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Scottish Ancestry Research - useful tips for exploring your roots.

If you are starting some Scottish ancestry research, you can take advantage of the range of great resources that Scotland offers.

Scottish Ancestry Research

If you’re planning some Scottish ancestry research, then be assured that no country has a greater wealth of information and range of facilities to help you than Scotland. Genealogy is an acknowledged sector in the tourism industry – and there are quite a number of experts out there who will undertake research.

And Scotland’s story is one of emigration and innovation far beyond the homeland. It isn’t just about the Highland Clearances either. Terrible though these episodes of (nearly) ethnic cleansing were, the numbers represent just a proportion of the total who left to seek a better life and represent today’s Scottish diaspora.

Tracing your family tree – preparation

It’s pretty obvious, but it’s always a good move to start with information from your own family sources. Older and more distant relatives can provide details of generations and family members unknown to you. However, they may also pass down old family stories which tend to get somewhat exaggerated.

Has Johanna a connection to the Massacre of Glencoe?

For example, my wife, Johanna, has Macdonald genes from her mother’s side. These also come with a tale that these Macdonalds were descended from the survivors of the infamous massacre of Glen Coe in 1692. Maybe every Macdonald says this about their ancestors. But some day, she’ll check it out.

Burial ground, Bunavullin, Morvern, by the Sound of Mull.

Burial ground, Bunavullin, Morvern, by the Sound of Mull.

(Pictured here) Johanna also knows that her great-grandfather, who was a MacDonald, is buried here, at Bunavullin, in Morvern, by the Sound of Mull. His grave is marked by a ringed cross, right of centre. Remember if you start your Scottish ancestry research project to note grave-stone inscriptions accurately on any 'field visits'. Wait a minute, I never noticed a black dog in the shot before (left). Where the heck did he come from? I’m sure we didn’t take our dog on that trip.

For my own part, an old uncle once told me that the Summers family were descended from fishermen who lived on a bare and exposed part of coastal Aberdeenshire. They were so poor that they had to snare rabbits in order to bait their lobster pots (or creels, as we would call them). They also took to wrecking, that is, shining a light from the coast at night, in order to misguide a ship in the hope it would run aground. Hmm, seems like I inherited the poor gene.  I’ve certainly tracked generations of fishers back into the 18th-century, but I’m still looking for evidence of them plundering wrecks.

Other sources of family lore to start off your ancestry research are as basic as inscriptions in inherited books (or even Bibles), plus anything that could be called ‘family memorabilia’ – certificates, medals, newspaper cuttings and so on.

The old Seatown of Rattray or 'Botany' (cf Botany Bay - its nickname because it was so remote!)

The old Seatown of Rattray or 'Botany' (cf Botany Bay - its nickname because it was so remote!)

(Pictured here) If family tradition is right, then some of my forebears possibly, just possibly, occupied one of the ruined dwellings here in this bleak part of Aberdeenshire. (Rattray Head Lighthouse is in the background.) This is the all but demolished old Seatown of Rattray or ‘Botany’ (cf Botany Bay – its nickname because it was so remote!) But are family tales to be believed? It’s only by finding time to search out your family’s past that stories can be confirmed.

Researching Scottish ancestry – the next step

The ScotlandsPeople Centre is the official government resource for family history research. It is located in central Edinburgh with search rooms in General Register House and New Register House. This shows one of the search rooms in General Register House.

The ScotlandsPeople Centre is the official government resource for family history research. It is located in central Edinburgh with search rooms in General Register House and New Register House. This shows one of the search rooms in General Register House.

If you are in Scotland, or visiting, then your starting point to trace the family tree could be General Register House and the adjacent New Register House in Edinburgh, at the east end of Princes Street. (One of the search rooms is pictured here. Please tiptoe past it and don't make any noise.)

The records there are accessible via the ScotlandsPeopleCentre, where the latest computer technology at 160 search places allow you to get on with the searching. (You can even hire staff by the hour to assist you in your genealogical research.) They carry around 90 million records.

At time of writing, you can access census returns 1841-1911. The Census with its ten-year cycle is useful as it allows the charting of expanding families. Trade and marital status of individuals are also recorded there. Then there are the old parish registers from 1553 (yes, in some places, that far back) through to 1854. These record births, christenings, banns and marriages. (Banns are proclamations of marriage.)

