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Historical Articles from Larry Ruickbie
Searching for Your Canadian/Scottish Ancestors
For Starters

To start off: using a spread sheet (so you can sort it and edit it easily) or a word processor – enter all that you know is fact about your siblings, your parents, their brothers and sisters, their parents etc… include all you can muster – dates, places, addresses, occupations, service in the world wars, and religion/church.

Using the database facilities in Excel, allows sorting by various criteria, often leading to the revealing of “hidden” or “lost” information.

Then – get a genealogy software package– PAF at Family Search is free (see below, and you can transfer the data to a commercial product later) – but there are others that are more robust – no suggestions here – you decide……..then enter what you have.

Fill in the blanks and expand what you may have by further discussion with your various family members as required, asking specific pointed questions and getting as clear and detailed information as may be possible. Try to get detailed very specific answers; but this can be a sair fecht or struggle.

While doing all of the above also attempt to get copies or originals of family photographs, bibles, diaries, news clippings, certificates (birth, marriage, death), announcements, letters, old passports, military ID papers, etc.

Put all new information (and source) into your note file and/or software, with the source details in a manner that will make sense both to you and others, ten years or a century later.

Review it, and correct it, this is your base and it should be rock solid to build on. Commit what you can to memory so that when you do come across sometime relative “the bells go off.”

Now – at the top of the tree is your first wall – the search begins there and goes back in time one step at a time in a logical focused manner. Don’t shotgun it or you will be chasing a multitude of false leads and red herrings much of the (wasted) time. Note that going backwards is always far easier than going forward in time.

Your main goal initially is to “get across the pond” and establish, positively with precision and confirmation, the names of the person(s) who are your ancestors in Scotland, and hopefully discovering the name a specific area or city in which they lived.



In 1855 it became compulsory to register every birth, marriage or death in Scotland with the local registrar. Prior to 1855 such information may have been recorded in the relative parish church records (but not a certainty).

Information on birth registers:
1) The child's name, date, time and place of birth.
2) If illegitimate it may state so, but not always.
3) Surname may be the mother’s or the father's depending on legitimacy.
4) The father's name, plus occupation, unless illegitimate.
5) The mother's married and maiden name will be logged. If the record does not specify a ‘maiden name' (or MS) then the couple may not have been married.
6) Excepting1856-1860, all births should have the parent's marriage date and place, unless they were not married.
7) The informant's name and relationship to the child.

If the child is illegitimate, and the time period is 1855 until about 1890 you may find a mention of it in the relevant parish Kirk Sessions, and possibly learn the father's name. Should the word ‘Paternity' be rubber stamped on the certificate - there has been a paternity suit brought against the father by the mother. This may be followed up (off line) from the reference number to find the father's name and address.

Information on marriage registers:

1) The date, place, and denomination of the marriage.
2) The names of the bride and groom, and their ages, occupations, marital status, and usual residence addresses.
3) Their parent's names, with mother's maiden name, whether the parents are alive or dead, and the occupations of the fathers.
4) The minister and witnesses names.

Ages may at times be incorrect especially when there was a significant difference in age between the couple, it is a second marriage, or under aged.

Information on death registers:
1) The deceased's name and the name of the spouse. The 1856-60 certificates do not give the name(s) of spouse(s).
2) The date, time and place of death, plus age.
3) The parent's names if known, with mother's maiden name, whether parents alive or dead, and occupation of the father.
4) The cause of death and the name of doctor, if certified.
5) The 1855-60 registers may indicate place of burial, and name of witness to the interment.
6) The informant's name, relationship to deceased and maybe their address.

Be cautious of the accuracy of age, and parent’s names – dependent on who the informant was, and how knowledgeable they might have been.

Margaret Govenlock wife of James Ruickbie
Sample SR Death Record


Before Civil Registration in 1855, the recording of baptisms, proclamations and some burials was undertaken by each parish church, the established church being The Church of Scotland. A parish entry does not contain the wealth of information that a civil registration contains, it MAY give you evidence of previous marriages, (e.g. widowed), father's occupation, father's military regiment and rank, wife's father's name as in some Edinburgh parishes, witnesses names (who may be related), village, place or farm names to enable you to do a look up in a census, evidence of illegitimacy .There was no set way of recording the information, so the quantity and quality of information is HIGHLY variable.

The level of details varies widely from parish to parish, and over time. Usually little more information than what appears on the on line indexes will be found. Yet sometimes the occupation of the father and place of residence may be listed.

