Saturday, August 21, 2010

Got Scots?

Last week I discussed some of the folks that I have met via the Internet over the last several years that allowed each of us to expand our ancestral knowledge. Cousin “L,” one of my synergistic relatives, recently pointed me to a web site that provides Scottish parish and probate records. The site is called “Scotland’s People” and is “the official government source of genealogical data for Scotland.” You will find it at


There is one danger -- the site is addictive. If you have Scottish ancestry and know the general location of where your forebears lived, you might be able to expand your horizons and extend your generational reach. Some of the records, such census records, are available elsewhere. Even abstracts of some parish registers can be obtained on other sites; however, “Scotland’s People” allows you to access the actual documents. In addition, complete probate records are on file.

Unfortunately, searching some of the records and accessing all of the records has an associated cost. To do either, you must register as a member. Credits may be purchased in increments of 30 for £6 – which is roughly $10.00 American. You can purchase the credits via a credit card. One word of warning, the site would not process my debit card; however, it readily accepted my credit card.

When you perform a search, it is necessary to narrow the search as much as possible. This may be done by having both first and last names of the individual, the county and specific parish locations, and a range of years. Even with common names, I found it helpful to use the Soundex feature as one of my Wilsons was enumerated as Willson and I missed him the first time I searched for his birth record.

When you search for a name and it returns a number of pages, expect to pay one credit for each page. This will use up credits quickly if you don’t manage your searches well. Each parish document costs five credits each. The wills are somewhat different in that they can be searched for free and the entire will can be purchased each for £5 sterling. I had mistakenly thought that it was £5 per page; however, the price is for the entire document.

Incidentally, when you purchase searches and documents, these remain available for a period of time at the site without additional charge and both may be downloaded.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way

One of the aspects I’ve learned about Scottish wills is that there are specific, dialectal, and archaic terms in use that you will need to define. In addition, as with many legal documents, sometimes Latin is used for specific designations. Below, I have listed some of the terms you may encounter.

  • Testament dative – executors appointed by the court where there was no will and the testament dative is the document that is produced in absence of a will.
  • Heritable property – real property including land and buildings. These cannot be bequeathed in a will.
  • Movable property – all personal property that could be sold to honor debts and from which would be passed onto the heirs.
  • Goods and gear – personal property
  • Brother german – full brother
  • Brother uterine – half brother who shares the same mother
  • Brother agnate – half brother who shares the same father
  • Umquhill (Umql.) – the late
  • Defunct – the deceased
  • Decerned – decreed by the court

A great help in understanding Scottish wills and the handwriting of the period is Without this site, I would have been lost in understanding some of the documents.

For a look at an actual will and my transcription of it, click here.

Old Parish Registers

These records are invaluable in proving paternity and finding dates of births and christenings (baptisms), marriages, and burials. When you see these records, you will need to remember that these are Church of Scotland records and were not specifically intended for genealogical purposes. With that said, they can be a source of additional information for ancestor hunters.

Birth/Baptismal Records

Dates of birth and death may be missing from the register as the dates for baptisms and burials were regarded as more important. While missing in some, they do appear in other documents. My 3rd great grandmother’s birth/baptismal record from 1782 reads: “John Wilson, Mariner and Janet Frazer, spouse of this Parish had a Daughter born fifteenth and baptized Twenty sixth of January 1782 named Frances. Witnesses Alexander Watson & Alen Gray.”

Portrait and birth record of Frances Wilson (later Owston)
Click photo for the document.

While I had seen this parish record twenty years ago on a microfilm I ordered from the Latter Day Saints Family History Library, I was able to download a digital copy of the record from “Scotland’s People.” The whole page is downloadable so if there is more than one record of interest, you will get them both. I did have this happen twice with two relatives found on the same page.

Marriage Records

Information in the marriage records will vary and may include the names of the parents, the occupation of the groom, witnesses, and other pertinent information. Some may be extremely complete and others may be woefully incomplete. The document may include information concerning the proclamation of banns – which is an announcement during a regular church service that gives the parish members an opportunity to object to the forthcoming marriage. The record may also reference the issuance of a license of marriage.

