R is for reference…

Cat yawningResearch is thrilling; you can go on for hours stalking down your family, collecting new documents and information. Noting a reference can feel boring, mundane, the admin that you might get round to one day. I know. I’ve been there – and regret it!

What is a reference and why does it matter?

In a nutshell, a reference describes where you found a piece of information, using a standard format, in such a way that you or someone else could find it again.

So rather than the very vague “Birth record” of my very early days of research (hangs head in shame) I now record far more information. Here are some things to think about.

  • Type of record: Statutory registration – birth, marriage or death, old parish register (OPR) baptism, marriage, burial, census etc
  • Actual record, index or transcription? The difference is important. Indexes usually have less information than records themselves and transcripts can contain errors.
  • Country: Scotland, England etc
  • Parish or registration district and the county: St Ninians, Stirlingshire for example.
  • Date: eg 3 May 1902 ( the 03/05/1902 format would be read as 5 March 1902 in USA so better avoided)
  • Name of the person involved or persons if it is a marriage record. I use a woman’s maiden name usually unless it is only possible to search for her by her married name.
  • Registration district number and entry number for civil registrations, the parish number, volume number and page (if numbered) for church registers. Bigger cities  were divided into several registration districts so the RD name and number can be more helpful in tracking down other family members than just “Edinburgh”. Documents from the  ScotlandsPeople website give you RD and entry numbers.Reference snip
  • Where I found the record: a website, archive or elsewhere. If it was online, I would also note the date I saw it,  just in case it disappears later and I have to look for archived material. Probably not necessary for ScotlandsPeople.

What about the information from Auntie Nelly?

Should I treat her as a source? Yes! You know who she is but do others, especially if you are swapping information with more distant relatives? Here’s a possible reference that sets her in context and provides an indication of how reliable her information might be.

Information from Helen (Nelly) Smith (1932- ), daughter of John Smith (1899-1978) and Margaret Black (1910-1997).14 June 2014. 

If the information came from a letter, email or other written source I’d note that too as it could be more accurate than the notes I made while listening to her talk.


Boring? Complicated? Unnecessary? I don’t think so.  It’s not just about being able to find a source document again, important as that is. The process of creating a reference can act as a double check that you are on the right trail and stop you leaping to conclusions. Date – 1863? But he couldn’t have had children then – he was only born in 1852. And where is Gairloch, is that likely place of death? Oh, it’s a transcript – should I check the document itself?

These are some initial tips, there’s much more I could say. Happy searching and referencing.

Q is for quixotic

Quixotic – “preoccupied with an unrealistically optimistic or chivalrous approach to life; impractically idealistic” – a fair word to describe William M Groundwater, my great great uncle?

Photo of Don Quixote statue - he is source of "quixotic"quixotic d

Don Quixote -source of the adjective ‘quixotic’

William Moncrieff Groundwater was born on 11 March 1849 in Orphir, Orkney, first child of John Groundwater and Williamina Moncrieff, and died on 16 October 1936 at Cruan Cottage, Firth, Orkney. That seems quite ordinary, but it’s some of his actions and claims that make me want to describe him as “quixotic”.

Quixotic or not?

I’m still researching him but here are a few examples that may justify my description:

