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Edinburgh Life article

My first published article can be found in the March-April 2017 edition of Edinburgh Life. Entitled “Ordinary People, Interesting Lives” it explains how tracing your family roots can be a fascinating ongoing journey of discovery. There is also the chance to win a competition worth £350 of family tree research with Scottish Relatives and Roots.  Below is the article. Hope you find it interesting.

How much do you know about your Scottish family roots and history, where your ancestors were born, and the places where they lived and worked? Did they live locally or did they move within Scotland or emigrate to another part of the world?

These are the questions that come to mind and can be the start of a huge, ongoing journey of discovery.  Researching family history, or one’s family tree, can be an exciting, revealing and challenging activity which at once can be absorbing, addictive and even obsessive! The findings can solve mysteries, answer questions and equally reveal new ones, and often change lives and perceptions.  The activity offers a sense of fulfilment, reward and satisfaction. However, it can also be a very time consuming activity which requires huge commitment, patience and resilience, often encountering “brick walls” along the way.

In recent years, tracing one’s roots has been popularised and encouraged in recent years by television shows such as the BBC’s Television programme Who Do You Think You Are (WDYTYA)  where celebrities who have their family tree  retraced, courtesy of BBC researchers! Inspired by the TV shows, many viewers now want to find out more about their own family history, and they have been helped  by the increasingly detailed genealogical and family history information which is available.

Internet resources such as ScotlandsPeople and Ancestry websites provide lots of information about births, marriages and deaths, and Census records are now also available online. Also, there are lots of long established family history societies that are a great source of knowledge.  Just a few hours of research can uncover all sorts of facts, which can lead to completely unimagined lines of enquiry, unearthing ancestors who led fantastically interesting and sometimes very important and distinguished lives.

So, if you want to find out who you think you are, here are the basic steps you need to take as you embark on your journey of discovery.

Establish what information readily exists

This sounds simple and straightforward and, at first, it is. Start with yourself, recording your immediate family – parents’ “vital statistics” of birth, marriage, death as appropriate. Then broaden your search to include your siblings, your parents’ siblings and so on.


Then start working  backwards – which is often where things can get slightly tricky!  Were you lucky enough to know your grandparents and if you did, do you know their own vital statistics? If not, do your parents know?  

My experience is that this is not always the case. For example, I never met any of my own grandparents and knew little about them, not even their birth dates.  Unfortunately I left it too late to ask my parents the details.  I have also undertaken some work for clients whose parents were orphaned and who therefore had no detail at all to start with.

Apart from the basics, it is really useful to know what your forebears did, where they married and where they lived at least at some stages in their lives.  In this way you can build up a picture, albeit possibly only a simple one, which can be the crucial starting point for further research.  You’ll soon garner a lot of information, so to make sense of it all, document your findings by creating a family tree chart either on paper or using a dedicated family tree software package – there are many available, all with different features and facilities.

Talk to your relatives

 If you are lucky enough to have elderly relatives with good memories, talk to them. Also find out if they have any documents and artefacts that might help. For example, if they have a Family Bible, it could reveal a wealth of information as this was once the traditional method of recording a family’s descendants.

I have a lot to thank my elderly aunt and late dear uncle, who both carefully documented the lineage of my paternal and maternal ancestors respectively. They had letters, original marriage banns and marriage certificates, as well as the odd newspaper article and announcement – all which have helped me to piece together my own family history.

As well as hard information, relatives may also have undocumented family memories and stories which could be vital in straightening out innocent mistakes and misunderstandings. Of course, there may be issues of confidentiality, so be tactful with your questioning!

Get your facts right

Memories can fade, and it is easy to confuse facts with fiction, as well as mix up dates and timelines.  It is essential that anything you learn from anecdotal conversations with relatives is corroborated ideally with original documentary evidence.  In Scotland, we are very fortunate to be able to access a huge range of statutory registers, census returns, church registers and valuation rolls all available online or by visiting one of the country’s ScotlandsPeople Centres. In Edinburgh, ScotlandsPeople is based at General Register House at No 2 Princes Street, which holds all birth, marriage and death records dating back in some instances to 1553, as well as wills and testaments and Coats of Arms.

If you are can’t visit a ScotlandsPeople Centre, you can search its records online. Searching the indexes is free and accessing digital images I payable on a pay-per-view basis.  If you are able to visit General Register House or one of the other five ScotlandsPeople Centres across the country, you can pay a flat fee of £15 for a day search pass.   For more information see www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk.

Ask a professional genealogist

Researching your ancestral roots can be time consuming and overwhelming. The information accumulated can clarify, confuse and mislead  – all in equal measure!

Professional genealogists have the knowledge and experience to make sense of it all, especially where old records are involved. Before 1700, many records were hand written in Latin, and often difficult to read. Additionally, old documents can be faded, torn or incomplete. Good professional genealogists are skilled in dealing with these difficulties, including the reading and transcription of palaeography (old handwriting).

It’s worth considering that a professional genealogist can do all the laborious research work, leaving the client to physically following the footsteps of their relative.

For example, I recently completed work for a gentleman whose uncle was killed in a plane collision during World War II.  By establishing facts surrounding this accident, I was able to supply him with sufficient information which enabled him to visit the location of the remnants of the plane. Amazingly, he was also able to recover some of his uncle’s personal possessions including his diary, his cigarette box and a map. My research had revealed that in 1988 the MOD had passed these items to a local museum, which – in the absence of any information about relatives – had held onto them. A wonderful outcome!

Preserve your research in style

Having gone to the time, trouble and expense of producing your detailed family tree, why not have all your information laid out in style? After many hours of research, I recently produced a family story book documenting 5 generations of a client’s maternal and paternal ancestors, including details of 298 known individuals in a chart 3.5 meters long!

Genealogical research can reveal lots of amazing information, so if you would like to find out more about your own family’s past, or have a particular enquiry about an aspect of your ancestral roots, contact me at Scottish Relatives and Roots.




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