How can I research my own Scottish family roots?

There are two quite different ways of connecting with your own ancestral heritage in Scotland. The first is simply name-based, and looks at your ancestry from the point of view of your surname, or the surnames of your parents and grandparents etc. From this you can see the clans and families, and areas of Scotland you have links with. This in turn allows you to wear tartans or clan insignia associated with these names. You’ll find more help on this elsewere in our Information Centre.

The second form of ancestral research is geneaology. This looks into official records of births, deaths, and marriages, and other sources. And it can only be done if you can identify, as a starting point, at least one forebear who lived in Scotland at a time that records were kept. You can either conduct the research yourself, or commission a specialist firm to do it for you. Below you’ll find advice on how to go about genealogical research, based on the work of our very good friend, Tony Reid. Tony is the founder of Scottish Roots, Scotland’s oldest such firm and certainly one of the most respected.

Discovering your Scottish Roots

There are two basic approaches to digging around in your family roots - genealogy and family history.  The former is necessary to establish the actual tree. This then provides a framework for subsequent family research.   It is not just about who your ancestors were; more interesting is what they were.

To start your search you need a specific starting point in Scotland. This can be a name, a date, or a place of birth. And it is most likely to be fruitful if this date is after 1855 (see below). Establishing your tree will start to produce addresses, occupations and a lot of similar background information.

There are three primary sources for ancestral research. All are located in New Register House, West Register Street, Edinburgh.

1. The Statutory Registers of Births, Marriages & Deaths The General Registry Office of Births, Marriages and Deaths was established in Scotland in 1855 (though it had been in England in 1837) introducing compulsory Statutory Civil Registration. An excessive amount of detail was requested at first, but soon a simplified format was adopted that is still used today with only minor changes.

2. Census Enumerators’ Returns The UK Census was established in 1801 and has been repeated every decade since (apart from 1941). Its aim was, and still is, to produce a range of population data and trends for government departments and planners. Until 1831 this was little more than a head count, done by the parish schoolmasters and actual surviving listings of people are rare.  The 1841 Census was the first to take the proper form of a Census as we know it today, although still in little detail, providing the following information on each household member:

  • relationship to household head,
  • marital status,
  • age, 
  • occupation and
  • place of birth.


After 1871 on the householder had to record any ‘imbecile’, ‘idiot’ or ‘lunatic’. The 1891 Census records speakers of Gaelic. These documents provide ancestral researchers with a snapshot of households on census night. Issues of confidentiality mean that census returns opened to the public only after 100 years. So the 1901 edition is the most recent open for inspection.

3. Old Parish Registers

For events before 1855, the Old Parish Registers (OPRs) are the principle source of information. These generally provide little detailed information and so can be disappointing. Moreover, for all sorts of reasons baptisms and marriages were often not recorded. But if ancestors attended the Established Church of Scotland regularly (rather than Episcopalians, Roman Catholics or another seceding denomination) there is a good chance of finding their baptisms/births and proclamations/marriages - at least as far as to the late 18th or early 19th century.

There are three main ways of conducting ancestral research.

1. Visit New Register House, Edinburgh   (Monday-Friday, 9am-4pm.)  

Using NRH costs £10.00 per day (discounted for longer periods). You will be given a desk with a computer terminal, for viewing digitised images of statutory entries, OPRs and census returns. Microfilm and fiche readers also provide miscellaneous material in the various search rooms. There are easy-to-use computer indexes to the statutory certificates, the census returns (1841-1901) and the OPRs. The OPRs currently display only births and marriages, with the small number of available parish burial records due to be included in late 2008. You may examine as many records as you wish (on a self-service basis) while there, with staff on hand for advice. Assisted searches will soon be available shortly (with pre-booking) at an additional hourly rate, so you can get the dedicated help of a member of NRH staff for up to 2 hours to help to trace a family tree. There is also a well-stocked library providing materials such as:

  • Indexes of Memorial Inscriptions of gravestones in pre-1855 burial  grounds
  • Various indexes and CD-ROMS compiled by the Mormons (Church of Latter Day Saints)
  • Maps and Gazetteers
  • Street indexes of main towns and cities in the 1841-1901 census.
  • Post Office Directories
  • Electoral rolls


Many other possible sources of useful information include:

  • wills and testaments (online)
  • Kirk Session records
  • estate papers
  • sasines (land ownership details)
  • court and legal records lodged in the National Archives of Scotland.


