Tracing Your Outer Hebridean Ancestors Part 2

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Next Step – The National Census

In part one of this series we looked at the information that could be gathered from birth, marriage, and death records. The next go to source for any ancestors from the period 1841 onwards should be the national census.

Starting in 1841, the census was taken every 10 years, and each in turn was then made available to the public 100 years later.  The value of a survey of the whole population to the family historian is obvious and can provide essential missing pieces of the jigsaw, as well as shedding light on family movements. Again, the place to access these important records is Scotland’s People. Searching the records is free but you will need to purchase credits to view them.

Finding ancestors in the census can give you the names of previously unknown parents, spouses or children; corroborate the information you gathered from civil and old parish records; provide ball park years of birth, which is very handy if the birth date predates civil registration; give an indication of where an ancestor was born; inform about other familial relationships such as in-laws, nieces and nephews, cousins, and step-children; and reveal details about employment and even the house they were living in.

Keep in mind the birth, marriage and death records you started with (see part 1) to avoid confusing your relatives with other families with matching names. Remember also that transcription errors, variant spellings, and false information are all possible in these records. Enumerators would have to guess how to spell names of individuals who were illiterate, so don’t be too quick to assume that your family is missing. You may just need to think a little out the box about spellings or be a little more flexible with your search parameters.

Be aware also that your ancestors were mobile and may crop up in places you don’t expect. Sometimes casting the net wider can help find them. They may have been visiting relatives, or may have relocated for work. A school master may move around a lot as he transfers from school to school for example. Maybe an individual was a student and travelled for their studies. Perhaps they emigrated. Or perhaps they had a run in with the law.  Keep an open mind. There are a whole host of reasons why someone may not be where you expect.

The information you will find in each census will vary slightly, decade to decade.

Here is what you will find in the 1841 census:

  • The Parish
  • Place (village, street square, close etc.)
  • Houses: Uninhabited, inhabited or building (a new house not yet inhabited)
  • Name and surname of each person 
  • Sex
  • Age
  • Occupation: What profession, trade, employment, or whether of independent means
  • If born in Scotland, whether born within the county
  • Whether foreign or born in England or Ireland

The information given in the 1841 census is the most vague and potentially inaccurate. There are very few occupations given for anyone other than the heads of the household. In fact, the instructions to the enumerator stated: “The profession, &c., of wives, or of sons or daughters living with their husbands or parents, and assisting them, but not apprenticed or receiving wages, need not be set down.” The ‘place’ is unlikely to be more specific than the village. The familial relationships are not made clear, so while one may assume that the head of the household and the senior woman will be the father and mother of the other occupants, this is by no means certain. The ages given are also unreliable. The precise ages were only given for children aged 15 and under. Everyone else’s age was rounded down to the nearest 5, so if you were 44 you were listed as 40. The place of birth isn’t made clear either. It simply states if they were born in or out of the county.

New information to be found in the 1851 census is as follows:

  • Relation to head of the family
  • Condition (married or not)
  • Where born
  • Whether blind or deaf and dumb

This census offers more potential to the family historian. The ‘place’ remains pretty vague, probably just the name of the village, but now familial relationships are made clear, and individuals can be more specific about their place of birth. That said, this may still be kept annoyingly vague. “Lochs, Ross-shire” is quite a large area after all.   

New information to be found in the 1861 census:

  • Number of children from 5 to 15 attending school
  • Number of rooms with one or more windows (reflecting concerns about sanitary conditions)

In 1871, the question about education was altered to:

  • Number of children from 5-13 attending school or being educated at home

In 1881, one question was extended to include:

  • Whether deaf, dumb, blind, imbecile, idiot, lunatic

In 1891, additional employment and language information was added:

  • Employer, employed or working on own account
  • Gaelic speaking only, or Gaelic and English

In 1901 further employment information was added concerning:

  • If working at home

Then there was quite a large change in 1911, which included:

  • Number of persons in house
  • Married women: Duration of marriage, children born alive, Children still living
  • Personal occupation
  • Industry or service
  • Employer, worker, or on own account
  • Nationality
  • Totally deaf, deaf and dumb, totally blind, lunatic, imbecile or feeble-minded

The 1921 census contained further detail, including:

  •  Age in years and months
  • Whether both parents were alive
  • Number of dependent children
  • Whether a marriage was dissolved by divorce
  • Whether eligible for benefit under the National Insurance Act 1911

The questions regarding infirmity were removed.

There is a handy guide to the 1921 census here.

As the more recent censuses are more detailed, it is recommended to start with these and work backwards. If your ancestor’s lifespan covered all censuses from 1841-1901, for example, begin in 1901.  This should hopefully give you more concrete details regarding residence and place of birth. Working backwards also lets you see the more complete family unit, so when you go back through the years you know the names and ages of the individuals you expect to find. This will help you when you come across two Donald Morrisons and you need to work out which one is related to you. If you know the names of his parents, wife, or children it makes the task much easier.

So, the census can give you a snapshot of your ancestors at ten-year intervals, which can help you visualize the bigger picture of their lives. Were they mobile or static? Did any of their occupations change? Was the family unit multi-generational with resident grandparents?

In the next blog we will look at locations, and how these can help with your family history research.

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