What records are there for ancestral research in Scotland?

A very small selection of the available sources for information about Scottish ancestry

Beginners' Guide

If you are just starting out on the search for your Scottish ancestors, here are the essential websites that will get you started searching and the essential records they provide. The information is intended for people without easy access to family history centres or societies, or public libraries, where it may be possible to access microfilms of actual records of births, marriages and deaths, and census records. (The rest of this page provides more details on the records.)

  1. ScotlandsPeople

    The official government site for all birth, marriage, death, census and testamentary records. Registration is required (but free of charge) and searching the indexes is free. You have to pay to see individual index entries (except for testaments) and to see actual records. There is no substitute for this site, so don't waste time looking for other sites that might give free access to actual records. (If you are looking for recent birth, marriage or death records, you'll have to visit Edinburgh or write to New Register House in Edinburgh.)

  2. Any site that provides geographical information: e.g. National Library or Google maps, or, for photographs, Geograph is excellent - because family history is more than just people's names and dates.

  3. With very considerable hesitation, the new version of FamilySearch. Instead of providing an improved search facility with the existing presentation of results, and a means to suppress results that were based on submitted information rather than actual records, the site has been completely overhauled. The outcome is less than successful.

Yes, just these, though you might wish to take out a subscription to Ancestry; if nothing else, their automated transcriptions of census records may amuse, when they do not frustrate. Although that site provides images of actual census records for England & Wales, it does NOT provide such images for Scottish census records.

Also, GENUKI's Scotland page provides lots of useful background information and further sources of records, arranged by county and parish.

Some suggestions on searching

Don't make the mistake of looking for a child's birth before you know the names of the parents - there are far too many people with the same name and even knowing the approximate date and place is no guarantee that you'll identify the correct parents. You CANNOT get a reliable family tree by doing that. Before 1855, records are incomplete, in some cases non-existent; just because you only find, say, one recorded William Brown born in Musselburgh between 1817 and 1819, it doesn't make that child the same person as you already have a marriage record for at Musselburgh in 1842. That means that, realistically, you are NOT going to be able to trace the ancestry of MOST people back before about 1780, certainly not without considerable effort, but very likely not at all; getting back before that depends on the existence of other kinds of record, most of which only exist for people who were well-to-do.

In Scotland, statutory marriage and death certificates give the names of BOTH parents - usually. Sometimes, the parents' names on a death certificate have simply been copied from a marriage certificate, so the names on a marriage certificate are usually more reliable, though a surprising number of people managed to get their parents' names wrong and of course many were brought up by grandparents or aunts and uncles, ignorant of their true parentage. Use the names of parents as given on a statutory marriage or death certificate, but only as a clue rather than as actual fact, to search for a marriage of a couple with these names. Sometimes, the parents' actual names will turn out to be slightly different from the names given on their child's marriage or death certificates; 'Janet' for 'Jessie' is never a problem, nor is 'Ann' for 'Agnes' likely to be, but be suspicious of any major differences. And don't skip steps in the search; if you say "I've got X's marriage certificate, which gives his parents' names, and I've found his parents' marriage, so now I can look for the grandparents", you'll kick yourself later when you finally get round to looking for X's birth record, and discover he was the illegitimate child of a sister of the supposed mother.

If you're searching for a person or a place with Startpage or Ixquick (both of which are much more secure than Google!) or other search engine, put the full name in quotes: "John Smith". Simply typing in John Smith without quotes will give every page with a John or a Smith (or a smith).

Whatever you're searching for, DON'T do an image search. It is most unlikely to take you to a relevant image.

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Old parish registers

These are the registers of births, baptisms, marriage banns, marriages, deaths and burials up to the end of 1854, that were kept by the Church of Scotland in each parish. These registers are almost exclusively records of members of the established Church of Scotland and, even for them, are incomplete. The earliest such records are for the 16th century, but for many parishes, particularly in the highlands & islands, there are no records until the late 18th or 19th century. Baptisms & marriages are recorded in Errol in Perthshire from 1553, while a few parishes (e.g. Aberdeen, Canongate, Dunfermline & Perth) have records that begin shortly after the reformation of 1560. There are many parishes without any records of deaths or burials.

