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Issue 12 - Do you have Scottish Ancestry?

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 12
January 2004


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Do you have Scottish Ancestry?

If so, there's a website that will allow you to trace your Caledonian heritage and find out exactly where your forefathers came from, and what they did as Martin Vousden reveals

Scotland has exported some wonderful things to the rest of the world – whisky and golf to name but two. But its greatest, and certainly most successful export has probably been its people, with the result that many corners of the globe (if a globe can, indeed, have corners) are now peopled by the descendants of those hardy pioneers.

They sailed to mysterious lands as engineers, military men, administrators and much else besides. The result is that, wherever you live, and especially if you come from the USA or Canada, there’s a good chance that you have Scottish forebears.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that if you try and explore your family tree, you may well end up saying ‘Och’ a lot and giving birth to ginger-haired children.

But if you are prepared to risk it, a genealogical website is now available that, while not making such an undertaking easy, nevertheless gives a great deal of assistance as it offers access to all parish and statutory records of births, deaths, marriages and christenings in Scotland since time immemorial – or at least since records began.

The site is and it is the ‘Official government source of genealogical data for Scotland’.

And whether you love or hate governments and bureaucracies, they do tend, at least, to keep good records. The problem for me undertaking a search like this is that I am not Scottish and neither do I have any Scottish bloodlines in my family - but I do sleep with a woman who does.

So after a number of small bribes involving chocolates and promises to mow the lawn, I sat my wife in front of the computer and suggested she undertake some research on behalf of those of you who might want to do the same thing, in order to find out how easy or otherwise the
process is.

She set out to trace her father’s bloodline and almost the first observation she made is that there are and have been an awful lot of Campbells, particularly as her family tended to use only a few masculine forenames, such as Angus, James and Duncan.

However, we had some basic information, such as the birth date of her father, and that became a useful starting point. This initial enquiry threw up 16 responses, from which it was pretty easy to find the right one by homing in on the parish where his birth was registered.

This, though, also highlighted our first problem. The names found were listed but for a few moments it wasn’t clear how to proceed.

However, this was a simple problem of perception because we hadn’t noticed that the page view was bigger than the screen on which it was being viewed, so we needed to scroll right to see the ‘search’ icon that would allow us to get more information.

That done, we clicked ‘search’ and only at this point were we prompted to make a payment.

This is done in the form of tokens. When the initial search results are displayed you have the option of using up one of the 30 page credits that will cost you £6 sterling (at the time of writing this equated to US $10, or $13.5 Canadian, and there is a currency converter on site so you can check the exchange rate for yourself).

These credits are useable for 48 hours from the time you register, irrespective of the number of times you log and off in that period.

You are only charged for the number of search results you select, and each time you choose one you are reminded of the number of credits it will cost, and you have to confirm the instruction, so keeping track of the amount you spend is easy.

Search results are shown in pages with a maximum of 25 entries per page, and your £6 will buy you 30 pages so you can potentially view and download a maximum of 750 records for one minimum payment.

So back to our search and the first thing that has to be said is that undertaking genealogical research such as this can be time-consuming, frustrating on occasion as you lead yourself up a series of blind alleys, and addictive.

For example, since 1855 records have been compulsory (‘statutory’ according to the site) but before that it was down to each local parish to record details of its own births, marriages and deaths – they were keen on the first two, less concerned about the latter, so if all the information you have is the date on which someone went to meet their maker, you could soon, pardon the expression, reach a dead end.

Another minor problem is that you are shown the original, hand-written certificate and, while many registrars have clearly been trained in calligraphy and therefore their writing is reasonably easy to read, there are still pitfalls.

For example, my wife’s paternal grandmother was called ‘Catherine’ or ‘Catharine’, depending on whether you read her certificate of birth or marriage.

Also, there are hundreds and hundreds of parishes in Scotland, so if you only know the general area an ancestor hailed from, you’re obliged to search on ‘all fields’, which can throw up far more names than you can reasonably wade through in a month of Sundays.

It would be more helpful if you could search by county or region, such as Tayside or Fife but this problem is one of historical origin and is not the fault of the website – it can, after all, only take you through records that exist in the form in which they exist.

When my wife continued her search of her father’s history we did get momentarily excited while viewing his certificate of marriage because the word ‘illegitimate’ cropped up and for a while I hoped this was concrete evidence of a view of him that I had privately held for quite some time.

However, it transpired that I was reading the wrong entry and it was a completely different Angus Campbell.

Nevertheless, we were able to confirm daddy’s existence and subsequently work back through three more generations before time, money and patience were exhausted.

We discovered that her particular branch of the Campbell clan were mainly farmers although, according to family legend, at least one ancestor was called Rob Roy MacGregor, so I suspect that we will be making a few more searches in the days ahead, to see if this name has any connection with the Rob Roy who had fiery red hair, took part in the battle of Killiecrankie aged only 18, and spent much of his adult life evading the authorities, who wanted him on a charge of high treason.

I do hope so, it would be fun to have a proven rebel in the family background.

And isn’t that, essentially, why genealogical websites in general, and this one in particular, are so popular?

We all have an inherent and understandable curiosity about who we are, and to understand that, we need to find out where we came from and learn more about the people who shaped our very genetic and biological structure. It is the nature of humanity to be curious, and it is our nature to be self-obsessed because we are all at the centre of our own universe.

Scotland's people is a joint initiative between the General Register Office for Scotland – which translates to the rather unappealing acronym of ‘GROS’ – and Scotland On Line, a private company that provides web-based business solutions.

The site has been running for just under a year but already has just over 100,000 registered users.

Many new websites see a strong surge of interest in the immediate aftermath of launch but if the site’s not very good, word spreads and visitor traffic goes down.

Scotland's people, in contrast, started well and as its reputation grows, so does its business. It is also being updated and re-vamped, using the feedback from the first batch of users to make it even more user-friendly.

The website itself is easy to use and follows a logical, sequential pattern - what frustrations there are exist because of the incomplete nature of many family dates or of the records.

In addition to the main core activity of tracing your family history, the site has a number of useful sub-menus, the most appealing of which is ‘features’.

This offers, among other things, general tips on tracing your family tree, the most popular names in Scotland for 2002 (Jack and Chloe since you ask) and it even reveals the wedding capital of Scotland – but that’s something you will have to look up for yourself.

More importantly, you can find out if you do, in fact, have Scottish ancestors and if so, where they came from, and what tartan you might be legitimately entitled to wear.

You can even find out which whisky distillery is closest to the lands of your ancestors. Just be wary of the prospect of ginger-haired children.

And there we will have to leave it – I have chocolates to buy and a lawn to mow.