In this day of digital indexing and online resources, genealogical research can be either easy or difficult—either you find what you are looking for fairly quickly or you may never find it. In the case of Scottish research, the ease is the result of informative and well-indexed records and a wonderful government-sponsored website called ScotlandsPeople.
The Big-4 Record Types
Civil registration, census, church, and probate records are the big-4 sources for any country in the British Isles. Scottish civil records of births, marriages and deaths, and Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) parish records, are generally the most informative in the British Isles. Most of Scotland’s records of genealogical value are well indexed at www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk. This pay-per-view website provides indexes and the images of the digitized original records which you can view—for a very reasonable fee—then download to your computer.
However, as with genealogical research anywhere, not all of our Scottish ancestors were as well documented as we would like. A Scottish death record may not give the names of the parents of the deceased because the informant didn’t know them. In some cases the parish minister did not include the mother’s full maiden name in the baptism records of children. The parish minister didn’t bother to keep burial records, or your ancestors did not belong to the Church of Scotland. Your ancestors didn’t follow the traditional Scottish pattern for naming their children and there are too many people of the same name in the same parish. There may be too many possibilities to choose from or the event may have never been recorded. All of these scenarios can make your research more difficult.
While the big-4 record types are the best for identifying family names and relationships, there are other valuable records that can be over-looked. They may not be as well used because they are not as well known, are not as well indexed or as accessible. Some of these other record types are indexed on the ScotlandsPeople website.
Other Church Records
First, let’s take a closer look at the church records index. When you go to the website and select the Church Registers collection, you will see three options: Church of Scotland, Roman Catholic Church, and Other churches. Above the list is a link to the ‘church registers guide.’ If you click the link and read over the guide, you will learn that Roman Catholic Church records can begin as early as the 18th century, though most begin in “the 30 years following the relaxation of legislation against Catholics in the 1790’s.”
The ‘Other churches’ category includes those which “were Presbyterian churches that were originally outside the Church of Scotland (or left the Church of Scotland) but joined (or re-joined) the Church of Scotland at various points.” Their record collections are generally not as complete as those of the Church of Scotland, but if they include records of your ancestors, that may not matter to you.
There were other church denominations whose records have not been digitized and indexed or were not well kept in the first place. These include:
To learn what church records might exist for the area where your ancestors lived, go to the website www.familysearch.org and search the Wiki for your county and parish of interest and for the topic of Nonconformist Church Records. Keep in mind that other denominations did not adhere to parish boundaries. If there are no records for your parish of interest, check neighboring parishes.
Another collection digitized and indexed on ScotlandsPeople is the Valuation Rolls. These “were local tax rolls, compiled every year in Scotland from 1855 onwards, listing the owners and occupiers of most buildings in Scotland.” The rolls for every year ending with a 5—the years between censuses—have been indexed: 1855 through 1935, and 1920, 1930 and 1940. (The most recently released census is the 1911.)
The span from 1855 to 1940 might seem too late to help you with your research, but there is a hidden value to these records. In addition to names and dates, the big-4 record types can provide you with the residence of your ancestor within their parish. Keep in mind that most people did not own the property on which they lived. They leased it from a landowner. The small place, farm or croft where your ancestor lived had a name, and that place was part of someone’s estate. If you want to learn whether the estate records contain information about your ancestor, you have to know the name of the estate and who owned it. The big-4 records usually don’t give you the estate name, but the valuation rolls will.
When you search the Valuation Rolls, you can select the year, county, and parish and add the place name (or just the first few letters). You can leave the personal name fields blank. The search results will give you a list of everyone who paid taxes for that place, tell you if they were an occupier, tenant or a proprietor, and give the name of the estate. If you repeat the search with the estate name, you will get a list of everyone living on that estate and you can make a list of the proprietors at that time. If all or most of the proprietors have the same surname, then it was likely a family estate. That family may have owned the estate for generations, and they may have a collection of estate papers including leases and rent rolls.
Collections of estate records may be held privately or they may have been deposited at an archive for preservation. The place to start looking is with the National Register of Archives for Scotland (at H M General Register House) in Edinburgh. Go online to https://www.nrscotland.gov.uk/record-keeping/ national-register-of-archives-for-scotland and search the online register for the estate name. When you display the catalogue results, you can click on the reference number link for a description of each title to see what is included. Even if the collection is held privately, enquiries are usually made to the Registrar of the National Register.
Other collections of estate records may be held by county or university archives. For contact information for these, go online to https://www.scan.org.uk/directory/contactdetails.htm.
Coats of Arms
Another collection indexed on ScotlandsPeople, as part of the Legal records search, is the coat of arms in the Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland. The search is simple. Just type in a surname and run the search. To view the documents, you have to pay a fee of 40 credits (credits cost 25 pence each—currently about 32₵—and can be purchased in batches of 30 credits). For that cost you see the original grant with the arms in color, a description of the arms, and information on the person to whom it was granted and when. You can save or print the image.
The last searchable collection on the website is the records of the Highlands and Islands Emigration Society which assisted nearly 5000 people to immigrate to Australia between 1852-1857. If this is a place and time period of interest to you, the search is simple. Just enter a name. The results include the name of the ship, the departure date and place, the port of arrival, and their residence in Scotland. The image of the record is free to view.
There are many other categories of records of genealogical value for Scotland which are not indexed on the ScotlandsPeople website. But these records may be harder to identify and certainly to access. They have either not been digitized or indexed or made available online. On the website of National Records of Scotland (formerly National Archives of Scotland) at www.nrscotland.gov.uk, you can find an A-Z list of all of their research guides and learn about these other types of records. You can also search their online catalogue to see what records are held for your place of interest. And while we are on the subject of online catalogs, don’t forget the Family History Library’s online catalog at www.familysearch.org. See what records the Family History Library holds for your place of interest.
If you don’t have the time or the expertise to do in-depth Scottish research, let a professional genealogist to do the searching for you. They have expert knowledge of the records and how to read and use them. But if you want to better understand what the professional genealogist can do for you, and the potential for research success, you can learn more about Scottish records by using these online resources.