Help You Track Your Scottish Kin
If you want to do more
than chase around the Internet for your Scottish ancestors, there are any
number of books designed to educate you about the records available for
in-depth research, both online and off. But how do these books compare,
and is it worth your while to consult any of them?
Some people will tell you
that only sissies read books now that history has been divided into two
new eras: BC (Before Computers) and AC (After Computers). But "some
people" are not terrifically smart when it comes to doing genealogy in
Scotland (or any other place for that matter). Consider just one example:
records of interest to genealogists are maintained by two agencies: the
General Register Office (GRO) and the General Register House (GRH).
Happily, both agencies are headquartered near each other in Edinburgh. But
before you try contacting or visiting either one, you should know that the
GRO's facility is called New Register House, and the GRH's facility is
called the National Archives of Scotland (which actually has two search
rooms, not one, and used to be known as the Scottish Record Office). Got
that straight? If it helps, try doing what the locals do and think of the
two facilities as the New House and the Old House.
Why any of this should
matter to family historians becomes abundantly clear if you read up on the
many records held by these repositories and the traps that await you if
you don't understand how such records have been kept over the years in
Scotland. Yes, I realize that the physical location of records can seem
irrelevant if you can access the records on the Internet, but that
argument overlooks two minor little matters: (1) Only a fraction of a
repository's records may be online, and (2) Regardless of how you view
records, you need to know who has what and what exactly you are looking at
to interpret the records accurately. Which brings us back to the subject
Here are summaries of five
books on Scottish research, all of which you can buy or examine in a
library. The books are listed in the order they were published, not in any
order of preference.
1. Scottish Roots
by Alwyn James, Pelican Publishing Co., 1981, paperback, $14.95.
The author of this book
was born in Wales but took a job in Scotland, where he endeavored to
investigate his wife's family tree. Because he wrote the book during the
BC era, he did his research the old-fashioned way: visiting archives,
libraries, museums, and other sites in Scotland. His account of his
experience is not the least bit complicated; he assumes you are starting
out much as he did, with very little knowledge of where to go or what you
will find at the facilities in question. He did most of his work at the
New House and the Old House (the latter still called the Scottish Record
Office when he was there), but he also directs your attention to other
places where you can develop some sense of how your Scottish ancestors
lived. Obviously, a book written almost 25 years ago will contain a
certain amount of out-of-date information, but this does not detract from
the author's basic advice.
Where to buy:
2. In Search of
Scottish Ancestry by Gerald Hamilton-Edwards, Second Edition,
Genealogical Publishing Co., 1984, cloth, $24.95.
Originally published in
1972 and written by a native Brit whose resume is loaded with genealogical
and scholarly credentials, this book remains one of the important
references on the subject at hand, even though it dates back to the days
of BC. A quick glance through this Second Edition might put you off; blank
spaces at the ends of chapters are filled with silly-looking illustrations
that completely belie the author's expansive knowledge of England and
Scotland. No matter; the rest of the book is rock solid. In addition to 10
chapters on various kinds of records, there are chapers on Scottish naming
customs, clans and titles, migration patterns, and that ever-popular (and
invariably misunderstood) topic: coats-of-arms. Equally useful are
appendices on Latin words, legal terms, church parishes, and regional
directories. As was true for the previous author, Hamilton-Edwards was
writing when the National Archives of Scotland was still known as the
Scottish Record Office.
Where to buy:
3. A Genealogist's
Guide to Discovering Your Scottish Ancestors by Linda Jonas and Paul
Milner, Betterway Books, 2002, paperback, $19.99.
