Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Visit Scotland and take a walk in your ancestors' footsteps

To most people tracing their family history means more than just finding out dates and names and putting them on a chart. It means understanding your ancestors’ lives, having the ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ experience.

Jedburgh Castle Jail
2014 is a great year to visit Scotland and discover the place ancestors called home. You may find that the area they lived is not what you had in mind. When you think of Scotland do you think of clans and tartan? Well there is much more to Scotland than that. In fact if your ancestors were from the south of Scotland they probably never wore a kilt in their life! That doesn’t mean however that the south has any less of a rich heritage, rather your history is just different.

So what was life really like, how can you find out?

A good place to start is finding out where they actually lived. Can you pinpoint the house? Agricultural labourers moved around a lot, so you may not be able to find every house. Of course, some may no longer be standing. By using the National Library of Scotland’s excellent collection of online maps, though, you can often find the house they lived in. We have linked a lot of the census entries we have transcribed to maps, so use our census collection to help you. If you can’t work it out e-mail us and we can help.

What else?

You may be able to find their final resting place. The Borders Family History Society has an online Gravestone index (surnames only) from which you can purchase a book with more information. These help you find the grave so that you can visit it when you come over.

Local museums

There are lots of small local museums, often run by volunteers who can tell you the ‘true’ history of the place. Most towns have their own museum, run by the local council and admission is free. Here are some excellent ones we have visited:

Jedburgh Castle Jail

Walk through the old cells
If you have found your ancestor in our prison database you may be able to visit the jail they were locked up in! Jedburgh Castle Jail gives you a real taste of life behind bars. You can even walk round and round the exercise yard!

Historical customs - Loupin' Stanes

Named the Loupin' Stanes because of the somewhat dangerous custom of young men leaping from one to another to prove their love to their girl and gain her hand in marriage! A custom long since stopped as too many legs were broken! This site is on the Eskdale Prehistoric Trail.

Old Towers

Today people visit Scotland for its peace and tranquility, but it was not always thus! Peppered across the south of Scotland are the remains of towers, places where you could run to for protection.

Perhaps you ancestor was out ploughing their land, their family inside a wee thatched house, long since gone. Over the hill in the distance they see the glint of sun reflecting against armour. There is no way they could be safe in their home, they would run to a tower for protection.

You can still visit these today, sit at the window and imagine how it would have felt to be cooped up with animals, open drains, no running water and the rain driving against the wall!

Some of these are preserved now by Historic Scotland, others are on private land. Most landowners, though, are more than happy to give access, ask somebody who lives nearby and they can often point you to who owns the land so that you can arrange to get a key (if necessary) or show you around.

These are just some of the lesser known sites I know of, every local area has their own hidden treasures. Come home in 2014, get off the tourist route and visit the land of your ancestors.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Understanding Our "Lunatic" Ancestors

Lunatic, Imbecile or Feebleminded

It can be quite a shock for many people when they first see the column on census pages headed: “If any person in this Schedule is:- … Lunatic, Imbecile or Feebleminded”. Variations on this question were asked from 1871, when the question was “Whether: 1. Deaf-and-Dumb 2. Blind 3. Imbecile or Idiot 4. Lunatic.” What can come as a greater shock than the phrasing of the question is when we discover that our ancestor is listed as an “Imbecile” or a “Lunatic”!

Greater Understanding

As time has passed a greater understanding of mental health has led to kinder and more specific terminology as well as huge improvements in the help available for sufferers. When we see such a reference we may immediately want to know more about the condition our ancestors had.

The Archives

In Scotland there is a fabulous resource held by the National Records of Scotland (NRS). Whilst these politically incorrect terms are used in the records there is also a description of the facts as seen by the doctor at the time, and as related to the doctor by other individuals. This means we can move beyond the words “lunatic” or “idiot” and understand more about the people behind the terms and how they were suffering”.

The documents are recorded under the reference ‘MC’ in the NRS. The most informative series is MC2 which is entitled “Notices of Admissions by the Superintendent of the Mental Institutions”. These notices of admissions start in 1858. There is also a register, containing less detail. The register begins in 1858 but includes all those already within the system at that point in time. So if somebody entered an asylum in 1820 and was still there in 1858 they are in the register but a person committed in 1850 but who left in 1856 will not be in the register. The references for these registers begin MC7 (see the NRS catalogue for years and full references).


Let’s say then we have been doing some research and we have come across Marjory Methven in the 1861 census, who is listed as a patient in the Royal Lunatic Asylum. We may want to learn more about poor Marjory.

I have found her in the “Notices of Admissions by the Superintendent of the Mental Institutions”. The record begins:

“I herby give you notice, That Marjory Spence or Burrell or Methven, a pauper lunatic of the Parish of Edinburgh was received into the Eastern Division of the  Poorhouse Edinburgh as an Insane person on the Twenty-third day of February and I herewith transmit a Copy of the Order and Medical Certificates and Statement on which she was received…” [this notice was signed by a doctor in March 1858].

