Discover Your Scottish Ancestry

September 23, 2019  - by 
a family in the scottish highlands.

Scotland is a land of rugged beauty and proud heritage. Many groups have peopled this small country north of England over the centuries, including the Irish, Picts, Gaels, Vikings, Romans, and English. If you have Scottish ancestry, you can discover their stories by exploring records they may have left behind.

Trace Scottish Emigrants Back into Scotland

Beginning in the 1600s and 1700s, many Scots emigrated, or left their homeland, in search of better opportunities. Many initially went to the neighboring countries of Ireland, England, and Wales. One cluster of Scots emigrants, who came to be known as Ulster Scots or Scots-Irish, was forcibly resettled during the 1600s from Scottish borderlands to northern Ireland. A large number of these went to British colonial North America in the 1700s. Many other Scots went to Australia and New Zealand.

a picture of old scotland.

Scottish emigration peaked during the 1800s. As many as 2.3 million Scots left Britain between the 1820s and the 1930s, driven by famine, the eviction of Highlanders from their lands, and a changing Lowland economy. About 750,000 went to the United States. Emigration aid organizations supported many Scots who went to Australia and Canada.

If your Scottish ancestors left their country, learn about them first in records created in their new homelands. Trace them gradually back in time until their arrival. Watch for records that mention their specific place of origin in Scotland. If passenger lists exist for that time period and migration, search for your ancestors’ names in them.

Tracing Ancestors in Scotland

You can search for Scottish ancestors living in Scotland in a variety of historical records. Start with FamilySearch’s free online Scottish collections. Many of the record images you may want to see are at Scotland’s People, a Scottish government website that requires a modest fee.

Begin with three core types of records:

Censuses. National census that were taken every 10 years can help you learn more about your Scottish relatives. For each household, censuses generally included the following:

  • The address and each person’s name
  • Relationship to the head of household
  • Marital status
  • Age
  • Occupation
  • Birthplace
  •  Disabilities
scots in kilts

The 1841 census lacks some of this detail; later censuses include a few additional facts. Indexes of censuses taken between 1841 and 1911 are online at and other genealogy websites; record images are at the Scotland’s People website.

Civil registration. The Scottish government began keeping statutory registers of births, marriages and deaths on 1 January 1855.

Birth records generally contain the following information:

  • The child’s full name
  • Birth date
  • Time and place of birth
  • Sex
  • Full names of both parents and their marriage date and place (except between 1856 and 1860)
  • Father’s occupation or rank
  • Informant identity
  • Legitimacy status (until 1918)
  • When and where the birth was registered

 Marriage records typically give this information:

  • The full names of the bride and groom
  • Professions
  • Prior marital status
  • Age and residence
  • Parents’ names and father’s profession for both parties
  • Particulars of the marriage (location, date, and so on)

Death records generally provide these details:

  • The deceased’s full name
  • Profession
  • Marital status
  • Sex
  • Age
  • Parents’ names
  • Father’s occupation
  • Death date and place
  • Cause of death
  • Burial place
a graveyard in scotland.

Online indexes may provide some of this information, but the full details may appear only in the record images provided at the Scotland’s People website. Access to some records may be restricted by privacy laws.

Church records. Before civil registration, parishes in the government-sanctioned Church of Scotland recorded births and baptisms, marriages and marriage banns, and death and burials. Some of these records date back to the mid-1500s; most surviving, legible records are much more recent. Many people did not have their life events recorded in Church of Scotland registers. Some appear in registers of other churches, most notably Catholic and non-Church of Scotland Presbyterian. Again, you may find some of the information contained in these records on genealogy websites such as, but you’ll have the most complete discovery experience at Scotland’s People.

As you learn more about your Scottish ancestry, you may also discover your ancestor’s place in this country’s colorful history, including their affiliations with Scottish clans (historically-prominent families). Start learning today by looking for your Scottish ancestors in FamilySearch’s free historical records.

Your Scottish Heritage

a scottish man plays bagpipes

Sunny Morton

Sunny Morton teaches personal and family history to worldwide audiences. She's a Contributing Editor at Family Tree Magazine, past Contributing Editor at Lisa Louise Cooke's Genealogy Gems, and the author of How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records (co-authored with Harold Henderson, CG); Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy; "Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites," and hundreds of articles. She has degrees in history and humanities from Brigham Young University. Read her work at

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  1. Hi my name is David Campbell, and recently I have done the AncestryDNA and I am linked to the Campbell’s in the Duncan Campbell 1390-1454, world love to talk to someone in Scotland

  2. hi, I am having great difficulty in tracing my ancestor back in Scotland, He was a Donald Cameron. I know he married Margaret McKenzie(B 1802) in Edinburg on 7/12/1827. But as for the records of Donald I am drawing blanks were ever I look. Do you have any suggestions. Cheers Kevin Jelley New Zealand

  3. My Scots came from Melvaig and some went to Nova Scotia and then to NZ.
    My great great grandfather was Duncan Ban McKenzie, a Weaver at Melvaig, and His son was Alexander Mhor McKenzie who went to Nova Scotia by 1825 when he married Annie Fraser in Cape Breton – they later moved to Boulsrderie and in 1857 sailed on the Breadalbane to Auckland, NZ, later moving to Limestone Hill, Waipu, NZ where he settled.

  4. I think that my paternal grandmother, Agnes Milne, emigrated from Airdrie Scotland to the US between 1900 and 1920. I had no luck looking in the Ellis Island records even though I remember her telling me that she arrived there as a girl. Can you help?