An introduction to researching your Scottish Roots for yourself with Register Addresses, Web site links and examples on what a professional has to offer
Discovering your Scottish Roots
by Tony Reid
Everyone has ancestors, probably not with the right to armorial bearings or whatever but that isn't important.
There are two inter-related aspects to digging up your roots - genealogy and family history. The former is necessary to establish the tree which then provides the basic framework for subsequent family research. It is not so much who your ancestors were that is interesting, it is what they were.
To start a search you will require a specific starting point in Scotland, such as a name, date and place of birth (preferably after 1855).
You will find that the very act of establishing your tree will result in a considerable amount of background information such as addresses, occupations and the like.
The following three key sources for ancestral research are all housed in New Register House, West Register Street, Edinburgh.
1. The Statutory Registers of Births, Marriages & Deaths
Although compulsory registration began in England in 1837, it wasn't until
1855 that the General Registry Office of Births, Marriages and Deaths was
established in Scotland and compulsory registration was introduced. In this
first year of Statutory Civil Registration, an excessive amount of detail was
requested. Thereafter a format was adopted which, with slight modification,
is similar to that used today.
2. Census Enumerators' Returns
In the UK, the Census was established in 1801 and has been carried out every
ten years since, apart from 1941. The objective of the Census was, and still is,
to provide Government Departments and planners with a wide range of
population data and trends.
Up to 1831 this exercise was essentially a head count undertaken by the parish
schoolmasters and, only exceptionally, do actual listings of people survive.
The 1841 Census was therefore the first to take the form of a Census as we
know it, although not in much detail.
Thereafter the census returns provide the following information on each
member of the household : relationship to household head, marital status, age,
occupation and place of birth. From 1871 on the householder was required
to admit if anyone was imbecile, idiot or lunatic. The 1891 Census indicates
Gaelic speakers. From the standpoint of ancestral research, these documents
provide a virtual snapshot of a household on census night.
Because they are considered to be highly confidential the returns are not open
to the public until they are at least 100 years old, and the most recent available
for inspection is the 1901 edition.
3. Old Parish Registers (OPRs)
For events taking place before 1855, one has to rely on the Old Parish Registers
(OPRs). These can be something of a disappointment in the sense that (a) they
don't generally provide much detailed information and (b) many baptisms and
marriages went unrecorded for all sorts of reasons. If however ancestors were
regular attenders of the Established Church of Scotland, and not Episcopalians,
Roman Catholics or members of one the seceding denominations, then there is
a fair chance that their baptisms/births and proclamations/marriages will be
found - at least back to the late 1700s/early 1800s.
There are basically three ways of doing an ancestral study.
1. By visiting New Register House (NRH) - Edinburgh
(Monday to Friday 0900 to 1630 hrs.)
Access to NRH costs £10.00 Sterling per day and there are discounted rates for
longer periods. Each searcher is allocated a desk with a computer terminal on
which to view the digitised images of statutory entries, OPRs and census returns,
and there are microfilm and fiche readers for miscellaneous material in the
various search rooms. There are user-friendly computer indexes to the
statutory certificates, the census returns (1841-1901) and the OPRs; at present
the OPRs display only births and marriages but the small number of parish
burial records which exists are scheduled to go on-line in late 2008.
There is no limit to the number of records which may be examined (on a self-
service basis) within the time allocated. Staff are on hand for advice.
Assisted searches will be available shortly at the rate of £20 per hour (in
addition to the search fee) whereby a member of the staff of NRH will sit with
a customer to help to trace a family tree for a maximum of two hours. This
service requires to be pre-booked.
In addition to the above records there is a well-stocked library providing a wide
range of of material such as:
Indexed Memorial Inscriptions of the gravestones of pre-1855 burial
Various indexes and CD-ROMS compiled by the Church of Latter Day
Saints (Mormon Church)
Maps and Gazetteers
Street indexes of the main towns and cities for the 1841-1901 census returns.
Post Office Directories
Many additional sources such as wills and testaments (on-line), Kirk Session
records, estate papers, sasines (detailing land ownership) and court and legal
records are lodged in the National Archives of Scotland (NAS). This building is
adjacent to NRH and access is free of charge. A new Family History Centre is soon
to be opened, combining the facilities of each building. Also then available will be
the Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland (1672-1906) - currently
only accessible through the Court of the Lord Lyon.
