How to trace your Scottish ancestors: a beginner’s guide
Start searching for your Scottish ancestors today, with internationally-renowned genealogist Dr Bruce Durie’s guide for beginners. Download our digital guide to tracing your Scottish ancestors.
The record collections for Scottish genealogy are as impressive as the breath-taking landscapes. So if you have Scottish ancestors you are fortunate indeed. Let’s start with the main websites and records you need to explore to create your Scottish family tree, and then follow up with some frequently asked questions you may be wondering about.
Key records to search first
Scotland has an unparalleled set of records, in terms of coverage and accessibility online and physically.
At Scotland's People you can get the main records you need to create a family tree:
- Baptism, banns and marriages, and burial records, mid-1500s to 1854, plus some Catholic records 1703-1908
- Statutory (civil) births, marriages and deaths 1855-2012 records, with images downloadable for older records
- Wills and testaments, 1513 to 1925
- Censuses, every 10 years, 1841-1911
- Coats of arms registered or granted 1672-1909
- Valuation rolls (essentially, heads of households) for the late Victorian/early 20th century
Records on this site are accessible via pay-per-view credits (£7 for 30 credits at the time of writing).
5 websites to take it further
Family history is not just about drawing up a family tree – it’s also about discovering the full picture of the past, lifestyles, localities and so on. These other websites will help you learn more:
Scotland's Places has numerous specialist tax records, atlases and maps (some records free; some via a £5 per-month subscription)
National Library of Scotland has an incredible array of digitised free maps, directories and more
Scottish Association of Family History Societies: discover which local Scottish family history society covers your ancestors’ area. If you don’t want to choose a particular area, see the Scottish Genealogy Society
SCAN aims to provide access to more than 50 of Scotland’s archives via the Scottish Archive Network. There are many free resources
FAQS for Scottish ancestry
Can I join a clan?
Do I have a tartan?
Very probably – some are ancient, many date from the early 1800s and many more have been designed since. Go to the official Scottish Register of Tartans.
What’s my coat of arms?
You only have one if it has been legally granted to you by the Lord Lyon. There is no such thing as a ‘family coat of arms’ in Scotland. Arms are individual, heritable property and it is illegal in Scotland to use someone else’s. However, you can matriculate the arms of a proven ancestor, or start from scratch. Go to the Lyon Court for more information.
Can I wear my chief’s crest?
Yes, and many do. This is usually worn within a strap-and-buckle design – as a cap badge, plaid brooch, kilt pin and so on. Note: only someone with a legal coat of arms can wear a single eagle feather with the crest – and a chief has three feathers.
Should I have a DNA test?
It can certainly help link you to a family, identify living relatives and illuminate your deep ancestry. Choose a company that offers STR as well as SNP testing, and has a large database for matching.
What if I’m originally Irish?
About the author
Dr Bruce Durie is a member of the Register of Qualified Genealogists (RQG), the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) and the Académie Internationale de Généalogie (AIG). He also has Right of Audience at the Court of the Lord Lyon, and can submit petitions for legal grants of Arms. To find out how Dr Durie can help you with your family tree research, visit his website.
Download our digital guide to tracing your Scottish ancestors.
• Find your ancestors' clans
• Learn about your family's surnames
• Research your Scottish DNA
• Explore key historic records
• Piece together your family's Scottish past
(Images: Eilean Donan Castle © Guillaume Piolle; old books © William Hoiles; piper © Xlibber.