Be the Detective Find your ancestors and discover their story

Tracing your family tree is like being a detective!

You have to follow the clues until you find your ancestors. Experience the thrill of walking in your ancestors' footprints and the joy of piecing the family jigsaw together.
To get started, talk to your family and gather together what you already know. Often someone in the family will have old family documents or photographs that will help you get started. Take photos with your phone so you can easily look at them again.
Search the house for old photos, letters and certificates.

Follow all the clues. What clues do you see on this postcard?

The postcard has a date, so we know where Mrs. Grieve was in 1938. We also know she was still alive, so when we look for a death we should be looking after 1938.

Talk to the family

If your relative agrees it can be useful to record conversations, especially with the older generation. They may have met the people you are researching so their memories can be excellent clues. You'll find that even when older people are struggling to remember day-to-day things, they can have a sharp memory of the past. Recording the conversation means that you can go back to it over and over again.
When you are talking to relatives make sure to get the photo album out. Photographs will help bring back memories.

Take good notes and start creating a family tree

It helps to draw out a family tree of what you know at this stage. Sometimes you will know something for sure, and other times you will think that you know something but you will not be sure.

For example, let’s say you have the birth certificate of your granny, you will now know when she was born. If your granny tells you that she thinks her mum was 25 when she was born, this could be right, but until you get a document to prove it mark this information as ‘think’ not ‘know’. You could try using a different coloured pen to show what you 'know' and what you 'think'.

A page from a Scottish 1891 birth register.

Scottish birth certificates give you the date and place of the child’s parents’ marriage. A marriage certificate will name the parents of the bride and groom. Death certificates also name a person's parents so with just a few documents you will start to build up a picture of your family history.

This photo shows the volumes of Scottish birth, marriage and death records. The original records are held by the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh. All birth, marriage and deaths records have been digitised so they are easy to access.
All you need to do is follow the breadcrumbs and before you know it you will have a basic family tree.

The census is an invaluable tool

Taken every year 10 years, the census is a snapshot of every household in Scotland on the night of the census. Showing families together, and giving ages and birthplaces, these records will help you find your ancestors.

The first census where records of individuals were intended to be kept was that of 1841. Before that the census was taken, but usually only statistical information survives. You can look at Scottish census records from 1841 to 1911.

As the years went on the census becomes more and more detailed. This 1911 census tells you how long women have been married, how many children they have had and how many are still alive.

At first, you will be building the structure of your family tree but as you look at more records you will be able to find out more about your family. Look closely at the census above and you will see how many people were living in each house and how many rooms each house had. How many of your ancestors squeezed into one room?

Scottish census records are closed for 100 years to protect people’s privacy. Civil registration (birth, marriage and death certificates) began in Scotland in 1855 and these records are remarkably complete. More recent records are not online but you can access them if you need them.

www.scottishindexes.com has a selection of Scottish census records available online which are free to search. Transcriptions of the 1841 to 1901 census records are available on subscription websites such as www.ancestry.co.uk and www.findmypast.co.uk. Your local library will probably have the library subscription to one or both of these websites.

The images of the birth, marriage and census records are available through the government website www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk, this is a ‘pay-per-view’ website.

As well as the census records, ScotlandsPeople have images of the birth, marriage and death records from 1855. You will need these records to trace your family history.

The ScotlandsPeople Centre is part of the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh.

As ScotlandsPeople credits can quickly mount up if you are searching online, it can be better to visit the ScotlandsPeople centre or one of their satellite locations around Scotland. The fee is £15 per day, and you can look at as many birth, marriage, death and census records as you need. Copies can be printed, but there is a fee for this. The main ScotlandsPeople centre is in Edinburgh but you can also access the same system in the following locations:

  • Burns Monument Centre in Kilmarnock
  • Clackmannanshire Family History Centre in Alloa
  • Heritage Hub in Hawick
  • Highland Archive Service Family History Centre in Inverness
  • Family History at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow
As you build your family tree you will start to need a greater variety of records. Newspapers, pre-1855 church records, court records, property records, poor relief records and school records are all very useful (to name just a few).

While searching in court records we have found love letters!

It's worth the search!

As you keep researching you will keep finding more. You will understand your ancestors more than ever and perhaps understand how their life has impacted on yours.

Want to learn more about researching your Scottish family history? Here are some useful links.

Grateful thanks to the National Records of Scotland for allowing us to reproduce images of their records. Shown above is a page from High Court records (JC26/1843/214), a love letter found in the Sheriff Court records (SC62/10/390) and a page from asylum records (MC2/3). Also shown are records from www.scotlandspeople.com.

Created By
Emma Maxwell


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