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Researching Scottish Ancestry - WHERE DO I START?

For those of us fortunate enough to have ancestors with Scottish heritage, researching is a fairly easy task. Knowing where to look is usually where we get tied up. Following these hints should help:

THE place for Scottish records, of course, is the office of the General Register (GRO). Their website is the repository for all official documents: birth, marriage, death, census, wills and testaments. Here’s what you need to know:

• The website is: It is a pay-per-view site, so be prepared. You can purchase 30 credits for £7. It is one credit to view the index and five additional credits to view the image of the record. So, 6 credits to get to that point. At today’s exchange rate, that is about 35¢ per image. Cheap at twice the rate! Credits are purchased in bundles of 30 and are good for one year from the date of purchase. So, if you purchase 30 credits on May 1, they will last you until April 30 of next year. If in June, you decide to give genealogy up for the summer and have 4 credits left, when you resume your research in September, you can add 30 credits to your existing 4 and you will then have 43 credits for one year from September! (Just like roll-over minutes on a phone plan!)
• Civil Registration didn’t start until 1855. Before that date, you need to look at the Old Parish Registers (OPRs). Find that link on the left hand side of the website and enter the data fields. You will get very little information from the OPRs, so don’t be too disappointed.
• OPR Births: You won’t get birth dates, since documenting a birth was not the responsibility of the church. What you will get is a recorded statement about the child’s baptism. This will give you the date, the parish and the name of at least one parent, sometimes both parents.
• OPR Deaths: Rather than death records, you will get burial records or the statement about the purchase of a “mortcloth” for dressing the dead.
• OPR Marriages: Marriages are a bit trickier. If your ancestor was married in the church, you will get documentation of the reading of the Banns (intent to be married, usually read aloud for the three Sundays preceding the wedding). Marriage laws were a bit unusual in Scotland, so these records are not always available. Essentially, a couple needed only to declare before two witnesses that they were intent on living as man and wife, and they were then considered to be married. No formality necessary! Marriages also didn’t need to happen in a church, and in fact, often took place at the home of the bride or groom. All still very legal. More on Regular and Irregular Marriages can be found here:

• Civil Registration started in 1855. There were two censuses taken before civil registration and these can be accessed on the ScotlandsPeople website (left hand side – Census – 1841, 1851)
• When you start your search ALWAYS start with a census. This will give you not only the name of your ancestor, but the people in their family as well. From this you will glean enough information to help you keep track that you are searching the RIGHT family. You will find the name of the head of the household, usually the father/husband unless he is deceased or away at work on that particular night. If the husband was away, his wife will be listed as the head. All children residing in the home will also be listed along with their ages. Remember that it was not uncommon for children as young as 13 to be away at work. In this case, you will need to do another search just under their name and if they were with another family as a boarder, you should be able to find them. Remember that the ages on the census are approximate since the census was usually done in March, so when you then go to search the civil records for births, make sure you allow for a two or three year window.
• Census & Birth records are accessible to the public after 100 years. Scotland takes this time frame very seriously so up until that time, you will not be able to access them online. You can see the index for births right up to about two years ago, but you need to order the record from the Registrar General. One the birth records, you will find the maiden name of the mother, which will help you to build her family tree (again, check for her family on the census returns under her maiden name and you will come up with her siblings as well. You will also find the date and place of marriage for the parents of the new baby. This will give you the information you need to proceed with searching marriage records.
• Marriage Records are accessible after 75 years. Again, the indexes are available up to a couple of years ago, but you need to send away for the actual document. On the marriage record, you will find the names for each partner’s parents, the occupation of each partner AND for at least each father. Mother may have an occupation listed if she continued to work after her children were born.
• Death Records are accessible after 50 years. The death records will list the name of the deceased, including her maiden name in the event of a woman’s death, the name of the spouse, the place and cause of death. It will also give you some indication of the length of the illness that caused the death in the event that it was from anything other than old age.
• ALWAYS pay attention to the names of the witnesses on the marriage records and to the names of the informants on a death record. You will find these are often family, close friends or neighbours. These people form part of your ancestors social circle. Knowing this information allows you a better understanding of the story and not just of the dates and place names.

There are a number of other places and repositories to check in your Scottish Research, but these will get you started. Happy Searching!

© Christine Woodcock, Genealogy Tours of Scotland

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