Finding Your Ancestors in Scotland before 1855

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Syllabus for a presentation by Barbara Baker, British Research Consultant, Family History Library, given at the National Genealogical Society Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Thursday, April 29, 2010.

Prior to the beginning of civil registration in 1855, Scottish ancestors can be more difficult to find, but there are strategies you can follow to improve your chances of success. Here are record types and strategies for pre-1855 Scottish ancestral research using online and Family History Library resources.

Strategy 1—Search Online Databases of Compiled Pedigrees

Search online databases such as those found at,, and for information relating to your Scottish ancestors. You may find that someone else has found something you have not.

Strategy 2—Search Civil Registration Records

Civil records are government registration of births, marriages, and deaths. Though Scottish civil records began in 1855, they include information that provides clues for pre-1855 research. They are the most informative civil/vital records in the British Isles.

  • Birth, marriage and death records include both parents’ names including mother’s maiden name.
  • Birth records for 1855 and after 1860 give the parents’ marriage date and place.

This information can help you identify pre-1855 ancestors.


  • Indexes for 1855-1955 (and records for 1855-1875 and 1881 and 1891) are available on microfilm at the Family History Library (FHL) and through family history centers.
  • The records and indexes are available online at This is a pay-for-use website and the cost starts at £6 (approximately $10 US) for 30 page credits (see steps below).

Steps for using ScotlandsPeople—

1. Start by registering on the website which includes creating a username (must have an email account).

2. After a few minutes, collect your password from your email.

3. Login on ScotlandsPeople with your username and password and select “Statutory Registers” and births, marriages, or deaths.

4. You may enter the name of a person, a year or age range, and select a locality.

5. Each page of search results costs you one page credit to view.

6. Choose from the list of results the one that looks most likely.

7. To view a document image will cost you 5 page credits.

8. REMEMBER, the FHL has the records on microfilm for 1855-1875, plus indexes.

Strategy 3—Search Census Records

The British government began taking censuses of the population in 1801—taken every ten years —but they only listed people by name starting in 1841. They are released to the public after 100 years so the latest available is 1901. The 1911 will be released in March 2011.

The 1841 census is not as informative as later years but still names everyone in the household. From 1851 the exact age and birthplace are given, which should help you identify and locate further information about pre-1855 ancestors. 1841-1891 are available on film/fiche at the FHL.


  • 1841-1901 are available and indexed on ScotlandsPeople as listed previously. Log on and select a census year to search.
  • Indexes for 1841-1901 are available on for a subscription fee (but no images).
  • Some indexes are also available at the FHL especially for the 1881 census.

Strategy 4—Search Church Records

Church records are the primary source of birth and marriage information for pre-1855 Scottish ancestry. The Roman Catholic Church was the state church until 1560, the Episcopalian Church was the state church for a time in the 1600s, and the Presbyterian Church was permanently established as the state church in 1690 and was known as the Church of Scotland. Few early Catholic or Episcopalian Church records survive.

Some records for the cities survive from the late 1500’s but the records of some country parishes only survive from the 1700s. There are many gaps in records either due to the loss of records or due to their not being kept well in the first place. Burials were infrequently recorded.

Secessions from the established church began shortly after 1690 and the break-off groups did not always keep records. For more information on the secessionist churches and their records, see the article on the “Scottish Church Records Union List” available online in the FamilySearch Research Wiki at


  • The FHL has 100% of the extant Church of Scotland records on microfilm and they have been indexed. Try the International Genealogical Index (IGI) online at or the ‘Scottish Church Records’ index on computer at the FHL or family history centers.
  • Births/baptisms and marriages are included but burials are not (as few were ever recorded).
  • They are also indexed on ScotlandsPeople. Log on and select the “Old Parish Registers.” However, if you have access to a family history center, use the indexes there instead.

