Family History


Background information

ScotlandsPeople is the official Scottish genealogy resource. This guide provides a brief overview of the records available and how you can combine the information they contain to find out more about your Scottish ancestors. All of the records are indexed by personal name and are available to view as digital images.

Start with a search for a birth, death or marriage of someone in your direct line and work back in time.

Statutory registers of births, deaths and marriages (from 1855)

Registration of births, deaths and marriages has been compulsory in Scotland since 1 January 1855 with penalties for anyone providing false information. The structured, detailed entries in the statutory registers contain valuable genealogical information which should enable you to trace your ancestors back to the mid-19th century fairly quickly. Here are some examples of how information in the records can be used to narrow your searches in other records.

Statutory birth records:

  • Use date and place of parents’ marriage to search in the statutory register of marriages or parish registers
  • Use place of birth and registration district information to narrow a search in the nearest census returns.

Statutory marriage records:

  • Use the ages of the bride and groom to narrow the search for their births or baptisms and their parents' names to confirm you have identified the correct entry
  • The form of marriage, for example, ‘According to the forms of the Free Church in Scotland’ may prove helpful when searching the pre-1855 church records.
  • Addresses can be used to narrow a search in the nearest census returns
  • If a parent is recorded as deceased at the time of the marriage this information can be used to narrow a search for their death
  • Witnesses may turn out to be close family members.

Statutory death records:

  • Age at death can be used to narrow the search for the person's birth
  • Names of the deceased's parents can be used to search for their marriage
  • Use the informant’s status to confirm any relationship to the deceased
  • Use the addresses of both deceased and informant to narrow a search in the census returns - place of death and usual residence may not be the same.
  • Use the date of death to check for a will.

Further information and examples of the records including the Minor Records (of events overseas) and the Register of Corrected Entries (RCE) is provided in the guide statutory registers.

Census returns (1841-1921)

Census returns also provide detailed information of great value to family history research. They enable you to find out about brothers and sisters (and possibly other family members who are visiting on census night), ages, occupations and birthplaces. It is advisable to search back through the decades to build up a picture of the family before you start searching the much more limited information in the church registers.

  • You can use registration district information from statutory register entries to narrow a search. If you’re having difficulty tracing a birth entry the census may provide the answer. Check the census for another person you would expect to find in the household. You may find that the place of birth for your ancestor is somewhere unexpected or even outside Scotland.
  • If someone disappears between the censuses it may be worth searching for their death.
  • You can use the head of household and address information for searches in the valuation rolls.

Further information and examples of the records is provided in the guide census returns.

Valuation rolls

Valuation rolls are available for the mid-point between each census starting in 1855 up to 1905 and continue every five years beyond the 1911 census from 1915 to 1940. As a result they can be combined with searches in the statutory registers and census returns to keep track of where your ancestors lived over time .

Valuation rolls provide the names of the person who owned a property and the resident head of household. They don’t include members of the family. You may find that the head of household in a census return isn’t listed in the valuation rolls. This is usually because the wife rather than the husband was described as the tenant or occupier. You may also find that only the surname and title of the proprietor, occupier or tenant have been recorded. This is especially the case for married or widowed females, for example, 'Mrs William Fraser'.

Further information about their records, including their use for house history, is provided in the valuation rolls guide.

Church registers (pre-1855)

Prior to 1855 you will find Scottish births and baptisms, proclamations of banns and marriages, deaths and burials in church registers. These records are incomplete and entries contain much less information – sometimes not much more than the index entry – which varies from parish to parish and over time. They include:

  • Old Parish Registers (from 1553) – the records of the Established Church of Scotland which include entries for people who were not members of the church
  • Catholic Church in Scotland
  • Other Presbyterian churches (from 1716)

Further details of the churches and the records are provided in the church registers guide.

The information you’ve gathered from the official statutory registers, census returns and valuation rolls will provide a good start to searching back from 1854 to the 18th century and earlier. You are much more likely to come across variations in spelling and difficult handwriting. Guides on reading older handwriting (palaeography), unfamiliar words and phrases and the glossary will help you interpret content in the register entries.

Wills and testaments (1513-1925)

Use your ancestors’ dates of death to search the indexes to wills and testaments to provide more information about them and their families:

  • You may not find any reference to the widow and children because they received their parts of the estate by right
  • You may not find any reference to the eldest son who inherited property such as land and buildings automatically in accordance with the Scottish rules of succession.
  • Executors were usually close relatives of the deceased
  • Other family members may be included as beneficiaries
  • The inventory lists the moveable property belonging to the deceased at the time of his or her death and provides an interesting insight into lifestyle as it can include household furnishings, clothes, jewellery, books, papers, farm stock, tools and machinery, money in cash, bank accounts and investments, as well as money owed to creditors and money due from debtors.

If your ancestor was poor, it is unlikely he or she made a will, but it is worth checking to see if a testament dative was recorded. This relates to the estates of people from all walks of life and include an inventory clause.

A detailed explanation of these records is provided in the guide wills and testaments. In addition there are soldiers' and airmen's wills which are mostly for the First World War.

Coats of arms

You can also search the Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland from 1672 to 1916. Information about military, personal and corporate coats of arms, heraldic terms and who is eligible to apply is provided in the guide Coats of arms.

Military Service Appeals Tribunal records

These records for 1916 to 1918 relate to appeals made during the First World War. Information about coverage (mainly Edinburgh, Lothians and the Borders) and content is provided in the guide Military Service Appeals Tribunal records.

Book of Scottish Connections

The Book of Scottish Connections (BSC) is a public record that allows people all over the world, with a Scottish connection, to apply for a birth, death, marriage or civil partnership abroad to be recorded in the BSC held by the Registrar General in Edinburgh (provided that the event has already been registered with the civil registration authorities of the country in question). A commemorative certificate of the event (and the Scottish connection) will then be available from the registration service in Scotland, to be preserved as a part of the family history record. Further information and application forms are available on the Book of Scottish Connections page on the National Records of Scotland website