Deaths and burials are also shortly to be made available. Other statutory registers can also be accessed – for example, deaths, marriages, divorces etc. Even recorded wills between 1513 and 1901 are here, plus a variety of other records, for example, war registers.

If you planning a visit to Scotland and some family research is likely then, as mentioned above, ScotlandsPeopleCentre is a great starting point and a good excuse to visit Edinburgh, though the resource is also available online. And other libraries in Scotland also have valuable material to help trace a family tree.

The Mitchell Library, Glasgow - Europe's largest reference library?

For example, Glasgow’s Mitchell Library is sometimes described as Europe’s largest reference library and have staff who are very willing to help if you are going to search for your ancestors. They have, for instance, a newspaper collection going back to 1715. (Hmm, reminds me of our sitting room before we got a Kindle.)

They also hold a comprehensive collection of Post Office Trade Directories, first published in 1783 and continuing to 1974. These are especially useful as they list business premises with addresses, with such details as how long a company or individual has operated from that address.

Another tool that will help trace family tree are the records of monumental inscriptions – basically, what is written on gravestones. This can be especially valuable in cases where these stones may no longer be readable.

Poor Law Records

Who can say what your researches will turn up? We like to think of our forebears living in comfort but, sadly, in Scotland as elsewhere, this was not always the case. Scotland’s Poor Law Records are one of the most useful insights into past lives because of the amount of detail that is recorded. (The Mitchell Library in Glasgow, for example, holds 5000 volumes.)

They are so useful for those who are tracing their family trees because application for assistance under the Poor Law required an examination of the circumstances of the applicant. This created a dossier that held records such as letters, marriage certificates, birth certificates, religion and sometimes even photographs.

Prison sentences, illegitimate births - be prepared for surprises!

These items can sometimes be quite shocking for descendants, as they record events such as prison sentences or illegitimate births. Each time an application was repeated further details were recorded and these included previous addresses. So, be ready, these Poor Law Records are both moving and sad. Still, anyone who has watched ‘Who do you think you are?’ on television will appreciate that to learn about your ancestors can be quite an emotionally demanding exercise

While the records of family members in these reports are an aid for researchers today, they were originally part of the inspectors’ way of finding out if any other members of the family could contribute to the applicant’s needs. Poor relief was paid out of rates and the authorities, as canny Scots, were always anxious to minimise expenditure.

More tips to help search your ancestry

The Mitchell Library in Glasgow, Scotland, holds records of many parts of the Church of Scotland – including Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Unitarian, Baptist and Methodist records. The Jewish and Roman Catholic faiths hold their own separate archives. And it’s important to bear in mind that baptismal rolls were not always an integral part of the old parish registers. This should be especially noted if you research on line.

The Scottish Kirk session minutes are also fascinating sources of information about what the kirk considered misdemeanours – frequently involving chastising individuals for ‘untimeous drinking’ and fornication – there’s no saying what you’re going to uncover in the search ancestry journey.

The records of landed families – estate rolls – can also be useful, if ancestors rented a farm on the estate or worked for the well-to-do family. These sources can provide good information especially further back before pre-civil registration documents, such as the Census, are available.

Ancestry research here in Scotland – some more sources

The Register of Sasines is another way of fleshing out information, as this recorded property transactions. For example, if an individual with property emigrated, chances are, (s)he would sell up before leaving and this information can be found in these records.

School Admission Registers are also useful, as they record details such as which other schools the child attended, who the siblings were and also the parents’ names.

Finally, there are records to be accessed that refer to the world of work. For example, Police Force Records, which in Glasgow’s case go back to 1830, not only shed light on the family background of the individual officers but also provide fascinating detail, such as the height of the individual police officer. (Imagine – your ancestry research in Scotland could reveal the actual height of your great-grandfather!)

The moral is to be persistent and methodical and to take full advantage of Scotland’s record keeping to help create a picture of where you came from. But don’t under-estimate how much time you may need for this family tree exercise!

A word of warning about what you may find!

One final point about the family tree information you gather. Sometimes, just sometimes, you may find something that raises an eyebrow – divorce, bigamous marriage, illegitimacy and the like. Treat such information with care, especially if you’re telling, say, someone of an older generation in your own family when such things may still be considered scandalous. Searching your ancestry sometimes needs tact! (Does it sound as though I speak from experience? Ask me another time.)

To read one couple from the USA’s rewarding experience of tracing ancestors in Scotland, follow this link to mousetourstravels.  

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