IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Top European heritage tours

If you’re going to study history on your travels, it might as well be your own family history! These trips take you through a journey of your own lineage.
Image: Windmills
With itineraries for various interests, from Jewish heritage to a culinary tour, Holland Specialty Travel deals in small, chauffeur-driven trips. Their travel specialty is the "go back to your roots" tour, but they make sure that you don't miss out on important sightseeing like Delft and the Windmill City.iStockphoto
/ Source: Forbes

Grassy, rolling hills meet the well-worn peaks of the Grampies. Sheep dot these hills and cold, clear rivers crisscross them. In the fall, Perthshire’s rugged land brightens with the changing leaves and it’s the best time of year to enjoy blue skies—at least until the late afternoon. Seeing this idyllic countryside, I wonder how my Scottish ancestors felt leaving this land to immigrate to Ireland. My great-great grandfather was Scots-Irish in the truest sense. An Ulster Scot, he came from the contingent of Protestants who originally settled in Northern Ireland as part of James VI’s plan to colonize those other isles.

Typical of many Americans, my last name, like a raised flag, pins me to a particular place on the map. Yet, it only hints at one of many roots. Though a blend of German, Swiss, English and Irish, I have a deep connection with my Scottish heritage through my father, whose imagination has long been captured by the Highland culture. And despite having settled in Ireland a few centuries prior, his family preserved their heritage by retaining the tartans and crests of the Murrays—even as they settled in the U.S. in the 1820s.

A land's history comes alive when there's personal attachment, so I was excited to see the country through the eyes of a daughter of Scotland. Plenty of people travel to foreign countries in search of relatives, and even more people study their genealogy, but a trip to the ancestral home doesn’t always have to mean hours spent researching the family tree. Sometimes, seeing where and how your ancestors may have lived can be just as fulfilling an adventure. In fact, there are plenty of heritage tour operators in Europe who conduct specific and general genealogical research, then plan a vacation around the ancestral land.

With the clan name of Murray as inspiration, Lesley and Peter Gray of the Scottish Ancestral Trail created just such an adventure for me. Founded in 2003 after the couple became interested in their own ancestry, their company arranges custom vacations that explore your family’s Scottish history. They can plan a general trip around the clan territory or a more specific itinerary after careful research. Ancestral Trail will also put together a DNA tour for people whose DNA tests match those of Scottish ancestry within the bank of a genetic testing company. While Peter does much of the behind-the-scenes research, Lesley provides the personal touch by meeting groups at the airport, ensuring the accommodations meet your needs, or even arranging a chauffeured tour of your ancestral lands.

Foregoing the chauffeur, we decided instead to brave the road in a rental car. Navigation system? Yes, please. After touring Edinburgh Castle and the Royal Mile with guide Peter Chalmers, we drove north to Auchterarder where the famous Gleneagles Hotel rests on about 900 acres of land. Though styled after a French chateau, the hotel feels like a proper British manor. We had a wide-open view of the impeccably kept grounds from the balcony of our room in the Braid House, a wing that opened in 2002 where guests enjoy the latest amenities. Golf and tons of other activities abound there but we had family history to chase down. After an upscale take on the English fry-up, we rushed off in the morning to Huntingtower Castle, the first of four castles we would visit and the one where the Murray clan lore begins.

The Murrays took ownership of Huntingtower Castle in 1600, after the first owners held James VI prisoner there for 10 months during the Ruthven Raid. Its bizarre double towers and remarkable tempera-painted ceilings—featuring some of the country’s earliest Celtic and biblical designs—further cement Huntingtower’s significance. Another fortified castle that figures in the clan’s history is Balvaird Castle, a 20-minute drive away on the other side of the Firth of Tay. Because Perthshire is one of Scotland’s earliest centers of kingship, the area offers up many castles and even Pictish ruins, and its proximity to Edinburgh makes this gateway to the Highlands easy to explore.

A feature that most Scottish medieval castles share is their location atop a hill, affording telescopic views of the countryside. Though in ruins (and opened to us as a special privilege from Historic Scotland), Balvaird doesn’t disappoint on this account. The Murrays’ ownership of the property followed Andrew Murray of Tullibardine’s marriage to the daughter of the owner and marked another leg up for the clan during its meteoric rise in status during the 1600s. Our Historic Scotland guide, Gary Malcolm, pointed out some worn stonework on the outside of the castle. He explained that it was an oumbry, or shrine, that may have indicated religious allegiances in the tumultuous years leading up to the Reformation.