Portraits and marriage record for Thomas Owston & Agnes Douglas
Click the above photo for access to the document

“Thomas Owston, mercht. of Upper Canada [Ontario], and Agnes Douglas, daugt. of Robt. Douglas, Esq. both residing in the Parish of North Leith gave in their names for a proclamation of banns for one Sabbath. John Gillon [first cousin of the groom and brother-in-law of the bride] and Robt. Douglas , her father attestors. Proclaimed the 15th Febry; got lics. [license] 17th March 1829 & married the same day by the Rev. James Buchanan, Min. of North Leith.”

Death and Burial Records

Since the church did not require burial information to be registered, some parish registers only have deaths for the 19th century. Earlier deaths are not recorded. In addition, where you find records a woman’s maiden name is used more often than her married name. In the following death record for my fourth great-grandmother, she is listed as “Fraser, Janet relict (widow) of John Wilson, Shipmaster, died the ___ Sept. and was buried 30th Sept. [1825]. 4 P[aces] S[outh] from Jno. Reid’s stone.” She died of “old age” at the age of “81.”

Portrait and death record for Janet Fraser Wilson
Click the above photo for access to the document

While her date of death is not listed it is reasonable to say that she died two to three days prior to the burial on September 30, 1825. Extant copies of the Edinburgh Current do not list her death information; therefore, knowing her exact date of death is impossible at the present.

It is interesting to note that she was buried four paces south from the stone of John Reid in the North Leith parish cemetery on Coburg Street in Leith. The location of the plot may indicate that there was no stone erected for the grave. Ironically, her daughter (my 3rd great grandmother) was buried in Cobourg, Ontario.

Other Records

The site has other records that I have not had a need to check as these do not apply to my family. These addition records include the decennial censuses from 1841 to 1901; the statutory registers for births, marriages, and deaths for the years 1855 to 2006; Coats of Arms; and Catholic parish registers.

My Experiences

I was able to tighten up my family tree and learned that some information of another researcher who had submitted his data to International Genealogical Index (IGI) was incorrect. At the time, I had contacted him and he sent me his complete family record sheets and when I did a preliminary check of the parish registers, I thought he was correct -- we were both wrong.

The will of my fourth great-grandfather provided by Cousin "L" had information concerning the date of death of this ancestor, that his son John had predeceased the Testament Dative, and the name of my 3rd great grandmother’s oldest sister’s husband was recorded incorrectly by my 1990 contact.

The other researcher (as I did in 1990) assumed that another Janet Wilson who was married in the parish was the daughter of John Wilson and Janet Fraser. It was not the same Janet Wilson. The correct marriage, however, was documented in the records of St. Cuthbert's Parish of nearby Edinburgh.

There were other mistakes found in the other researcher’s analysis of the parish registers that I was able to correct in my family tree. In addition, I was able to take two lines back further in time and added to my ever growing list of ancestors.


As with any genealogical record, take notice of others in the parish that have the same name. This was one of the errors that my contact from 1990 had made in his research. This is easy to do.

In searching the records for further information regarding my fifth great-grandfather named John Wilson, I discovered that there were as many eight adult John Wilsons that were possibly alive in 1760. One of these was my fifth great grandfather and one was my fourth great grandfather. One could possibly be my sixth great grandfather; however, I neither have his name nor any information about him.

I alluded to a second problem with the site. It can be addicting and therefore, you may be finding that you are spending more than you initially expected. For most genealogists, these additional costs will be part of the normal behavior associated with the hobby.

Thanks Cousin "L" for letting me know about this site.

Got Scots?, good luck.


  1. you fail to mention the fact that there are many Presbytarians, who, thanks to the cleansings, have no extant records and cannot be researched unless they are from a major Scottish clan which kept a genealogist who kept a tree with data on it. it is possible, even from such a large clan as the McDonalds, that some lines will always be missing a few generations.

  2. Neko: I appreciate the comments. Obviously the site will not have every Scottish line for a variety of reasons. My family's home parish is missing marriage records for about 70 years in 18th century and did not have any burial records until after 1800. The synopsis was intended to only be an overview.