Family History Research in Scotland

Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   Text © Copyright October 2011, Anne Burgess; licensed for re-use under a Creative Commons Licence.

The purpose of this article is to highlight the significant differences for genealogical research in Scotland from the information in the article LinkExternal link. It does not seek to be a definitive guide to researching in Scotland; there are plenty of useful books on the subject. Italics highlight the principal differences between Scottish records and their English and Welsh counterparts.

The same advice on starting out applies: get as much information as you can from family sources before you start on other records. Once you have the basics of your immediate tree from family information, you are ready to tackle the statutory records of births, marriages and deaths.

Bear in mind that until about 1900 spelling was very much an inexact science, and the name of an individual can be spelled in different ways on different documents. ‘Mac’ in one document can turn up as ‘Mc’ or ‘M'’ in another, and there are known variants of certain names, for example Brymer, Bremner and Brebner are all interchangeable, as are the given names Janet and Jessie, and there are 53 recorded spellings of the name Taylor!

Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths started in 1855, and in theory was mandatory from the outset. The information in certificates has changed over the years, but generally:

A birth certificate should list the child’s full name, the date, time and place of the birth, the name and occupation of the father (unless the birth was illegitimate and he was not present when the birth was registered) and his address if it is not where the birth took place, the maiden name of the mother, the date and place of the parents’ marriage and the name and relationship of the informant to the child. Recent certificates also show the mother’s address and occupation.

A marriage certificate should list the date and place of the marriage, the religious denomination, if any, the full names, ages, occupations and addresses of both parties, and whether they are single, widowed or divorced; the names and occupations of both fathers (if known) and the full maiden names of both mothers; the name and designation of the officiating person and the names and (from 1929) addresses of the witnesses.

A death certificate should show the name and age of the deceased, the name(s) of any spouse(s), the date, time and place of death, the deceased’s usual address if that is not where the death occurred, the name and occupation of the deceased’s father (if known), the maiden name of the deceased’s mother, the cause of death and the name of the certifying doctor, and the name and address of the informant. It isn’t unusual for an informant to get the information partly wrong!

1855 certificates, uniquely, contain a huge amount of extra detail. For example a birth certificate lists the parents’ ages and birthplaces and how many other children they already have, and a death certificate lists all the deceased’s children and whether or not they are still living.

From 1855 to 1860, a death certificate also records where the deceased was buried.

The ten-yearly census returns from 1841 to 1911 are also available for genealogical research.

Once you have got back to the start of civil registration, you can consult the church records. The amount of information varies enormously. Baptisms may contain as little as the father’s name and the date of baptism, or they may contain details of both parents, their address, the child’s name and birth date, the names and relationships of the witnesses, and where the baptism took place. Marriage records may simply give the couple’s names and a date, which may or may not be the actual date of the wedding ceremony, or they may contain details of the couple’s addresses, occupations, fathers’ name and occupations, when and where the banns were called and where the wedding took place.

In most cases there is no point in going to individual churches for the registers. All the surviving registers of the Church of Scotland, which was, in theory, supposed to record all births and marriages from the 17th century onwards, are held by the Registrar General for Scotland in Edinburgh. The Roman Catholic Church records are held in various archives or by the individual churches, but can be consulted online. Episcopalian records are often in the individual churches, or in the diocesan archives. Most Free Church registers are held in the National Archives of Scotland in Edinburgh. Occasionally a stray register may turn up in local archives or university archives.

The Registers of Sasines are useful if your ancestors were among the rare few who actually owned land or buildings. They are the records of changes of ownership of such property from the 16th century. To consult the Sasines you have to go in person, or someone can go on your behalf, to the National Records of Scotland in General Register House in Edinburgh. Normally the calendars of abridgements give you all the information the documents contain of family relationships, and the abridgements are (2017) in process of being digitised.

The Kirk Session is the committee which runs the church, and among other business the Kirk Session Minutes record details of ‘discipline’, i.e. the pursuit and bringing to book of parishioners suspected of adultery and fornication, including antenuptial fornication. These are often the only source of information about illegitimate children.

