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The Ellen Payne Odom Genealogy Library Family Tree
The Family Tree - August/September 2005

By Stuart Nixon, Contributing Editor

Books To Help You Track Your Scottish Kin

If you want to do more than chase around the Internet for your Scottish ancestors, there are any number of books designed to educate you about the records available for in-depth research, both online and off. But how do these books compare, and is it worth your while to consult any of them?

Some people will tell you that only sissies read books now that history has been divided into two new eras: BC (Before Computers) and AC (After Computers). But "some people" are not terrifically smart when it comes to doing genealogy in Scotland (or any other place for that matter). Consider just one example:

Scottish government records of interest to genealogists are maintained by two agencies: the General Register Office (GRO) and the General Register House (GRH). Happily, both agencies are headquartered near each other in Edinburgh. But before you try contacting or visiting either one, you should know that the GRO's facility is called New Register House, and the GRH's facility is called the National Archives of Scotland (which actually has two search rooms, not one, and used to be known as the Scottish Record Office). Got that straight? If it helps, try doing what the locals do and think of the two facilities as the New House and the Old House.

Why any of this should matter to family historians becomes abundantly clear if you read up on the many records held by these repositories and the traps that await you if you don't understand how such records have been kept over the years in Scotland. Yes, I realize that the physical location of records can seem irrelevant if you can access the records on the Internet, but that argument overlooks two minor little matters: (1) Only a fraction of a repository's records may be online, and (2) Regardless of how you view records, you need to know who has what and what exactly you are looking at to interpret the records accurately. Which brings us back to the subject of books.

Here are summaries of five books on Scottish research, all of which you can buy or examine in a library. The books are listed in the order they were published, not in any order of preference.

1. Scottish Roots by Alwyn James, Pelican Publishing Co., 1981, paperback, $14.95.

The author of this book was born in Wales but took a job in Scotland, where he endeavored to investigate his wife's family tree. Because he wrote the book during the BC era, he did his research the old-fashioned way: visiting archives, libraries, museums, and other sites in Scotland. His account of his experience is not the least bit complicated; he assumes you are starting out much as he did, with very little knowledge of where to go or what you will find at the facilities in question. He did most of his work at the New House and the Old House (the latter still called the Scottish Record Office when he was there), but he also directs your attention to other places where you can develop some sense of how your Scottish ancestors lived. Obviously, a book written almost 25 years ago will contain a certain amount of out-of-date information, but this does not detract from the author's basic advice.

Where to buy:

2. In Search of Scottish Ancestry by Gerald Hamilton-Edwards, Second Edition, Genealogical Publishing Co., 1984, cloth, $24.95.

Originally published in 1972 and written by a native Brit whose resume is loaded with genealogical and scholarly credentials, this book remains one of the important references on the subject at hand, even though it dates back to the days of BC. A quick glance through this Second Edition might put you off; blank spaces at the ends of chapters are filled with silly-looking illustrations that completely belie the author's expansive knowledge of England and Scotland. No matter; the rest of the book is rock solid. In addition to 10 chapters on various kinds of records, there are chapers on Scottish naming customs, clans and titles, migration patterns, and that ever-popular (and invariably misunderstood) topic: coats-of-arms. Equally useful are appendices on Latin words, legal terms, church parishes, and regional directories. As was true for the previous author, Hamilton-Edwards was writing when the National Archives of Scotland was still known as the Scottish Record Office.

Where to buy:

3. A Genealogist's Guide to Discovering Your Scottish Ancestors by Linda Jonas and Paul Milner, Betterway Books, 2002, paperback, $19.99.

