Sunday, 8 June 2014

Tracing Scottish Ancestors - A Personal View

Anyone researching Scottish ancestors will probably  be familiar with ScotlandsPeople - the definitive online resource.   I would also like to introduce you to some lesser known national websites and  illustrate the value of local archives centres, which offer remote enquiry and research services to those who cannot visit personally. 

SCOTLANDSPEOPLE -an absolute must if you have Scottish ancestors, as it features digitized images for all but the more recent records.  A pay-as-you-view site it gives access to:
  • Statutory  (i.e. post 1855) births, marriages and deaths
  • Pre-1855 old parish records
  • All the Scottish  census returns 1841-1911 
  • Catholic Registers
  • Valuation rolls of property 1885,1895, 1905, 1915, 1920  
  • Wills & testaments 
  • Coat of Arms
A word of warning - a search for index results costs only 1 credit  - the equivalent of 23p.  However clicking on to view the actual record can soon eat up the credits,  5 credit so over £1.15 a click, especially if you are unsure if  you have chosen  the correct entry - or if you are searching a popular surname. 

My tip - if you have a subscription to Ancestry, use this  initially, as its search boxes offer you more options to narrow down the results, especially with census returns.  You will only get a transcription on this site, but can then go into ScotlandsPeople to download the actual record. 

Don't ignore the (free) hidden information under Help & Resources - Research Tools which feature fascinating titbits  including: 
  • Medical  terms - useful in understanding causes of death
  • Occupations  - over 1500 definitions  e.g. Hind - A married farm servant -  a skilled ploughman with his own cottage, who worked on the land with his wife and family
  • Unusual words e.g. "Umquihile" means "late, deceased"  
  • Abbreviations used in wills and testaments  
  • Weights and measures
  • Money 
  • The way people lived
  • Handwriting help

SCOTLANDSPLACES is a much lesser known  subscription site which features information about Scottish places past and present, searched by county.  Particularly fascinating  are the  rather  obscure historical tax rolls which include digital volumes of: 
  • Carriage Tax, 1785-1798, (20 volumes)
  • Cart Tax, 1785-1798, (14 volumes)
  • Clock and Watch Tax, 1797-1798, (2 volumes)
  • Dog Tax, 1797-1798, (2 volumes)
  • Farm Horse Tax, 1797-1798, (13 volumes)
  • Female Servant Tax, 1785-1792, (28 volumes)
  • Hearth Tax, 1691-1695, (43 volumes)
  • Horse Tax, 1785-1798, (33 volumes)
  • Inhabited House Tax, 1778-1798 (64 volumes)
  • Land Tax, 1645-1831, (129 volumes)
  • Male Servant Tax, 1777-1798, (27 volumes)
  • Shop Tax, 1785-1789, (8 volumes)
  • Window Tax, 1748-1798, (218 volumes)

Looking for unique  archive material, beyond the standard family history material? Then explore these other national sites:  

NATIONAL RECORDS OF SCOTLAND - a recent amalgamation of the former National Archives of Scotland  and the General Register Office for Scotland.  NRS holds records relating ot every aspect of Scottish history, including records of the non-established churches  (Episcopalian, Methodists, Catholic, United Presbyterian etc.), also Kirk Session records, records of civil and criminal courts, wills, family and estate papers.  With an online catalgoue and useful guides on topics such as emigration, miltiary records, records of the poor. 

SCOTTISH ARCHIVE NETWORK (SCAN)  - A joint initiative to provide a single electronic catalogue to the holdings of more than 50 Scottish archives, with an ongoing digitization programme. Also features a glossary of the Scots language, and a Scots currency converter.  

I don't find the online catalogues of these two sites the most user-friendly,  but they are an essential resource for researching Scottish local and family history.  Through them, I traced 18th property records relating to my husband's ancestor, merchant Samuel Donaldson of Leith.

NATIONAL REGISTER OF ARCHIVES OF SCOTLAND (NRAS) is a database of private collections registered by the NRAS, some of which are still held privately and others are held by archival institutions. Includes the records of landed estates, private individuals, businesses, law firms and societies.  Note: NRA does not hold records itself, but acts as a signpost to where they are held. Access to the collections is at the discretion of the owners.

