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Births and birth records


Some general notes on births and birth records...

Between 1783 and 1794 a duty of three pence was put on every baptism, marriage or burial recorded in Scottish registers. Paupers were exempted and so many people were entered as such although they were not. Some avoided the tax by not having their children baptised.

During the 19th century there was a surge in population, due to some degree the result of falling mortality, which itself was partly the result of widespread smallpox inoculations.

It resulted more from a rise in marital fertility, which came primarily from more people marrying and, moreover, marrying at a younger age, thereby maximising women's childbearing years. Improved material circumstances in industrialising parts of the nation explain the trend towards earlier and more extensive marriage and larger families. Between 1831 and 1946, the decline from the mid-19th century in family size, and the clustering of children in the early years of marriage, reduced by some 11 years, the age at which a typical woman bore her last child. Most of these changes occurred in the 20th century.

Official state records in Scotland didn't commence until 1855. Before this date, the best 'single' source is the Old Parochial Registers (OPRs), compiled from the Church of Scotland parish books, and the index can be found as part of the International Genealogical Index.

Online birth searches
One of the simplest ways is to check the free Church of the Latter Day Saints Family History Search Service at www.familysearch.org. It isn't comprehensive, but it's a very good place to start. You can either just rely on the index, or go one step further to view the actual register (which does contain more information such as witnesses).

www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk is the official government source of genealogical data for Scotland as the General Register Office of Scotland site. Use this site to access details of records from 1855 to 1907, but it also contains the OPRs to provide complete coverage. Most of the OPR information appears as digital images. Birth certificates are available beyond 1907 from this site, but they charge £10.00 per certificate. It will be cheaper if you check the local council website and follow their instructions on ordering certificates.

It will cost you £7.00 to search for 30 credits. Credits are valid for 90 consecutive days. Any unused credits after this time remain in your account and to re-activate these, you would need to purchase further credits. From the search results you may view, save and print images. To view an image costs five credits.

TOP TIP: If you live in Scotland visit your council's main central library. All Scottish Councils have a 'start up' scheme with www.Scotlandspeople.gov.uk. Buy 60 credits for £7.00 and save 20% on all future top-ups. You can only apply for these discounts through the council area in which you are a library card holder.

Old Parish Registers ( OPR )
Do not expect too much from OPR birth & baptism records. The amount of information recorded can be variable and most entries contain very little detail. They are available online from www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk.

At best, expect to see the name of the child, whether legitimate or not, date of birth and/or date of baptism, father's name, mother's name and maiden surname, place or parish of residence, occupation of the father and names (and sometimes occupations) of witnesses. Occasionally, as in, for example, Dundee, witnesses' relationship to the child (if any) may be recorded. At worst, expect not to see the mother's name is not recorded at all between certain years (as in Alyth parish between 1742 and 1786), or that the entry does not record the sex of the child and the name is ambiguous.

Use the information that you find on an OPR births & baptisms entry to further your search:

  • The parents' names (if both are recorded) will help pinpoint a marriage.
  • If the child has been illegitimate (usually indicated by the term "natural"), there may be further information to be found in the Kirk Session records, if the parents have been admonished for their behaviour. Should the word ‘Paternity' be rubber stamped on the certificate - there has been a paternity suit brought against the father by the mother. This may be followed up (off line) from the reference number to find the father's name and address.
  • Record any information on witnesses and their family connection (if any), since these can be invaluable in determining the correct line.
  • Use the location of the birth or baptism to track the family through the earlier census records.
  • Bear in mind that it was quite common for families, in an era of high infant mortality, to name a subsequent child after a dead sibling, so check that you have the correct child's entry.
  • Legitimate children are usually described as “lawful” and illegitimate as “natural”.

    The Registers of Neglected Entries compiled for each parish by the Registrar-General after statutory registration began in 1855, contain a small number of birth entries proved to have occurred between 1801 and 1854, but not entered into the parish registers. These are indexed in a similar format to other OPR entries. They are available online from www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk.


    Newspaper announcements
    Old local newspapers are usually held by the central libraries of each Scottish council. Councils have websites, and generally have pages dedicated to family history. If they don’t list the newspapers held, in paper or microfiche, you could always email them. Birth announcements tended to be used by upper class families, such as surgeons, managers, people with titles, Reverends and generally successful people. Rarely was the name of the mother or child mentioned. Usually the mother was referred to as “Mrs John Public”, and the gender of the child. Addresses were usually mentioned. Such announcements are particularly useful for pre-1855 searches, prior to compulsory BMD registration.

    These are usually connected with deaths, but can also provide clues to an ancestor’s year of birth. They rarely list a birth date, but usually list the age at death. Remember, when working backwards to a birth date, just because someone died in their “50th year”, this doesn’t mean they were 50, they were 49. Most local family history societies have a list of headstone inscriptions, with some being transcribed in the 1800’s. The effect of weathering has made many older stones unreadable, so these lists are the only surviving records. These can be purchased directly, or through a number of genealogical websites. These books are often held by local reference libraries.

    Between 1837 and 1965 up to 7% of births in England and Wales were out of wedlock, with Scottish figures similar. Being born out of wedlock is not a modern phenomenon. Often an illegitimate child would informally adopt the surname of the new husband, whether or not this was the father. It can therefore be difficult to find the birth of a child whose original surname was that of the mother prior to marriage if you do not know the maiden name of the mother. It was common for an illegitimate child to hide the truth in later life. Sometimes the father’s name is left blank on certificates. Sometimes the name of a fictitious man with the same surname was given, or the name of a professional that they knew. If the father's name does not appear on the birth certificate, the name may never be known. Sometimes clergymen and registrars suggested or even insisted on the child be given a middle name which was the father's surname.

    Birth & marriage search problems
    Birth entry details list what was told to the Registrar at the time and no proof had to be given. It is possible couples were married outside Scotland or even not legally married at all. All religious marriages would be recognised but on an odd occasion a couple might obtain a warrant from the Sheriff after declaration (early form of civil marriage) but omit the necessary procedure of them taking the warrant to the Registrar so it would not be recorded as a marriage. Or perhaps they simply had not gone through any formalities at all.

    Scottish naming patterns
    This was usually not followed slavishly, as there are a lot of exceptions, but it can be a very useful tool in working back through the generations. For example, when you have found a family in a Census (so you know the names of the children), but you can't at first distinguish the birth records of the parents, because there is a choice in the IGI. The ones sharing the children's names are more probably the ones.

    1st daughter = mother's mother
    1st son = father's father
    2nd daughter = father's mother
    2nd son = mother's father
    3rd daughter = mother
    3rd son = father

    From this point often the pattern is to go in turn through parent's brothers and sisters in order of age (i.e. 4th son is usually father's oldest brother). However, it is common for the pattern to break down from the fourth child onwards. The naming pattern is also one reason that there may be more than one child with the same name, particularly if the earlier child died. The second child is not likely to be named after the earlier child, but to keep the grandparent's name pattern intact. Also, what we might regard as variants of the same name may occur within the one family if the grandmothers/mother also share the one name.

    Another common naming practice was for the mother's family name to be given to all the children in addition to the above e.g. Annie Mackie Fyfe, Susan Mackie Fyfe.

    As long as this is treated as a series of clues (which need to be verified) then the naming pattern can save a lot of time.

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