  • Horace Ossian Ritch Groundwater – the name of his first son, born in 1876 in Salford, Lancashire. Ritch was his mother’s maiden name, an Orkney surname, so not unusual for me. But Horace Ossian?? Poor lad died at Spion Kop, 1900, in the Boer War.
  • “Tailor’s shopman, Freethought lect[ure]r, L.L.D (W.S.)” – his occupation in the 1881 census (Greengate, Salford, Lancashire. ED 1 p 14). LL.D is usually a Doctor of Laws; WS a writer to the signet, a Scottish legal office. Combined, they were postnominals for top lawyers, not our man. In later censuses he was a rather more ordinary music seller (1891), tailor’s shop assistant (1901), master tailor (1911).
  • ‘one of the original Glasgow Rangers footballers’ (Portsmouth Evening News 11 March 1929). He was recorded in Glasgow in the 1871 census, Glasgow Rangers started in 1872, however William married Eliza Ritch in Salford in the second half of 1875. I’m working on this.
  • ‘Britain’s oldest working tailor’ – the headline from the People’s Jourmal, 15 March 1930, when William claimed to be 101! He was in Pendlebury, Manchester then. Variants on this claim to be over 100 appeared in various newspapers over the next years. In 1932 he retired reputedly aged 103 (Aberdeen Press & Journal, 20 July 1932). Family dismissed this however: “Och, that wisna right. He wis only aboot 90″, said my great grandmother, his sister. Newspapers picked up on that too. ‘Death after a walk, man who claimed to be 107” (Gloucestershire Echo, 17 October 1936) “it is thought locally that his age was about ninety”.

The verdict

Did he even believe all the hype about his age?

newspaper clipping about quixotic man's age

The Scotsman, 12 March 1935 (British Newspapers, www.findmypast.co.uk)





Maybe a sad rather than quixotic man by the end of his life as his wife and their three children, Horace, Eliza and William, all died before him.



P is for parish

In family history research you will often have to search for records at parish level. Looking at the OPRs (old parish registers) on ScotlandsPeople, for example, you can narrow your search by county and then by parish.

Parishes in time

In many parts of western Europe, the parish was originally the area round a church. People living there paid tithes or teinds for the maintenance of the clergy. In Scotland, parishes developed in the lowlands from around the 12th century but much later in the Highlands. Over time, the parish became central to local administration for both church and civil purposes including taxation and education.

Scottish parishes varied hugely in size and population. In the West Highlands they were often very large with relatively small populations. In central Scotland rapid industrialisation and population growth led to new settlements which often dwarfed the original parish centres though the old names were kept. Wishaw and Airdrie were part of Cambusnethan and New Monkland parishes, for example. See ScotlandsPeople Guide to parishes and districts for more background.

Spits, mergers, name changes, separate development for ecclesiastical and civil purposes and even county changes. It can all be rather complicated. Then from 1855 there are registration districts which were set up for the start of civil registration. They are sometimes the same as parishes but not always.  Local government reform in 1929 and 1975 virtually ended the role of the parish.


The key thing is to know about your own area. If you can’t find a baptism or marriage in one parish, could it have been in the neighbouring one? Check a map – where did your people live? Some counties are big: how likely is it that someone from Gairloch, west Ross & Cromarty, for example, married in Fearn, right over in the east of the county? Not impossible but perhaps less likely?

Parish maps and places

outline map showing name of each parish in Caithness, Sutherland and Ross & Cromarty

Other links

  • History of parishes and counties, see A Gazetteer of Scotland
  • The Statistical Accounts – reports on each Scottish parish from the 1790s and 1830s/40s. Written by local ministers topics include agriculture, education and religion.
  • Parishes listed in a different county for the 1861 census






N is for next generation

We tend to think of family history as people before us but it’s important to record current generations too. The next generation will thank you for it, eventually!

How to help the next generation

  • Have you added names to all your family photos? Hardcopy ones, yes maybe? But what about all the digital ones? Here’s an article with information on how to write on the back of a digital photo
  • Are you storing photographs and documents in the best way? The US National Archives has information on preserving family papers and photographs with pictures to help . There’s briefer advice from a UK archivist here or some more detailed advice from Staffordshire Archives.
  • Are you building up an archive of current events – birth For the next generation pic of my uncle's funeral leafletannouncement cards, wedding invitations, funeral service leaflets and so on? You could scan these documents too in order to minimise wear and tear on them. This page from my uncle’s funeral leaflet has a lot of valuable information.
  • What about recording your memories about these people, stories from your own childhood, the things you reminisce about at family gatherings?

This is just a starter list. Don’t forget to celebrate the next generation and record their achievements too. Here’s a link to my first cousin twice removed and her band, Hellia. First cousin twice removed? Her grandfather is my first cousin.