Legacy Tree works with onsite professional genealogist around the world. We sat down with one of our Scottish onsite researchers to ask her a few questions about Scottish heritage and genealogy, and how to get through common challenges and assumptions about Scottish family trees.
Discovering Surprising Scottish Heritage
We are pleased to chat today with one of our onsite researchers, Emily. I think it’s really interesting for people to understand how you got into genealogy. What sparked your interest and what was your journey to get to where you’re at right now and doing this as a career?
My genealogy story started as many people do when they’re very young. I first became interested when my grandfather on my father’s side gave me a family tree dating back to about 1500, which was pretty cool. It dates back to Scotland, which was quite interesting because I’m from Northern Ireland, from Belfast. So for anyone unfamiliar with Northern Ireland, it is right beside Scotland, just across the water. It’s like half an hour to fly. So it’s not far, but I was surprised that we’re Scottish and live in Northern Ireland; what’s going on there?
When I grew up, I learned about the history of my family. I learned that my ancestors were part of something called the Ulster Plantation, which was a forced migration from Scottish and some English, mainly Northern English, and farmers who were paid to go and settle the land in Ireland take it away from Catholic owners. So it’s a very contentious issue. They were paid to do this in the 16th and 17th centuries.
So Northern Ireland was settled by a lot of Scottish and English people. Many people with Scottish surnames, like myself, find out they’re related to these plantation owners. So when I learned about that, it made more sense why we’re Scottish, even though we live in Northern Ireland.
And then another thing that got me into it that was quite special was that there was this one surname from the family tree called Liko, which was quite a cool name. And it was my grandfather’s first name. And his family had managed to carry the name for 500 years through a child from each generation.
And he passed that name on to one of his sons, who passed on to one of his sons. The fact that the name Liko started around 1500 in Scotland and it’s still today in the world through this one line was pretty remarkable. And I also have my DNA tested, as so many people do. I am 84% Scottish, which isn’t a surprise. And I had a cousin of mine, who’s really into genealogy, and he DNA tested and found that we are related to the clan McFarland way back in the 14-hundreds. This is funny because so many people I speak to say, “Oh, you know, I’m Scottish; I’m from the clans.” It doesn’t always work like that, but, in my case, it weirdly does. So I find out we are related to the McFarland clan, and then I find out that it was currently leaderless, but according to the law, only men can inherit the clan title.
Finally, the practical reason I’m into Scottish genealogy, it’s because I live in Scotland. I moved to Edinburgh when I was 18 to study at the university. And then, I did another teaching degree in Glasgow, which is very near Edinburgh. Compared to America, Scotland is tiny–everywhere is within a few hours. And now I live in the Highlands. I’ve done a triangle of Scotland, and it felt natural to live and look into Scottish genealogy.
How Difficult is Scottish Research?
That is quite a story because so many of us, especially those from America, have lost that connection with our roots. And it’s a beautiful thing that you live in your ancestral land. For many people, that’s a journey they plan their whole life to go and do. It’s so important to connect with your roots and to be there. That’s one reason why it’s so nice to connect with researchers like yourself worldwide.
Is it difficult to do research in Scotland? Are the records in Scotland well preserved? Are you able to find them? Do you need to be there physically to visit the archives, look at these research books, or go to some old parishes? How do you usually start, and is it challenging?
Using Scottish Vital Records
So you have two categories of records that you work within Scotland.
The vital records including birth, marriages, and deaths in Scotland were registered beginning in 1855. You legally had to register one of the three. These dates differ from England and Wales which began registration in 1837 and Ireland in 1865. These records will often contain a mother’s maiden name, which is wonderful because sometimes you don’t get that. And they include both parents’ names on the marriage certificate, which, again, English records only have the father until a certain date.
What To Know About Using Scotland’s People Website
Those records are outstanding. And what’s also good is that you can research them from anywhere in the world because all of them are on a website called Scotland’s People, which the government owns. You do have to pay for the records and know what you’re doing to ensure you’re searching in the right place. For example, if you had an ancestor with a typical Scottish name like James Fraser, I’m not influenced by Outlander, the television program.
You might type in James Fraser and a specific year or a five or 10-year period, and you’d come up with hundreds of different ones, and you think, where am I going to start? And unless you have an idea, you will waste a bit of money. One of my clients told me that he had just flat out told his daughters their inheritance was on Scotland’s People, and he was spending it there, which I thought was quite funny. Although his daughters maybe not so much. Scotland’s People is great. You can check out all of the records there. They also have census records for every ten years starting in 1841. The census records are a great place to find and follow your ancestors through the years.
