Getting Started With Your Scottish Research
As you begin your research into a new country's records, you may find your task difficult and frustrating at first, but if you persist you will be rewarded. Beginning to do family history is like learning to do any other exercise: it takes time, study, patience and perseverance. You don’t know all the answers. Maybe you don’t know any answers, or even know what to ask so you can get an answer! Everyone starts at the same place. Be willing to ask questions.
Your success in researching your Scottish family history will depend on a number of factors including:
- How much you know about your family history.
- If and when your Scottish ancestor(s) emigrated from Scotland to another country. Time period and history have much to do with the availability of records.
- How much you know specifically about your immigrant ancestor(s).
To help you get started, we suggest you read How to Guess Where to Start and explore the various links on that page, then come back to this page to proceed.
So, now you should have identified the following:
- The name of your Scottish ancestor you wish to research in Scotland's records.
- Your ancestor's approximate birth date. If you have their exact birth date, great!
- Your ancestor's possible place of birth in Scotland. If you have their exact birth place, great!
To begin research in the records of Scotland, go to the Research Strategies pages.
However, there are several general things to learn about Scotland before you begin research. The following information can help you be prepared and increase your chances for success.
Jurisdictions, Gazetteers and Maps
Scotland is organized into counties, parishes, and towns, villages, or hamlets. Ecclesiastical (church) boundaries for parishes are similar to civil (government) boundaries for the same. Parishes were the basic unit of society for life and for record keeping.
Gazetteers and maps help you to understand the relationship between places. Since the 1500’s (and until 1974), place name spellings and jurisdictions have not changed in major ways. Start with a gazetteer first to learn about your place of interest then find the place on a map and see where it lies in relation to other places in the area.
Gazetteers vary, but they generally state brief information about the civil and ecclesiastical jurisdictions of a place, where it is located in relation to a larger place, and historical facts. Consider looking in several gazetteers and comparing information given. One published in 1837 may state different information than one published in 1865, though both are correct for that time.
Maps also vary in size and content. The size of your place, creation date, and the purpose for which a map was made are factors in whether or not you will find your place on a map. In general, most Scottish places did not change names or have major jurisdictional changes, until 1974 when the counties were changed.
Topographical maps show the elevation of the terrain by the coloring, to indicate the elevation of the terrain. Study a map to see how your place relates to the surrounding area. Parish maps are available for each county and show the relationship between parishes. How does the parish boundary correspond to the topographical area? Is your place near the border by the sea, another county or country? Where are the hills, rivers, canals or main roads? Is it an urban or rural area? All of these factors influenced your family and their movements.
Definition of Terms
In the course of your research you will find new words with which you are not familiar. Use dictionaries to learn their meanings.
- The Oxford English Dictionary is a very complete dictionary that includes unusual and country-specific terms.
- The Local Historian's Encyclopedia defines historical terms in relation to land, occupation, transportation, etc.
- The Dictionary of Genealogy shows the genealogical usage for many terms, with the emphasis toward ecclesiastical matters.
Other reference sources are mentioned in the bibliography below. You may find that two books are similar, but slightly different in their context. All of these dictionaries are available at the Family History Library and may be available at other libraries near you.
It's important to start learning the definitions of new words, since the exercise will aid you in getting more involved in your research. Today you may be unsure about the definition of 'christening' or 'census,' but later your list may include words like 'heritor', 'reeve', and 'gaol'. Learning these new terms can be like learning a new language.
For more information, go to the Glossary of Terms.
Another source for definitions of terms is the Glossary available online on the ScotlandsPeople website.
Use a Handbook
A 'handbook' is a narrative explanation about how to conduct research, how to understand a given set of records, a summary of what records are available in a specific place, or a combination of all three. Reading a handbook is similar to taking a class--it helps you to learn more.
Handbooks that discuss records are most helpful when they tell the time period in which the record existed, the content and value to a researcher, and where the record is currently housed. You will find a list of suggested handbooks below.
The Internet may provide you information on your ancestors as well as access to records and resources, such as those listed above, and access to the catalogs and collections of record repositories. You may search the websites of specific repositories and libraries or you may use a search engine such as Google to search for ancestors by name, to search for information about a locality, to look up definitions, or to learn more about doing research.
Join a Family History Society
A family history society is an organization for individuals interested in family history and genealogy. These societies are for beginners as well as more experienced researchers. Individuals pay a modest membership fee to join and in return can go to meetings, receive a quarterly journal (magazine) and get involved in indexing projects, in addition to doing their own research. Members have the opportunity to share their research successes and roadblocks and to receive suggestions and assistance. Most societies publish the indexes they prepare, and make them available for anyone to purchase. You do not have to live in the area of the society's interest or location to join, and you do not have to join to benefit from their services and publications. The Family History Library collects the publications of family history societies.
In Scotland, every county has a family history society. To find a society for your region of interest, go online to the website of the Scottish Association of Family History Societies, and look in the 'Membership Lists.' In addition, links to other genealogical societies are found on the ScotlandsPeople website.
There are four primary record types for Scottish research:
- Civil Registration - government records of births, deaths, and marriages, beginning in 1855.
- Census records - a list of people who lived in a household on a specific night, taken every ten years beginning in 1841.
- Church records - registers of ecclesiastical ordinances of baptism, marriage and burial, beginning in the 1500's.
- Probate records - a written statement of a deceased person’s wishes regarding the disposal of his or her property.
These are the records that provide the information most family history researchers seek, and they are easily accessible.
In addition, there are many other record types of value for family history research. To learn more about these and other record types, see the Scotland Research Outline. Also, on the main Scotland page in this wiki, click on the links for the various topics.
These sources are all available at the Family History Library and may be available at other libraries near you.
Cory, Kathleen B. Tracing Your Scottish Ancestry, ed. 3. Genealogical Publishing Co.: Baltimore, 2004. FHL book 941 D27c.
Hamilton-Edwards, Gerald. In Search of Scottish Ancestry. Phillimore & Co. LTD: London, 1972. FHL book 941 D27ham.
Herber, Mark D. Ancestral Trails: the complete guide to British genealogy and family history, ed. 2. Sutton Publishing: London, 1998. FHL book 942 D27hm.
Irvine, Sherry. Scottish Ancestry: research methods for family historians, ed. 3. Ancestry: Provo, Utah, 2003. FHL book 941 D27ir.
Moody, David. Scottish Family History. B.T. Batsford: London, 1988. FHL book 941 D27md.
Sinclair, Cecil. Tracing Your Scottish Ancestors: a guide to ancestry research in the Scottish Record Office. HMSO: Edinburgh, 1990. FHL book 941 D27s.
Steel, Don J. Sources for Scottish Genealogy and Family History. Phillimore & Co. LTD: London, 1970. FHL book 942 D27ste, vol. 12.