Scottish poet Robert Burns was born in Alloway, Ayrshire on 25 January 1759. Every year on his birthday people of Scottish descent the world over traditionally gather together to celebrate his life and work. Burns Night is not only a time to remember Burns himself but also an occasion to enjoy Scottish culture, including bagpipes, tartan, haggis and, of course, whisky! It’s also a great time to trace your Scottish family tree. Whether you’re just starting out or are looking to take your research further, Ancestry has records to help.
Getting Started with Scottish Research
Registration of births, marriages and deaths began in Scotland in 1855 and was compulsory from the start. The resulting records are known as the Statutory Registers and provide a wealth of information to help you trace your family tree. You can find some indexes to these records in the Scotland, Select Births and Baptisms, 1564-1950 and Scotland, Select Marriages, 1561-1910 collections. However, to view the full records you will need to visit the Scottish Government website ScotlandsPeople. Many records can be viewed online as digital images, although for more recent events you will need to order a certified extract.
Prior to 1855 the major sources of birth, marriage and death information are church records. The Church of Scotland was the main religious body, although there were a number of other churches, some of which broke away from the Church of Scotland. Some records are included in the birth and marriage collections mentioned above, although there are also several smaller collections of birth, marriage and death records covering Scotland – you might even discover an ancestor married at Gretna Green!
Detailed censuses have been taken in Scotland since 1841 and you can access transcripts of the 1841-1901 censuses through Ancestry. These will tell you your ancestor’s age, occupation and birthplace, as well as their relationship to other people living at the same address.
Discovering more about Scottish Ancestors
Once you’ve gathered basic birth, marriage and death information for your Scottish ancestors there are many other records that will help you discover more about their lives.
Electoral registers can be used to locate relatives’ addresses in between census years as well as to trace families up until the mid-20th century. There are large collections for the cities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow, as well as for several Scottish counties.
Indexes to wills (known in Scotland as the Calendar of Confirmations and Inventories) may help to track down an ancestor’s death date as well as showing if they left a will, how much their estate was worth, and name family members who acted as executors.
Not everyone owned enough to bother leaving a will, and if your ancestors struggled financially you may find instead that they needed to apply for poor relief. Although it’s sad to come across a relative who hit hard times, poor law records can be amazingly detailed, giving information on the person applying, their circumstances at the time, and often mentioning relatives both in and outwith Scotland.
Records relating to occupations can not only tell you what your ancestor did for a living but also provide information on where they lived and may even tell you what they looked like. Army records are some of the most detailed occupational records and Scottish soldiers, including those who fought in the two world wars, can be traced through the extensive collections of UK military records. Other professions with detailed records include sailors, nurses, railway employees and postal workers.
Many Scots emigrated due to difficult conditions at home or the desire to build a better life and can be found in ships’ passenger lists. It’s not unusual to discover an ancestor went abroad temporarily before returning to Scotland, but even if your ancestors stayed, you may discover brothers, sisters, and cousins who made a new life overseas.
Tips for Finding Scottish Records
A good place to begin your search is on the Scotland page which provides a list of data collections covering Scotland as well as those for specific counties or regions. Remember your ancestors may appear not only in specifically Scottish records but also in those covering the whole of the UK.
Spelling of Scottish surnames was not always consistent so you may find a relative listed as Macdonald, McDonald, or even M’Donald. To search for all variants make sure the box for exact terms is not ticked, or try using a wildcard – M*Donald will pick up all three of these spellings.
First names could also vary and an ancestor may have been known by a nickname – Jane might be listed in a census as Jeanie, or Isabella as Bella. It helps to keep an open mind, so don’t ignore a record because it doesn’t match exactly with what you expect.
Robert Burns is well-known for his colourful love life with seven of his twelve children born outside of marriage, but he wasn’t the only one. In the late 1850s around 1 in 11 Scottish children were born to unmarried parents. Births were often recorded under the mother’s surname with no father named, so try searching using both names. Identifying an unknown father can be difficult but he could be named in a paternity decree.
This Burns Night don’t forget to raise a dram to Rabbie Burns and to commemorate your own Scottish forebears!
Kirsty Wilkinson is a genealogist and research manager with AncestryProGenealogists who specialises in Scottish research. She has been researching her own Scottish ancestors for nearly 20 years and is the author of Finding Your Scottish Ancestors: Techniques for Solving Genealogy Problems.