Tracing your family tree has always been thought of as a costly hobby, and in these days of
belt-tightening it is maybe one unnecessary expense. But it doesn't have to break the bank,
especially if you are prepared to do the groundwork yourself.
Tracing a family tree with a professional genealogist can cost up to £1,500 depending on how
much time and information is required. If you know how, you can trace your ancestors for a
fraction of this price, and gain more from the experience, as you personally get up close to
your unknown kin.
It's also important to remember tracing a family tree is not just like collecting stamps. The
goal isn't just to collect birth, marriage and death dates so you can travel back one further
generation. It's about learning about your ancestor's lifestyle and where they lived.
The first step is free. Speak to your existing relatives, and gain as much information as
possible. Write down names, dates and addresses, as these will become invaluable later,
saving hours of dead-end research. And don't be embarrassed about writing down notes in
front of your relatives. It is essential you are accurate, and your grandparents may even be
enthusiastic too, because you are researching a common ancestory. Ask to see any family
bibles, as important family names and dates are sometimes written in the front pages.
The second step costs very little. Obtain copies of as many old certificates as you can.
Family members often have birth, death and marriage (BDM) certificates stored away. Get
photocopies of these, and don't forget to check the reverse side too, as important notes are
sometimes scribbled here. Ask for any military records, employment records and keep a
photocopy of each. You may have to refer to these later when cross-checking your
You are lucky if you have a Scottish heritage, because a woman never loses her maiden name.
This name will appear on her marriage and death certificates, making research easier. A
Scottish marriage certificate shows the couple's ages, both sets of parent names, addresses
and occupations. This will give you a guide to their year of birth, but to be on the safe side
also consider the previous year too. A Scottish birth certificate will show where and when
born, parent details and their place of marriage. Scottish death certificates are an important
part of an ancestor's life story, and should not be overlooked, but more on this later.
Never assume the information you uncover is correct. If something seems out of place, it
probably is. Follow your gut feeling. Always check names to ensure they are backed up on
other certificates, otherwise you will find yourself tracing someone else's branch, wasting
your time and money.
From this information you should be able to start your family tree, which may branch back
several generations. Until you see a certificate confirming a date, treat as 'possible', as some
people may be uneasy about giving specific information, or have genuinely become forgetful.
The third step may cost a few pounds or can be free. Ask to see photos of your ancestors,
and don't forget to check the reverse for notes mentioning dates, locations and even names.
Ask if it is possible to get copies of the photos. Most shops dealing with photo developing can
copy photos for you for around 35p each. A free way is to have your photos scanned and
stored onto a disk. If you don't have a printer/scanner, ask around, as many PC printers today
have a scanning facility. Ask your local library, as they may be able to do this for you, for a
nominal fee, if you supply a blank CD. You can pick up a pack of 5 disks from most pound
shops, and the photos can be printed later if you wish. The sudden disappearance of a family
member from a series of photographs can hint at the year of a separation, divorce or death.
The fourth step can cost as little or as much as you like. This step requires a PC. If you
don't have one, most local libraries allow free access if you are registered with them.
Otherwise ask a family member to help you. Most relatives would be proud to assist, as once
again, it is a common ancestry you are researching.
Scotland has one of the best genealogical websites in the world for family tree research. It is
run for the Scottish Government and is located at
www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk. The site is free to check and you will soon discover the wealth of certificates available. To dig a little deeper involves registration and the buying of 'credits'. Each credit purchase costs £6.00 and
you will receive 30 credits. To view a list of records costs 1 credit. To view a record costs 5
credits (that's only £1 per certificate).
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 £6.00 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.
TOP TIP: If you subscribe to the newsletter at www.ancestralscotland.com you will receive 10 free credits for the www.Scotlandspeople.gov.uk website. This is worth £2.00 and gives you an opportunity to try the site for real (or to access the site if you run out of credits on your existing account!)
You can download scanned copies of these certificates, which can be saved or printed. Also
available are Census returns from 1841 to 1901. Censuses are conducted every ten years, but
are withheld from public view for 100 years. The 1911 census will be available in 2011.
Censuses are possibly the most interesting of all certificates, as they confirm the address
where your ancestors were living on the night the Census was held, record their age on
that night, but most importantly list all other family members living there. This opens up
many new branches to explore. With child mortality high in the 19th century, this also
gives names of children you may not uncover using other sources.
