Tracing Your Scottish Family History

Tracing Your Scottish Family HistoryCollins, November 2008
ISBN-13: 978-0-00-727874-9
224 pages

Price £17.99.

Written by Anthony Adolph

Buy on Amazon

“Robbie Burns would be proud”National Genealogical Society Quarterly (U.S.A.), March 2010.

One of Family History Monthly‘s Top Ten Books of 2008: “Adolph triumphs here with a clear and accessible guide to Scottish research”

Awarded the Seal of Approval by Your Family Tree Magazine, who praised its “vibrant looks and friendly tone”.

“…perhaps the most balanced research guide of its type out yet” – Chris Paton, Ancestors, the magazine of The National Archives, December 2008.

“… reveals the author’s intention of illuminating not just useful research references but an account that conveys much about the nature of Scotland itself’ –  Bruce P. McGillivray, Clach an Airm, 2013.

Also published in 2008 in the United States
by Firefly Books
and in Canada by Firefly Books
with the support of the Government of Canada.

ISBN-13: 978-1-55407-457-0

224 pages

Price $29.95.


(A much reduced version of the book was issued as a covermounted give-away on the cover of The Scotsman on 26 March 2011, with an accompanying television advertisement).

Tracing Your Scottish Family History

This book has been written to mark the 250th anniversary in 2009 of the birth of Robert Burns, the Ploughman Poet, whose words captured the spirit of the Scottish nation. His anniversary year has been declared Scotland’s Homecoming Year. Homecoming Year’s organizers aim to encourage Scots all over the world to come back to visit, and, presumably, to assure them of a homely welcome when they do.

To come home you need to know where you come from. Underpinning Homecoming Year is genealogy, the study of family trees or pedigrees, and its associated discipline of family history, the study of the stories behind the pedigrees. In many countries, computerisation of records has rocketed genealogy from a minority interest into an immensely popular obsession. But in Scotland, knowing your roots is nothing new. Right back in the 16th century, the French joked of any Scotsman they encountered ‘that man is the cousin of the king of the Scots’, for that was what he would surely claim. A rather more cynical view was penned in the mid-18th century by Charles Churchill (1731-1764), in his ‘Prophecy of Famine’:

Two boys, whose birth beyond all question springs
From great and glorious, tho’ forgotten kings,
Shepherds of Scottish lineage, born and bred
On the same bleak and barren mountain’s head…

Sarcastic, yes, but accurate, for many of the widespread Lowland families and Highland clans were indeed founded by scions of Scotlands’ ruling dynasties, be they in origin Pict, Briton, Gael, Viking or Norman. And such knowledge was not lost, especially in the Gaelic-speaking parts, when ancestors’ names were remembered through the sloinneadh, the patronymic or pedigree, in which two or more – often many – generations of ancestors’ names were recited, and which was a natural part of everyone’s sense of identity.

Such essential knowledge was threatened, diluted and sometimes lost by movement, whether to other parts of Scotland or over the seas in the white-sailed ships. Where it persisted, it results in many people, not just in Scotland but all over the world, being able to point at a particular spot on the map of Scotland and say ‘that is home’.

This book is for those who can’t do that yet, or who can but want to learn more. Many aspects of genealogy, such as DNA and nonconformity, can seem terribly complicated, and some specific elements of Scottish genealogy (such as services of heirs, wadsetts and precepts of clare constat) seem to have been designed purposely to intimidate the feint-hearted. And, given the great amount of contradictory information flying about, does your Scottish surname actually indicate that you belong to a clan, or may wear a tartan, or doesn’t it?

This book has been created to guide you through these issues, to develop a much fuller understanding of your Scottish Family History, and to find your own way back, so to speak, to your Scottish home.


How to start your family tree
Archives and Organisations
Scotland’s names
Know your parish

General Registration
Church registers
Religious denominations in Scotland
Testaments, deeds and other useful records
How they lived
What people did
The burghs
Land holders
Farmers and crofters
Clans and tartans

The origins of Scotland’s people
Genetic evidence

The website Anglo-Celtic Connections revealed that August 2009’s best-selling genealogy books in Canada were Spencer Wells’ DNA study, Deep Ancestry, followed by Anthony’s Tracing Your Irish Ancestry, then a book about the Irish Potato Famine by Donald MacKay, followed by Anthony’s Tracing Your Scottish Family History.


“.. Adolph triumphs here with a clear and accessible guide to Scottish research. All the major, and minor, sources are included and there is plenty of information for beginners on how to use them, whether starting their reserch in Scotland or as a member of the considerable Scottish diaspora. There is plenty for the casual reader here too, inclusing a treatment of the legendary origins of the Scottish clans and the romantic history of the Highlands that injects a bit of life and excitement into the book. Its Yuletime release should ensure that it will end up in many Scottish researchers’ stockings come Christmas morning. And rightly so!” – Sarah Warwick, Family History Monthly, Christmas 2008, p. 73.

“..witty yet informative…” The Middleton & North Manchester Guardian, 13 November 2008, p. 39

“It is distinguished by its vibrant looks and friendly tone, but also by the quality of its information… what adds value is often the side information, such as a panel about the ‘sennachies’, Druidic genealogists who recited royal pedigrees… Peppered throughout are useful tips as well as examples from real research paths to illustrate how lateral thinking can solve problems, or to illustrate what methodical work can achieve” – Your Family Tree, issue 72, January 2009, p. 87.

“Its major strength is that it is probably the first Scottish genealogy book I have ever come across that does not assume that all Scots lived in the central belt, carrying as it does some extremely useful information on research for those who once lived in the Highlands and Islands…” – Chris Paton, Scotland’s Greatest Story,, December 2008.

