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.

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






Happy New Year – and some genealogy resolutions

Happy New Year image

Happy New Year for 2017. I hope it will be a healthy and fulfilling year for you with many new family history discoveries. I certainly have a few targets for 2017. They include:

  • Developing my knowledge of genealogical sources in other European countries. I’ve done some work on Italy this year and have found it fascinating. A good chance to use my language skills too. French and Welsh are my main languages and I have very basic German and Italian (reading and some writing).
  • More work on sources for merchant seamen – there are lots of them in my one-place study area. Among other things, these records sometimes provide a date of birth where no baptism record survives.
  • Going back further on one of my own maternal lines. This line owned a very small estate so land records should help and there may be a “pedigree” online, a very unusual occurrence for me as most of my ancestors were farmers, crofters and fishermen.
  • Tidying up some of my own very early research. The facts are correct but the recording is not up to my current standards!! Likely to be a slog but the review of the one line I’ve tidied so far has been very worthwhile.

Do you have any family history resolutions for the new year?

More about New Year in Scotland

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