2. Using a Professional Service
General Register Office (Scotland) leaflet lists professional associations and firms
as well as private researchers, all of whom are based in Scotland; mostly in the
Edinburgh area. Of these, Scottish Roots have been in the business of tracing family
trees longer than any other company. They can be contacted at their Edinburgh base:
Scottish Roots, 16 Forth Street, Edinburgh EH1 3LH (Tel: 0131- 477 8214)
Their website is: www.scottishroots.com
Their Standard Search fee to research a specific ancestral line is £195 + VAT
. Some private researchers charge less, and English-based
organisations much more. If more than one line requires to be searched then the
rates increase accordingly. Most professionals are prepared to offer a free
estimate in advance.
Generally one can expect to get back to the late 1780s but this cannot be guaranteed.
If problems are encountered at an early stage, most professionals would abort the
search and simply charge for the work completed.
3. Doing it Yourself - from a Distance
The Internet has revolutionised this means of researching family trees.
By far the most relevant websites are "Origins" and "Scotlands People"
(www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk), the official pay-per-view database of the records
of the GRO (General Record Office) including:
Statutory registers of Births 1855-2006, Marriages 1855-1932 and Deaths 1855-2006.
Old Parish Registers Births & Baptisms 1553-1854, Proclamations and Marriages
Census Records 1841,1851,1861,1871,1881,1891 and 1901.
Wills & Testaments Search 1513-1901 (free)
Access to the indexes cost £6 Sterling, giving 30 page credits which are valid for 90
consecutive days. To actually view 1 page costs 6 credits and to order an individual
entry is £10.
Another useful website is Family Search (www.familysearchch.org) which makes
available, free of charge, all the data compiled by the Church of Latter Day Saints,
more popularly known as the Mormons. These are indexes covering the OPRs, and
the statutory birth and marriage certificates from 1855 to 1875.
The Relative Merits of the Above Methods
Much will depend on the location of the searcher, particularly with regard to direct
use of NRH facilities in Edinburgh. Apart from travel and accommodation, the
most cost-effective way would be direct visit; the only expenditure being
the entrance fee.
In assessing the cost of searching at a distance it should be borne in mind that
extracts of register entries cost £10 each and that it will be necessary to go back
and forth several times to the indexes as the search progresses. Mistakes can also be
made by the inexperienced researcher, another factor to take into consideration.
If a search for one ancestral requires fifteen records to be examined (and they often
do), and say, five visits to the website, this would cost £200.
In most cases a professional research service would offer the most efficient option.
Professionals know the pitfalls and the best ways of overcoming the inevitable
difficulties which crop up during almost every search.
Most amateurs derive enormous satisfaction from researching their own family tree.
It is difficult to describe the "thrill of the chase" and the excitement in eventually
finding the "right" certificate or census entry after a lengthy search.
Putting Flesh on the Bones
Compilation of a family tree or pedigree chart, should not be an end in itself. Once
you have discovered who your ancestors were, the next stage is to find out more
about them, their jobs, their families and the localities in which they lived. You will
of course have already acquired basic family information from the certificates and
Just a few Suggestions
Contact the relevant local history library, normally based within the main public
library for the town or region concerned. They will hold copies of local newspapers,
perhaps containing an obituary of one of your forebears; old photographs possibly
showing the street where the family lived and much else besides. Even to scan
through old newspapers will give an insight into the way of life in the city, town or
Obtain copies of large-scale maps covering those areas where your ancestors lived.
In the latter half of the 19th century, Ordnance Survey (OS) 25-inch:mile maps were
produced for most of central Scotland and for the more populous areas eleswhere.
The whole country is covered by the 6-inch:mile maps.
Copies may be ordered from the National Library of Scotland Map Library
Visit local and industrial museums. These will also give you an insight into the
conditions in which your ancestors lived and worked.
Join the appropriate Local Family History Society; they might even be able to put
you in touch with relatives you never knew you had!
Some recommended books:
The best and most up-to-date practiacl guide is "Tracing Scottish Ancestors" by
Rosemary Bigwood (Harper Collins
A very readable history of the records of the General Register Office for Scotland is
"Jock Tamsons Bairns by Cecil Sinclair (GROS, 2000)
Some years old but still in print and relating to the resources of the National Archives
of Scotland if "Tracing your Scottish Ancestors, Scottish Record Office (Mercat
For local or specialised resources there is one invaluable publication "Exploring
Scottish History", 2nd edition, edited by Michael Cox (Scottish Library Association
An example of a Standard Search
To get an idea of what you can get from a professional genealogist see an example of
A £195 search: