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Discovering your Scottish Roots
By Tony Reid

Everyone has ancestors, probably not with the right to armorial bearings or whatever but that isn't important.

There are two inter-related aspects to digging up your roots - genealogy and family history.  The former is necessary to establish the tree which then provides the basic framework for subsequent family research.   It is not so much who your ancestors were that is interesting, it is what they were.

To start a search you will require a specific starting point in Scotland, such as a name, date and place of birth (preferably after 1855).  

You will find that the very act of establishing your tree will result in a considerable amount of background information such as addresses, occupations and the like.

The following three key sources for ancestral research are all housed in New Register House, West Register Street, Edinburgh.

  1.  The Statutory Registers of Births, Marriages & Deaths

      Although compulsory registration began in England in 1837, it wasn't until 1855 that the General Registry Office of Births, Marriages and Deaths was established in Scotland and compulsory registration was introduced.    In this first year of Statutory Civil Registration, an excessive amount of detail was requested.   Thereafter a format was adopted which, with slight modification, is similar to that used today.

2.   Census Enumerators' Returns

      In the UK, the Census was established in 1801 and has been carried out every ten years since, apart from 1941.   The objective of the Census was, and still is, to provide Government Departments and planners with a wide range of population data and trends.

     Up to 1831 this exercise was essentially a head count undertaken by the parish schoolmasters and, only exceptionally, do actual listings of people survive. The 1841 Census was therefore the first to take the form of a Census as we know it, although not in much detail.

      Thereafter the census returns provide the following information on each member of the  household : relationship to household head, marital status, age, occupation and place of birth.   From 1871 on the householder was required to admit if anyone was imbecile, idiot or lunatic.   The 1891 Census indicates Gaelic speakers.    From the standpoint of ancestral research, these documents provide a virtual snapshot of a household on census night.

      Because they are considered to be highly confidential the returns are not open to the public until they are at least 100 years old, and the most recent available for inspection is the 1901 edition.

3.   Old Parish Registers (OPRs)

      For events taking place before 1855, one has to rely on the Old Parish Registers (OPRs).   These can be something of a disappointment in the sense that (a) they don't generally provide much detailed information and (b) many baptisms and marriages went unrecorded for all sorts of reasons.  If however ancestors were regular attenders of the Established Church of Scotland, and not Episcopalians, Roman Catholics or members of one the seceding denominations, then there is a fair chance that their baptisms/births and proclamations/marriages will be found - at least back to the late 1700s/early 1800s.

There are basically three ways of doing an ancestral study.

1.  By visiting New Register House (NRH) - Edinburgh (Monday to Friday 0900 to 1630 hrs.)

     Access to NRH costs 10.00 Sterling per day and there are discounted rates for longer periods. Each searcher is allocated a desk with a computer terminal on which to view the digitised images of statutory entries, OPRs and census returns, and  there are microfilm and fiche readers  for miscellaneous material in the various search rooms.  There are user-friendly computer indexes to the       statutory certificates, the census returns (1841-1901)  and the OPRs;  at  present the OPRs display only births and marriages but the small number of parish burial records which exists are scheduled to go on-line in late 2008.

      There is no limit to the number of records which may be examined (on a self-service basis) within the time allocated.   Staff are on hand for advice.

      Assisted searches will be available shortly at the rate of 20 per hour (in addition to the search fee) whereby a member of the staff of NRH will sit with a customer to help to trace a family tree for a maximum of two hours.   This service requires to be pre-booked. 

      In addition to the above records there is a well-stocked library providing a wide range of of material such as:

         Indexed Memorial Inscriptions of the gravestones of pre-1855 burial grounds.

         Various indexes and CD-ROMS compiled by the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormon Church)

         Maps and Gazetteers

         Street indexes of the main towns and cities for the 1841-1901 census returns.

         Post Office Directories

         Electoral rolls

      Many additional sources such as wills and testaments (on-line), Kirk Session records, estate papers, sasines (detailing land ownership) and court and legal records are lodged in the National Archives of Scotland (NAS).   This building is adjacent to NRH and access is free of charge.   A new Family History Centre is soon to be opened, combining the facilities of each building.   Also then available will be the Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland (1672-1906) - currently only accessible through the Court of the Lord Lyon.

