Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Breaking Down those Brickwalls: Scottish Sheriff Court Records

James Anderson - Crown copyright NRS SC5/8/434

An Amazing Discovery

We have found what may be one of our best discoveries ever! As evidence in an affiliation and aliment case (paternity case) there is an ambrotype (an early type of photograph) of the accused man dated pre-1860. It was bundled up in a box of court records.

The man pictured here is James Anderson, a wood carter who was living at Arbeadie Cottage, Banchory Ternan, Kincardineshire. (Click here to see the entry in our index - NRS, SC5/8/434). To make sure no damage comes to this amazing item the conservation branch at the National Records of Scotland have removed it from the bundle and work will now be undertaken to preserve this piece of history.

Example from another case NRS Ref: SC62/10/390

Court Records

For longer than we might expect, women have been taking the fathers of their children to court to compel them to pay maintenance for their children. In Victorian Scotland these cases were most often heard in the Sheriff Court. The most common type of case is ‘Affiliation and Aliment’, that is a case that proves ‘affiliation’ or paternity and decreed how much ‘aliment’ or maintenance should be paid by the father. If your ancestor was illegitimate their mother may well have taken the father to court.


At the end of most cases a decree would be made, this was legally binding. You could pay for an extract of the decree so that you could keep a copy. There were various reasons people might want an extract of a case but they were not always made.

From the 1830s most Scottish Sheriff Courts kept a volume of extracted decrees. So let’s say someone went to the court and asked for an extract, they would be given one and the court would write the extract into a book. We are indexing these books. See our coverage page here.


As well as the volumes of decrees the court would also keep the process, or paperwork, related to the case. These include witness statements and can include love letters. This week we found a case that included this ambrotype!

Birth Certificate

From 1855 all ‘affiliation’ cases which reached decree resulted in a correction being made to the register of births. This means that you usually know which court to start your search in. This particular case was settled, so it did not reach decree. This means that there is no note on the birth certificate naming the father of the child.


With the help of a volunteer we are indexing the volumes of extracted decrees. Although these do not contain all cases, they do contain many of them. When a client orders a pre-1860 decree we let them know how many boxes we need to search to find the court process, or the more detailed paperwork. We charge £30 to search three boxes. As we search for the client’s case, we also note all other ‘paternity’ cases in the box and add them our index. If you would like us to search some records for you please get in touch.

This is what we were doing last Tuesday when we found the case that contained the ambrotype. The case can be seen here in our index. If you would like us to make a search for you just email me.

Brick Wall

Having an illegitimate ancestor is a major cause of family history brickwalls. We hope our indexing project will help break these down. If you would like us to search some boxes for you please just get in touch, I can’t promise to find a photograph for you but who knows what we will find!

Learn More

If you would like to learn more about Scottish Sheriff Court records or our indexing project, please see our Learning Zone.

Monday, 6 August 2018

Breaking Down those Brickwalls: Scottish Death Certificates

New Register House, Edinburgh

As is the case with birth and marriage certificates, 1855 is a great year from a genealogist's point of view.

In this first year of registration Scottish death certificates included the following information:

Date, time and place of death, usual residence, deceased's name, sex, marital status, age and occupation, the deceased's place of birth, spouse's name, both parents' names (including the mother’s maiden surname) and whether deceased, occupations and whether they were deceased, the names and ages of children (or age and year of death if the child pre-deceased the parent), cause of death, duration of last illness, doctor's name, when the doctor last saw the deceased alive, place of burial, the name of the undertaker and details of the informant.

Much of the bounty of information recorded in 1855 was sadly not continued after that year. From 1856-1860 you can expect to find the name, marital status, occupation, date, time and place of death and usual residence, full names of both parents and whether deceased, cause of death, duration of disease and doctor's name, place of burial and undertaker's name, and details of the informant.

Did you know?

By looking at your ancestor's death certificate between 1855 and 1860, or even that of a close relative such as a sibling, you may get a clue as to where the rest of the family were buried. If it was a family plot you may then be able to trace your ancestors using transcriptions of the gravestone, if it has survived. It’s not unusual to find three generations recorded on one gravestone!

