Stars dig up surprises with their ancestors

AS THE internet makes family history research one of the fastest growing hobbies in the world, tourism and genealogy agencies alike have been quick to recruit a sometimes unlikely sounding legion of celebrities to promote genealogy tourism, helping them delve into their Scottish ancestry with sometimes unexpected results.

Thus you had Ayrshire-born supermodel Kirsty Hume and her actor husband Donovan Leitch (clad in full Highland dress) turning up for the New York launch of VisitScotland's genealogy site, www.ancestralscotland.com, where they were joined by other Scottish or Scotophilic celebs. Among them was Twin Peaks and Sex and the City star Kyle MacLachlan - a man so possessed by his Scottish roots that he changed his name from a "Mc" to a "Mac" prefix because he felt it was more authentic, while his website bears the MacLachlan clan motto, Fortis et Fidus - "strong and faithful". He has visited his clan heartland in Argyll, saying that it was "magical to return to my homeland".

Back in Britain, last year's popular Who Do You Think You Are? series on BBC2 had its fair share of revelations for some well-known faces, including broadcaster and Private Eye editor Ian Hislop. And did they have news for him: Hislop, born in Wales, was just 12 when his father died, so hadn't known of a Scottish grandfather who fought in France with the Highland Light Infantry during the First World War. Going further back, he discovered that his great-great-great-grandfather was a crofter on the Isle of Lewis. Another ancestor had helped capture Cape Colony from the Dutch in 1806.

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Earlier this week, The Scotsman carried the news that Harry Potter creator JK Rowling, Gloucestershire-born but a long-adoptive Scot, can in fact trace her roots to a 19th-century doctor from Arran who transformed health care in Hawaii. The same genealogist who unearthed Rowling's ancestry, Antony Adolph, has also traced the family history of the actor Hugh Grant as far back as 18th-century Scottish antecedents, the Jacobite Grants of Glenmoriston, who suffered badly at Culloden.

The idea that Grant - with his cultivated a screen persona of somewhat foppish and indolent young Englishmen - coming from a long line of Scots military men, doctors and explorers, may have a certain piquancy, but in the February issue of Family History Monthly, Adolph described Grant's lineage as "a colourful Anglo-Scottish tapestry of warriors, empire-builders and aristocracy". One of these ancestors, continued Adolph, was Dr James Stewart (1831-1905), the son of a dispossessed tenant farmer from Perth who became a doctor, fell under the spell of the great explorer and medical missionary David Livingstone and, in the 1860s, having sailed to Africa with Mrs Livingstone, "explored much new territory, especially along the Zambezi, from Livingstone's HQ at Shupanga". It seems a far cry from the indolently laddish character portrayed by Grant in About A Boy, but researching family history can spring such surprises.

It can also be infinitely rewarding, as the former Scottish rugby internationalist and BBC sports commentator Johnnie Beattie discovered, as he said investigating his own roots proved to be one of the best things he'd ever done. Beattie was born in Borneo, the son of a Scots rubber planter. A former British Lion and Scotland player, who now coaches West of Scotland (as well as writing a rugby column for The Scotsman), he had his genealogy researched in association with the National Archives of Scotland website, Scotland's People (www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk), and his name featured on an advert for the site on a rugby international programme. The results, presented to him last year at Murrayfield, provided some emotional moments, including the revelation that his father's family had come from Northern Ireland.

"It was something I'd often thought about doing," Beattie, 47, recalls, "because my father, who went out as a rubber planter to Borneo - where my brothers and I were born - had come from the Gorbals. I didn't know much more than that, and I didn't know about my mother's side either, except that she was from Pollockshaws.

"What fascinated me was that they produced photocopies of census documents and marriage certificates showing that, in actual fact, my father's side had come from Northern Ireland, which I just hadn't known. My great grandfather came from Newtonards, and my grandfather was the first of his sons to be born in Scotland. And on my mother's side, they found South African ancestry."

Rather than prompting him to rethink what colours he should be wearing on the rugby field, Beattie's voyage of family discovery simply consolidated his feelings of Scottishness. It was, he adds, "a very emotive" business. "I am in some ways an archetypal fee-paying schoolboy. My dad managed to put me through Glasgow Academy, although with no money, because when he came back from Malaysia, there was hardly much call for rubber planters in Glasgow.

"I always felt that I never really fitted in and the reason was that my parents were very left-wing and came from humble working-class roots in the Gorbals. I recently found an old photograph of my grandmother in a back close with a beaten-up old pram and my father and uncle as tiny little boys.

"What I really liked about all this was that it gave me a real sense of belonging to Glasgow, with a family rooted in Govan and the Gorbals. It let me appreciate that this was really my city. When I found that my father's father was from Northern Ireland - but then, so many Scots originally came from Ireland - it made me appreciate Northern Ireland more but at the same time feel even more Scottish."

His research took him as far back as the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. He adds that as the Scottish National Archive makes old parish records accessible in its ongoing programme of digitisation, he is interested in taking his search back further, "because it's just such an absorbing thing to do". His quest took him not only to records of long-forgotten ancestors, but also to the places where they had lived - and he discovered the often now-defunct occupations they had pursued. "It's interesting, when you go back. So many of the addresses had gone, because so much had been either bombed or demolished. A lot of the occupations had vanished, too - such as steamship stoker or bonnetmaker."

So the process did more than just introduce him to his family. "It gives you a wee snapshot in time, and it also show you just how much the world has changed - places, jobs and, of course, masses of people that are just no longer there."

Similarly enthusiastic was Hamish Clark, a Scots actor well-acquainted with tartan through his role as Duncan in the hugely popular BBC TV series Monarch of the Glen, who was recruited by VisitScotland as a "family history ambassador" to Australia when the agency was promoting Ancestral Scotland there. Brought up in Broughty Ferry, Clark has said how moved he was by the experience, which took him to an old orchard near Perth - once maintained by his ancestors - then to Dundee, where his great-great-grandfather had been a shipwright and his great-great-grandmother a jute mill worker. It was, he said: "affecting beyond what I ever expected".

Sometimes, when tracing a family tree, it can be intriguing to see how certain traits have been carried down over the generations. That seems to have been the case with Sir Clive Sinclair's family, as the inventor discovered when he investigated his family with the help of the private genealogical research company Scottish Roots. With a family history taking in naval architecture, Clydeside shipbuilding and, in the distant past, a Glasgow blacksmith, perhaps it should be no surprise that Sinclair, now 65, should have come up with the with the world's first slimline pocket calculator, a digital wristwatch, pocket TV and cheap home computers, not to mention the ill-starred C5 electric tricycle.

"My father was born in London, as was I," he says, "and my grandfather was always a great man in my books. He was a naval architect and designed battleships on the Clyde with Vickers. When he was just in his twenties, Vickers sold a ship to Russia - but there was a problem with it and he had to take 500 men to Russia to sort it out, over the winter."

That tale was well known within the family lore, but when Tony Reid, his genealogist, started investigating further, Sinclair says, "he discovered that my grandfather's father had a plate-laying gang on the Clyde, at Govan, and his father had been a blacksmith, just outside Glasgow."

What Sinclair's Clydeside forebears would have made of the C5 can hardly be imagined but, he agrees, on his father's side at least, that facility for creative engineering and design seems to go back a long way.