With this book, we enter
the age of AC. It is, as you might imagine, a very different vehicle,
because the authors are constrained to consider throughout the book what
resources you can utilize on the Internet versus what resources you will
have to track down elsewhere. Although both authors are based in the
United States, Milner is English by birth, and together the two writers
have decades of experience researching in the British Isles and helping
Americans trace British connections. Because Jonas is director of an LDS
Family History Center, the book pays special attention to what you can do
either online or in person through the LDS Church. The book is divided
into two parts, one devoted to issues and techniques of Scottish research,
and the other to specific types of records. Since anyone writing seriously
in the 21st century about Scottish genealogy is almost certainly aware of
the Hamilton-Edwards book, you will find considerable overlap with him in
coverage here, except that Jonas and Milner write in a more conversational
style and are able to deal with most topics in greater detail. Like
Hamilton-Edwards, Jonas and Milner are sticklers for doing your work
correctly the first time, so you can expect no slack in these pages if you
are looking for instant gratification. The book is laid out
systematically, much like a software manual.
Where to buy:
4. Scottish Ancestry
by Sherry Irvine, Revised Second Edition, Ancestry, 2003, paperback,
Because Scotland is small
geographically and relatively homogeneous in cultural terms (the
differences between Highlanders and Lowlanders notwithstanding),
record-keeping in Scotland has not been as complex as it has been in many
other countries. Consequently, books on Scottish genealogy necessarily
focus on the same basic record groups, such as civil registrations, church
registers, wills, censuses, property transfers, etc. Sherry Irvine
concentrates on such records, beginning with the most recent and working
her way backwards. First, though, she takes you through two chapters of
orientation in deference to her theme that "well begun is half done."
Among her words of wisdom, she reminds readers that in the 1700s, Scots
immigrated to North America not only from the Mother Country but from
Northern Ireland (the Scots-Irish). "The Scottish-sounding name in your
background may not be a direct import from Scotland," she cautions.
Throughout the book, as Jonas and Milner do in theirs, Irvine explains
what records are available at LDS Family History Centers to alert you to
what you can do (and in some cases have to do) beyond the Internet. One
distinctive feature of this book is that it assumes you are not likely to
journey to Scotland, so there are scant references to repositories there.
Irvine is a resident of Canada who lectures widely on genealogy and leads
study tours to England and Scotland.
Where to buy:
5. Tracing Your
Scottish Ancestry by Kathleen B. Cory, Third Edition, Genealogical
Publishing Co., 2004, paperback, $21.95.
While preparing this new
edition of her book, Kathleen Cory passed away quite unexpectedly. At the
request of her family, another specialist, Leslie Hodgson, completed her
work. Of all the books reviewed here, this one is best for anyone planning
a visit to Scotland. Although Alwyn James in his book (above) does a nice
job of walking you through a variety of research sites in the old country,
Cory in this book holds your hand for a much more sophisticated search in
Scottish records, painstakingly explaining the sources as only someone
with Cory's knowledge of the sources could do. As just one example, hers
is the only book with a street map of Edinburgh. Like James, she gives
primary attention to two respositories, the New House and the Old House.
Unlike James, she does not discuss libraries, museums, or other local
facilities, but she does include a lengthy list (the best of any of the
books) of local points of contact. At the same time, she goes
Hamilton-Edwards one step better by including an extremely helpful
appendix linking church parishes to districts, counties, and commissariots
(courts), along with the beginning dates of selected records for each
parish. Hamilton-Edwards provides a comparable list, but not with so much
detail. Cory does track Hamilton-Edwards by including a comprehensive
bibliography. (Sherry Irvine's book also contains a bibliography,
organized by chapter.) Another notable feature of Cory's work is the
book's introduction, writtten by the late professor Gordon Donaldson.
Donaldson uses his platform to lecture readers on their likely ignorance
of Scottish surnames. It is a short but very informative lesson.
Where to buy:
So what , if anything, can
we say in conclusion about these books? Here's how I see it:
1. For a quick and easy
read on what Scotland has to offer, try Alwyn James.
2. Whatever else you do,
examine Hamilton-Edwards, since he set the model for all subsequent
3. If you are a
stay-close-to-home researcher, use Sherry Irvine or Linda Jonas/Paul
4. If you envision a trip
to Scotland, take Kathleen Cory with you.
5. If you are worried
about the timeliness of information, any of the last three books (all
written AC) will work.