NATIONAL LIBRARY OF SCOTLAND - an  online catalogue to books and  manuscripts
reflecting Scotland’s history.    Of particular interest may well be the map collection where you can view online  over 86,000 maps as high-resolution, colour, zoomable images of maps dating from 1560 to 1961. 

BRITISH NEWSPAPERS ONLINE (1710-1953)   on the website features many titles of Scottish local and regional newspapers - fully digitized and indexed.  it is well worth having a browsing session to discover the daily lives of your ancestors or to gain a glimpse of major events as seen through the eye of the local community.  I have found entries relating to my very ordinary Danson family. 

Have you found a British ancestor described in a census return as a "pauper"?  
If so, click onto  It offers a comprehensive look  at the operation of the poor law, buildings, inmates, staff and administrators and Includes pages with 1881 census return.  A very good portrayal of workhouse life across Britain, including  Scotland.

Was your ancestor a Scottish architect?  
Then take a look at, a database providing biographical information and job lists for all architects (principals, assistants and apprentices) known to have worked in Scotland 1840-1940.

Are you searching for images to support your family history narrative?  
SCRAN is a charity & online learning resource base with over 370,000 images & media from museums, galleries, and archives. Free use of thumbnail images with other features and tools on subscription

Are you looking for a professional genealogist to undertake research on your behalf?.
Consult ASGRA (Association of Scottish Genealogical Researchers in Archives).   Members are experienced and well qualified professional searchers working personally in Scotland. All have undergone tests of their competence in using a wide variety of sources. They have also agreed to adhere to a strict Code of Practice.

High on your "to do list" should be contacting  the local archive centre relevant to your area of research.  

My local archive centre at the Heritage Hub, Hawick covers the Scottish Borders (old counties of Berwickshire, Peeblesshire, Roxburghshire and Selkirkshire) and promotes itself primarily  on the value of its unique archive sources that are not available anywhere else.  These help family historians go beyond the standard resources of census returns, old parish records, monumental inscriptions etc., many of which can be accessed online. It also offers a remote enquiry and research service to users who cannot visit personally. 

The key to searching these records is often a census entry giving a clue as to occupation or status.    One of the most popular sets of records consulted relate to the  POOR LAW  The Victorians  were great bureaucrats and the Heritage Hub holds a large collection of Poor Law Registers, Poor Relief Applications and Parochial Board Minute Books, many of which can give a mini-biography of an ancestor, in often tragic circumstances. 

Janet Scott's entry in the Jedburgh Union Poorhouse Register, 1877. 
A single mother with  two children and a baby, working as an agricultural  labourer, she  was "wholly disabled by a cart falling on her".  
She was on parish relief for three years.

POLICE RECORDS go back to the 1850's, so if your ancestor was a constable or even  on the other side  of the law,  these are the source to consult  and include mug shot photos of criminals, lists of prisoners, plus constable registers with personal details, including descriptions and record of appointments and transfers. 

Being a Councillor might seem rather dull,  but the BURGH AND COUNTY COUNCIL MINUTE BOOKS, which go back to the mid 17th century, give a full description of local government affairs and discussions and can reveal interesting sidelines such as the councilor in the 1880's who was petitioning in support of woman's suffrage, long before it was close to becoming a reality.

IIf your  ancestor was a teacher, then the SCHOOL RECORDS are the place to look - with Log Books recording daily  school life (though not many personal names feature)  and School Board Minute Books and Education Committee Minute Books recording appointments - and dismissals!  If you are lucky you may get a glowing testimony from an Inspector's Report - as below.

Glenholm School Log Book, 1873 
Was your  male ancestor aged around 20-30 in the period of the Napoleanic Wars (1790's-1815)?  Then he might well appear on the MILITIA LISTS whereby each parish was charged with setting up a volunteer force in the  event of a French invasion.  The lists may give little more than a name, address and occupation but, as with all archives,  there is a fascination in seeing actual handwriting relating to an ancestor, written during his or her lifetime.  They are also particularly noteworthy in pre-dating  the first published census of 1841, so may be  the only record of an ordinary man. 

