Great Scot!

By Linda Jones and Paul Milner Premium

Kilt-clad Highlanders have long held our attention when it comes to imagining Scottish culture. Alas, most actual Scottish immigrants to these shores were less colorful Lowland Scots. But Lowlander, Highlander or Scots-Irish, they came in droves: Between 1820 and World War I, more than 2 million Scots immigrated to North America, comparable to Ireland and Norway in percentage of the country’s population that emigrated.

A few at the top of the economic ladder came to North America just as their poorer countrymen did, but most immigrants left Scotland for economic reasons. A few left for religious reasons, such as Scottish Quakers who left in the 1680s to avoid persecution. These Quakers came to east New Jersey and the Delaware Valley. At the same time, a group of Scottish Presbyterians tried to establish a Presbyterian colony in South Carolina. Sometimes there were both religious and economic motives. Furthermore, some of your immigrant ancestors did not come by choice: Many Scots came as prisoners under Oliver Cromwell, or as a result of the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745. Sometimes Scottish prisons were cleared and convicts shipped to the American colonies. Occasionally women and children were even kidnapped to serve as colonial laborers.


Some Scots in the British Army chose to stay in the Mohawk Valley area as landowners rather than return to Scotland following the French and Indian War. They later brought their families from Scotland. Whatever the reason for leaving Scotland, all immigrants left the only lives they had known and came to their new countries with hope for a brighter future.

As with many other ethnicities and nationalities, it often is easier to trace your ancestors from outside Scotland than it is from within it. Scottish record repositories are scattered. Thanks to microfilmed records and indexes available on CD-ROM, online and through the Family History Library <>, it’s easier than it was even a few months ago to research your Scottish ancestors from home.


In the excitement of discovering their possible Scottish ancestry, many family historians have made the mistake of finding someone by the same name in Scotland and assuming they’ve found their ancestors. Even worse, they may assume that because their ancestors had a surname associated with a particular clan, they were members of that clan. Don’t make the same mistake! Find out as much as you can about your ancestors in the records of the area in which they settled. Were they Scots-Irish? Highland Scots? These people came from different places, had different attitudes and settled in different areas of America.

It’s helpful to know your ancestor’s full name; precise place of origin; dates of birth, marriage and death; parents’, spouse’s and children’s names; date of immigration; occupation; religion; and names of cousins, friends and associates. Of course, you don’t have to know all of this before tracing your Scottish heritage, but the more information you have, the easier it will be to identify your ancestor in Scottish records.

Start by looking for information you or other family members may have in your homes. Ask your aunts, uncles, cousins, even family friends. Some of your ancestors may have left diaries or told their stories to their children. Search for diaries, letters, photos and family Bibles, as well as personal items such as tools, clothing and sewing implements. The more you can find, the more you’ll know about your ancestors’ lives.


Once you’ve examined home sources, look for documents from the area where your ancestor settled. Always begin by researching the end of a relative’s life. Look for family histories and local histories published after death that may contain details about your relative and the community. You may be able to find additional information online. Some people have entire Web sites devoted to a particular family. Others post queries about families they are researching. Be sure to verify the accuracy of any information you find online by getting documentation from the provider. Always be wary of online sources until you can verify them in original records.


After contacting relatives, searching online and looking through books, you’re ready for the most exciting part of family history: finding the original records. Often, the most revealing records are those written after your ancestor’s death. Start first with probate records (wills, inventories of estates, etc.), then look for obituaries. Different types of newspapers will publish separate obituaries — your relative may by mentioned in church, ethnic, society or town newspapers. When looking for documents about your ancestor, look for the same documents for your relative’s spouse and each of child, brother and sister. Search for passenger lists, court records, baptism and marriage records, military records and death records. Each will tell you more about your ancestor and your ancestor’s hometown.

A crucial piece of the puzzle in immigrant research is determining when your ancestor left Scotland. The best source for this is William Filby and Mary K. Meyer’s Passenger and Immigration Lists Index: A Guide to Published Arrival Records of About 500,000 Passengers Who Came to the United States and Canada in the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. This series of books, which you can find in libraries with genealogy sections, indexes all records that allude to immigrant status — census records, land records and naturalization records, to name a few.


Scotland is a country of its own, but it is also part of Great Britain, the United Kingdom and the British Isles. For North Americans, these names can be confusing. Great Britain was formed in 1707 from the Kingdom of England and Wales and the Kingdom of Scotland. In 1801, Ireland united politically with Great Britain to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. When most of Ireland separated from the United Kingdom in 1921, the full name became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The term Great Britain thus refers only to England, Wales and Scotland, whereas the United Kingdom includes England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Traditionally, British Isles describes the two major islands of Great Britain and Ireland (both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland), plus the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and the other islands surrounding the coast.

