Family History

What to do at home
Things to bear in mind
Key Information sources
My Ancestor was ...
  Things to bear in mind

Whilst researching Family History in Scotland, there are a number of concepts and issues we feel you should bear in mind:


Genealogy is not a quick process. Do not expect to produce an accurate family tree with a couple of hours' work on the Web or with one visit to an archive. Some genealogists spend decades exhausting all the sources of information about their ancestors, others spend a couple of weeks' vacation researching several lines of the family tree.

Hitting the wall at 1800

Most researchers find it relatively straightforward to trace Scottish ancestry back to the decades either side of 1800. From there the going gets tough and many family historians either stop at this point or widen out their search to include other lines or gather more information about what life was like for their ancestors.

Clans and tartans

Many people are inspired to begin tracing Scottish ancestry by their desire to belong to a 'clan' - as portrayed in film and folklore. However, the idea that a clan consists of everyone with the same Scottish surname, entitled to wear the same tartan, is a modern one. The development of this popular image of clans and tartans is itself part of our national history; and it was recently summarised in C Withers, 'The Historical Creation of the Scottish Highlands', a chapter in I Donnachie and C Whatley (eds.), The Manufacture of Scottish History (Edinburgh, 1992). A full definition of clan society can be found in A I Macinnes, Clanship, Commerce and the House of Stuart, 1603-1788 (East Linton, 1996); and the disintegration of clan society and the subsequent development of Highland society is discussed in several chapters of T M Devine, The Scottish Nation 1700-2000 (London, 1999)

Family myths

Family traditions of what ancestors did and who they were related to often turn out to be exaggerations, while others are simply impossible of being validated from historical records. Approach family history with an open mind and be prepared for family traditions to be exposed as myths.



Emigration records emigrate

Do not expect to find centrally or locally held records of emigrants in Scotland itself. Passenger lists invariably went with the passengers and ended up in the country of arrival (although the Public Record Office in London holds passenger lists from 1890 onwards for British ports). Further information about emigration from Scotland is available in the SCAN Knowledge Base.

Parishes and counties

In the period you will be searching for Scottish ancestors Scotland was divided into 33 counties and over 900 parishes. Many of the records you will use will be arranged by county and/or parish name. Advice on how to convert a place name to a parish and county will follow on this site soon. Register, and we'll keep you up to date with developments.

Digging for graves

Of the three main 'life events' (births, marriages and deaths), deaths, and in particular where a burial took place, is the hardest to research, especially before municipal cemeteries were established in the second half of the 19th century. Expect to be frustrated in many cases when trying to find where the remains of an ancestor now repose.

photograph of family, 1886

A family appearing before the Glasgow Juvenile Delinquency Board, 1886 Reproduced with permission of Glasgow City Archives.