Scottish genealogy

Scottish Genealogy Research and Resources

Editor’s Note: The following is an edited and updated post originally by the late Carolyn L. Barkley. In this piece, Ms. Barkley provides guidance on getting started with Scottish genealogy in particular, and lists websites, publications and other resources that may be of interest to those digging into their past in Scotland and the British Isles. 

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 Sen. 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.)

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.

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 I will discuss in more detail, include the following:

The Scottish census is available online from 1841 to 1901 (check the Ancestry 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 many of these records are available on the fee-based website Scotlandspeople. 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.

Image Credit: Robert Modern‘s map of England, Scotland, and Ireland (the “British Isles“), c. 1680. By Robert Morden [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.