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Starting your Family History Research

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Starting Point

When starting to create your own family tree, firstly talk to as many members of your family as possible especially the older generation. This way you can obtain first-hand details, memories and stories that will help you on your way. They can often provide you with details of names and dates of family events - although you should never take anything at face value, as it will be your job to check to see if true or a family myth. Also write everything down!

Now it's time to look through old family photos, heirlooms and other material that finds its way into trunks, drawers, and attics. You will be amazed how much information you can find from these  to obtain vital clues as to who exactly your blood relations were, when they were born, when they died, who they married and who their children were (or are).

While doing this, or even sooner, try to establish where key figures in your family originated from, this will play an important role when you start looking further afield for relevant records.

This background information is an integral part of family history, and should be your first task.

Once you have collected as much information as possible, you are ready to start searching for birth, death and marriage certificates, parish records, and wills left by your ancestors - among other things.


Most of your research will take place online or in archives, local studies libraries or specialist family history centres. (Look at which option is cheapest as it can get rather expensive). If you are not used to these places they can seem daunting, but remember that their staff are there to help you.


Contact any archives before visiting, as they may require you to bring some identification. They may also be able to help advise you about their holdings before you get there.

Using the ScotlandsPeople Website

Family History Research

The only online source of original documents for baptisms, births, marriages, deaths and census records for Scotland is the ScotlandsPeople Website.

This is a pay-per-view website although the costs are reasonable for the level of information contained there. Searches are free thereafter £7.50 buys 30 credits which if used correctly allows you to download and view 5 original documents. 

It can be addictive and care should be taken to ensure you don’t view an image that is not your family line.

The following are some tips to help find the right record:-

Names: You should remember that our ancestors were not particularly interested in accuracy of names and ages and many were illiterate and relied on the registrar recording the data as they gave it. Scotlandspeople allows the use of ‘wildcards’ represented by * which can represent any letter, e.g. GARDINER can be recorded as GARDNER so too ensure the possibility of getting the right record search for the name using GARD*NER. Likewise STEWART can be STUART so search using ST*ART.

Ages: You may have a good idea of the age of your ancestor when he died and also his year of birth but remember that it is not unusual for this to be out be a few years as Birthdays were not celebrated the way they are nowadays.  That being the case give as wide an age range as you can and/or estimate the year of the event.  

Locations: Be aware that our ancestors may have died outwith the area that they lived most of their lives. They may have died in hospital or at the home of a son or daughter, it is therefore often an idea to try including less information before narrowing the search down a bit further, for example search by County initally before selecting parish or registration district.

There are many other websites that can be searched during you research - Check out our Useful Websites page for information

Help! My Ancestor came from Ireland!

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Well, Begorrah!  It has been estimated that at least 65% of the people in Central Scotland have at least one Irish ancestor, so “Welcome to the clan! “

In spite of what is claimed, research into Irish ancestry is not impossible but we do have to be much more meticulous in the preliminary research we do here in Scotland.  Ideally we are aiming to establish where in Ireland our ancestors came from.  In particular we need to know which parish they came from while the name of the townland would be a bonus.

We are fortunate in Scotland that our birth, marriage and death certificates record much more information than those in England, Wales or Ireland. 


Remember, we are trying to establish where our ancestors came from so, for example, a Scottish 1855 marriage certificate will record the age and place of birth in Ireland of the couple as well as the names of both sets of parents.  Brilliant!  An 1855 birth certificate will also record the age and place of birth of the parents and, in addition, the date and place of the marriage.  If that was in Ireland, again brilliant!  An 1855 death certificate will record the place of birth in Ireland and the names of both parents.  


Unfortunately, that wealth of information didn’t continue but post-1860 birth certificates still record the date and place of marriage, so if a couple moved to Scotland after their marriage and had children this should reveal where in Ireland they married.


The Scottish decennial censuses can also be useful although all that was required of an Irish born person was “Place of birth - Ireland” the enumerator sometimes recorded the townland or parish or county.  (It was a requirement in the 1891 census to record the county of birth as well as Ireland.)

It’s truly a case of turning over every stone to see what’s under it!  Finally, head for Ireland and enjoy the scenery, hospitality and the family history challenge.

There are many other websites that can be searched during you research - Check out our Useful Websites page for information

Family History Societies

Lastly, the best help you’ll find anywhere is via a Family History Society. You’ll find they will have all the help and advice you could possibly hope for and have loads of research material to help bring your past back to life!!

Check out our Membership pages


If you have links to another area of Scotland visit the SAFHS Website

You can check British Family History Societies on the Family History Federation Website

Welsh Family History Societies can be found via the Association of Family History Societies of Wales Website


You can find a list of Irish Family History Societies via the Irish Genealogy Toolkit Website as well as via The Ulster Historical Foundation Website



Good hunting !!!

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