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Overheard in GenForum: Alexander Blair, Angus, Scotland
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

December 16, 1999
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: How can I research one of my ancestors (Alexander) who was born in St. Vigeans, Angus, Scotland, possibly in 1819. He married Margaret Davidson (born about 1821) in Aberdeen Scotland in 1838. -- Stephen

A: Scotland is one of my favorite countries to do research in. Between their civil registration and church records there is always a good chance that a line can be researched back.

Civil registration and parish church records offer you the chance to go back into the early 1500s in some cases. However, few people realize just what is available on microfilm, microfiche and CD-ROM through their local Family History Center and the Family History Library.

Those not living in Scotland will want to begin their research at their local Family History Center.

Civil Registration

Actually Civil Registration began a little late for you in regards to the births and marriages for Alexander and Margaret. However, if they did not migrate to another country, then you will want to keep them in mind for tracking their date and place of death.

Civil registration was begun 1 January 1855. Prior to this, you will find yourself working in church records, which are discussed below. However, when working with civil registration, it is important to know what information you are likely to find on the record.

Birth Marriage Death
  • Name and gender of the child
  • Date and place of birth
  • Names of parents (including mother's maiden name)
  • Occupation of the father
  • Informant's signature, residence and qualification (this is often a familial relationship
  • Date and place of marriage of parents (only after 1860)
  • Names and marital status of the bride and groom
  • Ages, occupations and residences of the bride and groom
  • Names of fathers and their occupations
  • Names and maiden surnames of mothers and whether they are deceased
  • Date and place of marriage
  • Whether marriage announced by banns or public notice
  • Date and place of registration
  • Name, gender and age of the deceased
  • Occupation and marital status of the deceased
  • Date and place of death
  • Name and occupation of the father
  • Name and maiden name of the mother
  • Cause of death
  • Signature, residence and qualification of the informant
  • Date and place of registration

Church Records

Like we have different churches today, there were also different churches back in the time of our ancestors. Whether or not records exist may prove the trying portion of the research. Not all religions were always recognized or tolerated by the ruling body of the country.

The Scottish Old Parochial Registers are one of the most used resources for researchers of pre-1855 Scottish ancestry. However, they do not catalogue all the births, marriages and burials that took place in Scotland prior to 1855.

One thing to keep in mind is whether or not your ancestors may have belonged to one of the nonconformist churches. Any denomination other than the recognized church (Presbyterian after 1690) was considered a nonconformist church. And if your ancestors did belong to a nonconformist church, then you may have a more difficult time of accessing records. It is still a good idea to begin your research in the Family History Library Catalog. You will find a number of different churches whose records have been microfilmed.

Some of the nonconformist religions include:

  • Baptist
  • Quaker
  • Methodists
  • Congregationalists

Working with OPRs

As was mentioned earlier, the Scottish Old Parochial Registers are the registers of those parishes of the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian Church). The parish registers are not always in great shape, but there is a very useful tool to help you in working them.

The Family History Library has created the OPR Index. According to Kathleen B. Cory, in her book Tracing Your Scottish Ancestry this index is actually only to about one-third of the old parochial registers.

There are many reasons why you may not find your ancestor in the index. One of the biggest can be traced to spelling. Unlike other indexes by the Family History Library, this one is very exact. They have not combined variant spellings under a default spelling. So it is important to be sure to look at all possible spelling variations.

Once you have located your ancestors in the OPR Index, you will want to return to the Family History Library Catalog to locate the actual parish registers on microfilm and get them. It is always best to investigate the original records thoroughly. You never know when an entry may have been overlooked when the index was created.

Missing Entries

As was mentioned earlier, the OPR index appears to include only about 1/3 of the OPR records. However, there are other reasons that people may have been omitted from the registers all together.

If you get back to the late 1700s, you will want to keep in mind how the Stamp Act of 1783 affected the recording of births, marriages and deaths in the registers. Basically it imposed a tax of 3d (three old pence) on every entry of a birth, marriage or burial. Some of the ministers didn't agree with it, so they just wouldn't record the entries. This way they weren't fined for not paying the tax. However, for those researching, it is something to keep in mind.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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