By: Carolyn L. Barkley
I recently returned from a two-week vacation in Scotland, after an absence of more than ten years. For me, experiencing Scotland is a soul-renewing experience. While I was there this year purely for pleasure – no research this time – the trip offered the perfect excuse to revisit and update the following article, first published in April 2008.
Americans have always displayed interest in British Isles genealogy. The fact that the Family History Library in Salt Lake devotes an entire floor to British Isles resources illustrates the depth of that interest. With the 1995 success of the movies Rob Roy and Braveheart, the interest in all things Scottish, and the desire to discover Scottish ancestors, has grown exponentially in United States.
In 1999, under the leadership of Trent Lott, the United States Senate passed Resolution No. 155 establishing Tartan Day as a day of special significance for all Americans, particularly those of Scottish descent. The date was not chosen randomly, as it was on 6 April 1320 that the Scottish declaration of independence, the Declaration of Arbroath, was signed. Some 450 years later, this seminal document would provide inspiration for the American Declaration of Independence. The Senate, by establishing Tartan Day, created an official date on which Americans of Scottish descent come together to celebrate their shared heritage, as well as the richness of the contributions that Scottish Americans have made in the history of our nation, and indeed of the world. (For example, forty-eight recipients of the Nobel Prize were born in Scotland or are of documented Scottish descent.)
For me, the basics of Scottish genealogical research revolve around the “three C’s” of church, census, and civil registration records. Later research can then involve testaments, sasines, military, immigration, and many other types of records. A very (very!) brief summary includes:
The Old Parish Registers (OPR) are the records of births/baptisms and banns/marriages kept by individual parishes of the Established Church (Church of Scotland) before the introduction of civil registration in 1855. Deaths and burials were recorded infrequently and, if found, usually record the rental of the mort cloth – the pall draped over the coffin. The OPRs provide the opportunity to research these events beginning as early as 1553, depending on the parish. These registers are easily accessible at LDS Family History Centers through the Scottish Church Records database and through extracted data online at FamilySearch. In addition, they may be accessed online (fee-based) at Scotlandspeople, the official government source for genealogical data for Scotland. Please note that there may be more information available through the Scotlandspeople site as the general record offices are constantly updating their indices as errors or misinterpretations in the original documents are identified. Before using these records, researchers should read about the history of the official church in Scotland to understand which church was official and which records were created during a specific time period, as well as the records that may be available for nonconformists.
The Scottish census is available from Ancestry from 1841 to 1901 [check the website for subscription pricing or check the subscription to AncestryPlus at your local public library] and from Scotlandspeople [fee based] from 1841 to 1911. The index to the 1881 census is a free index on Ancestry and on FamilySearch. Again, read about how the census data was collected. Unlike the United States, the British census is a snapshot of the people in a household on a given night and can therefore include people who were visiting overnight and who might normally belong to a household elsewhere. If Aunt Phebe was visiting an old childhood friend (a name probably unknown to you) in another town or area of the country, it will be difficult to locate her in that specific census.
The Statutory Registers [civil registration] are the official records of births, marriages, and deaths in Scotland from 1 January 1855. These records were compulsory, were unrelated to religious denomination, and followed a standard entry format. Indices to these records are available on scotlandspeople [fee based] from 1855 to 2006. One caveat (as with any research) is that indices do not include all of the data in the actual register entry (for example, birth indices do not include parents’ names, and marriage and death indices include only the year of the event – the full date is in the actual register entry). In addition, restrictions apply to which full records may be viewed online. Due to privacy restrictions, images of birth entries are available from 1855 to 1910, marriages from 1855 to 1932, and deaths from 1855 to 1960. For records in years that cannot be viewed online, you can still use the indices to help you decide which record abstracts you may wish to order.
Several sources and websites can provide a great deal of assistance as you research your Scottish roots. Some of my favorites, in addition to those mentioned above, include:
- Tracing Your Scottish Ancestry by Kathleen B. Cory, 3rd Edition. (Gen. Publ. Co., 2004).
- A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your Scottish Ancestors by Linda Jonas & Paul Milner (Betterway Books, 2002).
- Scottish Ancestry: Research Methods for Family Historians, by Sherry Irvine, rev. 2nd edition (Ancestry, 2003).
- Genealogy at a Glance: Scottish Genealogical Research by David Dobson (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2011). NOTE: Please search genealogical.com for the 101 other titles by Mr. Dobson.
- The Gazetteer of Scotland by John Lewis (Heritage Books, 2002).
- The Surnames of Scotland, Their Origin, Meaning and History by George F. Black (New York Public Library, 1999).
- Rampant Scotland
- GENUKI: Scotland
- Scotland’s GenWeb Project
- Cyndi’s List
- Genealogists for the Scottish Clans. This list is a compilation of clan genealogists or points of contact for genealogy and is maintained by Robert D. McLaren.