The National Archives of Scotland (NAS) building is next door to NRH, and access is free of charge. A new Family History Centre will open soon, uniting each building’s facilities. At that time the Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland (1672-1906) will also become available, which is currently accessible only through the Court of the Lord Lyon.

2. Using a Professional Service  

General Register Office (Scotland) can provide you with a list of professional associations and firms as well as private researchers. For obvious reasons these are all located in Scotland, mostly in Edinburgh.

Scotweb has no hesistation in recommending Scottish Roots. (We’ve not been paid to say this! It’s a genuine reference based on personal experience.) They’ve been tracing family trees professionally for longer than any other company. Here’s the address:

Scottish Roots
16 Forth Street
Tel: 0131- 477 8214

Their standard fee to research an ancestral line is £195 (+ VAT for EU residents) and you’ll find a specimen example on that site showing what you might get for your money. You may find a private researcher charging less, but do get independent testimony as to the quality of their work. English-based   organisations charge far more. If more than one line needs to be searched then rates will go up. Most professionals will give a free estimate.

Generally one gets back to the late 1780s or so, but there are no guarantees.  If problems appear early, most professionals should abort the search and charge only for the work done.

3. Do your own research online   

The Internet has revolutionised the researching of family trees. By far the most relevant websites are “Origins” and “Scotlands People” (www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk), which offers the official pay-per-view databases of the General Record Office (GRO).  This includes several Statutory registers and more:

  • Births 1855-2006
  • Marriages 1855-1932 
  • Deaths 1855-2006
  • Old Parish Registers Births & Baptisms 1553-1854
  • Proclamations and Marriages   1553-1854
  • Census Records 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891 & 1901
  • Wills & Testaments Search 1513-1901 (free)


Access costs £6 for 30 page credits, valid for 90 consecutive days. Viewing a single page costs 6 credits and ordering an individual entry is £10.

Another useful website is Family Search which provides all the data compiled by the Mormons (Church of Latter Day Saints) free of charge. Their indexes include the OPRs, and statutory birth and marriage certificates from 1855 to 1875.

The Relative Merits of the Above Methods  

Clearly this depends on your own location, particularly if you want to use NRH facilities in Edinburgh. If you can be nearby, the most cost-effective way would be direct visit as the entrance fee would be your only major cost. For remote access, bear in mind that register entries cost £10 per extract and you will need to return to the indexes several times as the search progresses, making working at a distance potentially costly. And the inexperienced researcher may make mistakes, adding further to costs. A search for one ancestral line may need, say, 15 records to be examined, with five visits to the site. This would cost £200.

Professional research service is normally the most efficient option. Expert researchers know how to overcome the inevitable pitfalls and problems that crop up during almost every search.

Amateurs usually derive great pleasure from researching their own family tree.   It is hard to describe the “thrill of the chase” and excitement in eventually discovering the “right” certificate or census entry after a long search.

Putting Flesh on the Bones
Compiling a family tree or pedigree chart is never an end in itself. You’ll already have acquired basic information from the certificates and census returns. But once you’ve found your ancestors, you’ll want to discover more about them… about their jobs, their families and the places where they lived.

Some Suggestions  

Contact the local history library for your family area, which will normally be located in the main public library of the region. They will hold local newspapers, which might for example have an obituary of a forebear; or old photographs perhaps showing the street where the family lived; or much else besides. Just scanning through old newspapers gives insights into the local way of life.

Find large-scale maps of areas where your family came from. Ordnance Survey (OS) 25-inch:mile maps were produced from the later 19th century for much of central Scotland, and other populous areas. And here are 6-inch:mile maps for the entire country. Order copies from the National Library of Scotland Map Library (www.nls.uk, email: maps@nls.uk)

Visit local and industrial museums. These will give insights into how your forebears lived and worked.

Contact a Local Family History Society for the area. Who knows… they might even be able to put you in touch with relatives you never knew you had!

Some recommended books:

  • Tracing Scottish Ancestors by Rosemary Bigwood (Harper Collins) is the best and most recent practical guide.
  • Tracing your Scottish Ancestors, Scottish Record Office (Mercat Press 1991) relating to the resources of the National Archives of Scotland, which is quite old but still in print.
  • Jock Tamsons Bairns by Cecil Sinclair (GROS, 2000) is a very readable history of the records of the General Register Office for Scotland.
  • Exploring Scottish History, 2nd edition, edited by Michael Cox (Scottish Library Association 1999) is an invaluable publication for local or specialised resources.
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