Beginning Your Scottish Clan Research: Basic Strategies and Resources

by Carolyn L. Barkley | Jul 2, 2009

You find a box of family letters in the attic of your childhood home. Yellowed with age and brittle at the folds, the writing is clear nonetheless: your ancestor Alexander MacKay emigrated from Scotland to America. The faint skirl of bagpipes and a hint of heather seem to blow through the open attic window; visions from Braveheart and Rob Roy dance before your eyes. Shaking your head to dispel the romantic images, you wonder how to learn more about Alexander. This article provides basic strategies to help you get started.

A basic rule of genealogical research is that you start with yourself and research backward in time, generation by generation. Your goal is to document your family back to Alexander and then to concentrate on learning all you can about Alexander, his life, family, and the world in which they lived. Depending on the time period, consult church records, census records, passenger arrival records, land records, military records, wills and estate records, tax records, etc. Try to find answers to such questions as: When did Alexander emigrate? What was happening in Scotland that might have influenced his emigration? What was his wife's name? Were they married prior to emigration? Did he have any children born in Scotland? Did his parents, or perhaps a brother or sister, emigrate with him, or join him later? What were their names? Who were his neighbors who might have emigrated at the same time? Are there any clues as to his place of origin?

Search for Alexander MacKay in the International Genealogical Index (IGI) on the Church of Jesus Christ of Lat-ter-Day Saints' website. A search there for "Alexander MacKay" yields over 200 entries. Unless you have specific information that will narrow your choices, you will want to return to this site after each new discovery to reevaluate the information available. Make sure that you search using all possible spelling variations of MacKay (McKay, Mackie, etc.).

Consult Robert D. McLaren's "Genealogists for the Scottish Clans." This annual list provides contact information for Scottish clan and family association genealogists, many of whom collect genealogical data. The Clan MacKay Society (USA) genealogist, located in Fresno, California, may be able to provide you with information about Alexander and his family and connect you with individuals interested in this lineage. In addition, the MacKay Clan website pro-vides a history of the MacKays, membership opportunities, information about clan activities, and opportunities to network with MacKay descendants.

Search for a MacKay DNA surname project. One of the major providers of DNA surname projects is FamilyTreeDNA� and their site includes a Mackay surname project with eighty-two members (March 2009). While participation in such projects is not inexpensive, the value of identifying previously unknown relatives cannot be understated.

Learn about the clan system to gain historic and geographic perspective. Beginning as early as the eleventh century, war lords capitalized on political and social unrest and established themselves as feudal landowners, often with authorization from the Scottish Crown. They allowed the indigenous families to remain on the land, offering them protection in return for military service in time of war and an annual portion of their crops and livestock. The clan system was an intrinsic part of Highland life in which families were bound not only by feudal relationships, but also by a common language, Gaelic, and the isolation provided by mountainous terrain. Not all Scots lived in a clan environment, however. In the lowlands and border cities, while many felt ties to an extended family, the clan structure was not prevalent. In the harsh aftermath of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, the old highland clan system was dismantled and then extinguished during the clearances and later by the industrial age that drew many Scots to cities like Glasgow.

Geographic location in Scotland, then, is important, but also often one of the more difficult facts to document. If you have discovered no point of origin for Alexander during your research, you can begin to narrow the possibilities by searching first in those geographic areas where clusters of individuals with the same surname lived. A clan map of Scotland, such as one found in George Way's Scottish Clan and Family Encyclopedia (Barnes & Noble, 1998), shows that MacKays were concentrated in the north-west corner of Scotland, where the ports of Kinlochbervie and Durness and the aptly named Cape Wrath, Scotland's most northwestern point, are located. While your Alexander (perhaps also known as Sandy, a common nickname for Alexander) may later prove to come from elsewhere in Scotland, beginning your research in an area of surname concentration will offer you the greatest possibility for success.

Before beginning your next step - research in Scottish records - learn more about Scotland's history. Books such as T. M. Devine's The Scottish Nation: A History, 1700-2000 (Viking, 1999) will provide a good overview. In addition, Scotland's records can be challenging to use and often different in format and content than records you may have used previously. Your work will be more successful if you learn about the various types of records in advance. Some of the best resources to assist you are:

  • A Genealogist's Guide to Discovering Your Scottish Ancestors: How to Find and Record Your Unique Heritage by Linda Jonas & Paul Milner (Betterway Books, 2002).
  • Scottish Ancestry: Research Methods for Family Historians by Sherry Irvine (rev. 2nd ed., Ancestry, 2003).
  • Tracing Your Scottish Ancestry by Kathleen B. Cory (3rd ed., Genealogical Publishing Co., 2004).
  • Scottish Genealogy: Tracing Your Ancestors by Bruce Durie (History Press, 2009).

Further information can be found in the following resources:


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