Discover your Scottish Family

Visit local Scottish archives and learn more about the lives of your ancestors

Visit archives across Scotland, view original documents and research your family history in a very special way. Imagine seeing your ancestor’s name in a school register, and then walking down the road to see the school itself! Many local archives have a wealth of information available to the family history researcher.

Always check the website of the archive before you visit, if you are unable to find information on their website, look up the archivist and contact them, or get in touch with us at and we will do our best to help.

Discovering Archives

Archives hold the exciting possibility of discovering your family history, making links with your ancestors, and providing valuable context. Archives allow you a glimpse into how your ancestors lived and what life was really like for people living in Scotland.

National records are a great place to start your research as they house fundamental records relating to births, deaths and marriages across Scotland. And local, University, and business archives are fantastic places to visit to discover more about the day-to-day life of your ancestors, the details of their existence and the context of the place in which they lived and worked.

Local archives are generally run by councils or trusts, and their holdings are varied and it’s important to check what they have before visiting. Some of the items that you may find include: council minutes, town planning and building warrants, records of local societies, clubs, organisations and businesses, merchants and trade, education and school records, hospitals, asylums, infirmaries, and the police. They may also have, or provide digital access or copies of, their local old Parish Registers, Census returns, valuation and electoral rolls and poor law records which are held centrally by the National Records of Scotland.

University archives contain the collections and records of the University. They also often have a broad variety of collections including family papers, business records, union records and health service archives as well as rare books and manuscripts, and many other fascinating collections.

Business archives can provide a wealth of information about your ancestors who worked for that company, or give you an insight into the working culture of that time. The archives may be maintained by the business or available to view in Local or University archives.

There are active Local History Groups across Scotland, these are volunteer-run independent organisations with their own particular focus and interests. Many specialise in family history research for their area and some even have their own holdings.

Visiting the Archives

It is important to visit the website or get in contact with the archive or local history group before you visit. This is important whether the archive is big or small as there are a few things you need to know the answers to before you visit. Make sure you find out:

  • whether the archive is open to the public or by appointment only,
  • check whether their catalogue is available to view online or whether they have unlisted holdings,
  • find out how far in advance you need to request the items you would like to view,
  • if you have research questions the archivist will need time to research them for you,
  • sometimes the original item will not be available to view and you will be provided with a digital or facsimile copy,
  • and find out what rules the archive has in place for accessing their collections: you probably won’t be able to bring bags, food, drinks or pens into the reading room with you.

Getting Started: Family History Research Guides

If you are looking for somewhere to start, some hints for getting the most out of your family history research in Scotland, or some great ideas for trips and tours, the resources below will get you started:

Visit Scotland has a great page on ancestral research, including a free ebook: Visit Scotland Research Your Ancestry.

The National Records of Scotland provides excellent information about accessing their records: National Records of Scotland Family History Guide.

Download our own Scottish Ancestry guide with notes for preserving your own family papers and some useful hints and tips:

SCA Scottish Ancestry Guide (PDF)

Tips for Scottish Family History Research

  • The Banns is a proclamation made in church announcing the intention to marry.
  • County and registration district borders have changed, you might need to search adjacent counties and districts too.
  • The Disruption of 1843 saw the formation of the Free Church from the established Church of Scotland.
  • Different churches kept records separately. It will help to know the denomination of your ancestors.
  • Divorce has been possible in Scotland since 1560.
  • Until 1964 primogeniture applied to inheritance (the eldest son inherited. If there were only daughters, all inherited equally).
  • Irregular marriages (a declaration made before witnesses and not clergy) were legal until 1940.
  • Parish boundaries changed significantly in 1891.
  • RCE refers to the Register of Corrected Entries or Register of Corrections, where changes are recorded.
  • Official documents may be in Latin, Scots or English.
  • Tenant or farming ancestors? Find out who owned the land and research those family papers or look for rentals in public records.

Naming traditions:

  • It was common practice to name children after relatives. The eldest son after his paternal grandfather, second after his maternal grandfather, third after his own father. The eldest daughter after her maternal grandmother, second after her paternal grandmother, third after her mother. Younger children were named after aunts and uncles or older siblings who had died.
  • In people’s surnames of the Highlands and Islands ‘Mac’ or ‘Mc’ means ‘son of’. In Shetland ‘-son’ at the end of a surname also means ‘son of’. This means that surnames change down the paternal line and the same person’s surname may be recorded in several different ways in official documents.
  • In Scotland a woman does not in a legal sense ‘change her name’ on marriage. So you will often find women in documen­tation with their maiden name.

Remember, when searching Scottish names:

  • Always look under all spelling variants (e.g. Mac and Mc). Names were not always recorded consistently.
  • Middle names were particularly subject to misspellings and variance.
  • Some names were very common, it helps to know an approximate date and/or county or district.

Useful Records and Sources for Further Exploration

See which documents, records and collections might assist you in your research and follow the links to find useful information to discover more.

Useful records for researchers getting started:

Sources for further in-depth exploration: