If you ever pause in your busy life to wonder about the lives of your ancestors, you’re not alone. The Baby Boomers are leading a surge of interest in genealogy despite, or maybe because of, their own fast-paced, transient lifestyles. In North America, some 40 million Americans and six million Canadians lay claim to Scottish ancestry. Many want to know more about their heritage but don’t know where to start.

The place for Scottish records is the office of the General Register (GRO). Their website is the repository of all official documents: birth, marriage, death, census, valuation rolls, 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 (about $10). It costs one credit to view the index and five additional credits to view the image of the record. At today’s exchange rate, that’s about 35 cents per image.

Credits are purchased in bundles of 30 and are good for one year. So, if you purchase 30 credits on May 1st, they will last until April 30th of next year. If, in June, you decide to give genealogy up for the summer and have four credits left, when you resume your research in September, you can add 30 credits to your existing four and you will then have 34 credits for one year from September.

Civil registration didn’t start until 1855. For research 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.

OPR Baptisms: 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 the date, the parish and the name of at least one parent, sometimes both.

OPR Burials: rather than death records, you will see burial records or a statement about the purchase of a mortcloth for dressing the dead.

Burial records are important, since few Scots were of a stature where they could afford a headstone. Therefore, you won’t find a monumental inscription no matter how hard you look. For instance, the Glasgow Necropolis is 37 acres. It has 50,000 internments, 3,500 headstones and 32 mausoleums; the remaining 46,500 dead are all buried in common ground with no headstones and no monuments. The only way you would know your ancestor was among them is by reading the burial records in the parish registers for Glasgow.

OPR Marriages: you will get documentation of the reading of the banns. The intention of the couple to marry was announced for three successive Sundays prior to the marriage. This was known as the “crying of the banns”.

Don’t forget to check the census records. These will give not only the name of your ancestor, but the people in their family as well. From this, you will glean enough information to ensure that you are searching the RIGHT family. You will find the name of the head of the household, usually the father/husband unless he was 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, using just their name and, if they were boarding with another family, you should be able to find them. Remember too that the ages on the census are approximate and make sure you allow for a two or three-year window.

Census and Birth records are accessible to the public after 100 years. Scotland takes this time frame very seriously, so you will not be able to access any newer records online. You can see the index for births right up to about two years ago, although if you wish to view the actual image, you will need to order it from the Registrar General.

On the birth records, you will find the maiden name of the mother, which will help you build her family tree. Again, don’t forget to check for her family on the census returns under her maiden name. You will come up with her siblings as well. Also on the birth registration, you’ll 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.

The most recent census available online is the 1911 census. To fill in information since 1911, you can access the 1915 valuation rolls. More of these will be added later this year. The next year of valuation rolls to go online will be 1905, which will give you a snapshot of where your ancestors were between the 1901 and1911 census records. The GR did a survey of its users and learned that people were more interested in getting the older valuation records online than the newer ones, hence the decision to release 1905 next.

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 if you wish to see a marriage record that is more recent than 75 years. On the marriage record, you will find the names of each partner’s parents, the occupation of each partner and that of their fathers. A mother may have an occupation listed if she continued to work after her children were born, but this was fairly uncommon. Accessing marriage records always gets you one generation back by providing information on the couple’s parents.

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 formed part of your ancestor’s social circle. Knowing this information, allows you a better understanding of the story and not just of the dates and place names.

Death records are accessible after 50 years. The death records list the name of the deceased. Note that Scottish women always retained their maiden name. You can search for a woman under either her married name or her maiden name and get the same image. The name of the spouse, as well as any previous spouses, the place and the cause of death will also be on the record and will give you some indication of the length of her final illness.

Regular vs Irregular Marriages

Can’t find your ancestor anywhere in the marriage registers? Are they not in the parish registers for the “calling of the banns”? They may have had an “irregular” marriage. This wasn’t uncommon in Scotland as, in order to be considered married, two people simply had to declare themselves man and wife, generally in front of two witnesses. However, if witnesses were unavailable, the couple could simply refer to themselves as married.

Naturally, the church disliked irregular marriages for a variety of reasons (morality and finances being the major two). Often, the church would “catch up” with the couple, who would then be summoned before the kirk session to take their penance, pay their fine, marry legally and be on their way. Kirk session records have been digitized but at the moment they are only available at Scotland’s People Centre in Edinburgh. The hope is that they will appear online in the next year or so.

The Scottish Naming Pattern:

The Scots (and often the Irish) had a very distinctive pattern for naming their offspring. Here is how the Scottish Naming Pattern worked:

The first-born son was named for the paternal grandfather.

The second-born son was named for the maternal grandfather.

The third son was named for the father, unless he shared a name with one of the grandfathers.

Fourth and subsequent sons were often named after the father or mother’s brothers.

The first-born daughter was named for the maternal grandmother.

The second-born daughter was named for the paternal grandmother.

The third daughter was named for the mother, unless she shared a name with one of the grandmothers.

Subsequent daughters were generally named for the mother or father’s sisters.

You will often find a name that doesn’t fit but, upon closer inspection, you may find that this is the same name as one of the witnesses or informants – someone who played an important role in the life of this family.

In addition, if one of the first three children died, the next baby born of the same sex was given that name so that the name would live on for future generations. This became a bit of a conundrum for me when I was assisting a family looking for their roots in North Uist. This family had Donald MacDonald, then son Donald MacDonald who died at age three, so the next-born son was Donald MacDonald (so far, so good). This Donald survived, but a subsequent son was also named Donald – Donald John MacDonald. Both grandfathers were Donald and each had a living grandson named for him!

It gets even better when every eldest son marries an eldest daughter: Henry marries a Margaret and they have a Henry and a Margaret and then that Henry marries a Margaret or Margaret marries a Henry. That’s when the “Auld Henry”, “Wee Henry”, “Big Henry” and “Margaret’s Henry” all come into play.


Now let’s add diminutives to the mix. For instance, Ellen, Helen, and Eleanor are often used interchangeably. For the most part, Ellen is the diminutive of Eleanor. Ellen is the common pronunciation of Helen. Nellie can also be the diminutive of Helen or Eleanor.

Jean and Jane are often used interchangeably. This gets complicated when you have a daughter of each name. Janet is often also referred to as Jane but can also be Jennie or Jessie.

Mary and Marion both often get referred to as May, Mamie or Maisie, while Margaret usually goes by Peg or Peggy, but can also be referred to as Maggie or Meg.

Catherine, Kathleen and Kate are generally one and the same.

Isabel and Isabella are the same but may also be known as Bella, Belle, Sibby or Tibbie.

Elizabeth is rarely Elizabeth, usually being Betty or Bess, but perhaps also Beth, Lizzie, Elsie or Libby.

For men, John may be Ian, Iain, or Jock.

George may be Jordy, Geordy or Dod.

James may be Jamie, Jimmy or Hamish. As the saying goes, “Keep calm and carry on!”

Not Everything Is Online

Of course, you reach a point in your research where you can no longer get the information you seek online. You will either be looking for records that are too recent or too old to be published online. That is when it becomes necessary to either travel toScotlandto spend time in the archives or to hire a genealogist on the ground to do the work for you. The Scottish Genealogy Society has a roster of professionals who will assist in your research, for a fee.

If you get the chance to go to Scotland, and spend time in Scotland’s People Centre, you can view documents right up to the present day. These cannot be copied or downloaded, but you can transcribe to your heart’s content.

At the National Library, you can access national and regional newspapers, old maps, historical clubs and society records, emigration lists and a great deal more.

At the Scottish Genealogy Society, you can view burial records, monumental inscriptions, some trades directories, voters’ rolls and more. At the National Archives, you can access kirk session records, court records, tax records and a host of other information to assist you in really knowing who your ancestors were.

Since this is likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime trip, do yourself a favour and know what it is you hope to accomplish and where you can accomplish it. The worst thing you can do is just show up in Scotland and hope for the best. For anyone who has been bitten by the genealogy bug, there can be nothing more profound than actually walking in the footsteps of your ancestors. Walking the same streets, past the schools they attended, the places they worshipped and worked, and through the villages they called home. If you travel to your ancestors’ homeland, take the time to travel to your ancestral area be it city, village, hamlet or croft. It will be a most humbling and life-altering experience.

Don’t underestimate local resources

Many of us are familiar with standard search engines, websites and online resources but we often forget to contact local societies for information relevant to the place where our ancestors resided. Often, the local family history societies will have parish census records, church records, monumental inscriptions, old maps and information related to local businesses, schools and families. A list of Family History Societies can be found through the Scottish Association of Family History Societies at

Don’t be shy about contacting the local society and asking where to turn next. They may be just the contact you need to help break through a brick wall or two.

Connecting with Others

One of the best things about the genealogical community is our penchant for connecting. We all desperately want to connect to those who came before us and we are also fond of connecting with others searching for their past. Because of this desire to connect, the genealogy community is very helpful. I can’t begin to thank those who have helped me further my research – most of them total strangers. They are people I would not recognize on the street, but whose names I know because of our connection to family history.

A great way to connect with others, especially early on in your research, is through message boards. These are parts of websites where you can leave your unanswered questions. This is a good way to find others who are looking for the same family members. Make sure your title captures the people you are looking for. Don’t give long lists of people’s names, but create something as simple as Haddows of Lanarkshire, Scotland. This rules out those with Haddow ancestors who are from the U.S., England etc. and makes the responses more meaningful to you.

Most of us are aware of Ancestry. Personally, I don’t find Ancestry terribly helpful, especially for Scottish research. But you can leave a message on the message boards and perhaps find a connection that way. This saves you trawling through hundreds of possible matches in other people’s trees with inaccurate information.

Another great message board system is Rootsweb. Rootsweb is free. The responses may take longer but they are generally helpful. As well, many of the message boards are now linked to the mailing lists, which reach people a whole lot faster.

Family Search has a community page for those searching their Scottish Ancestors. It can be found at:!/ScotlandGenealogy

For connecting with others specifically researching in Scotland, Genes Reunited is a fabulous website. I highly recommend joining and uploading your tree. I have found living relatives I never knew existed and the help I’ve received has been amazing. A membership is $34 annually and every couple of weeks or so, you get an e-mail with “hot matches”.

The software is programmed to look for other trees with the same names and then notify you of the connections. The computer doesn’t always narrow it down to your specific ancestors, but it often does. You can then connect with others researching the same family members. This is particularly helpful in the early stages of your research if you are uncertain about where inScotlandyour ancestors lived. Once you have this information through your connection with others, it makes your time on Scotlands People far more productive and allows you the most value for your credits.

So, take the plunge. Branch out and connect. You will be pleasantly surprised with the results. In the process of researching your roots, you will discover your Celtic heritage.

~ By Christine Woodcock