'It is detective work, but with that element of intense human interest'
It's a growing passion for Scots and big business for the tourist industry - a niche market described as ancestral tourism.
It's also hugely popular with millions of television viewers who tune in to watch celebrities react when they discover their great-grandmother died in the workhouse or that they have distant connections to royalty. Archivists describe it as the Who Do You Think You Are? effect, which results in rocketing enquiries when the series goes on air.
This explosion of interest in family history research has been fuelled by the development of the internet, enabling access to research tools and online records so people can investigate their family tree without leaving the house.
In response, North Highland College has launched an online ancestral research course with taster workshops run in the Highlands as an appetiser. The course is offered as part of the college's community empowerment in leisure, tourism, hospitality and heritage activities (CELTHA), and financed by the European Social Fund.
People all over the world can access this online course, which shows beginners how to build their family tree. It was developed by Cameron Taylor of Seabridge Consultants, who created the online content with the college from a classroom-based training course he developed for the Scottish Tourist Board, now VisitScotland.
His original course was aimed primarily at the tourist market, while the online course has been geared more for individuals or community groups embarking on this type of research for the first time.
"There is a huge interest in anything to do with ancestral research, because every story is a human interest story and virtually every story is one that people can empathise with," says Mr Taylor, an Orcadian-born historian, now based in Moray.
"Most of us are descended from very ordinary people rather than from kings and queens and it provides an access route to the real history, rather than only the important people's history."
Mr Taylor has done his homework, finding out more about his grandfather's journey from Flotta in Orkney to Seattle by steamship and train in 1907. "That story of his emigration and that experience and part of his life fascinated me. So I've done my own research. I haven't found any terrible skeletons, just an interesting story."
His interest in ancestral tourism dates from his role as chief executive of the Orkney Tourist Board in the late 1990s, when he initiated the Canadian Home-coming in 1999.
"We identified a need for the course jointly. I wrote the content and the online team at North Highland College did the online development," says Mr Taylor, who was employed part-time by the college until recently, developing its tourism and hospitality degree.
Garry Ogg, who administers the online course at North Highland College, says: "The ancestral research course is provided free to those who stay within the Highlands, as this is one of the remits of our CELTHA project. The cost for other users is pound;50."
For taster sessions, they held workshops in various locations, such as Thurso, Invergordon, Dornoch and Kingussie. One session was for volunteers at the Invergordon Naval Museum and Heritage Centre, including Veronica Summers who helps with cataloguing and went along with her husband Archie. "Everyone who went on the course thought: `This is really good - one day I'm going to do this,'" says Mrs Summers.
The museum showcases exhibits connected to the town's maritime history, such as the tragic loss of 300 lives on Hogmanay 1915 when the "HMS Natal" mysteriously blew up. It also documents more recent events such as the construction of the Invergordon Distillery and the aluminium smelter in the Sixties and Seventies.
Margaret Ross, from the Caithness Family History Society, attended a workshop in Thurso before completing her online course. "I think what Highland College is doing is very, very good, and excellent for beginners," says the researcher, who has traced her family roots back to the late 1700s.
"They were crofting people and one side was from Caithness and the other side were shepherds who came up with the sheep from Northumberland."
Mr Taylor is now developing an English online research facility: "What we have seen over the past 20 years or so has been the growth of genealogy as a hobby. That's been prompted by the development of the internet, which lets us communicate quickly and globally and enables some really good- quality information resources to be made available online. So that's made genealogy easier.
"That has been one of the drivers. The other has been the activities of the Mormon Church. It has the biggest genealogical database in the world at Salt Lake City in Utah. To paraphrase, part of their religious belief, doing genealogy and identifying ancestors, enables them to be saved as well. So as part of their belief, Mormons are very, very active doing genealogy. World-wide, that has created a huge impetus for doing research."
People often develop an interest in their family history as they get older, says Mr Taylor: "There's a lot of emotional fulfilment in it, as well as intellectual fulfilment and social fulfilment."
And some professionals are drawn to this kind of in-depth investigation. "Talking to local groups around Scotland, it's interesting how often there are retired policemen who are very happily engaged in ancestral research," he says.
"I always talk to them about their motivation and they say: `Well, it's detective work, it's finding evidence, it's building up a story, it's corroborating it with the official documents.' It is detective work, but with that added element of intense human interest."