Monday, 26 October 2015

Smallpox in the National Records of Scotland

Smallpox is a word that has inspired fear for generations. Our ancestors suffered with little help and it was not until the 26th of October 1977 that the world’s last naturally occurring case was discovered.

We are the product of generations of ancestors who survived long enough to have children, but we know that sadly many of our ancestors’ siblings did not survive. It is rare to find detailed health records of our ancestors, so although we might theorise that they endured diseases such as smallpox we do not often have any evidence one way or the other.

Clues do exist, though, if you know where to look. One interesting source is the prison registers held by the National Records of Scotland. Victorian prison records are very detailed, and one of the columns on the registers was headed ‘Marks’. In this column, as well as finding details of tattoos or scars, we commonly see written ‘pock marked’, ‘poxpitted’, ‘pock pitted’ and even ‘Marked with small pox’. A person could become pockmarked by various skin conditions, but smallpox was a major cause of such scarring. Depending on the description used, it can be very clear that they suffered from smallpox at some point in their life, information which may not be found in any other record. The image to the left shows William Phillips and Betsy Phillips are recorded as being marked with the smallpox in an 1848 prison register; you can search an index to these records on our website.

Another source of information is the Kelso Dispensary patient records, which are also held by the National Records of Scotland. These records provide a fascinating glimpse into the history of smallpox. Founded in 1777, this charitable institution saw patients with many ailments, and smallpox is frequently seen in the records. Between October 1793 and October 1794 the Dispensary saw 29 cases of smallpox, with one case resulting in death.

Click to see image full size

The records of the Kelso Dispensary document many cases of smallpox. Above we see an entry for Thomas Tenant who died of the disease in 1797. This entry is again from the National Records of Scotland, their reference number for the document is HH71/43.

In 1796 a physician named Edward Jenner discovered that infecting someone with cowpox gave them protection from the much more dangerous smallpox. This was effective because when a person was exposed to cowpox, the human body produced antibodies which helped protect them from smallpox. This was the world’s first vaccine!

The vaccine came too late for poor Thomas, though. Just a few years later, on 10 August 1800, we see the first entry of smallpox inoculation by the Kelso Dispensary. Sadly the names of the children are not listed but these ten children surely have a place in history.

Click to see image full size

As with many new ideas the smallpox inoculation (or vaccination) was not universally accepted. Cartoons of the time depict the fear that the public had at the time, that somehow the cowpox may turn them into a cow! Science prevailed however and the results were clear. In time an improved vaccine was made and the rest, as they say, is history. This terrifying disease now only exists in laboratories, let’s hope it stays that way!

When researching our ancestor’s past we are not content with a lists of names, dates and places, we want to dig deeper and understand the people we are descended from. By looking at a variety of records you can do that too. We are working on a project to index Scottish prison and health records so that you can trace your family tree and find out more about the people behind the names, including the diseases they had to endure. Search for the names of your ancestors and discover more about their lives.

A page from a prison register

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

A Scottish Family Archive

The Lands of Kirkconnell
Many of the readers of this blog will treasure their family documents and photographs. You may have spent many hours scanning and photographing them, as well as trying to work out who is standing next to great uncle Alfred!

We were fortunate to be invited to view the family archive of Francis Maxwell of Kirkconnell, Baron of Newlaw recently. His family archive is on a different level to ours!

A Family Treasure
The first treasure we saw was a handwritten volume written in 1581! As we began to open up the archive boxes we found treasure after treasure. The aim is to expand what we already know on the Maxwell family by tracing younger sons. Although a lot is known about the eldest sons in the Maxwell family less is known about the younger siblings. If you are descended from a younger child this can be frustrating!

If you are tracing the Maxwells of Newlaw, Kirkconnell, Breoch or Carnsalloch please let us know as we are keen to hear from anybody tracing these families.

We're looking forward to assessing these items in detail

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

7 July 1905 - Peebles Hydropathic Burned to the Ground

Peebles Hydropathic before the fire

To us researching your family tree is more than just gathering names, dates and places. Tracing your genealogy should be a journey of discovery, getting to know the people along the way, in effect having your own ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ experience!

