Scottish Ancestral Research is one of the reasons many people visit Scotland. During the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries many people left Scotland to seek a new life in the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. If you are planning a trip to Scotland to do some family research then read on. In this blog I will tell you where to go to find out more about your Scottish Ancestors.
At this point I should make clear I am not a genealogist and I am not looking for work. The purpose of this blog is to pass on some tips and suggestions based on my own experience researching my own Scottish Ancestors.
Scottish Ancestral Research – Where to Start
I started with people I knew a lot about, my mother and father and worked back from there. I found a lot of websites such as Ancestry, Find my Past, My Heritage etc the main purpose of which was to sign you up for a monthly subscription. Ancestral research does not need to cost you a lot of money. I will show you how to obtain all the information you need and pay very little for it. You also don’t need to buy database packages such as Family Tree Maker.
Scottish Ancestral Research – Step 1
Start by talking to your living relatives. Get some stories you can include in your research. Ask them if they have some family pictures. I was fortunate as my mother was a bit of a hoarder. She kept a lot of photographs of my grandmother, grandfather, great grandfather, great grandmother and other family members. Wedding photos and family get togethers are a good start. I also found that older family members were keen to pass on photos they had kept in a box not knowing what to do with them.
Armed with a few photos I signed up for an account on Scotland’s People. This site has all the national records of Scotland including parish records dating back to the 18th Century. There is a charge for using this site but you only pay for the records you view. The site also has a facility to store the records you have viewed so you don’t have to print off if you don’t want to.
For more details on Scotland’s People, records you can access and how to use the site click this link.
Alternatively you can book a seat for a day at the Dundas Search Room in the National Records Office located at the east end of Princes Street. You can access as many records on Scotland’s People you like for a charge of £15. I would recommend this as you can spend a lot of money online accessing records, only to find that they are not the records you are looking for.
Scottish Ancestral Research – Step 2
After signing up for an account on Scotland’s People look for other places where you are likely to find more information. I found the National Library of Scotland a great source of information and the staff there were only too happy to be of help. With your card and membership number you can get access to books which have been digitised as well as paid sites such as Find my Past for free. You can also get access to the British Newspaper Achive which has back copies of all UK newspapers.
I also signed up for membership of the Edinburgh Central Library which is directly across the road from the National Library and got access to the Ancestry site for free.
The National Library of Scotland has a section on the front page of their website entitled Family History. You can access this by clicking this link
On the upper level of Victoria Street tucked in at the bottom is the Scottish Genealogy Society Library. For £20 a year you can get membership giviing you access to other paid sites. There are lots of reference books, journals as well as a microfiche. All the staff are volunteers and are happy to help you with your research. For more information click this link which will take you to their web site
Scottish Genealogy Society
The society library is not exactly easy to find. It is tucked away at the bottom of Victoria Street upper level. It can also be accessed down a flight of steps from Johnson Terrace.
Many of my relatives were born in Fife. I joined Fife Family History Society. Cost of membership annually is £10. This gives you access to their website and databases. I found this invaluable as they put me in touch with a member who was able to provide me with lots of information about my Great Great Great Grandfather John McNaughton
Scottish Ancestral Research – Step 3
Most of my research was stored in folders. I was looking for a site online that provided me with the ability to construct a family tree. I also wanted to share my research with other family members. I would recommend Family Search.Owned and run by the Mormon Church and it’s free for anyone to use. You may even find that someone else has been conducting similar research and you can share your findings.
However Family Search is not always accurate. You should always try to find two matching pieces of information to ensure you have the right family member.
Parish Records and Old Military Records
The further back you go the research becomes more challenging. Records become difficult to read and the information you can get from them is minimal. Parish records are dependent on the local minister of the parish recording births deaths and marriages. At the end of the 1700’s a tax was introduced for each family registering the birth of a child. The result was that poorer families didn’t register the birth as they couldn’t afford to pay the tax.
I found one of my relatives, my Great Great Great Grandfather John McNaughton had joined the army and despite not being able to trace his birth through parish records I was able to find out through looking at his army records. I found he was born in 1782 in Cupar Fife. Although the person who had written the record spelt Cupar as Coupar. I found he was a Private in the Fife Militia and then joined the regular army in the 74th Regiment of Foot. I found from Old Parish Records that John married Elizabeth Crichton in Cupar Old Parish Church in 1808.
