Although Scotland has been a part of the United Kingdom since 1707, it has maintained very separate criminal, ecclesiastical, education and Poor Law systems to those found in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
This separation means that, while Scottish ancestry records cover similar territories to their sister nations such as inheritance, church records and civil registration, they have often done so in very different ways.
Nevertheless, the basics of Scottish ancestry research remain the same, with archives cataloguing and storing records from across the country and family history societies working to find, record and preserve hidden gems found elsewhere.
And as with the rest of the UK, Scotland also has a long tradition of indexing, digitisation and hosting its ancestry records online.
There are a range of free genealogy websites to help you with your Scottish ancestry research, ranging from amateur transcription projects and community projects, to resources provided online by the Scottish Government and national bodies such as the National Library of Scotland.
For an example of a fascinating Scottish ancestor, read this interview with magazine reader Ivan Watson, whose great great aunt Mary McBain served as Queen Mary’s private nurse.
The following online Scottish ancestry resources – including databases, finding aids and local gems – should give you the tools you need to trace your family history.
The best online Scottish ancestry websites
ScotlandsPeople is run by the National Records of Scotland and is the leading Scottish ancestry website, with large collections of civil registration records, parish registers, wills, valuation records, and more. A great deal of free information is available on initial searches and you can pay for scans of the originals.
FamilySearch hosts two useful vital records indexes for Scottish ancestry – Scotland Births and Baptisms 1564-1950 and Scotland Marriages 1561-1910. These mainly contain Church of Scotland records prior to 1855 and statutory records from 1856-1874/75.
Scottish Indexes has detailed free indexes of many Scottish ancestry records from the National Records of Scotland that would otherwise be difficult to access, including paternity cases and asylum records. You can search the indexes and purchase scans of the original records if needed.
The Scottish Association of Family History Societies represents volunteer Scottish ancestry organisations and has two free finding aids on its site. The Burial Grounds database notes where all known Scottish burial grounds exist, if their inscriptions have been recorded/published, and where available to consult. The Pre-1841 Population Listings database notes the locations of useful early census substitutes.
Tax records are an important way of tracing where your Scottish ancestors lived before census records. ScotlandsPlaces have original document images and transcriptions of different forms of 17th and 18th century tax records, including dog tax records, window tax, hearth tax, farm horse tax and more.
6. NLS Maps
The National Library of Scotland’s old maps website is by far the most definitive and accessible mapping collection in the UK. With thousands of old maps for Scotland from 1560-1964, it’s a great resource for seeing the places where your Scottish ancestors lived in detail.
The Scottish Military Research Group is a charitable organisation set up to educate and inform the public about how to research their Scottish military ancestry. As well as providing free access to rolls of honour, it has the most comprehensive collection of Scottish military war memorials online, accessible via its Commemorations Project.
If your ancestors worked in Scotland’s mining industry, you can find records of their lives on Scottish Mining. There are detailed parish reports, gazetteer and newspaper articles, reports on accidents and strikes and more, with some 22,000 miners named, including information on 15,000 fatalities.
The National Library of Scotland has a dedicated platform on the Internet Archive. Among the collections of Scottish ancestry records freely available are published family histories, military lists for the British Army, RAF, and Royal Navy, rolls of honour, gazetteers, over a thousand Post Office directories, Gaelic manuscripts, and much more.
Alastair McIntyre’s Electric Scotland site is packed with resources dealing with Scottish ancestry and history. Its many useful holdings include Francis Groome’s Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland, and thousands of books covering a range of subjects, such as the Scottish worldwide diaspora.
11. Perth Records
The Friends of Perth and Kinross Archives have indexed many Scottish ancestry records collections, which have been presented in free-to-access databases. Among the collections are Perth burial records from 1794-1855, militia collections, Jacobite resources, and the Perthshire People and Kinross-shire Kin.
12. Dundee Records
If your Scottish ancestors came from further along the River Tay, check out the Friends of Dundee City Archives platform for crucial genealogy records. Church records, burial records, burgh registers, trade directories, school records, Poor Law registers and more have been transcribed and made freely available.
13. Virtual Mitchell
If your Scottish ancestors came from Glasgow, check out the city archive’s Virtual Mitchell website where you can view and download hundreds of historic images of the city’s streets. You can search by area, street name, or subject.
14. NLS Newspapers
Old newspapers are another great Scottish ancestry resource – you could potentially uncover a goldmine of information by searching for your family members’ names in their local newspaper. If you reside in Scotland, registering on the National Library of Scotland’s (NLS) e-resources collections can provide access to several newspaper resources – the Scotsman, The Times and the British Library 19th Century Newspaper Collection (providing access to the Glasgow Herald, the Caledonian Mercury, the Dundee Courier, and the Aberdeen Journal).
In 1699, the Edinburgh Gazette was conceived as the official paper of record for Scotland. Appearing irregularly up to 1793, it has appeared twice a week since then, and is freely available. If you want to find out more about your Scottish ancestry, you can use the site to search for business notices, bankruptcies, military promotions, civil honours and much more.
Many research documents needed for Scottish ancestry research still lie in archives. SCAN, the Scottish Archive Network catalogue, is a good starting point to search holdings from over 50 archives across Scotland. The site has not been updated in many years, however, and so local archive websites should also be consulted.
Chris Paton is an expert on Scottish family history and writes the daily blog Scottish GENES. He is the author of Tracing Your Scottish Family History Through Church & State Records and Tracing Your Scottish Family History on the Internet.