With this book, we enter the age of AC. It is, as you might imagine, a very different vehicle, because the authors are constrained to consider throughout the book what resources you can utilize on the Internet versus what resources you will have to track down elsewhere. Although both authors are based in the United States, Milner is English by birth, and together the two writers have decades of experience researching in the British Isles and helping Americans trace British connections. Because Jonas is director of an LDS Family History Center, the book pays special attention to what you can do either online or in person through the LDS Church. The book is divided into two parts, one devoted to issues and techniques of Scottish research, and the other to specific types of records. Since anyone writing seriously in the 21st century about Scottish genealogy is almost certainly aware of the Hamilton-Edwards book, you will find considerable overlap with him in coverage here, except that Jonas and Milner write in a more conversational style and are able to deal with most topics in greater detail. Like Hamilton-Edwards, Jonas and Milner are sticklers for doing your work correctly the first time, so you can expect no slack in these pages if you are looking for instant gratification. The book is laid out systematically, much like a software manual.

Where to buy:

4. Scottish Ancestry by Sherry Irvine, Revised Second Edition, Ancestry, 2003, paperback, $19.95.

Because Scotland is small geographically and relatively homogeneous in cultural terms (the differences between Highlanders and Lowlanders notwithstanding), record-keeping in Scotland has not been as complex as it has been in many other countries. Consequently, books on Scottish genealogy necessarily focus on the same basic record groups, such as civil registrations, church registers, wills, censuses, property transfers, etc. Sherry Irvine concentrates on such records, beginning with the most recent and working her way backwards. First, though, she takes you through two chapters of orientation in deference to her theme that "well begun is half done." Among her words of wisdom, she reminds readers that in the 1700s, Scots immigrated to North America not only from the Mother Country but from Northern Ireland (the Scots-Irish). "The Scottish-sounding name in your background may not be a direct import from Scotland," she cautions. Throughout the book, as Jonas and Milner do in theirs, Irvine explains what records are available at LDS Family History Centers to alert you to what you can do (and in some cases have to do) beyond the Internet. One distinctive feature of this book is that it assumes you are not likely to journey to Scotland, so there are scant references to repositories there. Irvine is a resident of Canada who lectures widely on genealogy and leads study tours to England and Scotland.

Where to buy:

5. Tracing Your Scottish Ancestry by Kathleen B. Cory, Third Edition, Genealogical Publishing Co., 2004, paperback, $21.95.

While preparing this new edition of her book, Kathleen Cory passed away quite unexpectedly. At the request of her family, another specialist, Leslie Hodgson, completed her work. Of all the books reviewed here, this one is best for anyone planning a visit to Scotland. Although Alwyn James in his book (above) does a nice job of walking you through a variety of research sites in the old country, Cory in this book holds your hand for a much more sophisticated search in Scottish records, painstakingly explaining the sources as only someone with Cory's knowledge of the sources could do. As just one example, hers is the only book with a street map of Edinburgh. Like James, she gives primary attention to two respositories, the New House and the Old House.  Unlike James, she does not discuss libraries, museums, or other local facilities, but she does include a lengthy list (the best of any of the books) of local points of contact. At the same time, she goes Hamilton-Edwards one step better by including an extremely helpful appendix linking church parishes to districts, counties, and commissariots (courts), along with the beginning dates of selected records for each parish. Hamilton-Edwards provides a comparable list, but not with so much detail. Cory does track Hamilton-Edwards by including a comprehensive bibliography. (Sherry Irvine's book also contains a bibliography, organized by chapter.) Another notable feature of Cory's work is the book's introduction, writtten by the late professor Gordon Donaldson. Donaldson uses his platform to lecture readers on their likely ignorance of Scottish surnames. It is a short but very informative lesson.

Where to buy:

So what , if anything, can we say in conclusion about these books? Here's how I see it:

1. For a quick and easy read on what Scotland has to offer, try Alwyn James.

2. Whatever else you do, examine Hamilton-Edwards, since he set the model for all subsequent writers.

3. If you are a stay-close-to-home researcher, use Sherry Irvine or Linda Jonas/Paul Milner.

4. If you envision a trip to Scotland, take Kathleen Cory with you.

5. If you are worried about the timeliness of information, any of the last three books (all written AC) will work.

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