Shortly after the wedding the regiment left Fife for Ireland. John took Elizabeth with him. With the help of Fife Family History Society and the National Library on Edinburgh’s South Bridge I was able to track the regiment all the way from Cupar, to Ireland and on by troop ship to Lisbon Portugal. I found from the census records of 1851 that my Great Great Grandfather Alexander McNaughton was born in Lisbon Portugal.
The National Records Office Kew
In order to find out more about John McNaughton and his time in Portugal I had to visit and join the National Archives based in Kew West London. Although you can get some information by signing in and downloading online, the information I was looking for had not been digitised. This involved a train journey to London and tube to Kew. In order to get the most out of your day at Kew you have to research and be clear about what you want to view. You are required to place an online order for all material and books you want to view. If you don’t follow this procedure your appointment will be cancelled.
I made the mistake of ordering too much and not having enough time to read it all. I found sadly, that John had died of his wounds and his pay was paid to his widow and baby son Alexander McNaughton born 1810 in Lisbon Portugal (my Great Great Grandfather).
Elizabeth must have returned from Portugal with her son as I found his marriage record in the Parish of Cults near Cupar in 1841. Sadly to date I have not found anything more about Elizabeth.
British Army Records
Up until April of 2023 if you wanted to view your ancestor’s army records you had to write to the Ministry of Defence based in Glasgow. This would have cost you £40. However from April 2023 you can view these records for free.
Other sources of information are regimental museums. If you know the regiment your ancestor was a member of, it may be worth writing to ask if they have any information.The museums are usually staffed by volunteers.There is a limit as to what they can do for you. They also require you to make a donation before they do any research. You may find you make a donation and get nothing in return. In my case not even a reply!
Sometimes just a simple Google Search can provide the information you are looking for. I found that my Great Great Great Grandfather John McNaughton had died in the regimental hospital. I couldn’t find from the records in Kew where the hospital was located. A simple search on google came up with a website for the British Military Cemetary in Elvas Portugal. There was an email address for the Friends of the British Military Cemetry. I fired off an email with my question. I also attached a short extract from my research.Within an hour I had the answer I was looking for.
Finding the graves of your ancestors
If you know where your ancestors are buried you may want to visit the grave. Finding gravestones can be difficult particularly if your family had very little money. The chances are like mine, they were buried in unmarked graves.
The vast majority of graveyards in Scotland are managed by the local authority. They may be able to find a grave for you by consulting graveyard plans. There is a site called Find a Grave.com. I have had limited success with this. Fife Bereavement Services helped me trace a relative buried in an unmarked grave in the churchyard at Dunino.
Scottish Ancestral Research – Other sites you may find useful
The Forces War Records. This is a paid site costing £8 per month
Find my Past. Subscription based but can be accessed for free through your membership of the National Library of Scotland
My Heritage.com subscription based site
Family Search Free site funded by the Mormon Church
Ancestry.com subscription based site but can be accessed for free from your local library
Scottish Genealogy Society Victoria Street (Upper Level) Edinburgh annual subscription £20
Fife Family History Society annual subscription £10
Please be aware that if you use subscription based sites to store your research you are passing all your hard work on to them. They all provide family tree templates, with the ability to upload and store your family photos but this comes at a cost. If you want to share your research with family members, they also have to sign up to these subscription based sites.
Legally these sites become the owners of your research. That is why I would recommend Family Search, it is free.
If you are visiting Edinburgh and want to see more of the city why not try one of our Free Walking Tours. Just click all the links below
Edinburgh Walk for First Time Visitors city centre walk which takes you to some of the historical sites in the city centre.
Edinburgh Old Town and Arthurs Seat a walk round the old town ending with a spectacular view from the top of Arthurs Seat
Edinburgh New Town Walk an easy walk down the Water of Leith to Stockbridge and back through the the Georgian New Town
I hope you have found the tips and suggestions in this blog helpful and you have as much fun as I did researching your Scottish Ancestors.