Scottish Genealogy

scottish genealogy

The names sound familiar: Abercrombie, Ferguson, McKenzie, Gordon, Stewart, MacDonald, Murray, Scott, Fraser, Douglas. Scottish surnames are well known because many were immigrants around the world. Scots stand out as creative thinkers and leaders. William Wallace, Captain Kidd, Archibald Campbell, John Muir, James Watt, Robert Louis Stevenson, Robert Burns, Robert the Bruce and Alexander Graham Bell are just a few of the famous and infamous Scots.

Although Scottish surnames are familiar, there might be some spelling variations to consider. Originally the Irish settled Scotland and that is why Scottish and Irish names sound similar. Surnames prefix letters such as the Mac or Mc which mean son of and O' which means grandson may no longer be used, but should be considered a possibility in the past.

If you are lucky enough to have Scottish ancestors, then you are doubly blessed. You have millions of relatives in the US and there are thousands of Scottish records available in research locations and but especially online to help you track down your ancestor.

But wait! Jumping right in and researching someone who might not be related to you is a waste of time and money. Always start with you and work backwards using valid documentation to prove the relationship in each generation. Once you have determined your immigrant Scottish ancestor, you can then use US Census records to find out when and where they lived. has US Census records available to help your search. Creating a timeline from the census gives a good overview of your ancestor's life - when he/she arrived, married and started having children. There are questions on the Census about immigration and naturalization to help track down more documentation. Foreigners who are not yet naturalized are noted in the 1820-30 US Censuses. Again for the 1900-1930 Census foreigners identify the year of immigration and if they are naturalized plus for 1920-1930 there is a place for the year of naturalization. These are direct pointers to help get across the pond, however, it helps to know a little bit about Scotland's past to understand the records available.

Tracing Scottish Ancestry

scottish family history

Beginning with the Romans who built Hadrian's Wall in the first century to keep the warring tribes (Picts) out of their territory, Scotland has had a reputation of being fighters. By the 8th and 9th Century, the Picts regain control of Scotland while the Vikings raided regularly.

In 1124, David I becomes king and introduces the feudal system to Scotland which emphasizes a clan leader. An extended family network with loyalties to a chieftain, clans were usually associated with the land or a geographic location. The Scots and the English have had a love-hate relationship since this time.

In the early 1300s, Robert the Bruce defeats the English at Bannockburn and Scotland becomes an independent nation. Robert II becomes the first Stewart king in 1371. A French ally, James IV and thousands of Scots were slaughtered by the English at the Battle of Flodden in 1513 when James attacked using outdated fighting methods.

Scotland is a Catholic nation until 1560 when it becomes Protestant under the Church of Scotland. James VI, son of Mary, Queen of Scots, begins to rule Scotland and his Catholic mother is beheaded by Elizabeth I in 1587 for claiming the throne of England. Presbyterianism becomes the law of the land in 1592 and with the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, James VI of Scotland also is crowned James I of England.

In 1696 the Education Act successfully requires a school in each parish. In 1707, the parliaments of Scotland and England are joined. The Treaty of Union guaranteed certain Scottish institutions would be independent including education, church and the registration system.

However, the clan system was basically dismantled after the Battle of Culloden in 1746 when the English crush the Jacobite Rebellion for Bonnie Prince Charlie. The Act of Proscription outlawed Highland dress, bearing arms and even the playing of the pipes. The Highland Clearances starting in late 1700s evicted thousands to make way for sheep and then in the mid 19th century the potato famine reached Scotland. Both events led many Highlanders to immigrate to the New World.

As a part of the United Kingdom, Scotland and its people continue to be a place of interest and stories for the world. Thankfully, Scottish records are relatively easy to find and understand.

Records Before 1855

Prior to 1855, look for Old Parish Registers since the church was the keeper of all important records. The good news is that except for a short period of time during the Disruption period of the Free Church of Scotland (1843-1854), a large percentage of the population was members of the Church of Scotland. These records are available at the General Register Office for Scotland in Edinburgh back to the sixteenth century. There are also wills and testaments from as early as the 1500s.

Records After 1855

Vital records or Statutory Registers (SR) in Scotland including birth, marriage and death records were made compulsory and standardized in 1855! Wills and testaments are documented and available to the public through 1900 online. Also, there are census records beginning in 1841 and continuing forward to 1911. More recent records may be available, but not online. These records contain a tremendous amount of genealogical information.

For example, the birth records in 1855 provided details about the child (date, place and time of birth, full name, sex), the parents' names (including maiden name), father's occupation, name of informant and relationship to child. An 1855 birth certificate also contained information on siblings, the ages and birthplaces of both parents, their usual residence and marriage date and place. Unfortunately, so much information was hard to manage and in 1856, the format was changed - no more sibling data nor the ages and birthplaces of the parents. But thanks to the Scottish government, this is treasure trove for the family researcher and easy to access.

Other Records

Clan records are an important source of information although your ancestor may be related to several clans. Therefore, maps are valuable resources to locate your ancestor's homeland and identify the clans in that area. Remember that counties are divided into parishes or districts, but Scotland has been around a LONG time and the parish of today may not be the same parish name or geography of yesteryear. The Gazetteer for Scotland website is a geographic encyclopedia with wonderful information on places, clans and history. Look for Groome's Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland 1882 which is searchable text by counties, cities, towns, villages and parishes which can help with researching those ancestors. Once your ancestor's location can be pinpointed, search for the Scottish family history society in the area for more resources and knowledgeable contacts.

Scottish Family History Resources

Scotland's People

General Register Office for Scotland

Scots Family

Scots Origins

Genuki - Scotland

Scottish History Society

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