Everyone has ancestors, probably
not with the right to armorial bearings or whatever but that isn't
There are two inter-related
aspects to digging up your roots - genealogy and family history. The
former is necessary to establish the tree which then provides the basic
framework for subsequent family research. It is not so much who
your ancestors were that is interesting, it is what they were.
To start a search you will
require a specific starting point in Scotland, such as a name, date and
place of birth (preferably after 1855).
You will find that the very act
of establishing your tree will result in a considerable amount of
background information such as addresses, occupations and the like.
The following three key sources
for ancestral research are all housed in New Register House, West
Register Street, Edinburgh.
1. The Statutory Registers of
Births, Marriages & Deaths
Although compulsory registration
began in England in 1837, it wasn't until 1855 that the General Registry
Office of Births, Marriages and Deaths was established in Scotland and
compulsory registration was introduced. In this first year of
Statutory Civil Registration, an excessive amount of detail was
requested. Thereafter a format was adopted which, with slight
modification, is similar to that used today.
2. Census Enumerators' Returns
In the UK, the Census was
established in 1801 and has been carried out every ten years since,
apart from 1941. The objective of the Census was, and still is, to
provide Government Departments and planners with a wide range of
population data and trends.
Up to 1831 this exercise was
essentially a head count undertaken by the parish schoolmasters and,
only exceptionally, do actual listings of people survive. The 1841
Census was therefore the first to take the form of a Census as we know
it, although not in much detail.
Thereafter the census
returns provide the following information on each member of the
household : relationship to household head, marital status, age,
occupation and place of birth. From 1871 on the householder was
required to admit if anyone was imbecile, idiot or lunatic. The 1891
Census indicates Gaelic speakers. From the standpoint of ancestral
research, these documents provide a virtual snapshot of a household on
Because they are
considered to be highly confidential the returns are not open to the
public until they are at least 100 years old, and the most recent
available for inspection is the 1901 edition.
3. Old Parish Registers (OPRs)
For events taking place before 1855, one has to rely on the Old
Parish Registers (OPRs). These can be something of a disappointment in
the sense that (a) they don't generally provide much detailed
information and (b) many baptisms and marriages went unrecorded for all
sorts of reasons. If however ancestors were regular attenders of the
Established Church of Scotland, and not Episcopalians, Roman Catholics
or members of one the seceding denominations, then there is a fair
chance that their baptisms/births and proclamations/marriages will be
found - at least back to the late 1700s/early 1800s.
There are basically three ways
of doing an ancestral study.
1. By visiting New Register
House (NRH) - Edinburgh (Monday to Friday 0900 to 1630 hrs.)
Access to NRH costs £10.00
Sterling per day and there are discounted rates for longer periods. Each
searcher is allocated a desk with a computer terminal on which to view
the digitised images of statutory entries, OPRs and census returns, and
there are microfilm and fiche readers for miscellaneous material in
the various search rooms. There are user-friendly computer indexes to
the statutory certificates, the census returns (1841-1901) and
the OPRs; at present the OPRs display only births and marriages but
the small number of parish burial records which exists are scheduled to
go on-line in late 2008.
There is no limit to the
number of records which may be examined (on a self-service basis) within
the time allocated. Staff are on hand for advice.
Assisted searches will be
available shortly at the rate of £20 per hour (in addition to the search
fee) whereby a member of the staff of NRH will sit with a customer to
help to trace a family tree for a maximum of two hours. This service
requires to be pre-booked.
In addition to the above
records there is a well-stocked library providing a wide range of of
material such as:
·Indexed Memorial Inscriptions of
the gravestones of pre-1855 burial grounds.
·Various indexes and CD-ROMS
compiled by the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormon Church)
·Maps and Gazetteers
·Street indexes of the main towns
and cities for the 1841-1901 census returns.
·Post Office Directories
Many additional sources
such as wills and testaments (on-line), Kirk Session records, estate
papers, sasines (detailing land ownership) and court and legal records
are lodged in the National Archives of Scotland (NAS). This building
is adjacent to NRH and access is free of charge. A new Family History
Centre is soon to be opened, combining the facilities of each
building. Also then available will be the Public Register of All Arms
and Bearings in Scotland (1672-1906) - currently only accessible through
the Court of the Lord Lyon.