Find out more about Scottish civil registration on our website: http://www.scottishindexes.com/learningcivil.aspx

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Breaking Down those Brickwalls: Designations

To trace our Scottish family tree we begin by searching for birth, marriage and death certificates. Before 1855 we use church records but all too often we cannot find the records we need.

There are many reasons for ‘missing’ baptism records. It may be that the register was lost or damaged. By the mid 1800s, there were many different church denominations in Scotland, meaning you may need to look at many separate registers, not all of which are available online. To find out how to do this, visit our Learning Zone: Births, Marriages and Deaths in Scotland before 1855.

Even when you make a careful search, however, it may be that no baptism survives and you seem to have hit a brickwall in your research.

What we need to do now is be more imaginative, looking beyond the obvious records. In Scotland, a ‘designation’ is given in certain types of documents, particularly legal records. This designation was given to distinguish one person from another. At a time when many people did not know their date of birth and they certainly didn’t have a National Insurance (or Social Security number) or a postcode (or zip code), something was needed to identify the person mentioned in a document.

What is included in a Designation?

Generally, a designation will include the person’s name, residence and occupation. In the case of a child (and some adults) the father’s name may also be given along with his occupation and residence (it may also be stated that he is deceased). This information could help you get over a brick wall and continue on with your research.

Did you know?

A designation is the addition or description of a person. It is necessary in legal documents to design or identify the parties in such a manner as to distinguish them from all others; and in practice this was done by setting down the title of nobility, or the name and surname of the party, with his addition or description, by his estate, profession, trade, or place of residence. In certain instances it would also include the name of the party’s father.

The National Records of Scotland

Where do we find designations?

Legal records always give a designation. These may be criminal court records, wills and ordinary (civil) court records (such as ‘Actions of Affiliation and Aliment’) and sasine records (property records).

No matter what social class our ancestors were, there may be a legal record that survives and this could be the key we need to unlock our family tree.

Finding legal records

Wills are an easy place to start. Many Scottish wills are available on ScotlandsPeople and the index is free to search. You can search many sasine records (property records) in the National Records of Scotland.

We have indexed many Sheriff Court records and we update our index most weeks. You can search these for free (with no login or subscription) and just order the entry you need. Our index includes the designation. Click to see the entry for Agnew versus Carter in 1859, notice the pursuer is named as “Jane Agnew, daughter of and residing with John Agnew, Mason, Knockbrex, Penninghame”. We have also indexed some sasine records and deeds and we plan to add more.

Although prison registers do not generally give a ‘designation’ they do give an age and birthplace which can be helpful. The registers also tell us which court heard the case, and when the court records survive these give a designation. When you order a prison record from us we will tell you if there is (or may be) a corresponding court record. In fact generally, the person’s address is sufficient to identify which ‘John Smith’ we are talking about.

What to do next

Look over your family tree brick walls, which legal records might your family appear in? Did they own property, or were they more likely to end up in prison? Is there an illegitimate child in the family? Could there be a Sheriff Court record? Did your ancestor learn a trade? Then there may be an apprenticeship record.

Did you know?

Small words mean a lot!


Historically women were always recorded with their maiden surname in Scots legal documents. By the 19th century, it was the usual practice to record women with both maiden and married surnames in legal records. Let’s say our ancestor was born Margaret Scott and married James Thomson: we would expect to find her recorded as ‘Margaret Scott or Thomson’.

‘At’, ‘In’ and ‘Of’

The way the residence of a person is recorded is also important. The small words ‘at’ ‘in’, and ‘of’ all mean very specific things.

You can see the following example here on our website. “Aeneas McPherson of Flichity & Lachlan McIntosh in Nessendally” - Aeneas is described as ‘of Flichity’, the small word ‘of’ (instead of saying 'in' or 'at') shows that Aeneas McPherson had heritable possession of Flichity. This is a clue to more records. Lachlan, on the other hand, is described as “ Lachlan McIntosh in Nessendally” meaning Lachlan was a tenant of those lands.

In other records a person may be described as ‘at’ a place, this would indicate they were an occupier, not a tenant or owner.

