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Introduction to Scottish Family History

Where to start

As with family history in other areas of the world, the first place to start is with your own family. Try to gather as much information as you can from relatives, old family documents and the like. With luck you will be able to piece together a simple family tree. Concentrate in particular on gathering details of when and where your forebears lived. Older relatives may be able to provide useful clues. The more information you can gather now, the easier your research will be later.

Further tips on Getting Started in Genealogy and Family History are given elsewhere in GENUKI.

The next stage is to address the main sources of information on Scottish forebears.

The key records for family historians are

Other records include Marine Registers of Scottish births and deaths (post 1855) and various Army records, including deaths of Scottish soldiers in the two World Wars.

Birth, marriage and death certificates

Registration of births, marriages and deaths began in Scotland on the 1st January 1855. Scottish certificates generally give more information than their English counterparts e.g. death certificates name the parents of the deceased, and marriage certificates name mothers as well as fathers of the couple.

1855 is usually the cut-off point, although death certificates can extend the tree well before this date. For instance, if someone who was born in 1790 lived until the grand old age of 75, their death certificate (circa 1865) would give two more names to add to the top of the tree, taking things back to a couple born around 1770 or earlier.

Many early Scottish civil registration certificates can be consulted on microform in LDS Family History Centres around the world, including the period 1855-1875. The IGI (International Genealogical Index) has good coverage of births and marriages from Scottish civil registration records for the years 1855-1875 and it can therefore be a useful tool for tracing events then.

GRO and OPR indexes have been online since 6th April 1998, facsimile of documents since 2002. Indexes are available for births or christenings 1553 to 1902 (1915), marriages 1553 to 1927 (1940), and deaths 1855 to 1952 (1965) (these dates advance year by year to make information available for people born up to 100 years ago), and census indexes for 1841-1911. (For further information please see ScotlandsPeople).

Census pages

There has been a census every ten years since 1801 (excluding 1941) but only those after 1841 (with a few earlier exceptions) carry details of named residents. Census pages for 1841-1911 can be consulted at the National Records of Scotland (NRS) in Edinburgh and copies on microfilm may be consulted in LDS Family History Centres around the world. LDS centres also carry microfiche indexes to the 1881 census pages. Computerised indexes for 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901, and 1911 are available at the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh and are also available through ScotlandsPeople, which provides digitised images of these census pages.

The 3rd edition of Census Records for Scottish Families at Home and Abroad by Gordon Johnson has recently been published by Aberdeen & N.E.Scotland FHS, ISBN 0 947659 74 9, vi, 100pp. The book, which can be purchased from the society directly, includes an outline of census records in many other countries and a directory of census holdings in Scottish libraries and archives, updated to include changes resulting from the 1996 local government reorganisation.

Peter Ruthven-Murray's information leaflet entitled Scottish Census Indexes, 1841-1871 is published by and available from the Scottish Association of Family History Societies.

To search in the census, you need to know where your forebears were living at the time of the census. For rural areas the village name is sufficient but in towns, you need to know the street where they lived (larger towns have street indexes which let you find a particular street quickly).

Old Parochial Registers

The third main source of records in the National Records of Scotland are those of the Church of Scotland prior to 1855. These consist of baptisms, marriages and burials recorded in Church of Scotland parishes all over Scotland. Unfortunately not every birth, marriage or death was recorded in these records. Often for example baptisms had to be paid for which meant that many children were not baptised. Other reasons can include the minister or clerk forgetting to record an event; registers being incomplete or damaged for periods; families falling out with the ministers; or people being members of other religious denominations (e.g. Roman Catholics, Free Church, Episcopalians etc.)

To trace an individual in the OPRs, it helps to have some idea of where that person lived. Census pages can be very useful in identifying birthplaces of those alive after 1841. In the past, it was almost impossible to locate a baptism or marriage without a very good idea of where it occurred. This was because all possible parish records had to be checked which could be a long and laborious process. Now, fortunately, baptisms and marriages in the OPRs can be searched using a computerised index, either on a county basis or searching over the whole country. The index gives the reference number for the relevant microfilm roll together with the frame number (page), allowing you to go straight to the record you are interested in.

The information contained in the OPRs can vary immensely. For the birth of a child you will usually be given the names of both parents (including maiden name of mother) and often an address and names of witnesses (often relatives). A marriage will sometimes name relatives of the couple. Burial registers usually provide the least information, if they exist at all for the period you need.

Further information on accessing these and other church records can be found in the Scotland Church Records page.