On the next page is a form to be filled out, asking again for name, age, marital status etc. It also asks:
8 - Length of Time Insane
9 - Whether first attack
10 - Age (if known) on first Attack
14 - Whether subject to Epilepsy
15 - Whether Suicidal
16 - Whether Dangerous to others
17 - Parish or Union to which the Lunatic is Chargeable
18 - Christian Name and Surname, and Place of Abode, of nearest known Relative of the Patient, and degree of Relationship (if known), and whether any Member of his Family known to be or have been Insane

In our case questions 8-13 are answered as “Not Known”, and questions 14-16 are answered as “No”. Number 18 gives the detail: “Miller Methven, her husband, 203 Cannongate. Not known whether any of the family are or have been insane.” [this page is again signed, this time by the Inspector of the Poor].

Next we have a notice from the Sheriff-Clerks Office saying that Marjory Spence or Methven can be admitted.

The Facts of the Case

On the following page we have the medical certificate, which is where we begin to find out some real detail about poor Marjory.

“I, the undersigned John Smith M.D., being a Physician and being in actual practice as a Physician do hereby certify, on soul and conscience, that I have this day at the Eastern Division of the Edinburgh Poor House in the County of Mid-Lothian separately from any other Medical Practitioner, visited and personally examined Marjory Spence or Birrell or Methven, and that the said Marjory Spence or Birrell or Methven is a Lunatic and a proper Person to be detained in a Poorhouse under care and treatment, and that I have formed this opinion upon the following grounds, viz: -

  1. Facts observed by myself: She says she has just come over from Kirkcaldy to be crowned Queen, that she received papers telling her to do so, that the papers were given by Soldiers, but she does not know who sent the papers. - Was taken up by the Police, having a crowd about her calling out Victoria.

(Signed) John Smith M.D. Physician, 20 Charlotte Square.

We have a second physician, completing the same form:

. . . I have formed this opinion upon the following grounds viz: -

  1. Her fantastic dress & incoherent language. She labours under delusions, for example that she is Queen of England, and that she is about to be married to a Nobleman.

(Signed) William D. Adams M.D., 5 Argyle Square

And there you have it, that’s the sort of thing you can find in the MC records held by the National Records of Scotland. These records can certainly help us to have an insight into our ancestors.


If you need help to access these records please get in touch. Records under 100 years old are not available to the public but earlier records can be consulted. There was an index created but at the time the closure on the records was only 75 years. This means that the index itself is now closed as some of the material indexed is from less than 100 years ago. The best finding aid at the present time is therefore the register of lunatics, NRS reference  MC7. This gives date(s) of admission and a number. This number stays with the same individual throughout their admissions.

What we really need is an index, as in the case of so many valuable records at the NRS. If you would like to volunteer to help please get in touch with me.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Finding births in the NRS - How the professionals do it!

Update - December 2014
You can now search Quaker births and marriages on our new website

We’re going to look today at one way to trace your family back that extra generation. We’re looking at a common scenario, no birth in the Old Parish Registers (OPRs). What can you do?

It’s not uncommon in Scotland to trace your ancestors using the census, and have an approximate year of birth and place of birth but you can’t find an entry for your ancestor’s birth or baptism in the OPRs. Of course there are many types of records you could look at, but today we’re going to focus on Church Records in the National Records of Scotland (NRS) catalogue

Civil registration began in Scotland in 1855, before that the church was responsible for keeping records of baptisms, marriages and deaths in each parish. There a number of reasons, though, why your search may not turn up any results. Here a few:

  • The record was made but it has since been lost, burnt or in some other way damaged. Unfortunately there is not much we can do about this scenario.

  • The parish didn’t keep a separate register of births, marriages and deaths for the period of time you are interested in but rather kept details amongst Kirk Session minutes or accounts.

  • The family did not attend the Church of Scotland but were members of another church. I have dealt with Quaker records before. Most Catholic registers are now available through Scotland’s People. The family may, though, have attended a ‘breakaway’ church, such as the Free Church.

One simple thing you can do is look at the documents you already have, the post-1855 civil registration birth, marriage and death certificates. On a marriage certificate, for example, according to what religious form was the marriage ceremony performed? It will usually say “according to the forms of the Church of Scotland/Free Church etc.” If a member of the family married in the Free Church after 1855 it would be a good place to start your search in the pre-1855 records.

Now it’s time to turn to the National Records of Scotland (NRS) catalogue (formerly known as the National Archives of Scotland catalogue). Remember though, it is normally best not to proceed to this is the stage until you have researched thoroughly in the civil registration certificates. You should have a good indication of the parish your family were from and the rough year the event took place.

In the NRS catalogue, record references that begin with the code CH2 are from the Church of Scotland and records that begin with CH3 are records of other presbyterian churches which subsequently re-united with the Church of Scotland, such as the Free Church, United Presbyterian (UP), United Free (UF), Relief, United Secession, Original Secession, Burgher, Antiburgher, Associate and others.

So what are you going to start with? Did your family attend the Free Church after 1855? If you believe they may have done, begin with CH3.