Edinburgh Evening News
08 July 1905
Copyright British Newspaper Archive
Newspapers and old photographs are a great way to add to the knowledge you have gleaned from certificates and census returns. Sometimes newspapers name our ancestors but at other times we will need to think a little more laterally, searching for stories about the places they lived and worked.

On this day 110 years ago the Peebles Hydropathic hotel was burned to the ground. As you can see from the photographs that accompany this blog the destruction was devastating and complete. For those visiting the Hydropathic, those staying there and those living in the town it must have been one of the most, if not the most, traumatic events in their lives.

Peebles Hydropathic after the fire
The newspaper accounts don’t mention many people but you may have found from the census that your ancestors worked at the Hydropathic, if they did they were likely involved in the incident. The lesson is to think laterally when searching the newspapers and you may discover an incident that would have impacted on your family greatly even though they are not mentioned as individuals.

The British Newspaper Archive is a wonderful resource if you are searching for UK ancestors. They are steadily increasing their holdings and you can also request certain newspapers. The BNA collection is also part of some Findmypast subscriptions. If you live in Scotland you can access many Scottish newspapers through the National Library of Scotland’s ‘Licensed digital collections’ (free): all you have to do is register. The NLS also has a large collection of newspapers on microfilm that are free to view in person.

Many local libraries and archives hold newspapers for the local area and libraries such as the Ewart in Dumfries allow digital photography. There are also many newspapers on Google which are free to use.

The New Peebles Hydropathic

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Tracing Your Scottish Ancestors

If you need some help tracing your elusive Scottish ancestors the May ‘Then & Now’ competition prize is just what you need.

This month we are giving away two hours of professional genealogy help in the National Records of Scotland and we are also including a copy of the book ‘Tracing Your Scottish Ancestors’. This book should be on the desk of every Scottish genealogist! It will help you learn why records were created, how they have been kept and what information you can learn from them, it is the official guide for the National Records of Scotland. We hope that this book, kindly donated by the National Records of Scotland, together with our time will help you get over a brick wall in your family history and propel your research forward!

To enter find an old Scottish photo, recreate it and email both photos to me. To see full terms and conditions see our previous blog post:

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Finding Birth, Marriage and Death Records Before 1855

From 1855 onwards, finding records of births, marriages and deaths could not be much easier than it is in Scotland. All historical records are available to view on the Scotland’s People website (at a fee).

For the period prior to 1855, the Scotland’s People website also has the Church of Scotland Old Parochial Registers (OPRs) that have survived. The question is this: if you can’t find a birth, marriage or death in the OPRs, does that mean that no record exists?

The answer is a resounding NO! There are many registers lying unindexed which could hold the key to progressing your family tree.

Our new Learning Zone section ‘Finding Birth, Marriage and Death Records Before 1855’ has been designed to explain the situation and help you find the records you need.

Please let me know if you have a question which is not covered in the Learning Zone.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Using Marriage Contracts to Trace Your Family Tree

Marriage contracts are just one type of deed that can be very useful when you are tracing your family tree. As well as detailing the persons getting married they frequently mention other family members including parents, siblings and sometimes even more distant family members. They were usually drawn up by families who had land or wealth of some kind. If your family worked on the land rather than owned the land you are unlikely to find a marriage contract. 

There was no legal obligation to register a marriage contract, it was a private document. As a fee would be involved in registering the document it was often only done if and when it became necessary. For example, a marriage contract could be dated 12 July 1735 but only registered on 20 December 1769; as you can see in this entry on our website index. 

Finding these marriage contracts without an index can be challenging and time-consuming. That is why we have decided to begin indexing sections of the Register of Deeds that are currently un-indexed. We hope this project will uncover many genealogical gems that will help you and others research your family tree.

So far we have indexed 1,072 entries… there’s a long way to go! We are indexing these under the ‘Sponsor an Index’ initiative: can you help? From just £7 you can be involved in getting Scotland’s historic records online:

Thursday, 30 April 2015

The people behind the names

The Kelso Dispensary 
When you trace your genealogy you research the names, the dates and the places. This has to be step one. The second step, though, is digging a little deeper and finding out extra details that can help you understand somebody’s life.