Depending on the diligence of the person keeping the register (usually the Session Clerk of the parish or his deputy), the entries may be quite informative or very brief. Do not expect too much of these records.

These records are held in New Register House in Edinburgh, where they can be seen on payment of a fee. Information about how to access these records by visiting Edinburgh in person is at ScotlandsPeople Centre.

Indexes and actual records for all extant Old Parish Registers (OPRs) are available online, following registration and the purchase of credits, at the official web-site, ScotlandsPeople. Records of the Catholic Church are also now available at that site. Some of the extant records of births, marriages and deaths for protestant churches other than the Church of Scotland are held in the National Records of Scotland (until recently called the National Archives of Scotland and, before that, known as the Scottish Record Office).

The records are also widely available on microfilm in libraries. The baptisms & marriages have been fully indexed by county by the Mormons; this Old Parish Register Index (OPR index) is an accurate index of actual events, in contrast to the Mormons' own International Genealogical Index (IGI), much of which is unreliable, submitted material.

Deaths and burials in Fife before 1855 have been published on CD-ROM by Fife Family History Soc.

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Statutory records

These are the records of all births, marriages & deaths since 1 January 1855, held in New Register House in Edinburgh, where they can be seen on payment of a fee. Information about how to access these records by visiting Edinburgh in person is at ScotlandsPeople Centre.

Indexes and actual records for Statutory Registers of Births, Marriages & Deaths, beginning 1 Jan 1855, are available online, following registration and the purchase of credits, at the official web-site, ScotlandsPeople. The actual records of births can be seen at that site from 1855 up to 100 years ago; of marriages, from 1855 up to 75 years ago; for deaths, from 1855 up to 50 years ago. More recent records can be ordered.

These records usually provide the following information:

The records for 1855 are more informative, giving for births, for example, the ages and birthplaces of the child's parents and the number of previous children. Those for 1856-1860 are slightly less detailed. Names of parents in death certificates - and even in marriage certificates - are not necessarily correct.

Unfortunately, the indexes to the births, marriages and deaths do contain errors, and that can make it impossible to find some events. Inevitably, notwithstanding the fact that registration has been compulsory since 1855, there must also be a small percentage of events that went unrecorded.

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Population censuses

There have been censuses that give the names of everyone in Scotland every 10 years since 1841, except 1941, but only those up to 1911 are currently open to public inspection. Every census provides names, addresses, ages, occupations and birthplaces of family members and any visitors (who may themselves be relatives) or boarders. Since 1851, relationships to the head of the household have been included, and since 1861, the number of rooms occupied. In 1841, ages of adults are only approximate - they were supposed to be rounded down to the nearest multiple of 5 years - and birthplaces are just the counties of birth. In other years, ages can be quite inaccurate and birthplaces are also often incorrect.

There are some missing census records, e.g. several whole parishes for Fife in 1841 and also parts of the parish of Dumfries in 1881.

Records of the censuses of 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901 and 1911 are held in the New Register House in Edinburgh and are open to the public on payment of a fee. Information about how to access these records by visiting Edinburgh in person is at ScotlandsPeople Centre.

Indexes and actual census records for every Scottish decennial census from 1841 to 1911 are available online, following registration and the purchase of credits, at the official web-site, ScotlandsPeople.

Microfilm copies are widely available in libraries, as are microfiche indexes for the censuses of 1881 and 1891. The 1881 census is also available as 2 CD-ROMs, published by the Mormons.

There were earlier official censuses in 1801, 1811, 1821 and 1831, but these do not include personal information. However, for a few parishes, there are a few surviving censuses from before 1841, usually drawn up by ministers or schoolmasters. These often name only the heads of households.

