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Researching Scottish Ancestors

Tracing Your Roots in Scotland


From the 17th century, people have departed Scotland for England, Ireland, the United States, India, South Africa, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, resulting in approximately 30 million people with Scottish roots now living worldwide. The present population of Scotland, in comparison, is around 5.22 million.1

Whether you descend from 18th and 19th century settlers who emigrated directly from Scotland, or from Scots-Irish emigrants from Ulster, successful research in Scottish records begins by identifying the place of origin for your Scottish-born ancestor.

Begin With Yourself

No matter where your family ended up, you can't research your Scottish roots until you have learned more about your more recent ancestors. As with all genealogy projects, you need to begin with yourself, talk to your family members, and follow the other basic steps of starting a family tree.

Locate the Birthplace of Your Immigrant Ancestor

Once you've traced your family back to the emigrant Scottish ancestor, the next step is to identify the town or parish (or at least county) where he or she lived in Scotland, and an approximate date when he or she lived there. It can also be helpful to identify the names of other family members born in Scotland, as well as your ancestor's religion. If your Scottish ancestor immigrated to America after 1892, you can probably find this information on the passenger arrival record for the ship on which they sailed to America. Other common sources for locating an immigrant's hometown include vital records of birth, marriage and death; census records; naturalization records and church records. Learn more in Tips for Finding the Birthplace of Your Immigrant Ancestor

Civil Registration — Births, Marriages & Deaths (1855 to present)

On 1 January 1855 civil registration replaced the old system of registration by parishes of the Church of Scotland. The statutory registers, comprising the official records of births, marriages and deaths in Scotland, are available through both the local registrar and the ScotlandsPeople Centre in Edinburgh. Digitized copies of many of these post-1854 civil registers (births over 100 years ago; marriages over 75 years ago; and deaths over 50 years ago) are also available online via pay-per-view access through the ScotlandsPeople website. More recent records are only available at the ScotlandsPeople Centre, and not online, due to Internet privacy laws.

Old Parish Registers (c.1553–1854)

The local parish was the administrative hub of the daily lives of the people of Scotland. The majority of the Scottish population were members of the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), which administered and recorded births, baptisms, marriages, and burials. The earliest parish records date to about 1553, but most begin after 1650. Lowland parish registers often predate those of Highland parishes, which may start as late as the early 1800's.

To locate parish registers, you need to identify the parish which encompassed your ancestor's town. Gazetteers, such as this online Gazetteer for Scotland, are a great tool for this purpose. Once you identify the correct parish, Old Parish Registers (OPRs) of the Church of Scotland have been digitized, and are available online through the ScotlandsPeople website (pay-per-view).

Monumental inscriptions offer another source for death/burial information. Deceased Online includes over 12,500 monumental inscriptions from Scottish cemeteries, mostly located in the Highlands, with free searches and pay-per-view access to actual burial data.

In addition to overseeing and recording of baptisms and marriages, the Church also regulated moral issues, and supervised education and poor relief. The minister and elders of the Church (kirk) met in session to deal with such affairs of the congregation. Kirk Session Records may include details of illegitimate births, public drunkenness, pleas of poverty, mortcloth rentals (for burials), and sometimes certificates of individuals who moved to the parish. Kirk session records for all of Scotland have been digitized and are currently available for in-person access at the National Archives of Scotland, as well as at some local archives. While these records are not yet widely available online, there is some scattered access, such as the Kirk Session Minutes for Dumfries, Troqueer, and Mouswald online from the Friends of the Archives of Dumfries and Galloway. Digitized online subscription access is potentially planned for 2013, probably on the ScotlandsPeople website.

Nonconformist Church Records

While the Church of Scotland was the nationally recognized church, over a third of the Scottish population during the 19th century was affiliated with what is often termed a nonconformist religion——Presbyterian seceders, as well as Baptists, Methodists, Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Evangelicals, Jews, and Quakers. A resource called the Scotland Church Records Union List has been compiled by staff of the Family History Library to identify pre-1855 churches in Scotland, including brief parish histories and information on surviving records. You can find information extracted from the Scotland Church Records Union List online in the FamilySearch Wiki by searching for a county or parish of interest. Surviving Roman Catholic parish registers of about 115 parishes in Scotland are available in digitized format on the ScotlandsPeople website (pay-per-view).


1. "Scotland's Population," General Register Office for Scotland (http://www.gro-scotland.gov.uk : accessed 22 May 2012).

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