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Finding family at the Highland Games

By Sara burrows

June 12, 2012 6:06PM

Rugby is a popular sport at the Highland Games. | Allen Kaleta~for Sun-Times Media

Updated: June 12, 2012 8:46PM

“Genealogy is not normally a thing you’d find at the Highland games. You wouldn’t find any in Scotland,” says Jackie Torrance, of Hinsdale.

Yet you’ll find Torrance, several of her genealogical-minded colleagues and a pile of books on the topic in a tent at the Scottish Festival and Highland Games in Itasca on June 15 and 16.

They will be representing the Scottish Genealogy Group of the Illinois St. Andrew’s Society, and they’ll help anyone who asks how to start climbing the family tree. “A lot of people are interested in their family, but they have no idea of how to get started,” she says. “We will give them the tools they need.”

Torrance is delighted when she can put people on the right path to family discovery. On several occasions, she’s had folks come in and confess that all their lives, they’d thought they were Irish. Yet at Irish centers where they’d hoped to uncover ancestral information, they were told they didn’t belong because they’re not Irish. They’re Scotch-Irish.

“They come in looking so dejected, and completely confused,” says Torrance. However, a few minutes of chatting with her about the migrations of Scottish people to Ireland and from there to the U.S., leaves them better informed, excited about Scotland and its history, and more than happy to trade their shamrock for a thistle.

Torrance limits her delving to an individual’s history. “If someone is looking for information about a specific clan, I send them to the clan tent,” she says.

But there’s plenty to keep things hopping in the genealogy tent. While not every Scot is part of a clan, every Scot has a long, rich history waiting to be uncovered.

And to jump-start your research into your Scottish heritage, says Torrance, you won’t do better than to enjoy the day at the festival. There are traditional Scots foods to sample, whiskeys to taste and music to enjoy.

“And you’ll get more rugby than you ever dreamed of,” Torrance warns. “Some people come only to play rugby.’

It’s an old game, one that goes well back into Scottish history. “But not so far back as golf,” she says.

That sport, it is generally believed, was developed in Scotland during the middle ages, and has been popular from the get-go.

It was so popular, Torrance said, that a king — “either James the 4th or 6th” — had to ban the game on certain days. He’d discovered that rather than drilling for the defense of the kingdom, or even doing a good deed or two, “All his knights were out all the time playing golf.”

Though there’s no golf at the festival, there’s more than enough to keep people busy for a day. “There’s something for everyone,” says Torrance.

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