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Tartan Ferret

Getting Down to it!

 (Digging up your Scottish Roots)

by Tony Reid

Tony Reid is a partner in Scottish Roots, the ancestral research organisation.
Scottish Roots, 16 Forth Street, Edinburgh, EH1 3LH

Everybody has roots, irrespective of whether you're descended from a humble farm labourer or a member of the aristocracy.  Digging them up has become, arguably, the fastest growing leisure activity in the Western World.  It is not altogether clear why this should be, although increased leisure time and improved research facilities are contributory factors.  There is perhaps a more subtle reason.  As life becomes ever more hectic and reliant on machines and computers, so people increasingly strive to discover their 'identity'.  There is a school of thought that knowledge of one's forebears represents a significant part of one's identity. 

The term ancestral research embraces the two related topics of genealogy and family history.  The former is all about finding out who your ancestors were, whereas the latter relates to what sort of people they were and what kind of lives they lived.  A genealogical search is the essential first step, as this enables a basic framework to be established.

Although in Scotland we have the benefit of really excellent archival resources, there are some steps which should first be undertaken before jumping in at the deep end.  For example, collect together all the birth, marriage and death certificates in your possession. You will need a precise name, date and place of birth in Scotland before you can begin. Note the main details and start a rough family tree.  Supplement this from memory in terms of long-lost uncles and aunts, etc.  Look for other snippets from diaries, photographs, inscriptions, family bibles, etc.  Broadcast your interest to other members of the family who will doubtless be able to tell you things that you would never get from an archival source!

It is not a good idea to attempt too many lines at the same time.  Although most people tend to concentrate on the male line, it is just as easy to follow the female side and of course in this case the data found would be more reliable.  The name of the 'father' given on a birth certificate should sometimes be treated with scepticism, and remember, DNA testing wasn't available in those days! 
Also, don't be put off by people who boast about getting their line back to the time of Robert the Bruce - there were very few records in those days.  (One is doing pretty well to get back to c.1770s using Scottish records.)  It is more important to appreciate the detail picked along the way, such as occupations, addresses, etc.

Having produced a family tree, the way is clear to make a start on the never-ending task of researching the history. But be warned, once you experience the thrill of the chase it can take over your social life!  Space does not allow for a description of all the various sources that can provide the basis of a family history.  To give just a few examples: arrange to get copies of old large-scale maps to enable you to pinpoint where the families lived; use the appropriate library to see if the local newspapers have carried obituaries of any members of the family; Kirk Session papers can provide all sorts of insights into family life, including of course castigations aimed at those who gave birth out of wedlock.  If you have an enquiring mind, you will inevitably soon find yourself asking about the economic and social conditions of the time to help you to put your forebears into some sort of context.

You are now ready to trace your family tree.  There are three main ways of doing this. 

1. New Register House, Edinburgh, EH1 3YT (Scotland's People Centre)

This is the main record office in Edinburgh, and an all day ticket costs £15.  This building houses millions of documents, primarily all Statutory birth/marriage/death certificates (1855 onwards), Census Returns (1841-1911) and Parish Registers (pre-1855).  However, this may be a little daunting for beginners, though there are members of staff who will show you the ropes. It is advisable to make a reservation as it can get busy: 0131 314 4300. Try to avoid holiday periods when the limited space is quickly taken up by hordes of overseas visitors desperate to discover details of their Scottish ancestry!

2. www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

This is the official pay-per-view website, providing a searchable index up to the present day, and images of Statutory birth certificates from 1855 to 1911, marriages 1855- 1936  and death 1855-1961.  Census returns are also available online (up to 1911), as are the pre-1855  Old Parish Registers.   For a fee of £7 the user is entitled to 30 page "credits". Again this may be quite daunting (and costly) to the uninitiated, especially when using up a lot of "credits" when searching a widespread name such as Smith, Wilson, etc.

3. Professional researchers

Although fees may seem costly in comparison to the above, you will probably save money in the long run.  You will also be assured that a professional researcher should do the whole job properly, without barking up the wring family tree! Expect to pay around £200 for a good researcher, and try and use one with at least 15 years experience of using the records at New Register House. 
Scottish Roots Ancestral Research Service have been tracing family trees for almost 30 years - longer than any other research company.  They charge £225 for a Standard Search and can be contacted at:

Scottish Roots, 16 Forth Street, Edinburgh, EH1 3LH  (0131-4778214)

Ancestral research really is great fun.  Good hunting!

© Scottish Tartans Authority
Scottish Tartans Authority (Scottish limited company no. 162386), c/o J & H Mitchell, 51 Atholl Road, Pitlochry, PH16 5BU
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