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How to Research Your Scottish Ancestry in Scotland

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How to Research Your Scottish Ancestry in Scotland
by Kirsten Griew & David Wheater of Tours of Edinburgh

Researching your ancestors is akin to detective work and it can be incredibly addictive. One seemingly small discovery can lead to uncovering whole, previously unknown, branches of the family tree. Finding out not just names, births, deaths and marriages but the professions and home addresses of your forebears is not just satisfying but can lead to a deepened sense of self understanding.

It is believed that for every individual currently resident in Scotland, there are nine people living around the globe with Scottish ancestry, so it is unsurprising that our archives are a source of interest and self-discovery for millions.

In recent years the documents held at General Register House, now known as Scotland’s People Centre, have been made far more accessible. With records now held electronically and available online it means searching for specific documents takes a fraction of the time it once did and can be done remotely.

There are now a few options to choose from when beginning your research.

Search Onsite at General Register House in Edinburgh

The first option is to visit the Scotland’s People Centre at General Register House on Princes Street, Edinburgh in person. Here you can use their computer system to search the archives onsite. The Centre offers free two hour taster sessions every weekday starting either 10am or 2pm. If you want to take advantage of one of these, turn up shortly before your chosen time – they don’t allow you to book this in advance – and remember to take your passport, as they need a form of ID. After this you will need to pay for future sessions, and to book. At the time of writing the charge for a full day is £15 and the Centre is open 9am-4.30pm weekdays except bank holidays. For longer passes check the charges page here: http://www.scotlandspeoplehub.gov.uk/scotlands-people-centre/charges.html.

During the time you are allocated a computer you are free to carry out as many searches of the electronically held material as you wish, the only extra cost being for printing documents. The Centre also offers the option of an Assisted Search, where for £20 per hour a member of their staff will help with whatever you are researching.

For more information about visiting in person contact details are on the Centre’s website here: http://www.scotlandspeoplehub.gov.uk/index.html

Search Online

If you would rather search from the comfort of your own living room this is now a possibility too.

The website http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/ allows access to electronic copies of almost all the records held at General Register House. Birth, marriage and death certificates are all here alongside census records. To search the records you will need to register on the website and charges apply to viewing the documents. Although the charges are explained on this page: http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/Content/Help/index.aspx?r=554&409, it is a slightly complex system so I will attempt to clarify it a little here.

You must start by purchasing credits, for £7 you will get 30 credits.

When you have bought your first credits, look at the index on the left hand side of the screen. From here you can choose what type of document you wish to search for: a birth certificate, a particular year’s census etc. Once you have clicked on one of these options you will see a screen which allows you to fill in as much, or as little detail, as you know and a date range as large as you need. On clicking ‘Do the Search’ you will be told the number of results the system has found. If a large number of results are returned you will probably wish to refine your search and attempt to get the results down to 25 or perhaps 50. Viewing a list of top level details of all these results will cost 1 credit per page, and each page shows up to 25 results.

The information you will be given at this point should be enough to identify your relative, however, it is unlikely to be enough to get the extra piece of the puzzle that you are searching for. To get this information you will need to view the image of the original document, which will cost another 5 credits. The word ‘View’ is displayed beside each result and clicking on this brings up a scanned image of the original.

For example, with a census, the results page will tell you the name, gender, age, city and district the person was living in. However, viewing the image of the original document will supply you with the full address of the individual, the details of all the people living at the same address and their relationship to the head of the household, their ‘condition’ i.e. whether married, single, widowed etc., all their ages and genders, their professions, where each was born, if they spoke Gaelic or English (or both), and if they had a disability.

As long as you do not delete any search result pages or images they will be stored in your account and you will not need to pay to view them again.

Don’t worry that the above description sounds fairly complicated. Once you get started it becomes much easier to understand! There is also a large amount of extra information about all the different types of documents and the best ways to refine your searches on the Scotland’s People website.

Let the search begin!

Once you see one document you are likely to spot new details to inform your next search. For example, finding a relative’s birth certificate will inform you of the baby’s parents’ names. This will allow you to look up both their marriage and birth certificates and so on. You can start to understand how this becomes addictive, with each new piece of information leading to the next.

Do be warned that perhaps the trickiest part of this research is reading the handwriting of those who were recording the information. This is where it can be useful to have assistance from staff at the Centre who are practiced at reading the beautiful, but often seemingly illegible, script.

Types of Records

You will notice that the Statutory Register of births, marriages and deaths only began in Scotland in 1855. Before that, Parish Records can be used going back as far as 1538. These earlier documents, however, have less detail and are not quite as reliable. If your ancestors belonged to the Catholic Church, there were slightly better records kept here from 1703 onwards. The census records are available from 1841 to 1911; the census was carried out every 10 years over this period.

Documenting Your Family Tree

A good website to keep track of your family tree – and to see if any of your living relatives have done some searching already is ancestory.com. They also have a handy Ancestral Chart that you can download and print to write in your findings as you go along. Download the chart for free here: http://www.ancestry.com/download/charts#ancchart.

Let someone else take the strain!

If it all sounds too complicated or too time consuming, the final option when it comes to researching your family tree is to let someone else do the work for you. There are numerous professional genealogists working in Scotland, who will happily go into General Register House and look up your ancestors on your behalf.  

Useful links:

  • Scotland’s People online: http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/
  • Scotland’s People Centre: http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/Content/Help/index.aspx?r=546&1322
  • Highland Archives: http://www.highlandarchives.org.uk/genealogy.asp
  • Ancestory.com: http://www.ancestry.com/

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David WheaterScottishComment