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Issue 33 - Scots abroad: how to trace your Scottish ancestry overseas

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 33
June 2007


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Scots abroad: how to trace your Scottish ancestry overseas

In the first two parts of this series we looked at how Scottish ancestry can be researched within Scotland. But what happens when the trail leads overseas? Dominic Roskrow reports

It’s debatable whether crime pays or not.

But when it comes to genealogy, a criminal past can be an advantage.

That’s the view of Doctor Brian Thomson, a leading genealogist who specialises in smoothing the information highway for people seeking information about their past.

For once the trail leads outside Scotland’s boundaries it becomes considerably harder to find information – and a criminal record can help.

“Ironically if your relatives were transported as convicts, this will actually help your search,” he says. “It’s easier to find Scots who were registered than people who travelled freely. Convict records are often incredibly detailed.

“People were often sentenced for the pettiest of crimes, such as stealing spoons.

They would first be sent to London before being put on a ship bound for places such as Australia.” In any search of this sort the starting point is to identify where a criminal trial took place.

Once this has been done it should be relatively easy to find where prisoners were held before they were sent to London.

Scottish prisons, for instance, kept records of prisoners they held before sending them on.

Many criminal records are held in the United Kingdom National Archive and should you be studying lists, you’ll find the Scottish convicts at the end.

According to Dr Thomson it can be particularly difficult finding information on people who travelled to Europe, because records are scant. Journeys to North America, New Zealand and Australia are often easier to trace.

There are two separate strands of genealogy at work in this area – tracing the ancestry of people who travelled to live in Scotland from overseas, and tracing the roots of people who left Scotland, perhaps through the Clearances, and settled in other parts of the world.

Dr Thomson’s advice if you’re seeking to trace people emigrating overseas is to start your search by trying to identify whether any records exist in Scotland. The National Archive of Scotland holds some records of schemes that assisted people from the Highlands and islands to emigrate to America and Canada, for instance, and the National Library of Scotland holds some documents. Aberdeen University has a Scottish Emigration Database containing the records of more than 20,000 passengers who left Scottish ports between 1890 and 1960.

Should you want information on ancestors arriving in to Scotland from overseas then the first stopping point according to Dr Thomson is the United Kingdom National Archive in London. If further research requires checking overseas records and you’re put off by the potential language problem, Dr Thomson’s advice is not to give up and to check whether records have been translated in to English. As the interest in genealogy has grown, some documents have been translated.

Dr James Wilson is a leading geneticist at Edinburgh University. He has developed a test revealing Pictish, Anglo-Saxon, Irish or Viking chromosomes.

“The Picts are believed to be descendants of the first people to colonise Scotland after the glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age. Until now the degree to which present day Scots were descended from this mysterious people was unknown.

“However, recent genetic analysis has revealed the existence of two Pictish Y chromosome signatures which are most common in Scotland, but rarely seen in England or continental Europe.” Similar tests can reveal whether you have any connections to the Vikings or to Somerled, who drove the Vikings out of the Western Isles and established the Lords of the Isles there. Such links are unsurprisingly quite common among many Scots, particularly those bearing a name such as MacDonald or MacDougall.

Irish research in the area of DNA is also helping to show links between the two countries. Dr Wilson is now developing new markers to tease apart European origins and is collecting tens of thousands of samples in a bid to build up a more complete picture of British and Scottish roots.

Dr Wilson runs a self-help genealogy company and website called Scotlands Family (sic) and can be contacted via:
He can be emailed about DNA research at: