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Ancestry Research
Scottish Trades


This article was written for the January 2002 edition of the Family Tree Magazine by Gordon McPhail, a professional, practising genealogist.

An ancestor’s trade or occupation can be a starting point to searching records held only in Scotland for your particular forebear’s career details and in some cases parentage and this is particularly useful when dealing with periods pre—1855 (the start of detailed compulsory registration of births, deaths, marriages in Scotland) when parentage was not always included in marriages and burials. To begin with if your ancestor followed a specified trade — say Weaving, Dying, Shoemaking, Wheelwright, Baker, Gardener, Tanner, Butcher etc. — then there are more likely to be records surviving and if that trade was carried on in a royal burgh which in effect meant almost any Scottish town of decent size then the chances of researching his job successfully are increased. Such ‘burgh’ records are nowadays increasingly held at local archives in Scotland such as Glasgow City Archive, Aberdeen City Archive, Dundee City Archive and a few may remain at the National Archives for Scotland in Edinburgh. You will also be looking to find your ancestor in the records of burgesses, a burgess being the qualification allowing trading rights within the burgh — linked closely to the various incorporations of trades (each trade had its own body) these were often close knit groupings of family members especially in the early days in the 16th to 17th centuries and are therefore valuable, genealogically speaking.

The town of Glasgow, for example, Scotland’s largest inhabited site, had 14 incorporated trades whose records are kept at Glasgow City Archives and the roll of burgess and Guild Brethren for the city is published in fully indexed book form (as is that for Edinburgh). Taking a Glasgow example, using the B&GB book carefully and referring back and forth to the original trade records we can quickly extend a lineage by several generations — from the ‘Burgess & Guild Brethren of Glasgow vol. 1’ we find ‘James Boyill, Weaver, B&GB (burgess & guild brother) as married Margaret, l.d. (lawful daughter) to Patrick Lang, Weaver B&GB 20 September 1694’. From this published entry we can consult the original Inc. of Weavers records to perhaps find extra detail. James Boyle or Boyill has entered the status of Weaver and Burgess through his association with his father—in— law. Remaining solely in the published ‘B&GB’ volume we consult, the index to find an ancestral run : ‘Patrick Lang, Weaver B&GB as eldest l.s. to deceased Robert Lang, Weaver B&GB 30 June 1664’ and then ‘Robert Lang, Weaver B&GB as eldest l.s. to Patrick Lang, Weaver B&GB 11 Feb 1641’ and continuing ‘Patrick Lang, Wobster (Weaver) and GB (Guild Brother), as son and heir to Robert Lang, Wobster 31 Dec. 1612’. The Burgess records themselves do not help us to extend further but the original Incorporation of Shoemakers records do allow this by searching their ‘minutes’ in which we find ‘May 1595: . . .Robert Layng, burgess of Glasgow is admittit freeman in ye (the) craft’. The minutes in this case began in 1591 and if we comb them carefully we can find all manner of indentures (apprenticeships) and other business detail for the family. These trade records also contain varied papers such as mortcloth accounts which list the hiring out of a ‘cloth’ to cover a dead body and so they may predate burial registers for an area; also titles to real estate involving trade members. These records can give clues to origins outwith the area concerned such as that with the Stevenson family of Maltmen (Distillers) in Glasgow — from the published ‘B&GB’ volume we find ‘Adam Stevenson, MaltmaN, Burgess & Guild Brother, Master 5 Nov. 1708’ meaning that he had qualified for his status by 1708 through involvement with a ‘Master’ pointing to him having served an apprenticeship and not having entered the trade through marriage. Searching the Minutes of the Inc. of Maltmen we go back eight years, to 1700, to find Adam’s entry: ‘...23 Feby 1700:Adam Stevensone, sone laull (lawful) to James Stevensone elder, portioner of Nether Carsewell — is booked prentise to John Stevensone for five years from his entrie the date of the indenture which is dated the third of Febry instant...’ These trade sources can of course be used as a good base for searching other records — baptisms, marriages, burials, wills, land records, inheritance records, building up the usual cross referencing for good proof of extending a line. In this case, for example, Nether Carsewell proved to be located several miles out of Glasgow in the farming country of Renfrewshire and the word ‘portioner’ tells us that Adam’s father James owned the property, allowing investigation into Renfrewshire land ownership records.

Your ancestor did not have to follow one of the established trades, however, to appear in records concerning his or her occupation: often we find an army ancestor along the way and if this involved the British Army, certainly from the period c.1707, we can try to establish the regiment name and search for career detail at the Public Record Office, Kew, Richmond, Surrey (Greater London): most Scottish sources are held in Scotland, this being an exception due to it concerning the ‘British’ Army.

A whole host of rare and unclassified records may apply to digging out information of a particular occupation of an individual and contacting local archives in Scotland is advised. Also check the main index to the National Register of Archives (Scotland) under the job description, especially if you know the employer’s name: the NRA(S) is a collection of privately held records which might be available for consultation.

The National Archives of Scotland (different from the above NRA(S) and formerly called the Scottish Record Office) keeps records for coalminers, schoolteachers etc.


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