KIRK SESSION RECORDS of the Church of Scotland - the Kirk Session comprised the minister and elders of the congregation and it was concerned with (in addition to the business of the parish) the morals of the parishioners.  Typically kirk session records contain a detailed and often colourful record of the discipline the minister and kirk elders handed out to errant parishioners for offences such as drunkenness, swearing, breaking the Sabbath, quarrelling and sexual misdemeanors. The records may be particularly valuable in tracing tthe parentage of illegitimate children - the Session would often interrogate any unwed mothers and put strong pressure on them to name the father of their baby.  Sometimes the couple would have to do penance for their "sin of fornication". Other records include proclamations of banns, communion rolls, seat rent books and early poor relief accounts. [Note:  not available at all local archive centres]. 
Records from the Kirk Sessions, the lowest local court of the church. After the reformation of 1560 and the formal break with Rome and Roman Catholicism, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland formed congregations with each having a Kirk Session. The records detailed in the minute books dealt with many areas of everyday life including church non-attendance, sexual matters, bastardy and illegitimacy. They also record payments paid out to individuals and income from individuals. As the Kirk Session, together with the heritors (local landowners), ran the parish expect to find records relating to poor relief, the local school, hospital and alms houses. Therefore expect to find illegitimate births and payments to the poor amongst the papers. In the case of illegitimacy, the records can reveal the name of the child’s father following an exhaustive investigation by the kirk authorities as well as a subsequent baptism and marriage.

It might be possible to find the mention of an event such as a baptism, marriage proclamation or burial amongst the records. For example, an irregular or clandestine marriage that does not appear in the official Old Parish Register might be recorded in the kirk minutes. The minutes might record information regarding a couples proclamation with additional details about the 'cautioners' who were usually male relatives who acted as sponsors for the marriage paying a security to ensure the forthcoming marriage met the correct conditions. The minutes might also note details of the hire of the mortcloth which was used to cover the coffin prior to burial and might be the only reference to a person’s death - See more at:

Note:  Date protection restrictions apply to most post-1900 records where personal names are given e.g. school records. 

These are just some of the records available at the Hub (but not online)  and complement the large collection of maps from the early 19th century, old postcards of the region, 23 titles of local newspapers (, with the oldest 1804, and a reference library of  local history books dating from the 19th century.     

Local archive centres across Scotland will offer similar resources and services to the Heritage Hub and contacting "your" centre can contribute so much  to discovering more background on your  Scottish ancestors.   

Good Luck with your research! 

The Heritage Hub, Hawick

I will be delighted to try and advise anyone who has a query 
regarding their Scottish research  and I will do my best to help. 

My Personal Blog - Family History Fun 


  1. What an amazing post, so chock full of resources. I have no Scotish (yet), but, thank you for this great list and explanations.

  2. I feel like you wrote this for me! Thanks, ScotSue. It will be so helpful as I flesh out my Muir and Semple ancestors.

    1. Delighted you found it helpful, Schalene - and yes you getting in touch with me was a powerful prompt to write the post. So thank you, too.

    2. ScotSue, I am still on the trail of my Scottish ancestors. I've printed this post and your email and keep them beside my computer. I've discovered so many other things about them as a result. And met a couple of new cousins, still in Scotland, as a results. Thank you, again!

  3. Thanks Sue, I need lots of help researching Scottish ancestors, this will be most helpful!!

  4. Thank you Sue! A majority of my ancestors came from Scotland. ScotlandsPeople has been my savior. This is really good to know :D I am planning a trip to Scotland in the near future so I am bookmarking your post for future reference :)

    1. Hi, Caitilin - I am pleased you found my post useful. Do keep in touch if I can help in any way with planning your trip to Scotland, as I worked for a long time in the Scottish tourist information centre network.

  5. Such a concise and comprehensive post. Thanks, Sue for putting it together.


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World Wide Genealogy Team