Traveler Stories – Unearthing Family Roots in Scotland

Written by Alana Loftus

For years, John McDonald dreamed of visiting Scotland- the home of his ancestors. Like most plans, life got in the way a time or two. At retirement age, with little stopping them, he and his wife Beverly decided the time was finally right, only to be met with a global pandemic that put a three-year pause on their plans. Joining forces with another couple, they finally got to take their long-awaited trip in April of 2023.


“We had already paid for the trip in full, so Crystal Travel said we would have five years to use it,” John explains. “This was really generous; most places wouldn’t do that.”


They set off on their 2-week adventure, flying from New York with Aer Lingus, which John says was a very pleasant experience. Once they arrived and collected their rental car (a French Citroen with lots of charm) the challenge of driving on the opposite side of the road began.
“I did all the driving, nobody else wanted to drive on the left side of the road,” John says. “It was a little bit of a challenge, but you just have to keep your head in it. You can’t drift off while you’re behind the wheel.”

The instructions and GPS had all defaulted to French and John says they got a kick out of navigating the ‘old-fashioned way’. The friends somehow found their way from town to town using a traditional map and enjoyed the wrong turns they took along the way.
John credits the self-drive approach as being one of the best parts of their trip. Without the freedom to stop at whatever destination they wanted, he is certain they would have missed out on some spectacular sights.


Traveling from place to place, the group changed hotels often and say that the accommodation only improved as the trip progressed. The most memorable part of each location was the food they were treated to- smoked fish and a Scottish cheese platter in Ceol Na Mara, a fantastic breakfast at Culloden House, and world-famous seafood in Oban.


Despite enjoying the tourist attractions Scotland had to offer, there was one specific reason John had longed to visit. He refused to return home to the States without at least trying to locate his family graves. After extensive research, he narrowed down the search to Galashiels- a place south of Edinburgh. On their last day, John and Bev separated from their group and set off to find the final resting place of his Scottish ancestors. John admits it felt like a near-impossible task- there were a lot of graves belonging to MacDonalds. They took a train to Galashiels and once there, asked a taxi driver to transport them to the graveyard. They explained to him how important it felt to find the graves- they had come all this way, and this would be their last chance.


“We asked him to come back to pick us up in an hour and a half. That would be enough time to search the graveyard if myself and my wife split up.”


Perhaps by a miracle, after the hour and a half was nearly up, John happened across a grave that contained all of the names he had listed from his family tree. He recalls that the taxi driver was overcome with emotion when they told him they had found it. He felt honored to be part of a story that meant so much to the couple. They had traveled tirelessly and had never given up on the possibility that they might uncover the family plot.

Their last-minute trip to Galashiels ended up being one of the highlights of the trip for John and Beverly.

“Galashiels is also a very nice little town,” John says. “It is only a one-hour train ride from Edinburgh through a very beautiful lowland country. While we were there we went to the Great Tapestry of Scotland. It is a beautiful building and display of the whole history of Scotland done on tapestry. For anyone going to the southern part of Scotland, The Borders, it should be a stop.”


John jokes that he believes he drove about 500 miles over the course of the trip, alluding to the famous Scottish song. Despite this, he wouldn’t change their method of transportation or their itinerary. He worked closely with Ann from the Crystal Travel Team, to ensure they included all the areas his ancestors came from.
“There was a lot of work put into it and everyone cared about setting it up correctly.”


Overall, the memories they made on their Scotland trip are some that they will cherish forever. They may have waited three years after booking it, but John had waited most of his life before then too. Finding the final resting place of his ancestors took the trip from being an enjoyable one to the trip of a lifetime.


“We still think about the trip, almost every day,” John says. “We travel a lot, and this one was a trip that will stay with us for a long time.”