This sparked some questions about the ancient Murrays, so it was time to pay a visit to the Local Studies Library located in Perth’s A.K. Bell Library. In Scotland, local public libraries provide access to exhaustive records such as census indexes and parish registers for people researching their family’s history. With the help of capable researcher Yvonne Bell, I was able to get some more factual knowledge about the various offshoots of the original clan, like the Murrays of Atholl who were granted a dukedom and settled at Blair Castle, which we planned to tour the next day.

Beside the River Tay, the quintessential Scottish village of Dunkeld provides a great jumping-off point for the Big Tree Country. Its cobblestone streets offer up a few shops and historic hotels, but its religious origins dating from the Pictish kingdom to its position as the center of Christianity under David I attract the history buffs.

After dinner, we returned to the Dunkeld House, a Hilton hotel that holds a special significance to my journey—it was built by George Murray, the 6th Duke of Atholl, for his wife. The estate is located by a river in the midst of acres of deer-filled woods and pastures, and retains the essence of its storied past. Often on genealogical tours, you’ll be able to visit places that figure in your ancestors’ past, like a school that a relative started, the cemetery where family members are buried or, as in Scotland, the lands of your clan.

The morning we visited Blair Castle, another Murray clan residence, started off with the classic Scottish drizzle and fog, making our drive difficult. It also concealed the true grandeur of the Blair Atholl mansion, which represents the shift in castle-building from a fortified tower to a manor home. The architectural mix of towers, crenellations and Georgian elements result in the castle's fairy-tale look. Before the tour, we met with archivist Jane Anderson who not only guides tours but also maintains the archives of the castle—things like hundreds of years’ worth of rental books and all the family papers. She has met with people on genealogy quests who know that their ancestors were tenants on the land and helps them pore over the books for evidence of their family’s presence.

From the entrance hall stocked like an armory with displays of swords and muskets to the richly furnished rooms, the interior of the castle impresses with its overwhelmingly Victorian style. The most fascinating parts were the rooms and pieces that tell a story. For instance, the bed that accompanied the 1st Duke when he was arrested and tossed out of Holyrood Palace.

More than just the family-specific sites, be sure to enjoy your ancestral region’s other offerings. Taking in the attractions and seeking out the local culture will give you a feel for your ancestors’ lives. And, of course, when in Scotland, there’s no better way to get a taste of tradition than sampling the malt whisky. Perthshire has a handful of noteworthy distilleries, including Glenturret, the country’s oldest; and Edradour, the country’s smallest and the one that fit perfectly into the itinerary.

Our last day in the shire was spent at Scone Palace, another Murray stronghold that, like Blair Castle, is the sometimes-residence of its Murray occupants—in this case the Earls of Mansfield. The family retains part of the mansion while the rest is open to the public, and on the day we arrived, hundreds of antique dealers for the annual fair. Sadly, the occupants weren’t able to greet me, but when planning a genealogical tour, operators will often arrange a meeting with relatives that they uncover during their research.

Though not as striking as Blair Castle, Scone Palace stands on the grounds of what was once the capital of the Pictish empire, where Constantine and Macbeth held sway. These weighty historical roots give the estate an air of the sacred—or maybe I was just drawn in by the drama of Scotland’s history. Alasdair MacDonald showed us around, regaling us with anecdotes about the palace, like how the Stone of Destiny, used for coronations and now displayed in Edinburgh Castle, was recovered from the Scone lands. Or how Queen Victoria once played a game of curling in the Long Hall, the longest room in Scotland.

Back in Edinburgh the next day, a trip to the National Museum rounded out the tour through Perthshire. The very contemporary Museum of Scotland, next to the Royal Museum Building, has a comprehensive nine-floor exhibit on Scottish history and culture. On a heritage tour, try to visit the local museums to get a fuller picture of the times that your ancestors were a part of, and you may understand your own story better through it. That evening the twilight view of Castle Rock from an exquisite room in The Balmoral summed up my journey—there’s power in walking the same land and seeing the same sights that once upon a time your ancestors did too.

When planning a heritage trip of your own, avoid large, disorganized tours by hiring an individual tour manager and guide who takes a special interest in genealogy. It also helps to know when your relative arrived in the U.S. and some basic facts about him or her, but many companies will help you do the in-country research. Read on to find out about more heritage tours that you can take in Europe.