A recent study found that there are up to 40 million people around the world who claim some degree of Scottish heritage. Scotland certainly offers plenty to see and do for anyone, but for those of us who can trace our family back there, it takes on a different significance. When I first landed in Inverness, I felt something completely unexpected. In this new city and country, I felt completely comfortable and familiar. It was an immediate feeling of home, as strong as any of the places I have lived for years at a time. It’s a unique sensation, to step foot for the first time on one’s ancestral homeland, and one that I wish more people had the chance to experience.
But before you set off for Scotland to rediscover your roots, you can get a huge amount of information from home. I don’t think of online genealogical research as a replacement for heritage travel – far from it – but more of an accessory. The knowledge of where your ancestors were, what they did and how they lived, will only enhance the experience. If you’re visiting Scotland on a genealogical trip, I think it makes all the sense in the world to do as much research before your trip as possible.
With that in mind, I’ve compiled some of the best resources for investigating Scottish ancestry online. This will probably never be complete – it’s a big internet out there – but these are some starting points to get your feet moving and start you on the path to understanding more about your Scottish forebears.
Cost: Free to register and see certain sections. Many documents have a small charge to view.
Scotland’s People is a service of the National Records of Scotland, expressly designed to allow access to census and other genealogical information for those with Scottish ancestry. In addition to census data, their database includes parish birth, death and marriage records, wills and more. Be selective and try to make sure a document will be relevant before you purchase. This is where I would start if you have the name of an ancestor in Scotland, especially if you can narrow down the hits by date or area of the country.
Hosted by the University of Aberdeen, this database is a product of the University’s Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies. It contains 21,000 records of Scottish emigrants between 1890 and 1960, with most of the records covering emigration in 1923. It’s a relatively small and specific set, compared to the entire millions-strong Scottish diaspora, but if you do find a hit, you have a really concrete piece of data, the actual ship your ancestor took and the actual date they took it.
This crowd-sourced database of Scottish births, deaths and marriages (BDM) boasts about 90,000 records, and has the advantage of listing not only the information itself, but an email to contact the person who added it. No actual documents are stored on this site, so it’s a place to find leads, not evidence. But the ability to connect to an actual person who has researched your ancestor before you (plus the fact that the site is free) makes this a worthwhile stop.
Cost: $34.99 per month to access UK records. Free 14-day trial available.
Ancestry is the largest and widest of the subscription genealogy services out there, and I’d recommend at least giving the trial version a shot to see if someone else has done the work for you already. If you’re serious about your family tree, though, beware of copying others’ trees without strong evidence. You’ll notice that a lot of Ancestry users manage to trace themselves back to famous people or nobility, which tends to involve some wishful thinking and careless borrowing. Check each connection yourself, and if there isn’t a paper trail to back it up, don’t believe it. It’s better to find nothing here (and keep the potential of finding it elsewhere) than to take on false information.
Cost: Free (Registration optional)
The Highland Clearances are one of the darkest chapters in Scottish and British history. Huge numbers of Highland families were forced from their homes, displacing whole clans and causing a population decline that the Highlands as a region never really recovered from. If you belong to a Highland clan, this site is certainly worth a check to see if any of your ancestors might have been displaced or been otherwise involved in the Clearances. It’s an ugly aspect of our history, but one with a huge impact on Scotland’s history and where and how our Scottish ancestors lived.
Cost: Index is free, links to other resources
GENUKI is a good starting point if you know where your ancestor came from, down to the county. Each county has its own list of links and resources, so you only get the information you need. Don’t be turned off by the technicolor map on the search page. This might not be the most up to date site on the web, but it’s helpful for some searches.
The Mitchell Library is located in Glasgow, and maintains probably the largest single collection of family records for the west of Scotland. If you had an ancestor who may have lived in or close to Glasgow, this is a place to search, but beware: the search functions aren’t organized by name, but by type of record, so this isn’t going to be a point and click search. Still, there are links to records here that aren’t available elsewhere, and it’s a free online resource, so it doesn’t hurt to dig in and see what you can find.
Cost: Free index, but individual societies often have membership fees.
This is where your search will start to go offline, but since the index itself is on the web, I’ve decided to include it as an online resource. SAFHS is the umbrella organization for over 160 family history groups, many of them covering specific regions of the country or even specific clans. These groups are overwhelmingly friendly and eager to help. They are obsessed with the search for Scottish history, and they are a great resource to tap when you start to run into a wall yourself. If you know where your ancestor was and when, these groups can take you farther than any web search.
The clans themselves are a massive source of ancestral data that far too many people ignore during their online research. Who better to ask about your family history than distant relatives you might not have even known you had? If you don’t know which clan you’re descended from, check our page “Finding your Clan”.
These resources are just the beginning, but they will keep you busy digging up details on your ancestors for hours and days. In fact, I’d wager that they’ll keep you occupied long enough for me to get around to another genealogy post before you’re done. If you have any success with these, or if you think I missed one that should really be listed here, let me know in the comments or on one of our social media channels.