Now What?: Searching for Scots

By Diane Haddad Premium

Q. I’m having trouble tracing some Scottish ancestors. I have my great grandmother’s first and maiden last name and her father’s name, but there are so many similar Scottish names, I can’t be sure I’ve found the correct family. They were from the Aberdeen area. I’ve located my grandmother’s birth certificate but that’s about all I can find.

A. Because Scottish records are organized by place, you’ll need to understand the country’s modern and historical administrative divisions to know where to look for your family, and to help make sure you’re looking for the right family.


The key jurisdiction to know is the family’s parish. Before civil registration began in 1855, churches recorded vital events in parish registers. Even after that, the civil registration districts in rural areas generally coincided with those of the parishes.

Is that information on your great-grandmother’s birth record?  US sources such as passenger lists, naturalization records and obituaries may be helpful.

The Family History Library (FHL) has many Scottish birth, death, marriage, land, census, probate and military records on microfilm, which you can rent for viewing at your local Family History Center (find locations using our directory).

To find records you need, Family Tree Magazine contributing editor Nancy Hendrickson recommends using FamilySearch’s Research Guidance for Scotland. “Choose a record type—birth, marriage or death—and time period,” she says, “and you’ll get search strategies and links to FHL holdings.”

Also try searching the FHL online catalog. Start with a place search on the town or parish, then click the subject heading for the records you want. Run keyword searches of the catalog on places and ancestral names, too.

ScotlandsPeople is a government source for genealogical data from records including civil registrations, old parish registers (documenting births, baptisms and marriages from the mid-1500s until 1854), census records (every 10 years since 1841; 1901 is the most recent census available), and wills and testaments covering 1513 to 1901. You’ll have to pay to access most of the content, except for the free wills and testaments search.

Also see the records guides on the National Archives of Scotland website for information on accessing Scottish government, business, landed estate, court , and other records.

Resources from Family Tree Magazine:

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