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Family history and genealogy

Where do I start?

First, write down all the information you have about your own parents, grandparents and other members of the family. You could include your brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and even your children, nephews and nieces. If you have copies of family records, for example, diaries, school reports and photographs, these could be useful. If it is a photograph you’re dealing with, make sure you know who is in it. Once you have the information, keep a note of where you got it from as you may need to follow this up. If you think it would be helpful, set it out like small family tree so that the relationships are clear in your own mind. This could be a guide when carrying out your research.

Any information you are given verbally should be checked as it is easy over time for people to forget or mix up dates.

Searching records after 1855

Births and marriages

Begin with your own birth certificate. This shows your date and place of birth and sometimes even the time of day you were born. It gives the names of your parents and probably your father's occupation at the time of your birth. If your parents were married it gives the date and place of your parents' marriage. This can be a great help when doing more research.

Next, get a copy of your parents' marriage certificate. The Registration office has computer access to the records of births, deaths and marriages from 1855 onwards, for the whole of Scotland. You can buy certified copies of these from the Registration office or you can order online.

The Registration office also offers assisted searches. This means that our staff will help you to find the information you need. You can make an appointment by contacting the Registration office.

Before your appointment

You might find it useful to write a list of all the documents you want to see. Try to be as specific as possible about the information you would like.

Marriage certificates

  • once you have your parents' marriage certificate you will see that it has the following information on it.
  • date and place of their marriage and the form of marriage
  • names, occupations and marital status of the bride and groom
  • ages of the bride and groom. (You might want to be sure that the ages given on the marriage certificate are correct by getting hold of their birth certificates)
  • addresses of your parents at the time of their marriage
  • names of both sets of their parents, whether they were alive and, if so, what kind of employment they were in. Also, the maiden names of their mothers. This gives you the surnames of your grandparents.
  • name of the minister, priest or registrar who conducted the wedding service and details of the witnesses. The witnesses are often related to the bride or groom so make a note of these

The next step is to search for your parents' birth certificates. You may not know their exact dates of birth, but you will have the names of their parents so you can use the same methods as above to look for the correct ones. Remember that you will be looking for your mother under her maiden surname.

Death certificates

Deaths from 1855 are recorded and arranged by name into an index, the wife being recorded under both her married and maiden surnames. These indexes can be accessed by a member of staff at the Registration office or you can access these at:

If you know the approximate dates of the deaths of your parents the Registration office will be able to help as long you take all your information with you.

Death certificates normally give the following details:

  • date and time of death
  • address
  • age
  • occupation
  • marital status and names of husbands or wives
  • name of father, whether he was alive and what kind of employment he was in
  • name and maiden surname (if your parents were married to each other) of mother and whether she was alive
  • cause of death
  • information on the person who registered the death

Census records

Another important source available to the researcher is the census record. A census has taken place every 10 years since 1841, apart from 1941. Unfortunately, these records are not released for 100 years so you will only be allowed access to the records for 1841 to 1901. These are on microfilm and available at libraries. Apart from records for 1881, our staff have computer access to all of the census records. From your collection of information for births and marriages you may be able to get an idea of the address of your family near a census date. By narrowing the search to their county or their registration district, or both, you may be able to find them.

The great value of census records is that they record the whole family unit living at the same address, so you might be able to discover ages, occupations, the parents' parish of birth, and the brothers and sisters of your ancestor. You can also search for relatives living very close by, which was common.


Newspapers often reported on relatively unimportant local events. Some of these have been recorded and arranged into an index and your library may be able to help. If your ancestor won a prize at an agricultural show or was a member of a local society, there may be a report and even a photograph. Obituaries were often reported in local newspapers.

Related content

  1. Family history and genealogy
  2. Family history service
  3. Where do I start?