More information on the full range of records available and how to access them can be found among the National Records of Scotland web pages.

National Records of Scotland (General Register Office for Scotland)

The National Records of Scotland, formed on 1 April 2011 following the merger of the General Register Office for Scotland (GROS) and the National Archives of Scotland (NAS), is now the first port of call for most people tracing their Scottish ancestry, housing a wealth of information and archive material, much of which is of direct interest to family historians. Although members of staff can answer specific queries (e.g. the will of someone whose approximate death date and residence are known), they are unable to carry out lengthy research. If you are unable to carry out your research in person, staff will happily send a list of professional researchers for you to choose from.

If you can come to Edinburgh then you can consult the records in person at the ScotlandsPeople Centre and obtain photocopies if required. However, you should write before your visit to find where the records can be consulted. Some records are stored elsewhere and you may need to give staff a few days notice before such records can be consulted in a search room. If in doubt, write to be on the safe side.

For people born over 100 years ago, there is access online at ScotlandsPeople. Initial searches are free, detail of records is available for a fee.

For people born within the last 100 years, you can write to the National Records of Scotland to ask them to search the records on your behalf, or if your search will be a lengthy one, they may recommend that you hire a professional searcher to carry out the work.

However, if you are able to, the best way to search the records is in person. For a daily fee you have unlimited access to the indexes (mostly computerised) and self-service instant access to the records. You can make notes from the records at no extra cost, or if you require a photocopy or extract, can order this for a moderate fee. In a day you can consult a great many records. Because the certificates are available on a self-service basis, research in them can proceed very quickly, often back 4 or more generations in a single day (and in several branches of the tree).

Some of the records of interest to family historians include

  • Wills and testaments, both modern and old (back to 1500s). Since 1900 many people have left wills or testaments. Prior to then, only the wealthy or landed tended to leave a record. The combined index to Scottish wills and testaments from 1500-1875 (soon to be extended to 1901) - currently comprising over 350,000 names, is now searchable free online at ScotlandsPeople. Digital images of the related documents can be purchased.
  • Non-conformist church records (Catholic, Free Church, etc.)
  • Kirk Session records of the Established Church of Scotland. If you have an illegitimate ancestor, these records might help you trace the name of the father if not yet known (Kirk Sessions were notoriously conscientious in discovering the paternity of such children).
  • Legal and Court records, many accessed through card indexes
  • Sasine records, recording changes in ownership of land
  • Estate records, detailing tenants etc.
  • Criminal records
  • Registers of Deeds e.g. marriage contracts, bonds etc.
  • Services of Heirs, recording the inheritance of land by heirs
  • Gifts and Deposits, a wide variety of archive material gifted to the SRO
  • Maps and Plans
  • Valuation Rolls (mostly post 1855), detailing the value of land, together with details of proprietors and occupiers
  • Burgh Records, including lists of Burgesses
  • Taxes
A large number of indexes to the above records have been published and can be consulted either at the National Records of Scotland, or in large libraries in Scotland. Many of these indexes will also be available worldwide through LDS Family History Centres. Published material includes indexes to:
  • Testaments & Inventories (Wills) prior to 1800
  • Registers of Sasines for many counties (mostly prior to 1800)
  • Gifts and Deposits
  • Registers of Deeds between 1661 and 1700
  • Maps and Plans
  • Services of Heirs prior to circa 1860
  • Burgesses in some burghs

See the Family History pages at the NRS.

The National Records of Scotland is a partner in the ScotlandsPlaces project, which makes a wide range of local history sources available online.

Two publications describing records at the National Records of Scotland are

  • Tracing Your Scottish Ancestors: a guide to ancestry research in the Scottish Record Office, Published Edinburgh 1990, Revised Edition 1997 (HMSO), Cecil Sinclair, ISBN 0-11-495865-3
  • Tracing Scottish local history: a guide to local history research in the Scottish Record Office, Published Edinburgh 1994 (HMSO), Cecil Sinclair

Contact Information

For more information contact

National Records of Scotland
HM General Register House
Edinburgh EH1 3YY

Other sources of information

There are a number of other sources which may prove helpful.

  • Local archives and libraries around Scotland
  • National and local newspapers - for example to find out about local events, or search for birth, marriage, or death notices of relatives, or hunt for obituaries.
  • Scottish family history societies

Further information on these and other sources can be found in the relevant sections of the Scotland page in GENUKI. Follow links to county pages from there for county-specific information.