Take this entry in the 1851 census of Stichill, Roxburghshire: Margaret Guthrie, aged 73, born in Greenlaw, married to James Guthrie. James and Margaret have a daughter living with them, her name is Alison and she is 30 years old. You can see the full entry on our website.

Tracing James and Margaret back to the 1841 census we see they that are living in the same house. A quick search online tells us that James Guthrie married Margaret Waddel in 1807, in Stichill.

Using these common genealogy tools we have learn something of James and Margaret. What else can we learn? Thanks to a generous contribution through our ‘Sponsor an Index’ scheme we can learn something remarkable.

When just 16 (in 1780) years of age Margaret was seen at the Kelso Dispensary due to ‘Obstructed Menses’. How scared she likely was as a young girl being seen by a physician in an age when this was very rare. We do not know how severe her condition was but it is possible that it is only because of the kind (and free) help of the Kelso dispensary that Alison was ever born.

The lesson for us, don’t be content with a list of names, dates and places; dig deeper, search more records and learn more about the lives of your ancestors.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

The Kelso Dispensary

For the majority of people in 1777 there was no proper health care. Struggling to simply feed and clothe their children, most families couldn’t afford to see a doctor or buy medicine from the apothecary. This meant that of course there was high infant mortality, and countless families left to rely on the parish for poor relief when the man of the house was taken ill, or died.

In Kelso a group of men and women wanted to change this and they founded the Kelso Dispensary. A charitable institution, it was founded by benefactors and subscribers. Each subscriber could ‘recommend’ people who couldn't afford to see a doctor and they would receive free healthcare.

The records that the institution left behind are fascinating. They record who visited the dispensary, which parish they were from, who recommended them, the date seen, the age of the patient, the disease and the outcome of the case.

We think it is fitting that the records of this charitable organisation are the first to be indexed by our ‘Sponsor an Index’ programme. The first 1,743 entries are now online for you to access for free.

We hope that these prove useful to you. If they don’t cover the period needed get in touch about our ‘Sponsor an Index’ programme and together we can get more of these records online.

UPDATE 18 March 2016: The indexing of volume 1 is now completed. There are now 2,561 entries online! Search online for free:

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Sponsor an Index

The Problem!

Just a few short years ago there was very little in the way of online genealogy indexes. Tracing your ancestry was slow and time-consuming. Today the world has changed, and many people can trace their family tree in Scotland using online records, perhaps getting back as far as 1800 in just a few hours!

Sometimes, though, we hit a roadblock. We may also be intrigued about the lives of our ancestors and want to dig deeper.

Even if we know that records exist that could help us further, if there is no index and we are not fortunate enough to live near the archive where these records are held, it can be very expensive to have someone research our family tree for us. What we need is an online index!

Large companies are working on this situation by indexing a large number of records, then selling subscriptions. This can be useful if the company has a large number of records that you want, but can be frustrating if you sign up to find out they don’t have the records that will help you.

We want to provide a free website, one which gives you the source reference of the original document so that you can go and view the original record for free, or if you can’t visit in person pay just a small fee for the record you need.

The Solution

We are finding that more and more clients ask us to search records that could also be useful to other researchers. This has left us with the conclusion that it may make more sense for individuals to ‘sponsor’ an index. This way the genealogy community as a whole only pays once for the indexing to be done. The index goes online for free and then all your distant cousins can use it too.

How it works

You sponsor an indexer to spend a set amount of time (in 30 minute blocks) to index a record of your choice, with a date range of your choice. That set amount of time will be spent on indexing the record you have chosen, and then the index will be made freely available online for everybody to access. As a sponsor your name will accompany the release of the new index entries, and  will also remain permanently on our ‘Sponsor Appreciation Page’. Additionally, if the new index contains a specific entry you are looking for you will receive it free of charge.

We have a list of records ready and waiting to be indexed, but if you don’t see what you need get in touch and we’ll see if we can index the record you’re looking for.