This church process involved a pre-nuptial document which registered the names of a couple intending to marry, and were called 'The Banns'. Their names were read out three times, or Proclaimed, usually on successive Sundays to the parish congregation. If anyone knew of a reason why they could not marry, now was the time to come forward. Not every proclamation ended in marriage. Not all proclamations guarantee that a marriage actually happened. Again amount of details vary, but rare bonus information may include the groom’s occupation, the name of the groom’s “cautioner”, the name of the father of the bride, and perhaps witness names and occupations of all.

Burial is not a sacrament in the Presbyterian Church and the subsequent lack of records shows this. Most pre-1855 burial records contain little useful information and are rare. Some parishes did, in certain time periods, record such. However, you might still be able to establish a death before 1855 as it may sometimes be inferred by the rental fee of a mort cloth in the records.

Double Ruickbie Wedding
Sample SR Marriage Record (and a double wedding to boot)


Although the Census was taken in Scotland beginning in 1810, only the 1841 forward are of any use for genealogy purposes.
The census is an enumeration of all the people in Scotland living in homes, hotels and institutions and ships in port on the nights of:
1841, 7 June
1851, 31 March
1861, 8 April
1871, 3 April
1881, 4 April
1891, 6 April
1901, March 31
These are the only census dates available to view at present because of the “hundred year law.1911 will come out 2010. 1871 through 1901 are on line. 1841 to 1861 are promised for summer 2005 at present, although there are fragments available here and there.

If you can not find your ancestor on a census where you thought they should be – search further – they may have been away visiting someone that evening, or working away from home and would be listed as a visitor or boarder elsewhere.

Although the Censuses superficially resemble one another, keep in mind that the detailed required contents varied from one Census to another. There are earlier Censuses, starting 1801; but these did not include names, so are of little use for genealogical purposes. The listed Censuses were held at different times of the year for each one, ranging from Mid-March to late June, so in those Censuses where a person’s age is given to the year rounded down, it can seem to be one year younger or older than the Census 10 year “simple” progression suggests.

Generally in the British Censuses, it is the persons actually present on the Census Night, NOT those who normally lived in the premises. Hence a sick person would appear in the Census return for a hospital say, not in the normal family home; but occasionally due to misunderstanding, the person can be listed in both places.

The Given Name may be what you expect; but it may be different in the Census as the Head knew the person only by another name, such as a middle name or a nick-name or an alias.

George Ruickbie 1891 Census
Sample 1891 Census Record 


The SR’s and the OPR’s are not the definitive list of every christening, birth, proclamation or marriage that took place in Scotland. The pre 1855 events are predominantly from the Church of Scotland. They do not include the records of Catholic, Free Church, and Episcopalian, or other breakaway groups, and religions.

Should you be Protestant, or Catholic, don’t presuppose that your ancestors were also. An interdenominational marriage may have changed the family's religion. Plus jobs were easier to find in some places when you were of a certain religion, or there was no church of their denomination locally. You may be looking in the wrong records.

In 1843 over 400+ of 1220+ (i.e. 1/3) of the ministers broke away from the Church of Scotland to form The Free Church of Scotland. At this point your family may seem to disappear. New children seem to suddenly show up in the later census for which you can find no birth records. This family may have belonged to a church with a dissenting minister and become members of The Free Church of Scotland. I call this the “Intermediate Black Hole” and it is to me, and many others, the cause of a brick wall or a gap in data.

There is no index of names for non Church of Scotland births and marriages, but there are parish records for dissenting churches which are held in the National Archives, Edinburgh. These are indexed by parish, so to find an ancestor in them you must know, at least roughly, the parish they were in.


You may find as you are reviewing the marriage date of a couple and the subsequent birthdates of their children that there is evidence of pre marital pregnancy. Perhaps even have an illegitimate birth may be lurking in your ancestry. Don't feel embarrassed about it, because this may be a good thing leading to an entry in the Kirk Session Minutes as the couple is disciplined by the church for their sin. The information contained in that entry may give more details than you ever wanted to know about your ancestor but also vital paternity information, as well as personal testimony. There aren't many places in the records where you get to hear your ancestors speak.

Between 1834 -1836 each Church of Scotland parish was required by the General Assembly to list their communicants. Some are headed 'Roll of Communicants', some as 'Heads of Families', either way you get a list of male names in the parish.