Go to the catalogue

In the “Search for” box type the parish or town name, lets say “Hawick” in this example. In the Reference box, type CH3 and make sure you select “Starts” in that line. This means you will only be shown records starting with CH3, therefore reducing the number of entries you need to look through. Now click Search. So what do you get? Here’s what I was shown:

You now have two options, you can either refine the search by entering dates or just go through all the results.

Either way you’ll have to start to understand the reference numbers. Click on one you like the look of, what do you see?

In my list the sixth entry looks good, it says “CH3/1151 - Hawick, Free Church, St George's - 1842-1882.”

Click on the reference number and you will be given more information.

Do you notice the bit I’ve circled (click image to see it bigger), it says “Level - Fonds”. This means that you are looking at a collection of records, there could be many items within CH3/1151, each with a more specific reference starting with the code CH3/1151. So how do we find out more about the items or volumes within CH3/1151?

What I do is open up a new tab in my browser and open the catalogue again. This time put CH3/1151 in the reference, making sure the option “Starts” is selected, but this time put nothing in the “Search for” box.

You are now shown a list of items within CH3/1151, as it happens in this case there is only 1 but it’s the one we’re looking for: “CH3/1151/1 Title - Baptismal register 1842-82, Marriage register 1843-72.”

Perfect, we’ve found a register of baptisms for the parish. Now, how can I view it?

Click the reference number to go into the detailed description: 

At the top (circled) it tells us “Volume completely imaged”. This means the images can be viewed in the NRS in Edinburgh or any archive centre that has a “Virtual Volumes” link. Also (in the second circle) it says “Repository - Scottish Borders Archive and Local History Centre” This means the original volume has been deposited with the stated Archive, you can therefore view it there too.

You can now go back to your first tab (that’s why we left it up) to work your way through doing the same thing until you have a list of Churches with registers at the NRS for the period of time you need.

The principles of this search can be extended to any parish in any county.

Follow a similar process for the CH2 (Church of Scotland records), search for Hawick within CH2, a quick search shows CH2/1122 are the Records of Hawick, Old, Kirk Session. Go back to the search and just put the reference number in (leaving the “Search for” box blank), and now look through for anything of interest. You must do this stage or you will not see all the entries starting CH2/1122! This is a common mistake

Any difficulties, just send me an email and I’ll help you out.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Researching in the National Records of Scotland

Once you have your basic Scottish family tree, perhaps going back to the early 1800s, it is almost inevitable that you will need the National Archives of Scotland. The documents they preserve on our behalf can help you to trace your ancestors, find out about their character, and the ups and downs of the lives they led.

 If however you are living on the other side of the world, accessing these records may seem impossible; but it’s not!

 We can research on your behalf, searching out the records relating to your ancestors and helping you understand them. In most cases we will also be able to take photographs of them for you, as the National Records of Scotland now allows digital photography of the vast majority of items they hold.

The NRS catalogue

Depending on your experience, we can either advise you on which records to search, or you can give us a reference number from the NRS catalogue and tell us what you would like us to research on your behalf.

If you’re not sure where to start email me or have a rummage around in the NRS catalogue.

In the coming weeks I’ll be writing about how to get the best out of the catalogue so keep an eye on this blog. Follow me on Twitter for regular updates or subscribe to my newsletter

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

New logo

I'm really excited about our new logo. We've used a fairly standard tree for a while, which I do like but felt it was time for a change. Hopefully the new logo will be appearing on our website soon along with some new features and new collections. 

Coming soon:

Global search: At the moment you have to search all our collections separately, which may be what you want but sometimes it's useful to be able to search everything a website has.

New collections: As well as expanding our current collections we plan to add new data sets.

New packages: We'll be adding some basic starter packages, either to kick start your own research or to give as a gift.

New layout: Since designing our site it has grown a lot and it's now difficult to find what we have so we'll reorganise it a bit to make it more user friendly.

What I would like to know is what do you want? What changes can you suggest? What packages do you want to see?

Either add a comment or email me with your ideas, we would love to hear from you!

Friday, 3 January 2014

Census Mapping

Graham has begun adding map links for Berwickshire to our census database. We already link each household in our Roxburghshire, Peeblesshire and Selkirkshire 1841, 1851 and 1861 census to both modern Google maps and historical maps (courtesy of the National Library of Scotland who have an exceptional online collection of maps).

Here's how it works:

Search our census (this time I am searching for Robert Fairbairn born around 1800).

Choose your family from the results.

You will now see a full transcription and links to Current Map/Satellite (this is Google Satellite imagery), OS (Ordnance Survey) 6 inch Map (19th C) and OS (Ordnance Survey) 25 inch Map (19th C). I would recommend looking at the modern map first.

You will now see a pointer showing where the house was/is and you can also click the little yellow man and drag him to see the house on Street View (if the area has been covered by Street View of course).

The map links open a new tab on your browser so that you can easily go back to the transcription and select another map. Then using the modern map you can locate the house on the old maps too!

We have now mapped Peeblesshire, Roxburghshire, Selkirkshire and Cockburnspath Parish, Berwickshire. Subscribe to my newsletter to keep up-to-date with the mapping project or follow Graham (the map man) on Twitter