30 minutes - £7
1 hour - £10
5 hours - £40

Most items held by the National Records of Scotland can be indexed, but there may be additional charges, get in touch and we’ll see what we can do. Search their catalogue to see what treasures they hold that we could help you access.

How much will be indexed?

How much can be indexed in a set period of time depends on the type of records involved. The ‘Notices of Admissions by the Superintendent of the Mental Institutions’ are one of the slowest records to index. A volume (one month) can take up to ten hours! Prison registers are among the quickest, with over 100 prisoner entries being possible in an hour. Once we know the record you are interested in, we can advise as to the amount we can likely index in the time available.

What to do next

Visit our ‘Sponsor an Index’ page on our website and choose how long you would like us to spend indexing the record of your choice. Add that time to the PayPal cart and proceed to the checkout. Once your payment is through I will email you and you can tell us what you would like us to index. You can find the list to pick from here.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

A good dig through dusty documents!

One of the things I love about being a genealogist is that every day is different, you can never know exactly what you’ll find. I was looking through some Dumfries Sheriff Court processes the other day (on the hunt for ‘paternity’ cases) and came across a case innocuously entitled Jones v Lochmaben. As this bundle of folded papers tied up with string was larger than the others and appeared to contain some sort of notebook I untied the string to have a nose inside. 

This lengthy case was regarding the ‘Nuisances Removal (Scotland) Act 1856’. It would seem that far from being the picturesque holiday destination that it is today, back in 1866 Lochmaben had a big problem with dung, pigsties and general filth.

Amongst the items was a large document entitled: “Report of list of Nuisances in the Burgh of Lochmaben on 6th and 7th November 1866”.

Within are contained the names and addresses of 182 households, detailing the condition of the property. I found this item fascinating, it tells us so much about the town that after reading a few entries you could almost smell the place!

Here are some excerpts: 

No. - 140

Date of Inspection - 7th [November 1866]

Name and Occupation of Occupants of Premises - Ebenezer Brown Hill, Free Church Manse 

Description of Nuisance - An accumulation of dung and filthy stagnant water and very dirty yard.

Remarks - [In pencil] None*

No. - 141

Date of Inspection - 7th [November 1866]

Name and Occupation of Occupants of Premises - John Clark, Schoolmaster 

Description of Nuisance - A necessary* containing in and about it a great accumulation of filthy matter.

Remarks - [In pencil] None

No. - 167

Date of Inspection - 7th [November 1866]

Name and Occupation of Occupants of Premises - Robert Thorburn, Labourer.

Description of Nuisance - One Pigsty containing one Swine and an accumulation of Dung at Back of House.

Remarks - [In pencil] Nuisance

No. - 176

Date of Inspection - 7th [November 1866]

Name and Occupation of Occupants of Premises - John Green, Carter

Description of Nuisance - A House unfit for Human Habitation Occupied by Green. Having only one small apartment and his Family consists of Himself, Wife and 7 children. The House is Thatched on roof and they Occupy one Small apartment in which there is 3 Beds and where they all live both night and day. No ventilation. Bad House. 

Remarks - [In pencil] Nuisance.

No. - 178

Date of Inspection - 7th [November 1866]

Name and Occupation of Occupants of Premises -Barnard Kelly, Hugh McGauchie, William Helon

Description of Nuisance - All keep Lodginghouses with no Rules and Regulations formed for their Guidance and Conduct. 

Remarks - [Blank]

The dusty documents make your hands quite dirty!
I hope I am not alone in being fascinated by this document and as we continue our research in the Sheriff Court records of Scotland I hope to come across more wonderful accounts like these. 

This particular record does not neatly fit into our existing collections, so for the time being we have created a PDF index to this specific record which you can download for free from our website; just click this link.

If you are researching your Lochmaben forebears and see an entry relating to your family please get in touch and I will email you the full account relating to them.

*We presume the ‘necessary’ was the toilet… it’s mentioned as a ‘necessary’ quite frequently.
*The remarks in pencil we believe to have been added at a later date, perhaps on a subsequent inspection.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

‘Then & Now’ Competition - April Prizes Confirmed

We are delighted to be able to confirm the prize for the April ‘Then & Now’ photography meets genealogy competition.

