On a sunny June day in Edinburgh, I went to see where my ancestor lost his head. A bagpiper in full regalia played tunes on the Royal Mile, and tourists took selfies beneath the castle, as I surveyed the scene at the Mercat Cross—the site where, on March 26, 1697, Sir Godfrey McCulloch was one of the last people beheaded by the Maiden, a grisly device that forced the doomed to face upwards to watch the falling blade.
The incident, referred to as the “unfortunate business” on the McCulloch clan website, is cloaked in lore and legend: Some say his headless body ran 100 yards; the legendary Scottish historian and writer Sir Walter Scott claimed that McCulloch was in fact saved by a fairy. In any case, after the execution, McCulloch’s wife and children were forced to flee to Ireland, where the family name morphed into McCullough, before emigrating to the US. Their descendants, as is common in the Scotch-Irish diaspora, are spread across North America.
Intrigued by this branch of my family tree, I’d long planned to make an ancestral pilgrimage. I’m not alone in my curiosity: ancestry travel is soaring in popularity thanks to DNA kits, TV shows like Henry Louis Gates’ Finding Your Roots, and the genealogy research that became a COVID pastime for many. This year, when my mom turned 75, I decided it was the perfect occasion for my sister and me to plan a surprise adventure to Scotland.
Our trip to the homeland would not be about reveling in the soul-stirring scenery of the Highlands—not the bonnie banks of lochs, the mist-shrouded munros, or the cinematic landscapes of Outlander. Instead, our travels would take us to the untouristed southern region of Dumfries and Galloway, once part of the lawless borderlands plagued by banditry and bloody feuds. So violent in the Middle Ages, as historian Graham Robb described in The Debatable Lands, that neither the English nor Scottish kings could control its people.
When I explained my quest to the friendly staff at The Balmoral, which I'd checked into before my mom and sister arrived, they suggested I check out the National Records of Scotland housed in the General Register House across the street. The neoclassical building alone is worth a trip, its gardens planted with species strongly connected to Scottish culture, such as plants used to create dyes for tartans and tweeds. For a flat £15 ($18) daily fee, I could access the full database of digitized records that go back to the 16th century. I already had rich archival material, but just for kicks, I thought I’d search for Godfrey McCulloch. When nothing turned up, an administrator explained that handwriting and irregular spelling often play a role. After selecting “fuzzy matching,” we finally found something: the death record, scribbled nearly illegibly as “McCloch.”
The next day, our guide Morag picked us up at the hotel to begin our journey south. At two and a half hours, the road trip was barely long enough to regale my family with tales of McCulloch misdeeds. The clan’s genesis, as Walter Jameson McCulloch colorfully writes in his family history, goes back to the Picts and Dalriadic Scots: “Naturally, a family of such antiquity can boast of a number of fanciful legends concerning its origin.” There’s the courageous Crusader who “carried on his shield a boar” and then there’s Ulgric “who led the gallant, if wild and undisciplined Gallovidians in the van of King David’s army at the Battle of the Standard in 1138 where he was killed.”
We were startled by the hulking silhouette of Cardoness Castle before we could even consult the GPS. Still standing on a rocky outcrop overlooking the River of Fleet estuary, the McCulloch stronghold was built in the 1400s. Even in partial ruin, the fortified, six-story structure has a commanding presence, with defensive features typical of the era: pit prison, murder holes (for dropping boiling water on invaders) and purpose-built gun loops. Cardoness is currently closed for restoration work, but an agent with Historic Environment Scotland allowed us to scout the site, peering in from afar through gaping windows to see a monumental fireplace.
An accompanying guidebook explains the circumstances behind the clan's demise. The McCulloch family seems to have had a talent for trouble: It was during a feud with the neighboring Gordon family over stolen cattle that Godfrey McCulloch shot his foe in the leg—a fatal wound for which McCulloch was condemned to die. Some claim the crime was committed in self defense and the court was stacked—indeed, after the incident, the Gordons took over ownership of Cardoness.
It was hard to picture this pile of stone as a snug medieval residence where the laird hosted rip-roaring feasts. But at the nearby Barholm Castle, another McCulloch estate, my imagination was fueled by the warm, present-day incarnation of a centuries-old property. We were welcomed by owner Janet Brennan-Inglis, who wrote a book called Scotland’s Castles: Rescued, Rebuilt and Reoccupied, and with her husband, spent nearly seven years restoring a roofless ruin, covering it in traditional harling (a type of stucco) and furnishing it in a colorful style.
We spent a magical moment in the rain, strolling through the gardens luxuriant with ferns, rhododendrons and even palm trees. (The Barholm Gardens are open every day of the year, by appointment, and the £5 ($6) admission fee is donated to charity.) From the charming greenhouse, brimming with potted succulents, we could see the sea shimmering in the distance. “The air is like Champagne here,” Brennan-Inglis said. “There’s no light pollution, no air pollution.”
Indeed the neighboring Galloway Forest Park was named the UK’s first Dark Sky Park in 2009, perfect for stargazing, and the region is home to a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Local businesses like The Ship Inn, where we stayed overnight in Gatehouse of Fleet, have pledged a commitment to sustainability. The restaurant sources its ingredients locally: fish from Kirkcudbright, venison from Gledpark, preserves from the Galloway Lodge. There are even plans for a new national park in this region once ravaged by industry and deforestation.
Thanks to Janet, we also learned about the nearby Cally Gardens, a pesticide-free wonderland overseen by eco champion Kevin Hughes who “gardens for biodiversity.” Sheltered behind 18th-century walls, this wild garden has what Hughes calls “genetic treasures”—a redwood and Lebanese cedar tree planted from seeds gathered from forests that no longer exist.
Leaving Cally Gardens, the road passed through a tunnel of trees so dense we lost the light of day. Red squirrels chittered from the branches wrapped in mist. I realized our ancestry quest hadn’t only connected us to the welcoming locals who are today’s custodians of the land, but also introduced us to a beautiful, overlooked part of Scotland we’d otherwise have missed. This land has inspired Scotland’s great bards—on a stay at the Murray Arms in Gatehouse of Fleet, Robert Burns wrote a draft of the patriotic anthem Scots Wha Hae. (Burns also wrote two poems about Cardoness Castle.) Notably, Sir Walter Scott’s romantic epics—which fueled great national pride in the 19th century—are based on the Border ballads he heard as songs in his youth.
And it was Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border that offered up an alternative ending to McCulloch's tale, so I’ll end with that. In the legend, our forefather was saved from execution by “a little old man arrayed in green and mounted upon a white palfrey.” The fairy pressed through the crowd “with the rapidity of lightning” to whisk the convicted murderer away from the scaffold—never to be seen again.
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler