Tracing Your Outer Hebridean Ancestors Part 1

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Starting Out – Births, Marriages and Deaths

Researching and recording your family history can be such a rewarding hobby. We wouldn’t be here today without those who came before us, and genealogy can bring to light amazing stories of triumph and struggle that can make us view our ancestors in an entirely new light. It can transform names in documents into living, breathing people, and, if you’re really lucky, can give them faces too. But, if you’re just starting out, the task at hand can seem a little daunting. Where do you start? What resources will you need? Where will you find all this information?

Obviously, at Kinloch Historical Society we care a great deal about the genealogical records of Kinloch, and we’d like to offer some guidance about how you might trace your ancestors, whether from Kinloch or further afield. This is the first in a series of blogs where we offer some hints and tips about how to go about it.

Photo by Dan Dimmock on Unsplash

Firstly, you should always work backwards. Start with the most recent ancestor that you have reliable details for, likely a parent. If possible, ask them for the details of your grandparents, and likewise ask any surviving grandparents about their ancestors. Jot down what you can glean from these living memories. This will form the basis of your research and give you pointers on where to look next. If you are lucky someone may have already drawn out a family tree or you may have that one member of the family with an impeccable memory who knows generations worth of names, birthdays and addresses.

Your next step is to confirm this information with official birth, marriage and death records. These records can provide a wealth of genealogical information, such as the names of parents, the maiden name of the mother, precise dates, places of residence, occupations, cause of death and more. Sometimes, baptism or burial records can provide the much-needed evidence of birth or death you are looking for, so don’t discount these.

There are two potential sources of this information: Statutory registers and church registers. Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths in Scotland began in 1855. You’ll find these records in the statutory registers. Scottish church registers, on the other hand, have records dating back to 1553. If your ancestor’s life predated civil registration you will therefore need to search the church registers.

Your go to resource for all these records is Scotland’s People. It is free to search these records but you will need to purchase credits to view them. At the time of writing it costs £7.50 to purchase 30 credits and will cost you 6 credits per record.

Here is what you will discover from a civil birth record:

  • Parish and County of birth
  • Name and surname
  • When and where born
  • Sex
  • Name, surname, & rank or profession of father
  • Name and maiden surname of mother
  • Date and place of the parents’ marriage
  • Signature and qualification of the informant
  • Place of residence of the informant
  • When and where registered

So, this one document has the potential to fill in a lot of genealogical gaps.

A civil marriage record will tell you:

  • Parish and county of marriage
  • When, where and how married
  • Names of those married
  • Their ages
  • Their residences
  • Their rank or profession
  • Whether bachelor, widower, spinster or widow
  • The rank, profession, name, surname and maiden surname of the groom’s parents
  • The rank, profession, name, surname, and maiden surname of the bride’s parents
  • Names of witnesses

Again, much information is to be discovered here.

A civil death record will contain the following:

  • Parish and county of death
  • Name and surname
  • Rank or profession
  • Whether single, married or widowed
  • When and where died
  • Sex
  • Age
  • Name, surname, rank or profession of father
  • Name and maiden surname of mother
  • Cause of death
  • Duration of disease
  • Medical attendant by whom certified
  • Signature and qualification of informant
  • Residence of informant
  • When and where registered

So you see, in these sources alone you can glean much about your ancestors. Don’t ignore the informants. They could be siblings or children or other relatives and may help you with genealogical brick walls down the line.

If you are relying on Old Parish Registers you won’t find the same level of detail as the civil records, however they can still offer some interesting nuggets. How detailed each entry is varies massively. To give an example, the following three transcriptions all come from the same Register of Marriages from Stornoway 1841.

  • Jun. 8 Malcolm Macleod Swordale to Margaret Macleod Sandwick.
  • Aug. 30 Neil Macleod Private Recruiting Service 78 Reg of Foot now in Stornoway to Mary Macaulay Keith Street, Stornoway.
  • Nov. 18 Mr Norman MacIver accountant National Bank Stornoway to Miss Barbara Macaulay youngest daughter of Mr John Macaulay merchant Stornoway.

So, how much detail you get from these sources can be all down to luck.

Old parish baptism records will give you the date of birth of the child, the name of the parents and where they are residing. Old parish death records may give additional details such as occupation, or whether the individual was a child, but again this isn’t standardised.

One final tip, don’t be too fixated on your direct line ancestors. Remember the wider family. These people all interacted with one another. They would visit each other and keep in touch just as we do now. You may find instances where parents have died and children have been sent to live with aunts or uncles. Or maybe the person your ancestor was lodging with in Glasgow was their cousin all along. Keeping tabs on the rest of the family can help fill in these missing pieces of the puzzle.


You typed in your ancestor’s details and no records are showing up. There may be a number of reasons for this. Don’t assume the record doesn’t exist. Bear in mind the following:

  • Records are transcribed by humans and humans can make mistakes, particularly if the original handwriting is hard to read.
  • Your ancestors were human and occasionally people fib. It might be something as simple as providing a false age so that it appears closer to the spouse’s.
  • Not all of your ancestors will have been literate. This will allow variations of spelling to creep into names.

So, when searching for ancestors sometimes it helps to be a little less specific. Instead of searching for someone born in 1840, maybe try searching for 1840 +/- 5 years. If you ancestor was a Macleod, maybe try searching for Mcleod as well. Do you have a nickname?  Your ancestors did too. Maybe the Margaret you are searching for appears in the records under Peggy. Can’t find Christina? Try Chirsty, or Christy. Is that marriage record proving difficult to track down? Maybe the bride had married before and was registered under her first married name. You’ll have to think out the box a little.

Try using the more flexible search functions that allow variant spellings, or use wildcards. If you can’t find Christina Morrison try C* Morrison and see what comes back. You’ll find these in the “search options” dropdown.

That’s it for this post. Next time we’ll be looking at census records and what they can reveal.

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