The winner will receive:

A current issue of Who Do You Think You Are? magazine
The Who Do You Think You Are? magazine’s Essential Guide to Family History
A family tree wall chart
A map showing WWI battle fronts
A handy credit card size magnifier
A Scotland's People eraser
Research guide leaflets
An hour professional genealogy research.

All these items will be posted to you free of charge. The genealogy research can be swapped for five transcriptions from our website

The closing date for April is 30th April 2015.

For details of how to enter see our blog post: Then and Now - The Photography Competition.

Details of prizes you can win in other months will be posted once they have been confirmed.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Then and Now - The Photography Competition

We have an exciting competition which will be running throughout the spring and summer this year. We all love to revisit places we went as a child and see how much they have changed but also how much they have stayed the same.

If you have traced your family tree and visited the house your great-grandmother lived in you may have well felt quite emotional when you realised the step you were standing on was the one she would have washed 100 years ago.

The Scottish Indexes competition asks you to revisit these places and take a modern-day photograph which is based on an historical photograph. You can either use one of your own family photographs that was taken over 30 years ago, or choose one from our flickr archive (which is over 30 years old). The modern day photograph must have been taken this year and by you.

There will be five opportunities to submit a photograph, the closing dates will be the last days of the months of April, May, June, July and August. The winner each month will receive a genealogy ‘goody bag’. The prize will always include an hour of our research time as well as other genealogy gems to help you along your way.

How to enter:

Email your photographs to

If your modern day photo is based on one of our flickr photos please tells us.

April submissions can be made from midnight GMT on 1st of April until midnight GMT on the 30th of April
May submissions can be made from midnight GMT on 1st of May until midnight GMT on the 31st of May
June submissions can be made from midnight GMT on 1st of June until midnight GMT on the 30th of June
July submissions can be made from midnight GMT on 1st of July until midnight GMT on the 31st of July
August submissions can be made from midnight GMT on 1st of August until midnight GMT on the 31st of August

Your modern day photograph does not have to be taken in the month you submit the photo.

How to win:

Photographs will be rated on accuracy, try to take the photo from the same place and angle that the original was taken. If you can’t because the photo was taken from somewhere inaccessible, such as private property, or somewhere unsafe, such as the middle of a road, let us know and we’ll take this into consideration. Keep yourself safe and don’t break any laws just to take a photo!

We’ll also be looking for a well exposed photograph, a higher quality photo is more likely to win.

We’re also looking for what I call ‘interestingness’, that is a photo that makes me go wow!

Finally, if you have a story to go with the photo, tell us. There is nothing like some tugging at the heartstrings to make make us give you some extra points.


The photo must be taken in Scotland.

By submitting a photo to this competition you will be giving us permission to use your photos (old or new) on our Facebook page, our website etc. By entering the competition you will also be agreeing to us publishing your first name online as the winner of the competition.

You may enter up to 3 times over the course of the 5 months.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Scottish Mining Accident, Shotts, Lanarkshire

Paternity or aliment cases are only one type of case which were heard by the Scottish Sheriff Courts. As in the present day, there are many reasons why our ancestors may have used the Sheriff Court. These records can help us uncover our family history and add some interesting details about their lives.

While indexing paternity cases in Airdrie Sheriff court our volunteer, Margaret, came across this interesting and heart-wrenching story. While reading the following you may find it helpful to know that a fathom is equal to 6 feet or 1.83 metres.

What follows is a transcription of the entry found on pages 431-433 of the Airdrie Sheriff Court Register of Extracted Decrees (National Records of Scotland reference SC35/7/3).

