Researching Your Scottish Ancestry Before 1855

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Compulsory Civil Registration of Births, Marriages and Deaths came into force in Scotland on 1st January 1855. Prior to that, baptisms and marriage proclamations were recorded in the Church of Scotland Old Parish Registers.

Here are 7 tips when searching for your ancestors prior to 1855.

1) If you know that your ancestor was in Scotland in 1851, then I advise that your first port of call be the 1851 census. The name can be looked up in the census indexes, and hopefully you should be able to identify the relevant individual. Note however, that if your ancestor had a common name, such as John MacDonald or James Wilson, there will be numerous index entries! In these circumstances, you really do need to know where they lived in Scotland, and their approximate age.

2) If you managed to identify an ancestor from the 1851 census, you will see that the record will show all of the people present in the house on the evening of the census. For each individual, the age, the occupation, and the relationship to the head of the household will be given. You will also find details of where each individual was born. From this one record, you should be able to ascertain the approximate birth dates of a whole family. Please note however, take these ages with a pinch of salt - especially for women! I have often seen census records where the wife has only aged 5 years in the decade between censuses! Of course, there is a chance that your ancestor was born outwith Scotland. Many Irish came over to Scotland following the Potato Famine in the 1840s.

3) If your ancestor was not living in Scotland in 1851, but was here in 1841, you can check the 1841 census indexes. This is the earliest census available to the public in Scotland, but it does not provide as much detail as the census of 1851. It gives details of the person's name, and for adults, the age is rounded to the nearest 5 years. The place of birth is not given, but you will see the entry "Yes" or "No" under the heading "Born in this County?" The relationship to the head of the household is not provided, although it is often easy enough to identify parents and children from the ages given.

4) Now that you have approximate birth dates, and you know that the individual was born in Scotland, you can now check the Old Parish Register indexes. The beauty of the 1851 census records is that it should tell you the parish in which they were born. For adults, I would allow 5 years either way in your search. For example, if your ancestor was 40 in 1851 (giving an approximate birth year of 1811), search for the years 1806 to 1816. Note that if your ancestor was not Church of Scotland, then there will be no record of the baptism in the registers. Another point to make is that, even though your ancestor was Church of Scotland, it was by no means compulsory to have the child baptised. Parishes started taking registers at different times, and registers of baptisms and marriage proclamations did not necessarily start in the same year. You may even find whole families of children being baptised on the same day, irrespective of their ages. Remember that the OPRs gave dates of baptisms, and not births!

5) If you cannot find any baptism records, search for a marriage record. The marriage would normally have taken place about 2 years prior to the birth of the first child, but may well be less. There is also the chance that the first child was illegitimate, and the marriage took place after that year.

6) The marriage proclamations are normally very brief statements, giving the names of the bride and groom and the parish in which they lived. The groom's occupation may be given, but there will be no details of their ages, or the names of the parents. It is therefore difficult to go back another generation from these records.

7) Death indexes do not exist for people who died before 1855. Of course, it is very possible that your ancestor may have died in Scotland after 1855, so you will then get details of the deceased parents. This then gives you the opportunity to go back a further generation.

When researching records, you must keep an open mind. Do not blinker yourself by thinking that if a census record states that a person was 40 years old and they were born in a particular parish, that this is true! Always search the indexes using a range of years, and be aware of the names of neighbouring parishes.

The further back in time you go, the more difficult it is to ensure that you have identified the correct document and ancestor. Please do not assume that you have the right ancestor because you have a gut feeling that you have the correct individual! I cannot emphasize enough that you cannot simply add someone to your family tree unless you have concrete evidence that the person is definitely an ancestor of yours.