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A census is a count and description of the population. Census records are a valuable source of genealogical information for Scotland, giving names, ages, and places of birth.
Various types of censuses have been taken by different British authorities for their own purposes. This section only discusses censuses intended to include the whole population.
- 1 Understanding the Census
- 2 Census Content
- 3 Accessing Scotland Census Records
- 4 Search Guidance
- 5 Statistical Data From Pre 1841 Censuses
- 6 References
Understanding the Census
The Scottish government has taken a census every ten years since 1801 except in 1941. The censuses from 1841 to 1911 are available for public use. It is important to note that in the countries of Great Britain, the census was compiled from forms (known as schedules) filled in by the head of each household.
The Census takers (enumerators) copied this data into census books for the parish or registration district. As a result, names are spelled as the family spelled them at the time.
Census takers were instructed to list only those persons who spent the night in the household when the census was taken. People who were traveling, at boarding schools, or working away from home are listed where they spent the night. For example, night watchmen are often listed at their employer’s business address rather than with their families.
Dates of the census
You will find the following information in censuses:
1801 to 1831. These censuses contain only statistical information. However, some parishes compiled lists of names when they gathered the information needed for the census.
The 1841 census was taken on 7 June 1841. It lists each member of every household with:
- whether or not they were born in the county
- The census takers usually rounded the ages of those over fifteen down to a multiple of five years. For example, someone who was actually fifty-nine would be listed as fifty-five.
1851 and Later.
These censuses list the:
- relationships to the head of the household
- parish and county of birth (except foreign births, which give country only) of each member of the household
Census worksheets. The questions for the censuses of Scotland were mostly similar to those of England and Wales. This generic census worksheet can be used to record most of the information found in various Scotland census records. Or, England and Wales forms for specific census years are similar to Scotland's questions and are available at Ancestry.com:
Accessing Scotland Census Records
The only sites with both an index and census images is 1) ScotlandsPeople ($) which is the government website for Scotland genealogy, and 2) FamilySearch.org for the years 1841-1891 only; however, the indexes are not at this time attached to the images. You must obtain the microfilm number to that Scottish locale for which you are searching (Ancestry.com usually publishes the FamilySearch/Family History Library microfilm number), and click the camera icon next to the locality's name (in the Catalog) in order to view the images (Hint: Ancestry.com publishes the E.D. no. and page number which makes it much easier to find the correct page.)
The other websites only have an index. It is therefore particularly useful to consult two or more of these sites if possible, since you will simply have to trust that their transcriptions are accurate.
FamilySearch, Ancestry ($) and FindMyPast ($) have all records 1841-1911 that survive. See the article Scotland 1841-1891 Censuses (FamilySearch Historical Records)
FreeCEN has a small number of records for Scotland, see their coverage tables.
Family History Library
The Family History Library has the 1841 through 1891 censuses on microfilm. Click on a year below to go to the FamilySearch Catalog entry for that year:
NOTE: The census films are arranged first by county, starting in the north of Scotland and working south. Then within a county they are arranged in alphabetical order by parish.
To find the census records for a specific parish of interest, do the following in the library catalog:
- Make a Place Search for the parish name.
- From the list of topics for that parish, click on the link for the topic of CENSUS.
- Click on the link for the Census returns, 1841-1891, for that parish.
The Scotlands People Centre Library holds transcripts and photocopies of some surviving 1801 to 1831 census records as well as other early population lists. Their library is located in the Dundas Room. For copies send request to email@example.com.
Various parts of the England, Wales, and Scotland census returns from 1841 to 1911 are incomplete and have pieces missing. Find My Past has has identified the known gaps by census year, nation, county, and village or parish in Census for England, Wales and Scotland: missing pieces
Smaller Local Census Surname Indexes at the Family History Library
In addition to the nationwide census surname indexes, there are many smaller surname indexes, created by individuals and family history societies in Scotland, that cover specific counties, districts or parishes. The following links will direct you to pages that show these smaller surname indexes for each county, and which are found in the Family History Library's collection.
Street Name Indexes at the Family History Library
The Family History Library has some street indexes in booklet form or microform. To find them, look in the library and do a Place Search for any of these combinations:
SCOTLAND - CENSUS - [YEAR] - INDEXES
[COUNTY], SCOTLAND - CENSUS - [YEAR] - INDEXES
[PARISH or TOWN], [COUNTY], SCOTLAND - CENSUS - [YEAR] - INDEXES
1881 Surname Index
The 1881 Scottish census index is also available on microfiche. Each county has indexes arranged by:
- Census place.
- A transcription of the census as it appears on the microfilm.
The indexes and transcriptions are available on microfiche at the Family History Library, Family History Centers, the Registrar General, and at record offices and family history societies in the British Isles.
A national index for Scotland is also available. The national index consists of a surname index and a birthplace index. The county birthplace indexes are organized first by surname and then by birthplace. The national birthplace index is organized first by birthplace and then by surname.
To find the numbers for the 1881 census indexes, look in the FamilySearch Catalog under:
[COUNTY], SCOTLAND - CENSUS - 1881 - INDEXES
If you have your ancestor’s street address for the time period of the census you are searching, you may search the census for that address and see if your ancestor is there. Street indexes exist for larger towns or cities.
You might find an address in letters, directories, civil registration certificates, church records, court records, and tax records.
You can find the street indexes listed in the FamilySearch Catalog under [CITY], [COUNTY], SCOTLAND - CENSUS - [YEAR] - INDEXES.
When searching any census records, remember:
- Search indexes first (see below).
- Information in the census may be incorrect.
- Accept the ages with caution.
- Given names may not be the same as the names recorded in church or vital records.
- Names may be spelled as they sound.
- Place-names may be misspelled.
- If the family is not at the expected address, search the surrounding area.
- When you find your family in one census, search the earlier or later census records to find additional family members.
- Individuals missing from a family may be listed elsewhere in the census.
- There could be more than one family in the same locality by the same name with very similar information. Check the census thoroughly.
- A woman, especially a widow, might be listed under her maiden name.
- Notice who the neighbors are. They may be related.
Statistical Data From Pre 1841 Censuses
There are statistical charts available for the 1801, 1811, 1821, and 1831 census. See the article, Histpop — 'The Online Historical Population Reports Project'. The census gathered statistical data that allows one to see the economy of the people. It notes occupations, housing, population for every parish in Scotland. It notes changes from the previous census and reasons for the changes. The parish of Urr noted below had more Houses than any other parish in Kirkcudbrightshire in 1831.
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