Finding your Scottish ancestors

Records and sources of information for researching family history and ancestry in Scotland


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Do you have Scots ancestry? Combine the results of ancestral research with general information about life in Scotland in times past to discover a full and fascinating picture of your Scottish ancestors' lives.

It's quite straightforward to find information about the ancestry of anyone who lived in Scotland after 1855, when the state began to keep detailed records of all births, marriages and deaths.

Before that, there were population censuses in 1841 and 1851. Another useful source for the 19th century is the monumental inscriptions in churchyards and cemeteries.

By combining these sources, it's usually possible to discover the names of at least some ancestors back to about 1780, or perhaps even 1750, together with details such as where they lived in Scotland, their occupations and the size of their families.

To get further back than about 1750, or to get as far back starting from information relating to, say, 1820, requires a certain amount of luck in addition to careful searching. The main sources for this earlier period are the old parish registers of baptisms, marriages and, less often, burials kept by the Church of Scotland in the individual parishes of Scotland - there are 33 Scottish counties and over 900 parishes. There are some records of a similar nature for other protestant churches and for the catholic church.

Most people in Scotland until about 100 years ago worked as farm servants. They had few possessions and, at least as individuals, their lives have left few traces. There is more to be found about the tenant farmers who employed them and about the merchants and craftsmen who lived in the towns. Farmers' testaments, for example, can provide details of the crops they grew, the animals they kept and the rent they paid for their land, while those of merchants reveal details of the goods they dealt in, the people with whom they traded and their financial position. (Note that few early testaments include the deceased person's will.)

In the towns, boys were taken on by merchants or craftsmen as apprentices. When they had learned their trade, they might be admitted as burgesses of the town and to membership of trade and merchant guilds. For some of the Scottish burghs, there are apprentice rolls and burgess rolls.

Registers of land transactions and of heirs to property provide information about the small percentage of the population who were well-to-do. In many country parishes, the only person of any standing was the parish minister.

It is rather unusual, though particularly pleasing, to find details about the characters of individual ancestors. Apart from the small number of Scots whose lives are well documented, character is most likely to emerge where people came into conflict with the law or engaged in disputes with their neighbours, but the records of criminal cases and of civil cases that contain such information are not among the most easily searched, so that some definite details would usually be required before investigating them.

If you are just starting out, please see this beginners' guide.


I do not respond to requests to add links to my website.

I am retired and no longer offering professional research. However, I will be happy to try to answer any straightforward questions about Scots family history and to provide any information I may have to hand.


E-mail me at: jar/AT/ ( with /AT/ replaced by @ )

Dr John Robertson, ANGUS, SCOTLAND

This site updated 13 Jun 2024