2.   Using a Professional Service

       General Register Office (Scotland) leaflet lists professional associations and firms as well as private researchers, all of whom are based in Scotland;  mostly in the Edinburgh area.  Of these, Scottish Roots have been in the business of tracing family trees longer than any other company.  They can be contacted at their Edinburgh base:

Scottish Roots
            16 Forth Street
            EH1 3LH

                                    (Tel: 0131- 477 8214)

     Their website is:

     Their Standard Search fee to research a specific ancestral line is 195 + VAT

.    Some private researchers charge less, and English-based organisations much more.  If more than one line requires to be searched then the rates increase accordingly.  Most professionals are prepared to offer a free estimate in advance.

      Generally one can expect to get back to the late 1780s but this cannot be guaranteed. If problems are encountered at an early stage, most professionals would abort the search and simply charge for the work completed.

3.   Doing it Yourself - from a Distance

      The Internet has revolutionised this means of researching family trees.

       By far the most relevant websites are "Origins" and "Scotlands People" (,  the official pay-per-view database of the records of the GRO (General Record Office) including:

       Statutory registers of Births 1855-2006, Marriages 1855-1932 and Deaths 1855-2006.
       Old Parish Registers Births & Baptisms 1553-1854, Proclamations and Marriages 1553-1854.
       Census Records 1841,1851,1861,1871,1881,1891 and 1901.
       Wills & Testaments Search 1513-1901 (free)

        Access to the indexes cost 6 Sterling, giving 30 page credits which are valid for 90 consecutive days.    To actually view 1 page costs 6 credits and to order an individual entry is 10.

       Another useful website is Family Search ( which makes available, free of charge, all the data compiled by the Church of Latter Day Saints, more popularly known as the Mormons.   These are indexes covering the OPRs, and the statutory birth and marriage certificates from 1855 to 1875.

The Relative Merits of the Above Methods


        Much will depend on the location of the searcher, particularly with regard to direct use of NRH facilities in Edinburgh.   Apart from travel and accommodation, the most cost-effective way would be direct visit;  the only expenditure being the entrance fee.

       In assessing the cost of searching at a distance it should be borne in mind that extracts of register entries cost 10 each and that it will be necessary to go  back and  forth several times to the indexes as the search progresses.  Mistakes can also be made by the inexperienced researcher, another factor to take into consideration.

       If a search for one ancestral requires fifteen records to be examined (and they often do), and say, five visits to the website, this would cost 200.


      In most cases a professional research service would offer the most efficient option. Professionals know the pitfalls and the best ways of overcoming the inevitable difficulties which crop up during almost every search.


      Most amateurs derive enormous satisfaction from researching their own family tree. It is difficult to describe the "thrill of the chase" and the excitement in eventually finding the "right" certificate or census entry after a lengthy search.

      Putting Flesh on the Bones

      Compilation of a family tree or pedigree chart, should not be an end in itself.   Once you have discovered who your ancestors were, the next stage is to find out more about them, their jobs, their families and the localities in which they lived.  You will of course have already acquired basic family information from the certificates and census returns.

      Just a few Suggestions

      Contact the relevant local history library, normally based within the main public library for the town or region concerned.  They will hold copies of local newspapers, perhaps containing an obituary of one of your forebears;  old photographs possibly showing the street where the family lived and much else besides.  Even to scan through old newspapers will give an insight into the way of life in the city, town or village.

      Obtain copies of large-scale maps covering those areas where your ancestors lived. In the latter half of the 19th century, Ordnance Survey (OS) 25-inch:mile maps were produced for most of central Scotland and for the more populous areas eleswhere. The whole country is covered by the 6-inch:mile maps.

            Copies may be ordered from the National Library of Scotland Map Library (,  email: 

      Visit local and industrial museums.  These will also give you an insight into the conditions in which your ancestors lived and worked.

      Join the appropriate Local Family History Society;  they might even be able to put you in touch with relatives you never knew you had.

     Some recommended books:

     The best and most up-to-date practiacl guide is "Tracing Scottish Ancestors" by Rosemary Bigwood (Harper Collins 

    A very readable history of the records of the General Register  Office for Scotland is "Jock Tamsons Bairns by Cecil Sinclair (GROS, 2000)

    Some years old but still in print and relating to the resources of the National Archives of Scotland if "Tracing your Scottish Ancestors, Scottish Record Office (Mercat Press 1991)

    For local or specialised resources there is one invaluable publication "Exploring Scottish History", 2nd edition, edited by Michael Cox (Scottish Library Association 1999)

    An example of a Standard Search

    To get an idea of what you can get from a professional genealogist see an example of A 195 search: 


   Happy Hunting!!!

Return to Scottish Roots Research Page


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