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, I accidently stumble upon another Lindsay: The cupbearer at the wedding banquet of Mary, Queen of Scots and Lord Darnley was the Earl of Crawford, Sir David’s grandfather. The ruins of Holyroodhouse Abbey are also worth a visit, as it is the resting place for the body of Mary’s father King James V. From the palace, you can climb Arthur’s Seat, the ancient land formation formed by an extinct volcano, for a panoramic view of Edinburgh. No doubt my ancestor sat atop his horse 251 metres above the palace before descending to attend the Queen’s nuptials.

I may not have come to definitive conclusions regarding my ancestral home, but the research was nonetheless revealing. As it turns out, my mother’s ancestors hail from the same region northeast of Edinburgh that Crowe’s mother, a Wemyess, comes from. Perhaps we’re even related — “cousin Russell” does have a nice ring to it.

Nancy Truman was a guest of VisitScotland and Air Transat.


To start an ancestral journey
Archivists recommend starting your search at home through family sources, Canadian archives and local death records. For more information go to ancestralscotland.com or scottishroots.com.

Glamis Castle
The childhood home of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the Queen Mother and wife of King George VI has 600 years of tales to tell and plenty of ghost stories. The self-service restaurant, situated in the Victorian Kitchens, is a great stop for a light lunch of homemade soup and a scone.  glamis-castle.co.uk

Edzell Castle
A visit to the seat of the Lindsay clan is well worth the outing whether or not you are a Lindsay. The surrounding countryside and the walled garden are spectacular on a sunny day. Open year round.

Palace of Holyroodhouse
Best known as the home of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the setting for many of the dramatic episodes in her turbulent reign — she was married at Holyroodhouse and witnessed the brutal killing of her secretary Rizzio by her jealous second husband, Lord Darnley, in her private apartments. The palace is located at Canongate, The Royal Mile, Edinburgh and is open daily except during Royal visits. royalcollection.org.uk 


This article ran in National Post in May 2012

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