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Register of sasines (Land registers)

This is the record of land transactions outside of the royal burghs from 1617 (from 1599 in some parts of Scotland), the early sasines being mostly in Latin. They can include significant detail about inheritance over several generations, often repeating information from earlier documents.

Searching is simplified by the existence of printed summaries of every sasine since 1781. Between 1617 and 1780, some counties have been fully indexed, some partially, some not at all.

There are separate registers, some up to 1963, for property within royal burghs, few of which are indexed.

Most of the registers of sasines are held in the National Records of Scotland. As public records, they can be seen free of charge by visiting the National Records of Scotland in person.

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Retours (Services of heirs)

These are the records that confirm the right to inherit property, dating from 1544 and mostly in Latin until 1847. These records only exist where there was a need or obligation for an heir or heiress to establish the right to inherit, and most, though not all, retours relate to the better off. The very purpose of these records, however, ensures that they almost always contain useful genealogical information.

Indexes & summaries of these records from 1544 to 1859 have been published on 2 CDs by the Scottish Genealogy Society and can be bought from the Scottish Genealogy Society's online shop:

  1. "Retours of Services of Heirs: Inquisitionum ad Capellam Domini Regis Retornatarum Abbreviatio, vols I-III, 1544-1699"

  2. "Decennial Indexes to the Services of Heirs in Scotland, vols I-IV, 1700-1859"

The first of these discs, in addition to general services of heir, for which the lands are not named, also has separate listings of special services for named lands. The disc also lists tutories, i.e. appointments of tutors for orphans and curators for the mentally incapable.

The format of the information on these two discs, which cover records for the whole of Scotland, is quite different. All the information is in the form of scanned images from printed books, and therefore there is no search facility on either disc, though there are indexes of surnames and places for the first disc. Most of the information on the first disc is in Latin, and it takes some practice to use the disc with confidence. See this guide to using the discs; the guide provides some examples of the format of the information on the discs.

Decennial indexes for the period beginning 1860 are only available by visiting the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh.

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Testaments (wills, inventories of moveable goods) (16th century to present)

These are the documents drawn up after a person's death by an executor or executors, the persons appointed to record the possessions and any sums of money owed to or by the deceased, and to carry out the will, if any, of the deceased as to who should receive his or her moveable property. Early testaments seldom include wills, and for only a small percentage of the population was a testament necessary. (Property that was not moveable but heritable, i.e. land and houses, passed automatically to the nearest male heir, usually the eldest son of the deceased. He, as a result, was always excluded from any share in the moveable property when there was no will. Heritable property owned by the deceased is only ever mentioned in a testament in relation to any rents owing to the deceased.)

Testaments can be extremely informative. The executor is frequently the widow or son, or else a creditor, while the cautioners, who guarantee payment of any debts owed by the deceased, may also be relatives. For establishing relationships before about 1780, testaments are one of the few useful sources of information. But they do not all name relatives; even when they do, it is descendants one already knows about, rather than ancestors, who are named in most cases. However, especially where the deceased died without issue but had numerous nephews and nieces, the amount of information can be considerable, e.g. the will of Francis Garden Mitchell, recorded at Edinburgh in 1865, identifies his father as having been a farmer at Maryton by Montrose, names his mother, two of his sisters and his maternal grandfather, and about 20 further relatives - nephews, nieces and some of their wives and children.

The standard format lists first the goods in the possession of the deceased, including items associated with his occupation, the furnishing of his house, his clothes and cash in hand, with estimated values for each item. This is followed by the debts owing to, and then the debts owed by the deceased. In the case of a brewer, for example, one would expect to find mention of the farmers from whom he bought malt, and of the customers who bought his beer.

Testaments are held in the National Records of Scotland. As public records, they can be seen free of charge by visiting the National Records of Scotland in person.

Indexes to all extant pre-1926 testamentary records (wills & inventories of moveable property) can be searched free of charge at ScotlandsPeople. Scanned images of the documents can be purchased at that site, or, if required, paper copies can be purchased.