Using Onsite Parish Records To Research Scottish Ancestry
Finally, the parish records made by the church are a great resource. These predate the vital records before 1855; the earliest ones go back to the 1550s. The earliest is 1553. And there’s a lot of volumes, something like 3,500 volumes. Many of these are online too, but like you were saying, there are some that you have to be in the country to view. So many of them are held exclusively at the records office in Edinburgh. So it is helpful in that case to utilize onsite researchers.
Is there one dominant church that maintained all those records?
Navigating Church Records To Research Your Scottish Family Tree
The Church of England holds the parish records in England. The Church of Scotland holds many of the parish records in Scotland. If you married in the Church of Scotland, they would’ve registered the marriage. But you also did have a Roman Catholic church there. You do get quite a few records registered by the Catholic church.
And then they also have other churches like the free church, which is the Presbyterian church. So it depends on which denomination your ancestors belonged to. The two main ones are the Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church, with the Presbyterian church secondarily.
Common Barriers to Scottish Genealogy Research and How To Overcome Them
What’s the most challenging thing about researching in Scotland for you when you’re working on a project for a client?
Sometimes the location and the sheer size of the data to search. For example, suppose you’re looking for someone in Scotland, and they moved to one of the big cities in the late 19th century, which so many did looking for employment opportunities during the Industrial Revolution. In that case, they might just put a county, or shire, as their place of birth. And then if they have a surname that’s a mix surname, like my surname McFarland, you think, oh no, because there will be hundreds of that surname in that county. Probably all related, but it is a bit of a maze to work through.
So my heart does sink a bit when it’s a mix surname because sometimes it’s Mc, sometimes it’s Mac, and sometimes it’s an apostrophe. Many ancestors have a mix of all surname variations. And so that can be quite hard to trace through. What I tend to do then is go back to the county of origin and work out all the families with that name and then work out where my client fits in.
What Does “Scotch” Really Mean?
Another thing that I find a bit tricky is that I have many clients who are American, Canadian, or Australian with Scottish ancestry, and on the census, they list Scotch or Scotch Irish as their country of origin. But they really mean that their country of origin is Scotch. They might not have been born in Scotland. So, for example, pretend I immigrated to America in 1800, but I was born in Northern Ireland, or Ireland as it was then. I would put on the census ‘born Scotch’ or ‘born Scotch Irish’ to say my ancestors were from Scotland 40 or 50 years ago. They came to Ireland to live, and then we moved on to America. But it cuts out the middle country because then you wonder, am I looking for a birth record in Ireland or Scotland? So when people say Scotch-Irish, they actually mean Scottish. But that can also be tricky.
Were My Scottish Ancestors Part Of A Clan?
Many clients, particularly those who aren’t from Scotland, have this very romantic idea of their ancestors being clad in a kilt playing the bagpipes, looking over the castle and loch, and having their land stolen by the English.
And then I sometimes feel a bit bad when I have to explain to them that they weren’t part of the clans because a lot of the migration from Scotland to America happened from the lowlands and the borders with England, where the clan system wasn’t really in place. There was a bit of a clan system in the central belt but not in the lowlands. And so they went for economic reasons. I feel a bit bad when I have to tell them that just because they have a surname with a clan name, for example, McDonald, doesn’t necessarily mean they belong to the clan.
Overcoming Scottish Brick Walls
Tell us about one of the difficulties that you have overcome in Scottish research.
I was doing this one case where my client knew that he had a very Scottish surname, and he knew that his parents were Scottish. At some point, he believed an Italian line came to Scotland, and he said he knew the name of his grandparents, but we were struggling to find a record of their immigration.
They were Italian, and the person registering their immigration in Scotland had never probably heard of their Italian surname in the 1860s or 1870s and did not spell it correctly. After searching hundreds of records, it turned out that not only did they spell their surname in at least ten different ways, the records had switched their first and last names. It was a bit wild. I was able to break through this brick wall by paying for and gathering all of the records and then just sitting down for several days and puzzling through them. In the end, we did figure it out and extended his tree two generations.
Favorite Genealogy Moment
What is your favorite moment in genealogy?
One of the best moments I had was finding a birth register listing coordinates at sea. I had never had that before and thought it was so special. I googled the coordinates, and it was off the coast of the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of West Africa. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and this was a first.
That’s really neat. Think of the story behind that and the experience for that mother. I like the stories behind things. I think that’s what makes genealogy so special.
Absolutely. I think the story behind that was that the father was a sailor and all of his children had been born in the Caribbean and Malden, places like that where sailors work.
Is there anything else that you would like to add that you want the Legacy Tree community to know about Scottish research?
Scottish research is challenging and rewarding. If you believe you have Scottish heritage, start with the resources I mentioned before and be open to surprises.
And when you get stuck, reach out to Legacy Tree and you may end up with Emily doing some onsite research for you in Scotland.
If you’re curious to learn more about your Scottish heritage and family tree, we’d love to help you verify and develop what you already have! You can schedule a consultation with us to find out how we can work for you.