Many Kirk Session minutes also list income from, among other things, use of the mortcloth. This is the cloth which was used to cover the coffin during funeral services, and the kirk would hire it out for the occasion. The mortcloth dues are often the only record of deaths before 1855.

Most surviving Kirk Session minute books are in the National Records of Scotland. They have been digitised but not indexed and can be consulted in General Register House in Edinburgh and in a small number of local archives. There are (2017) plans to make them available on the Scotland's People web site.

Other records in the National Records of Scotland include legal records and hundreds of estate and commercial archives.

Most local authorities, health boards and universities have archives, which, like their equivalents south of the Border, are a fantastic repository of all kinds of documents that date back hundreds of years.

Especially useful, where they have survived, are the poor relief records of the Parochial Boards, which are usually held in local authority archives, though they may not be where you would expect. The Parochial Boards were set up in 1845 to take over from the Kirk the task of supporting the poor, and the records contain fantastic details about the lives of the people involved. The word ‘pauper’, when it occurs in other records, specifically indicates a person in receipt of poor relief.


Scotland’s People

LinkExternal link
This is the official government pay-per-view web site which is the best resource on the web, bar none, for researching Scottish ancestry. You have to buy credits, which at the time of writing (2017) cost £0.25 each (minimum purchase 30 credits for £7.50). Searching the indexes is free, but it costs 6 credits (£1.50) to view and download each certificate.
You can view online and download birth certificates from 1855 until 100 years ago, marriage certificates from 1855 until 75 years ago and death certificates until 50 years ago; census records from 1841 to 1911; baptisms and marriages from the pre-1855 Church of Scotland registers; baptisms, marriages and burials from the Roman Catholic registers; baptisms, banns and burials from an assortment of other churches. Certificates after the cut-off dates can be ordered online.

Scottish willsbefore 1925 have been digitised and can also be downloaded from Scotland’s People. Access to the indexes is free of charge, and at the time of writing (2017) it costs 10 credits (£2.50) to download each will, regardless of how long it is.

National Records of Scotland
The National Records of Scotland LinkExternal link contains a vast range of records of use to family historians. The catalogue can be searched online.

National Library of Scotland
LinkExternal link
As well as searchable online catalogues of its vast holdings, the NLS web site has a digital map library containing many historic maps of Scotland, which often show places no longer in existence. There are also images of Post Office and street directories from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries

LinkExternal link
FreeBMD does not include Scottish records.

LinkExternal link
has transcriptions of most of the 1841, some of the 1851, and rather less of the later censuses, but is continually being added to. The transcriptions are more reliable that those on most commercial sites, because they are done twice by different people and conflicting results are checked again. Also, they readily accept corrections.

LinkExternal link
Does not include original Scottish BMD or census images, though it does have transcriptions of Scottish census records. Beware of some rather peculiar renderings of names in these transcriptions!
Beware also any online trees here or anywhere else. Sometimes they contain completely wrong information. Never believe anything you find in an online tree unless and until you have verified it by tracking down the original document.

Find my Past
LinkExternal link
Does not offer original Scottish BMD or census images, though it does have indexed transcriptions of the census. However it does have a range of other material, in some cases images of originals, and it has an extensive newspaper archive.

Family Search - International Genealogical Index
LinkExternal link
The International Genealogical Index (IGI) contains references to most of the content of the Church of Scotland baptism and marriage registers and civil births and marriages 1855 to 1874/5, but it is not complete, and any references found must be double-checked against the original source document, especially if they are ‘community contributed’ rather than ‘community indexed’. It is a very useful finding aid, but must not be used as a substitute for looking up the original images.

Scotland BDM Exchange
LinkExternal link
A free site where you may find that another researcher has placed details of a certificate relating to one of your relatives.

Find A Will
LinkExternal link
This is an experimental UK Government web site. It lists details of grants of Probate in the English and Welsh courts from 1858 to the present day. There is no such thing as Probate in Scots Law, where the corresponding term is Confirmation. Where someone dies in one country in the UK owning property in another, the Probate or Confirmation is sealed in the other jurisdiction. In this case, a Confirmation in a Scottish court may also appear in the England and Wales Calendar of Probate
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