When a marriage date cannot be found for a couple, although subsequent children are in the parish records it could be due to an 'irregular marriage'. A couple could declare themselves married in front of witnesses without using a minister (this was quite legal – a dockworker could wed them). There would be no paperwork to prove the marriage existed. When it came time for the baptism of a child, the couple usually wanted back into the 'fold' of the church and confessed their 'irregular marriage' -there was usually a fine involved.

They may also have married in another denomination, such as one of the Burgher churches, but for some reason came back to the Church of Scotland. Again they would confess their irregular marriage and get straight with the church. Proving the legitimacy of a child seems to have been an impetus, although impending emigration would also spur the couple on as that would be the only way to get a good testimonial certificate to take with them to their new parish or country.

There was a rent paid on the seat or pew you took in church. The best seats went to the Laird etc, and there are some 'Pew Plans' of just who sat in which pew.

Also recorded in the minutes are the election of Kirk Officers and Elders.

Each parish had a different minister, session clerk, and session members. This means there is a lot of variety in the amount and types of information contained in the minutes. Some are filled with the Sabbath sermon preached by the minister, some by the poor list, and some were only concerned with the discipline of the parishioner right down to the smallest transgression. One may find the record of a private baptism of an illegitimate child before the session or lists of burials plots within the graveyard.

(Some are on line)

During your ancestors' life , they may have recorded deeds, been subject to litigation, sued for divorce, tried to prove paternity, gone into partnership, got into debt, or even got into trouble with the law. All these types of records are held within the court records. For a fuller explanation of the records available I would suggest you obtain a copy of 'Tracing your Scottish Ancestors, A Guide to Ancestry Research in The Scottish Record Office by Cecil Sinclair. (also- see NAS much further down)

(Some are on line)

The minimum information needed to search for a will is the date and place of death of your ancestor. When it is a common name, (eg John McDonald in Glasgow) the name of the spouse and occupation will help identify the correct will.


Names of tenants may be found within the Estate Papers of landowners, many of which have been deposited in the National Archives (ref :GD - Gifts and Deposits). The name of a farm, village or parish is essential to establish which landowner records to search.

Valuation Rolls for each county will also give good tenant information in many cases.

A wonderful source of tenants names, along with some biographical details at times, are the Annexed Estate Papers. Jacobite landowners, on the defeat of their cause, either lost their estates to the Crown, or had them managed by the Barons of the Exchequer. Either way, there was a full accounting of the estate to establish its value. Farms, tenants, rents paid, and reparation received are listed. The Scottish Exchequer (Ref: E) contains papers of estates forfeited after the 1689, 1715 and 1745 risings.


A sasine is the legal record of the transfer of land ownership, either when inherited, gifted or sold. Land used as security for a loan will also be recorded in the county Register of Sasines. Most people in pre WWII Scotland were tenants and did not own their house or land, so these records are best searched only if you have knowledge of land or house ownership from previous research. Transfer of some lands via a will was not possible prior to 1868.

However if you do have reason to think that an ancestor may have owned their land or house then these records can contain a wealth of information. For instance if a family owned a piece of land for generations, each sasine refers back to the previous transfer, neatly linking each generation with names and relationships. This can be very helpful in areas with sparse birth and marriage records.

These records should be searched with reference to specific events such as the death of the land/house owning ancestor, initially.

James Ruickbie marriage
Sample of an OPR marriage Record


Variations in forenames
When searching you should remember that some given names have variants, abbreviations or other possibilities besides the possible miss-spellings:

Agnes - Nancy, Nan
Alexander – Alexr., Alec, Alex, Sandy, Eck, Al
Catherine – Katherine, Kate, Kath, Kathy, Cathy, Kit
Charles - Chas., Charley, Chuck
Elizabeth - Elisabeth, Eliza, Betty, Betsy, Beth, Bessie, Elspeth, Elsie, Liz, Elspet
George – Geordie, Dod, Geo
Hannah – Ann
Hellen, Ellen, Ellie
Hugh, Hew, Ewan
James -Jas., Jamie, Jimmy, Jim
Jane, Janet, Jean, Jessie
Margaret – Margt., Mgt., Maggie, Meg, Peggy, Peg
William - Will, Wm., Willm, Willie, Bill, Billy
Williamina, Ina, Wilhelmina

And on……………and on…

Return to Larry's Searching for Your Canadian/Scottish Ancestors Index Page


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