Caution is required when reading Census pages. Sometimes it was a suspicious or harassed
family member who gave slightly incorrect details to the enumerator, perhaps standing on the
doorstep while the cold enumerator stood outside in the pouring rain. Nicknames may be
offered instead of actual names, and the details recorded are only as accurate as that written
down by the enumerator on that night.
You can obtain more recent certificates from this site but at an additional cost. These can be
obtained yourself by contacting the local council and buying directly from them. All council
websites have a wealth of genealogical information, and will give details of cost, how to pay,
and where to apply. The results are the same as from the ScotlandsPeople website, but prices
It's not uncommon for surname spellings to vary from one generation to another, so if you
have no luck, try some variations. Also, the system can only read names from the original
certificates if they were legible, so once again, try some variations. A date of death can be
difficult to pinpoint if no relatives can help, but the Scotlandspeople website can scan years of
certificates to help you locate this important life event. Death certificates show usual address,
spouse and parent details, the name of the informant and most importantly, the cause of death.
Step five - digging deeper still for next to nothing. By now you will have a decent-sized
family tree. Compulsory registration of Scottish BDM began in 1855, so obtaining certificates
prior to this year can be hit-and-miss. ScotlandsPeople lists some pre-1855 Old Parish
registers, wills and testaments. Cemetery inscriptions can uncover a wealth of information.
The most commonly recorded cemetery inscriptions are pre-1855. Many local family history
societies have records of cemetery inscriptions and sell these online for a few pounds. These
lists are often held at local libraries and can be viewed free of charge.
If you have uncovered a newsworthy event in your family history, check old newspaper
records at your local central library. If they don't hold records there, they will give you advice
on where to find them. Checking old newspapers, whether originals or on microfilm is
free. Your local central library may hold old Electoral Rolls. These are the annual lists of
names and addresses of people registered to vote, so it isn't 100% comprehensive, but might
give a clue of your adult ancestor's whereabouts in a particular year.
Military ancestors can be traced through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission at
www.cwgc.org where you can do a free check for military death records. Many Scottish War
Memorial inscriptions can be found at www.roll-of-honor.co.uk, and old 19th century Ordnance Survey maps can be viewed at www.old-maps.co.uk. www.ancestry.co.uk offers similar searches to the ScotlandsPeople website, but also offers ship passenger lists, old phone books, directories, immigration and emigration records and much more. Most family
tree magazines have websites, and sometimes offer past articles to view free of charge. Worth
checking is www.familysearch.org, the website of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. This Mormon website has over 680 million names worldwide and contains basic BDM
and census details. It isn't comprehensive, but it is free to use.
And finally - Hundreds of genealogy enthusiasts and organisations have their own websites,
some concentrating on their own families, and some concentrating on their local area. They
are all free to view. The two largest sites covering Scotland are www.cyndislist.co.uk and www.Happyhaggis.co.uk. The first has the world's largest list of genealogical links. The latter specialises purely on Scotland and offers thousands of links under subject headings or
listed under the names of Scottish Counties. It also lists hundreds of tips and clues on
researching your Scottish family history, as well as a list of forums where you can contact
other researchers (and maybe distant relatives). There is even a beginner's page with links to
free downloadable family tree charts.
How do you store all these certificates and information? You could buy specialised PC
software that will assist you to build charts, show photos and add colour to your family. Or
you could simply use a ring binder with plastic poly-pages.
Tracing your ancestors and learning about their lives doesn't have to cost the earth, and is a
cheap and rewarding hobby that will keep you busy during these long, dark evenings. It is
also something that can be handed down from generation to generation. Just be prepared for
the occasional skeleton in the closet.
Photographic images supplied were taken by me and are offered in conjunction with press releases to be used as needed. The certificate images supplied are of my direct descendants and permission is granted to use as necessary. [ Scott Manson, Paisley ].
.zip folder includes images of:
-birth certificate example
-marriage certificate example
-1901 census example
-family tree example
-2 x headstone images
-2 x churchyard image
Four months after our release, the National Archives followed with their own version called 'Family History of a Budget'. This can be downloaded HERE