Understanding these small, but significant words, can unlock your family tree. If you need more help just get in touch.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Scotland's First World War Pensions Appeal Records

Work has begun on indexing Scotland's First World War Pensions Appeal records. Until now these records have been arranged by month of hearing. This means that unless you knew when the appeal happened you might have to search 288 boxes to find the paperwork for your ancestor! Not very practical. 

These records hold vital information for around 30,000 Scottish servicemen and the reports can help you understand what these men went through. Here is an example for you.

Name: George Blane

Unit, Rank and No.: 9th Btn. Seaforth Highlanders, Private, No. 4437

Date of Hearing: 5 January 1920

Age: 26

Last Address: 14 Mossvale Street, Paisley

Report and other documents from Paisley L.W.P.C.

Man’s Statement:

I enlisted on 10th September 1914 at Paisley Barracks and went to Fort George where I commenced my training. This training lasted till 23rd November, 1914 when I was finally discharged as no longer fit for service on account of having Chronic Bronchitis. This disability was brought on by constant exposure in very severe weather. I was wet through about twice a week, sometimes with the water running out of my boots and was only provided with one shirt and pair of drawers at the time and could not therefore change my underwear. Very often I had to stand in my trousers and dry my shirt before the fire. I hold that it was due to this condition of things that I contracted my disability. I never had bronchitis before I enlisted and was constantly on the road conducting my business as a general dealer, and through this Chronic Bronchitis I am no longer able to stand the exposure which is required of me.

Historical Search Room - National Records of Scotland
The above (reference PT6/2 held by the NRS) is just part of the record but it gives you a sneak peek at what will be coming. Find out more by reading the NRS blog.

If you want to find out more about the lives of your ancestors our genealogists can help. We can research in Scottish archives and help add colour to your family tree.


Monday, 5 February 2018

Brickwall Service

Our 2-hour brickwall service is proving very popular. Most people find that on one of their lines they hit a brick wall. It may be that our experience or the access we have to Scottish records is just what you need to break through the brick wall and continue with your journey. If you have a brick wall why not give it a try, you could open up a whole new chapter of your family history. Either email me (just reply to this email) or look at our website for more information.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Was Your Ancestor a Convict?

Every year the Scottish Association of Family History Societies (SAFHS) hold a conference and family history fair. This year the theme is, "Was Your Ancestor a Fife Convict?"

The annual event will take place this year on 21 April 2018 at the Rothes Halls, Glenrothes, Fife. 

One of our genealogists, Emma Maxwell, will be giving the talk, “Finding Your Ancestors' Footprints” and all the talks will revolve around the theme of criminal records. 

As well as the four talks there will be a free ‘Ask the Expert’ area, hosted by the Scottish Genealogy Network. It will be a great opportunity to get some professional advice on how to trace your family history.

To find out more and book your ticket go to the SAFHS 2018 website

If you need help to find out what life in Scotland was like for your ancestors get in touch and see how we can help.

Friday, 2 February 2018

Free Scottish Genealogy Tutorials

We are creating free family history tutorials to help you trace your Scottish family tree.

Our first tutorial will show how to find your ancestors on historical maps, using our website.

Our second tutorial demonstrates how to use 'wildcards' to find those ancestors who never seem to spell their name the same way twice!

Subscribe to our YouTube channel so that you don't miss the next tutorial.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Glasgow Docklands 1956 - What was life like?

The National Library of Scotland's moving image archive has thousands of clips and full-length films from across Scotland. They are a great way to get a sense of what Scotland was like in the past and this can help you to research your Scottish family tree.

For example, we love this video showing everyday life in 1956. From the Docklands to the Kelvingrove Park this video shows wonderful footage of Scotland.

From tugs on the Clyde, warehouses on the wharf, coals for export, children playing in the slums, feeding the ducks in Kelvingrove park and children playing in the streets this 10-minute video will draw you back in time.

Hear a young girl reciting this children's rhyme that your ancestors likely sang while they played with their skipping rope.

Oh there she goes,
Oh there she goes,
Peerie heels and pointed toes.
Look at her feet, she thinks she's neat,
Black stockings and dirty feet

If you need help to find out what life in Scotland was like for your ancestors get in touch and see how we can help.