Until recently, all countries of the United Kingdom were controlled by a single parliament based in London. In July 1999, Queen Elizabeth II opened a new Scottish parliament, which now has legislative power over domestic issues. The government in London retains control over defense, foreign affairs and macroeconomic policy. The Isle of Man and the Channel Islands are dependencies of the British Crown but have their own parliaments.


For many of Scottish heritage, the desire to learn of “their” clan and tartan sparks an interest in tracing their ancestors. But much of what’s written in the popular media about Scottish clans and tartans is pure romantic fantasy. Businessmen hoping to profit from the sale of clan tartans and kilts exploited the image of the Scottish Highlander created by Sir Walter Scott and other romantic writers of the early 19th century.

Today, clan societies are a valuable key to learning the true history of a particular clan. These societies are widespread in North America, and most have at least one genealogist who researches the clan name and allied names associated with the clan name. Contacting the clan genealogist may provide you with clues to follow as you document your family tree. The Highlander magazine <> publishes the most complete directory of clan society contact information each year in its April issue.


For family historians interested in the Scottish part of Great Britain, the good news is that Scottish indexes are among the best in the world. Many background materials are easily available over the Internet or by loan through a public library. Your three main sources will be:

• the Internet

• local public, private and university libraries

• Family History Centers.

Records in Scotland are different from those in North America. Some, such as census records, have similarities, but the specifics vary. Scottish geography is different; customs are different; names are different; and the language is different. Even when English is used, some words have different meanings! As you research more in Scottish records, you may begin to understand those mysterious ancestors, their funny sayings and their very different lifestyles.

Birth, marriage and death records: Most early Scottish records were created by either the national government or the Church of Scotland’s parishes. The government created census records and probate records and since 1855 has kept birth, marriage and death records in a system called “civil registration.” These records can be timesavers, especially when you don’t know where your ancestor lived. The civil registration records are indexed for all of Scotland and stored at the General Register Office in Edinburgh. More than 90 percent of all births since 1855 have been registered, and that percentage is even higher for marriages and deaths.

Post-1854 birth, marriage and death indexes for Scotland are available in more than one format. The most easily accessible indexes are on the Scots Origins Web site <>, but this option is also the most expensive (see previous page). Most births and marriages from 1855 to 1875 are indexed in the International Genealogical Index, accessible at <>. For deaths after 1855 or births and marriages after 1875, the indexes you probably will use most are available on microfilm.

To use civil registration indexes, you need to know the name of your ancestor and the approximate year of the event. If your ancestor’s name was common, you’ll also need to know the parish or district where the event occurred. Be sure to have a gazetteer or list of parishes and counties before using the indexes on microfilm or at the Scots Origins Web site.

Census records: Scotland conducted its first census in 1801 to determine the number of men available for the Napoleonic Wars. It has taken a census every 10 years since then, except for 1941. The 1801 through 1831 censuses rarely gathered information about individuals. The first genealogically significant census came in 1841. This and subsequent censuses theoretically contain the names of everyone in the country. If you had ancestors born in Scotland in 1770 or later, search for them or their relatives in the census returns from 1841 on. The 1851 and later censuses include the exact age and place of birth for each household member as reported to the enumerator.

Because census schedules list only those people actually present on census night, it’s common to find incomplete families in the records. If household members were working on census night but would return in the morning, they were included in that household’s tally. Don’t assume that a family member was deceased by a given year because he isn’t enumerated with his family. The person may have been enumerated elsewhere. Those whose work required travel, such as soldiers or sailors, are likely listed in a place other than family residence.


Scottish first names typically follow a traditional pattern, which may offer clues to your ancestral puzzles. This naming pattern is a potential guide but not a hard-and-fast rule:

Child Given the name of

1st son = father’s father

2nd son = mother’s father

3rd son = father

4th son = father’s brother

1st daughter = mother’s mother

2nd daughter = father’s mother

3rd daughter = mother

4th daughter = mother’s sister

Church Records: a Tumultuous Past

Church records are the most important resource for tracing your Scottish family tree. In Scotland, government and religion were intimately intertwined. The Church of Scotland became Protestant in 1560, and for the next 130 years, church leadership alternated between Episcopalians, whose bishops appointed their ministers, and the more egalitarian Presbyterians. In 1690, the Presbyterian Church became the Established Church of Scotland, prompting a flurry of breakaways and mergers that blur the easy classification of church records. Your ancestor may have been Presbyterian, but because of this history, you may not find him in the major Scottish church record indexes. Or he may have belonged to one of Scotland’s smaller religious groups.