2. Using a Professional
General Register Office
(Scotland) leaflet lists professional associations and firms as well as
private researchers, all of whom are based in Scotland; mostly in the
Edinburgh area. Of these, Scottish Roots have been in the
business of tracing family trees longer than any other company. They
can be contacted at their Edinburgh base:
Their Standard Search fee
to research a specific ancestral line is £195 + VAT
. Some private researchers
charge less, and English-based organisations much more. If more than
one line requires to be searched then the rates increase
accordingly. Most professionals are prepared to offer a free estimate
Generally one can expect
to get back to the late 1780s but this cannot be guaranteed. If problems
are encountered at an early stage, most professionals would abort the
search and simply charge for the work completed.
3. Doing it Yourself - from a
The Internet has revolutionised
this means of researching family trees.
By far the most relevant
websites are "Origins" and "Scotlands People" (www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk),
the official pay-per-view database of the records of the GRO (General
Record Office) including:
Statutory registers of
Births 1855-2006, Marriages 1855-1932 and Deaths 1855-2006.
Old Parish Registers Births & Baptisms 1553-1854, Proclamations
and Marriages 1553-1854.
Census Records 1841,1851,1861,1871,1881,1891 and 1901.
Wills & Testaments Search 1513-1901 (free)
Access to the indexes
cost £6 Sterling, giving 30 page credits which are valid for 90
consecutive days. To actually view 1 page costs 6 credits and to
order an individual entry is £10.
Another useful website is
Family Search (www.familysearchch.org)
which makes available, free of charge, all the data compiled by the
Church of Latter Day Saints, more popularly known as the Mormons.
These are indexes covering the OPRs, and the statutory birth and
marriage certificates from 1855 to 1875.
The Relative Merits of the Above
Much will depend on the
location of the searcher, particularly with regard to direct use of NRH
facilities in Edinburgh. Apart from travel and accommodation, the most
cost-effective way would be direct visit; the only expenditure being
the entrance fee.
In assessing the cost of
searching at a distance it should be borne in mind that extracts of
register entries cost £10 each and that it will be necessary to go back
and forth several times to the indexes as the search progresses.
Mistakes can also be made by the inexperienced researcher, another
factor to take into consideration.
If a search for one
ancestral requires fifteen records to be examined (and they often do),
and say, five visits to the website, this would cost £200.
In most cases a
professional research service would offer the most efficient option.
Professionals know the pitfalls and the best ways of overcoming the
inevitable difficulties which crop up during almost every search.
Most amateurs derive
enormous satisfaction from researching their own family tree. It is
difficult to describe the "thrill of the chase" and the excitement in
eventually finding the "right" certificate or census entry after a
Putting Flesh on the
Compilation of a family
tree or pedigree chart, should not be an end in itself. Once you have
discovered who your ancestors were, the next stage is to find out more
about them, their jobs, their families and the localities in which they
lived. You will of course have already acquired basic family
information from the certificates and census returns.
Just a few Suggestions
Contact the relevant local
history library, normally based within the main public library for the
town or region concerned. They will hold copies of local newspapers,
perhaps containing an obituary of one of your forebears; old
photographs possibly showing the street where the family lived and much
else besides. Even to scan through old newspapers will give an insight
into the way of life in the city, town or village.
Obtain copies of
large-scale maps covering those areas where your ancestors lived. In the
latter half of the 19th century, Ordnance Survey (OS)
25-inch:mile maps were produced for most of central Scotland and for the
more populous areas eleswhere. The whole country is covered by the
Copies may be
ordered from the National Library of Scotland Map Library (www.nls.uk,
Visit local and industrial
museums. These will also give you an insight into the conditions in
which your ancestors lived and worked.
Join the appropriate Local
Family History Society; they might even be able to put you in touch
with relatives you never knew you had.
Some recommended books:
The best and most
up-to-date practiacl guide is "Tracing Scottish Ancestors" by Rosemary
Bigwood (Harper Collins
A very readable history of
the records of the General Register Office for Scotland is "Jock
Tamsons Bairns by Cecil Sinclair (GROS, 2000)
Some years old but still in
print and relating to the resources of the National Archives of Scotland
if "Tracing your Scottish Ancestors, Scottish Record Office (Mercat
For local or specialised
resources there is one invaluable publication "Exploring Scottish
History", 2nd edition, edited by Michael Cox (Scottish
Library Association 1999)
An example of a Standard
To get an idea of what you
can get from a professional genealogist see an example of A £195
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