The Quick Start Guide to Researching Scottish Genealogy

by Keith Savage · 7 comments


The General Register House, Edinburgh, Scotland

Here’s an interesting factoid: Americans of Scottish descent outnumber the current population of Scotland. Then there’s Canada, that, with the exception of Quebec, could pass as a giant Scottish colony. New Zealand is rife with Scottish place names and descendants. Dunedin? That’s just another name for Edinburgh. Over the last several hundred years, Scotsmen have been victims of a curious nature and a series of unfortunate historical events that have sent them emigrating across the globe.

Then again, maybe they just wanted to escape the weather.

Ultimately, it means there’s a lot of us that will find some guy wearing a plaid skirt in old family photos when we take a moment and research our past. My father’s side of the family have Scots and (we think) Scots-Irish ancestry, but most of our history has been lost in the mists of time. All we have are bits of names, regiments, myths of lost ancestral swords: Stewart, MacKenzie, Seaforth Highlanders, Arbroath, Black Isle.

It’s funny. The Irish came to America and rebuilt the old world wherever they settled; the Scots came to America and embraced the new world. Over the generations the gap between the old and the new worlds has widened, and this has, in turn, fueled a renewed interest in piecing together the bits of this “lost” Scottish ancestry. It’s one of the primary motivators for anyone visiting Scotland.

For two weeks now I’ve been in Edinburgh, the epicenter of Scottish heritage research, and I’ve got some tips to share with anyone interested in researching their own Scottish lineage.

Step 1: Talk to Family

This might seem obvious, but the first step is to jot down as many names in your family tree as possible. If you’re lucky, another family member might have already undertaken some genealogical research from which you can start. If not, talk to grandma and grandpa and try to get your great-grandparents’ names at the very least.

Step 2: Use Ancestry.com

Once you’ve got some names, head over to Ancestry.com and use the 14-day free trial. They do a lot of television advertising and for good reason – their databases are chock full of information and it took me less than two hours to flesh out huge chunks of my past starting from the names my family provided.

It’s highly addicting, so don’t start doing this late at night when you’ve got an early appointment the next day. One caveat: it’s difficult to ensure the veracity of the familial links on Ancestry.com. In many cases, you’re adding people to your tree that exist in another user’s family tree and merely borrowing their work. Who knows how many times that work has been borrowed. Nevertheless, I feel the data is generally accurate if you’re discerning about when to incorporate it in your tree.

Step 3: Visit the General Register House

You probably ran into some dead ends during your Ancestry.com research. The best place to fill in these gaps is Edinburgh’s General Register House on Princes Street. They do charge a fee to use their facilities, but twice each day they offer “taster” sessions that equate to two hours of free research. I found it to be more than enough time. Make sure you check on the times of these taster sessions and arrive armed with your Ancestry.com research. The General Register House contains all of the statutory records (births, marriages, deaths) from 1855 until the present day, but you can only look up information older than 75 years due to privacy laws.

Another more expensive option is to use the Scotland’s People Web site, which contains all of the records available in the General Register House. If a trip to Scotland is not in your future then this is your best bet. But be warned, they’ll make you pay. For any links older than 1855 you’ll need to proceed to step four…

Step 4: Visit the Family Heritage Center of the Scottish Genealogical Society

Tucked away on the side of Edinburgh’s Upper Bow hides the Scottish Genealogical Society’s Family Heritage Center. This small stone dungeon is packed to the gills with filing cabinets, registers, microfiche, film spools, case after case of books, and elderly volunteers. Non-members can purchase a day pass for £7 or a half-day pass for £4. I used the half-day pass and found it to be just the right amount of time. Be sure to ask one of the volunteers for the lay of the land and the general workflow.

This ancestral outpost contains Scotland’s parish records, which were replaced in 1855 with the statutory records now held in the General Register House. The age of the parish records varies by – you guessed it – parish. I noticed some that went back to the 1500s and others that started in the 1700s. Nonetheless, I was able to verify many of the questionable dates in my tree stemming from Ancestry.com.

Step 5: Return to Ancestry.com

Hopefully at this point you’ve identified a bunch of rich uncles. Go stop at the nearby Bow Bar and have a victory dram. Then add your new finds into your family tree on Ancestry.com. This important step could open new branches and keep the cycle going.

Bonus Tips

One of the kindly volunteers at the Family Heritage Center recommended that I visit The National Archives of Scotland if I still couldn’t find information about my family. This building is located just behind the General Register House and apparently houses unique records.

If you’ve identified familial clans, search for the clan Web site. Many clans maintain detailed knowledge banks online and will gladly take your money in exchange for tartans, mugs, keychains, and genealogical tables. Just a thought.

I hope you’ve found this quick start guide helpful. Following these steps I found that my father’s side of the family is descended from the MacKenzie clan chiefs of more than 500 years ago!

P.S.: It’s not a skirt; it’s a kilt. And it’s not plaid; it’s tartan.


Ray S.No Gravatar March 25, 2014 at 7:45 PM

My wife found your site tonight. I will be posting my tourism questions on the guide to Scotland page, but I saw this and wanted to offer a tip: Familysearch.org is also great for research. Avoid the family tree pages, and focus your search in the real databases. They’ve indexed many, many parish records, and while the documents are neither completely transcribed, nor available as images, they make a great, and free, finding aid to the ScotlandsPeople site, and probably to the material records, for those who get to Scotland. There are also some great sites which index and even photograph war memorials/soldiers’ gravestones, and old kirkyards, both of which can be great resources.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 26, 2014 at 9:06 AM

Great tip! Thanks Ray!

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Bluegreen KirkNo Gravatar March 17, 2011 at 1:23 PM

Nice tips you never really know how many people you are actually related too until you start searching. I know i have relatives all over the world and know so few of them.

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KenNo Gravatar March 16, 2011 at 9:21 PM

The clearances may have had something to do with the Scottish diaspora, as I’ve heard it referred to.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 18, 2011 at 11:05 AM

I guess we’ve got sheep to thank 🙂

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Pam MacNaughtanNo Gravatar March 16, 2011 at 5:01 PM

Good tips, Keith. I also recommend the local libraries. My Dad’s family is from Scotland and when I went back in 1998, I had very little info with me. I visited a couple of libraries (as the Registry House cost money to enter). I spent a few hours flipping through Postal Code books and found over 10 years of personal and business addresses that were helpful in other areas of my research. PLUS the public library is FREE 😉

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 16, 2011 at 5:08 PM

Good tip, Pam. For clarity’s sake, beside the cost of photocopying and printing relevant documents, the horde of information I found following this series of steps cost me all of £4.

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