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Scotland for Scots ancestry - Top tips for tracing your Scottish ancestors


Expert genealogist Ian Maxwell shares his tips for discovering more about your Scottish ancestors.

Once bitten by the need to trace your family tree it is very tempting to rush to the nearest archival institution and to be put off immediately by the daunting amount of information available. It is therefore best to begin your research at home. Start with yourself, work through your parents to your grandparents and take each generation as you find it. It is essential to gather as much information as possible from old family Bibles, legal documents (such as wills or leases), and inscriptions from family gravestones. This can help to pinpoint exactly where your family lived at a particular time and provide vital clues to add to names that family historians are often disappointed to find are all too popular in Scotland.

A walk around a graveyard can often save wading through endless pages of a church register for the birth or death dates of a particular ancestor. If you are lucky gravestones may provide valuable information about the deceased's occupation or place of origin and may even include the names of husbands, wives or children. They may also reveal the married names of daughters or sisters of your ancestors and record two, three or more generations of a family.

If you don’t know where your ancestors are buried there are websites which can help you. One such is Deceased Online which has records from well over 250 cemeteries in Scotland featuring nearly1.2 million names. Access is by subscription.

Scotland is a world-leader in providing family history information online. These sites can prove particularly useful to the beginner who wishes to find out what is available and where the information is held. Many sites highlight the main categories of records and provide useful guidance and support. It also enables researchers to get in touch with others holding similar interests through the speed and convenience of email.

The most useful website is ScotlandsPeople, the official government source of genealogical data for Scotland with almost 90 million records to access. Researchers can download images for a fee of the fully indexed Scottish statutory records of births, deaths and marriage from 1855 to 2006, census records from 1841 to 1911 and indexes of the church baptisms, deaths and burials and marriages that took place from 1538 to 1854 and digitized wills and testaments from Scotland's National Archives and Scottish Catholic Archives records.

Having exhausted the extensive online resources it seems a pity not to extend your research in one of the major archival institutions located in Scotland. Archival institutions can be intimidating places to the inexperienced family historian but you'll soon learn the ropes and in no time at all it will seem no more challenging than a trip to your local library.
A good place to start is the ScotlandsPeople Centre (pictured) based in HM General Register House and New Register House in Edinburgh. Entry to the Centre is through the main entrance at 2 Princes Street Edinburgh, up the steps behind the statue of Wellington on his horse. Although most of these records are available on the website, the great advantage in visiting the ScotlandsPeople Centre is that after paying the entrance fee, currently £15 per day, you can view as many of the records as you like at no additional cost.

The National Records of Scotland, NRS, (also known as General Register House and formerly known as the Scottish Record Office and National Archives of Scotland) is the repository of records relating to the government and legal system of Scotland and is a must for those wishing to dig deeper. Of particular interest to family historians are church records (both Kirk Session records of the Established Church and records and registers of various other churches), wills & testaments 1513-2001, court & criminal records, valuation rolls and tax records, records of property transactions (sasines) and family and estate papers. The NRS website gives access to a number of fact sheets which will be of interest to the family historian.  


Ian Maxwell is the author of Tracing Your Scottish Ancestors from Pen & Sword Publishing.


(gravestone image copyright Martyn Gorman, ScotlandsPeople Centre image copyright VisitScotland)

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