Starting Out

Tracing your Scottish Ancestry is a fascinating and rewarding hobby and isn’t nearly as difficult, time-consuming or as expensive as you might think. From the 18th century, most people left a paper trail of some kind – it’s just a matter of finding it.

These are the traditional (pre-1974) counties that our Society covers.

Why am I doing this?

First, decide what or who you are searching for.  It may be your male line, research made easier by the repetition each generation of the same surname.  The maternal line (that is, your mother, her mother and so on) is more challenging as the surname changes every generation on marriage.  Another search involves finding all instances of a name (a One Name Study). 

Always work backwards, starting from yourself.  This may sound obvious, but occasionally someone will start from a famous historical character or person with the same surname, and work forwards to find the connection.  This rarely succeeds.

Once you have decided on your goal, stick to it and don’t get distracted.  You are, of course, sure to encounter interesting side lines during your research that may be relevant later.  Make a note of them and revisit, once your initial goal has been fulfilled.

Which line?

This may be determined by the surname of your mother or father.  If one of them has an unusual or simply a more uncommon surname, I would recommend beginners follow that line, for quick and satisfying results.  But the choice is yours.

Remember, it is absolutely essential that you record information as you uncover it.  As your tree develops and you add more branches, keep maternal and paternal details separate and never try to incorporate more than one family line into a tree. 

Getting Organised

The GWSFHS sell a book called ‘Our Family Tree’ which contains charts to which you can add names and dates as you find them.  Or simply arm yourself with an A4 notebook and record everything as you find it, including negative searches.  If an ancestor was missing from a census, they may have been out the country or in an institution where inmates were recorded only by initials.

Alternatively, you could buy a software package such as Family Tree Maker, Family Historian or Roots Magic 7 and store your information electronically.

Whichever storage method you choose, periodically sketch or print out a family chart to remind yourself where the gaps still exist.

Start with what (and who) you know

Begin by talking to your older relatives and making notes of what they remember about their early lives. Ask about names, relationships, dates, places and those family stories which start with tantalising sentences like “A brother of my grandfather went to America and the family never heard of him again”.

Remember that, for older relatives, there are likely to be incidents in the family which they regard as shocking and scandalous and will go to any lengths to conceal them from you.  By dealing with such secrets sensitively, you may become the agent for reconciling divided branches of your family.

If you can arrange a visit, take along old photos or other mementoes – a great aid to memory and conversation.  It is important that your relatives become part of your journey, providing information but also receiving it.  Be sure to keep them updated with developments, for it is their adventure as well as yours.