Tips for searching Church of Scotland records—

If you choose not to use ScotlandsPeople to search for church records, do the following:

  • Search the ‘Scottish Church Records’ index (available at the FHL and family history centers).
  • If found, do a Parent Search to pick up siblings.
  • Then do a Marriage Search for the parents’ marriage.
  • Search existing burial records on microfilm for the appropriate parish for family members.
  • NOTE: If no burials exist, look for cemetery transcriptions for the parish in the Family History Library Catalog or on the Internet.
  • Naming Pattern—If you find too many possibilities for the same person, consider this commonly used pattern for the naming of children:
  1. The eldest son was named for the father’s father.
  2. The second son was named for the mother’s father.
  3. The third son was named for the father—if the name was not already used.
  4. The eldest daughter was named for the mother’s mother.
  5. The second daughter was named for the father’s mother.
  6. The third daughter was named for the mother—if the name was not already used.
  7. Additional children could be named for other relatives.  If a child died, the name could be reused for a subsequent child.

Strategy 5—Search Nonconformist Church Records

There were also many nonconformist (non-established Church) denominations, including some that were Presbyterian in form. They loosely fall into two categories:

  • Seceders—Presbyterian in form but not belonging to the Church of Scotland (with beginning dates): Cameronians/Reformed Presbyterian (1690’s), Secession/Associate Presbyterian (1733), Relief Presbyterian (1761), and Free Presbyterian (1843) are the main groups.
  • Dissenters—belonging to other faiths: Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Congregational, Baptist, Methodist, Quaker, LDS, and others.

Records of nonconformist churches often were not kept or do not survive as well. The FHL has few records of nonconformist churches. To find what exists for your place of interest, begin with the ‘Scottish Church Records Union List’ available online in the FamilySearch Research Wiki at Search for a county then parish of interest.

The National Archives of Scotland has some nonconformist church records in its collection. See the official guide to the Archives, “Tracing Your Scottish Ancestors” (FHL book 941 D27), for details. Also see their website and online catalogue at

Strategy 6—Search Other Records

Probate Records—

  • The legal settlement of the personal estates of deceased persons.
  • Commissariot courts handled probate before 1823 – one or more having jurisdiction in each county. The highest court was that of Edinburgh. Sheriff’s courts handled probate from 1823.
  • The records for 1513-1901 are very well indexed online at You can search the index for free once you have registered. Probate records to about 1823 are on microfilm at the FHL (see register 942 P2gs). Later records are obtained through the ScotlandsPeople website.
  • NOTE: Before 1868, only personal (movable) property, not land or buildings, could be transferred through a will or ‘testament.’

Land Records—

  • Services of Heirs—a court process/document for transferring land from a deceased person to his/her heir, usually the eldest son. Indexes and abstracts are on microfilm at the FHL.
  • Sasines—for transferring land, buildings, and other property (including inherited property). Indexes and abstracts are on microfilm at the FHL.
  • Deeds—registration for legal documentation of transfers of land, buildings, and other property, as well as contracts. Indexes and abstracts are on microfilm at the FHL.
  • At the FHL, see register 942 R2ss for a guide to all types of land records.

Military Records—

  • There was no separate military for Scotland after unification in 1707, just Scottish regiments.
  • Some service records of officers are on film at the FHL. See the register listed below.
  • The best records for foot soldiers are pensions, called ‘Soldiers’ Documents’ (series WO 97). These are indexed in the online Catalogue of the National Archives of the UK at For pension records on film at the FHL (arranged by regiment), see “Register of British Military Records.” Includes the records of officers.

Other resources—

  • Scotland’s regional archives also have collections of valuable records. For links to their websites and contact information, see:
  • County family history societies exist throughout Scotland and they have indexed many records of genealogical value. See
  • Gazetteers are dictionaries of places that provide information about places and give an idea of what life was like there. Some good gazetteers for Scotland are:
  1. Wilson’s The [Imperial] Gazetteer of Scotland (FHL book 941 E5j); available online at:
  2. Mason’s Bartholomew Gazetteer of Places in British Isles which is compact and includes maps (FHL book 942 E5bb).
  3. Groome’s Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland (FHL book 941 E5g); available on several websites including:
  • Atlases are bound sets of maps. One of the best atlases, which covers England, Wales, and Scotland and includes maps and other valuable information is: The Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers (FHL book 942 E7pa).
  • The Ordnance Survey Gazetteer of Great Britain (FHL book 942 E5o) is the index to the modern, detailed, large scale Landranger series of maps from the Ordnance Survey Office of the UK (FHL book 942 E7ℓan).

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