Remember when tracing your family to get as much information from family members as possible, find out if anyone else in your family has done some research and is willing to share (most family history researchers are only too willing to share what they have found – this is a passion not a hobby!). Have a check on the internet and in research directories, also check family history society member's research lists.

Ask older family members what they remember about the family. It may seem obvious but the older generation are usually able to remember their grandparents family's, taking you back many years. If your grandparents we're born in the early part of the C20th their memories could take you back to the mid C19th. Similarly aunts and uncles may remember parts of the family and stories you don't know about.

Also remember, and this is important, get as much proof as possible. Birth, marriage and death certificates are vital in establishing family connections and should not be overlooked. Copies can be obtained fairly cheaply and can save a lot of research on someone else's tree.

When you collect information on your tree have it all written in a way that makes it easy for you to find individuals and families. Many people use computer software programs to hold their information, but don't rely too much on computers – make sure you have a paper copy as back-up.

A tree format is useful to be able to quickly look at family groups, but make sure you are consistent with your format. It is usual to have the males on the left, with the females on the right, and any marriage information is usually noted under the female. Children are joined to the parents by a vertical line, and to each other by horizontal lines. e.g.


Most family history books will show you how to write up a tree properly, but give yourself as much information as possible on the tree. It will be a useful item to take with you when researching.

Try to include at the very least dates of birth, marriage and death, along with places involved.



The best way to start tracing your family is through statutory certificates. From 1855 in Scotland and 1837 in England and Wales , everyone had to obtain certificates for each birth, marriage and death. Although many people are missing from the early years, most researchers should be able to follow their family backwards through the registers 

Start with your parent's or grandparent's marriage certificate if you can, this should give you a good start with the names of the bride and groom, along with occupations and residences. Taking the ages of the bride and groom you can now start the search for birth certificates. Remember though that for many reasons people did not always give accurate information so searches should always be carried out at least 5years either side of the dates given. Look at neighbouring parishes if you can't find a birth certificate, then widen the search if still nothing is found.

Once you have found a birth certificate you can search for the parent's marriage. Keeping in mind that the child found may not be the first child to the couple, you could look for other children to the couple working backwards until you can approximate a time for the couples marriage. If you are looking for a Scottish certificate you are lucky, in 1855 and from 1860 the date and place of the parent's marriage is usually found on the birth certificate.

Death certificates contain less information than birth and marriage certificates, but they give vital dates and the informant is usually a family member. Addresses may also be given adding to your research.

Using certificates you should be able to work your family back to the beginning of statutory registration, although your searches may take you around the country or even abroad.

How to find certificates

There are a few ways to search for the certificates you need.

If you can arrange a trip to the local register office you can usually search the records yourself with the help of the registrar, or you can use the internet as a search tool. All of Scotland 's certificates are available to search onwww.scotlandspeople.gov.uk , here you purchase units which allow you to search and order certificates online – either full certificates or digital copies. The computer records cover the whole of Scotland, but remember that searching for a common surname may result in hundreds of 'hits' and you have to find a way to narrow down your search. (you can also visit New Register House, Edinburgh in person and take the day to search the records for a set fee).

England and Wales indexes can be searched on http://www.findmypast.co.uk  (pay per view), www.freebmd.rootsweb.com ,  www.ancestry.co.uk  etc. There are more sites becoming available all the time, some are pay-per-view, some you have to register for. Make sure that you know what you are signing up for!

How to obtain certificates

Certificates can be ordered from the local register office, or obtained over the internet e.g. from the Scotlandspeople website. While you can search for the certificates and order at the same time for Scottish certificates, English certificates require you to find the certificate information from the indexes (known as the St Catherine's index) then order from the General Register Office www.gro.gov.uk  or from the local registrar. Local registrar information can be found at www.Genuki.org.uk

Census records

The census is a fantastic resource for family researchers. By tracing your family through the census you can find the names of children you may otherwise miss, occupations and places of birth and other family members may make themselves known. While allowing the researcher to flesh out their knowledge of the family the census can offer a snapshot in time, showing the family's status in the community, how they lived and where they came from.

The census basically happens every ten years and has done so since 1841. There were some before this time but give no real information of use to the researcher.

To follow your family through the census it is usual to work backwards in time, allowing what you find in one year to help in your research the next. The first census to search is the 1901 census. If you do not know where your family were you will need to make an educated guess through a birth, marriage or death in the years around the census date.

Finding aids such as the CFHS census indexes are invaluable for helping find your family. By searching the indexes you can hopefully find your family in a certain area, then go to the census itself to find the information. Most family history societies have their own census indexes, but often only for certain years, as the production of the indexes is slow and labour intensive for the volunteers. The 1881 census for the whole of Britain is available from the LDS on CD.

What you will find

Information shown in the census varies slightly from year to year, for example the 1841 census is basic and shows no family relationships or places of birth (just whether born in the county or not). However, you can generally find names of people, their relationship to the head of the household, marital status, age, occupation and place of birth. Through the information you will be able to make up family groups, find places of birth and follow the family around the country. For example, if you have a large family with many children you may find that they were not all born in the same place and therefore be able to plot the family's movement between the census years. In this way you will also find it easier to find birth certificates for the family.

Be wary – not all the information found in census returns is accurate. Like the information on certificates, people may give false information (from small absent minded statements about children's ages to huge whoppers about the mother's year of birth!) Places of birth are also to be looked upon with a pinch of salt – if someone was born at the far end of the country they may give the enumerator the name of the nearest town they think the person may know rather than the small village they actually came from. Sometimes you may just get a county. Remember also that the enumerator may have written what they heard, and dialects can cause confusion when filling in forms.

Where to find the census

The census is available on-line at the Scotlandspeople website, www.Ancestry.co.uk , www.genesreunited.co.uk and www.Freecen.rootsweb.com . Most websites offer access via pay-per-view, but you can find the census in local libraries and archives, although most only keep their local censuses. Some FHS have also transcribed census information, such as those available from the CFHS.

Parish records

Once you have traced your family back to the beginning of statutory registration you will have to move onto the old parish records. These are the registers originally held by the Church and information contained in them varies from parish to parish.

Some parish records go back hundreds of years, whereas some do not and you are very rarely allowed to look at the originals. Copies of parish records are usually kept in local archives and record offices on microfilm. Unfortunately in Scotland there are very few death registers so you may have to find information on your early family deaths through graveyard lair records and monumental inscriptions.

You trace your family through the registers in much the same way as through certificates. Find marriages and births by going backwards armed with all the information you can find. Remember though that once you find yourself searching before statutory registration it can sometimes be very hard to say that someone is definitely of your family. Occasionally the best you can hope for is to say an individual is 'probably' of your family and put a question mark against them until you come up with more evidence.

If you can't find your family in the registers it may be because they were not of the Established Church. In cases like these you will have to locate records of other churches, such as the Free Church of Scotland, Methodist, Baptist etc. Research is much easier if you can establish which religion your family followed.

Where to find information

Local archives, family history societies and large reference libraries often have copies of parish registers for their area. The IGI (International Genealogical Index) is available on the internet, along with the BVRI (British Vital Records Index) and are useful starters for identifying ancestors, although the original registers should always be consulted. Family history and local history societies often publish indexes of what is available, and there are many published sources available.

 In Caithness, the North Highland archive, Wick and Thurso library have parish registers on microfilm. Thurso registers are the oldest and start around 1650, although the earliest pages are difficult to read for the novice, Wick and Olrig start around the early 1700's but most of the Caithness parish registers start in the mid- to late 1700's.