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Apprentice rolls for Aberdeen, Edinburgh, etc.

These list the boys (aged 10 to 20) who were indentured to serve as apprentices to craftsmen and merchants who were burgesses of the burgh. Frequently, an apprentice was related to his master, or later married his master's daughter.
Records include:

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Burgess rolls

These list the men who were admitted to the right to pursue their trade, as craftsmen or merchants, within the limits of the burgh. Many were admitted at reduced rates as sons or sons-in-law of burgesses.

There are rolls for Aberdeen, Canongate, Edinburgh and Glasgow and several smaller towns, including Banff, Cupar, Dunfermline, Elgin, Kirkcudbright, Musselburgh, St Andrews and Stirling.
Records include:

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Monumental inscriptions in burial grounds, mainly after 1800.

Most people were buried in unmarked graves. Also, many early monuments have inevitably been defaced, lost, broken or re-used. However, in recent times, many people have been engaged in recording the surviving inscriptions, and there are also some collections made by antiquaries in the past. So there is now a large database of inscriptions for many of the parish churchyards and town cemeteries, though for many places inscriptions have only been recorded up to 1855, when the statutory death records begin.

See the publications lists of the Scottish Genealogy Society and the Aberdeen and NE Scotland FHS for a wide range of recorded inscriptions.

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Street directories for cities, from late 18th century

Early examples are a reconstructed directory of Edinburgh in 1752, based on Window Tax records, & Peter Williamson's Edinburgh Directories from 1773, e.g., Williamson's 1773/4 Directory, and Glasgow Directory for 1809. See the National Library web-site for further examples.

Later examples are:

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Rolls of university students & graduates

The early Scottish universities were: King's College, Aberdeen (founded 1496); Marischal College, Aberdeen (1593); Edinburgh (1582); Glasgow (1451); St Andrews (1410).
Records include:

There are also published rolls of pupils of some of the more famous Scottish schools, e.g. the Edinburgh Academy and Loretto School, Musselburgh.

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Directories of professions

Examples:

Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh

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Tax records

Among the early tax records, all held in the National Records of Scotland, are the following:

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Army, navy & militia records

Records of Scots in the British army & navy after the union with England in 1707 are in the National Archives, London, though there are published records of those killed in the 1914-18 war, for example.

In Scotland, there are militia records, mainly relating to 1795-1815, and also numerous muster rolls of the Scots army before 1707.

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Burgh records

Towns that were granted charters by the king - royal burghs - were entitled to keep their own registers of sasines (land transactions). For these towns, and for others that were originally the property of nobles or abbeys, there are often extensive records relating to matters such as their councils, courts & land holdings.

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Church records

In addition to the parish registers of baptisms, etc., there are also the records of the Kirk Sessions of the parishes of the Church of Scotland, held in the National Records of Scotland (ref. NRS CH...), detailing almost exclusively the various misdeeds of the parishioners. These can be a useful source for information about illegitimate children for the 17th & 18th centuries, when the Kirk Sessions were able to exercise authority over their parishioners and compel miscreants to appear before them to admit and do penance for their sins.

There are also various records of churches other than the established Church of Scotland, such as the Relief Church, the Associate Session (Burghers and Antiburghers) and the Episcopal Church. In some cases, these records include registers of baptisms and marriages.

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Poor Law Relief

After 1845, the responsibility for looking after the poor passed from the Church of Scotland to Parochial Boards. There are surviving records for some of the boards and of some individual poor-houses, and these records can provide much genealogical information: ages, birthplaces, previous addresses, names of parents, names of dependants, marital history and religious denomination, as well as the reason for application for relief. Places for which good records survive include Ardrossan in Ayrshire, Clydebank, Glasgow (including the Barony and Govan), Kilmarnock, Motherwell and Paisley.

Search for "parochial board" and the place-name of interest at Scottish Archive Network search page

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This page updated 2 Jul 2013 . . . . . . . . . Use of cookies