One major effect of this turbulent history is that many Scottish families at some time or another had connections with “nonconformist” groups. This means that not all family baptisms may appear within one church register. A register may show gaps, as some children were baptized elsewhere. Marriage records may not be where you expect to find them. Nonconformist burials may not have been recorded at all.

To use church records, a knowledge of local history is essential. A parish history, for example, might tell you how your ancestor lived, what he did for a living, what the predominant religions were and when diseases were rampant. You can waste a lot of time searching in surrounding areas when a parish history may provide the answers you need. You can find a short history of your ancestor’s parish in the Statistical Accounts of Scotland <>, but a more extensive history of the parish or county may also exist in print sources.

Before the Scottish government began civil registration in 1855, baptism, marriage and burial records were recorded by Scottish churches. The Scottish Church Records index on CD includes all pre-1855 baptisms and marriages from parish registers of the Church of Scotland. It also includes some nonconformist baptisms and marriages. You can search the Scottish Church Records CD for free at your local Family History Center (find the center nearest you at <Error! Hyperlink reference not valid.>). You can search the same information for a fee on the Scots Origins Web site. Most of the names are also in the International Genealogical Index, which you can access for free through the FamilySearch Web site <>.


Depending on the location and era you’re researching, you may run into language barriers. There are four major languages to consider: English, Gaelic, Scots and Latin. English is the most common, but in the Scottish Highlands, people would have spoken Gaelic. Outside of the Highlands, you might encounter the Scots language in one or more of its dialects.

One of the most common problems in researching Gaelic-speaking ancestors is recognizing names and places. For example, if your immigrant ancestor said his name to an English-speaking person, did he give his Gaelic name (Hamish) or its English equivalent {James)} If he had a Gaelic accent, an English-speaking listener probably had difficulty understanding his name or birthplace. An English-speaking clerk or census taker would record what he heard and spell it phonetically. The result might be unrecognizable to the subject of the record. The pronunciation of even well-known Scottish place names can blow your mind. The county Kirkcudbright, for example, is pronounced “Kirk-coo-bree.”

You also will find Latin in Scottish documents. The Scottish Services of Heirs up to 1847 are in Latin (except for 1652 to 1659), and even the indexes are in Latin until 1700. Latin terms sometimes appear in documents normally written in English, especially if the writer wanted to highlight a part of the document. You may also find Latin on tombstones.

Even English names can be a major stumbling block in Scottish research. Names seemingly bearing no resemblance to each other can actually refer to the same person, such as Alexander and Sandy; Peter and Patrick; Elizabeth and Isobel; and Agnes, Ann and Nancy. To compound the problem, your ancestor’s name may be written in English, Gaelic (especially in the Highlands) or Latin (often in land and probate records).


The information you gather leads to a wonderful benefit for you. Having found the town or village of your ancestors, you’re ready to walk in your ancestors’ footsteps. Visiting their Scottish homeland will give you a glimpse into their lives. Scotland is a wonderful place to visit. It is one of the easiest countries for Americans to access.

One reason is the Book a Bed Ahead program from the Scottish Tourist Board <>. Simply book your first two nights and last two nights from your home. Once in Scotland, you can use the Book a Bed Ahead program through the local Tourist Information Center (TIC) to schedule your next night’s lodging for wherever you wish to go. This allows you great flexibility and costs just 3 pounds per booking. Purchase a BritRail Pass <> before you leave for Scotland. (You cannot buy one there.) The pass allows you unlimited train access not only to Scotland but also to England and Wales. Even if you take a train, you may often take a bus to your ancestors’ village.

Schedule a trip to your ancestors’ village at the beginning of your vacation, not at the end. That way if you find a wealth of information, you can plan an extra day or two there and skip some other sightseeing.

Tracing your Scottish ancestry can be exciting, challenging and fun. Share this joy with your family, and preserve the stories of your ancestors so that their lives — and your heritage — won’t be forgotten. You, your family and researchers for many generations to come will be glad you did.

For more help discovering your family history in Scotland, see Family Tree Magazine’s Scottish Genealogy Guide Digital Download or the Family Archive CD, Scottish Immigrants to North America, 1600s-1800s: The Collected Works of David Dobson, both available from Family Tree Shop.
From the June 2002 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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