“At Airdrie the second & Thirteenth day of December eighteen hundred and fifty nine years Sitting in judgment William Logie Esquire Substitute of Sir Archibald Alison Baronet Advocate Sheriff of the County of Lanark, in an action before the Sheriff-Court of the said County, at the instance of (Poor) Oliver Braiden a Miner residing at number Thirty five Bell Street Airdrie Pursuer against Thomas Russell Coalmaster at Greenhill in the parish of Shotts and County of Lanark Defender; The summons in which action concludes for the sum of Two hundred pounds Sterling being for damages sustained by the Pursuer as solatium in consequence of the Pursuer having on or about the Thirty first day of December 1858 years whilst in the employment of the Defender at number two pit Greenhill fallen down the shaft of said pit, - the same having no covering of any description whilst the Pursuer was engaged in oiling a hutch at the pit-head to take wood from the pithead to below ground, the occurrence having taken place betwixt the hours of three and four o'Clock of the morning of that day, whereby the Pursuer was precipitated down the said shaft and sustained severe personal injury, having fallen Twenty seven fathoms or thereby and has his right arm broken in two places his right shoulder dislocated, his left leg much bruised and his whole body so much injured that he was confined to bed under medical treatment for upwards of three months, and will never be able to work being disabled for life and in particular he has lost the use of this right arm and right hand entirely all in and through the culpable negligence and omission of the Defender or of those for whom he is legally responsible in having no covering on the mouth of said pit nor protection of any kind for the safety of the men and to prevent accident with Interest & expenses. The said Sheriff Substitute on the first date hereof after sundry steps of procedure and in respect the Pursuer had failed to lead evidence in the support of his averments in the libel Sustained & hereby Sustains the defences stated for the Defender & Dismissed and hereby Dismisses the action and Found and hereby Finds the Defender entitled to expenses, And on the second date hereof the said Sheriff Substitute Decerned & Ordained and hereby Decerns and Ordains the said (Poor) Oliver Braiden Pursuer to make payment to the said Thomas Russell Defender of the sum of Five pounds nineteen shillings and one penny Sterling of Expenses of Process Attour the sum of eight shillings Sterling as the expense of extracting this Decree & of recording the same (signed) John Laing Sh[erif]f Cl[er]k Dep[ute] Signed 2 March 1860
Written by Alex[ander] Forbes
Collated by John Laing [Sheriff Clerk] Dep[ute]

Would you like us to help you uncover your family's past? Get in touch and see what we can do for you. Email Emma:

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The Scottish Naming Pattern

Have you ever wondered why so many people in your family tree have the same name? Is there a John in every generation and is searching the census really confusing because all the cousins of your family also have the same name? There is a simple explanation for this. It’s not that the parents were unimaginative when it came to choosing names but rather that they followed a ‘naming pattern’. The Scottish naming pattern is as follows: 1st son named after father's father 2nd son named after mother's father 3rd son named after father 1st daughter named after mother's mother 2nd daughter named after father's mother 3rd daughter named after mother Now the while the pattern can continue after the fourth son or daughter, it is our experience that few families consistently went that far. After six children there would almost always begin to be some duplication in names.

What does this mean?

If you have a couple called John and Elizabeth who name their eldest son William and their second daughter Janet you could hypothesise that John’s parents were called William and Janet. Why do I say ‘hypothesise’? The naming pattern should not be used as evidence but rather as a guide. If the surname is very common, or at least very common in the area, you could use the pattern to predict what the parents may be called. Once you find parents with those forenames you will still need to prove your theory using other sources.


There are a number of pitfalls. Firstly, do you have a list of all the children? If an older child died in infancy this could distort the pattern of names you have. When this happens you will often find a younger child is given the same forename. When you look at the list of children you have, is there a gap in the ages? Is one 10 in the census but the next child is aged 5? This can indicate that a child has died so look at the OPRs and gravestones. If one of the parents was illegitimate this can also change the naming pattern. In the case of a son, sometimes a family will use the name of the stepfather, other times the eldest child is named after its father of the mother’s father. A common issue is that both fathers have the same name (let's say John). As they would be very unlikely to name two children John (unless one had died) this can again add to the confusion. Another reason the naming pattern would change is when a new minister came to the parish. It was a common practice to name the first child baptised by a new minister after him. So if the name doesn’t seem to ‘fit’ in your family at all, find out the name of the minister.

Summing up

The Scottish naming pattern can be a very useful tool. Some families used it right through to the mid-20th century. Use it with caution though, it’s not evidence in itself but it may help point you in the right direction.