“… Adolph writes in a charming, friendly style and communicates his own enthusiasm. He displays a great gift of serendipity – quoting stories, providing comments on history and showing extracts of documents – which throw new light on Scottish family history and illustrates what life was like in the past, while arousing curiosity for further research
– Rosemary Bigwood, BBC Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine, December 2008, p. 80.

“… this is an extremely useful book, and Adolph deserves major credit on one front in particular, namely in dealing with Gaelic Scotland. Using examples from his own personal tree [it was not mine, actually], and from consultation with experts such as Bill Lawson of Seallam on the Isle of Harris, he gives the uniquely challenging aspects of Highlands and Islands research as much respect as that of their Lowland equivalents, making the book perhaps the most balanced research guide of its type out yet. Packed with useful tips and information, and lavishly illustrated throughout, this is a useful start for anyone contemplating an investigation into their Caledonian roots”
– Chris Paton, Ancestors (The National Archives magazine), December 2008.

“..I’ve just finished reading your Tracing Your Irish Family History and Tracing Your Scottish Family History and found them both immensely helpful, not to mention entertaining…well done!” – Catherine Elizabeth (Beth) Pringle, Canada.

“… this book will help you to develop a much fuller understanding of your family history, generation by generation”.
Best of British, January 2009.

“… indispensible for anyone looking to chart their family tree”. – The [Kirkintilloch] Advertiser, 7 November 2008 and Kirkintilloch Herald, 10 December 2008 (with competition).

“… an informative, practical and entertaining read”.
Practical Family History, February 2009.

“.. revealing The wide range of tools and information at your finger tips and explaining how to access and use them”.
Family Tree Magazine, December 2008.

“Of all the how-to books I have ever seen, Adolph’s are the most beautiful… One can easily learn the basics for researching in Scotland and/or Ireland from Adolph’s new works but more important, become truly informed on the historical background of these countries and ultimately learn why certain records were created and how they can be accessed. Photographs of ancient ruins as well as the charming countryside make one want to visit one’s homeland, whether it is Scotland or Ireland!
– Joan Griffis, Illinois Ancestors: The News Gazette (Champaign, IL) 2009 05 01.

“2009 has been designated as the year of the Homecoming for Scots but, as the author reflects, ‘to come home you need to know where you come from’. This book seeks to assist people in tracing their forebears back to the peat-smoke-shrouded Scotland of antiquity and is a genealogical manual that you don’t need to be a genius to use”.
Scottish Field, January 2009.

“… a comprehensive guide to navigating your way around the records to trace your Scottish ancestry… balanced with humorous anecdotes”.
– website, December 2008.

Cited in Adrian Benjamin Burke, “The Livingston ancestry of the Duncanson sisters of New Netherland”, part 1, The Genealogist, Spring 2013, vol. 27, no. 1, pp. 28,9.

Leading Canadian genealogist Dave Obee wrote in the Victoria Times Colonist (Canwest News Service) on 5 August 2009: The basic rules of family history research apply to just about every country: Start with sources within your family, sort out the geography, then check for sources such as birth, marriage and death records as well as census returns. That said, there are many variations on the formula, which is why it’s important to have a book that is specific to your country of origin. These two books by Anthony Adolph – which have been available in the British Isles for a year or two – are likely to convince more people to research their roots. They are well-written and lavishly illustrated, so it is possible to dive in at almost any page and find something of interest. A London-based professional genealogist, broadcaster and writer, Adolph (www. hosted series about family history on British television and radio. Adolph gears his writing to the raw beginner, then builds on that base as he introduces more obscure sources and more advanced techniques. He uses plenty of examples of documents so you will get a sense of what to expect. Both books have been updated with information on the best websites to use. They also refer researchers to family history libraries run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – the best storehouse of genealogical information ever assembled – as well as specialized repositories that would require a trip across the Atlantic Ocean. The Irish book acknowledges the tremendous movement of people out of that country over the years, and provides tips for people starting their Irish research in other countries, including Canada. Adolph also deals with the loss of key rescources over the years – with church registers and census returns at the top of the list. The outlook is much brighter in the Scottish book. Much less has been lost over the years, and much more is available through the Internet – and Adolph urges his readers to dig beyond the basics to find more details about the lives of their ancestors. Adolph provides plenty of examples of family histories in both books. He reviews, for example, author J.K. Rowling’s Scottish origins, and also notes that Zorro, of all people, was Irish. These two books would be sure to help anyone doing family history research in Ireland or Scotland. They are among the best books of this type in the past decade.

In the U.S.A.’s National Genealogical Society Quarterly, Norman D. Nicol, PhD, wrote:

At least one new guide or handbook to researching Scottish roots seems to appear each year. The subject of this review was published in 2009 to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of the much-beloved national poet, Robert Burns. From the very first pages, the reader will realize that this particular approach to Scottish ancestry has a vigorous style that reflects the author’s boundless enthusiasm for his subject. While some other recent how-to books for Scottish family history may be equal to the task, Adolph offers an interesting and entertaining methodology. He employs an almost unending stream of photographs, charts, prints, and document reproductions to illustrate his points, anecdotes and accounts from the family histories of well-known and even famous persons are provided as examples of what the researcher may find in any ancestry. By placing our very ordinary forebears in the context of the ebb and flow of Scottish political, social, and economic history, Adolph weaves a tantalizing tapestry that draws out that natural tendency in the reader to want to know and learn more.

The book begins with some basic information-gathering techniques for use with immediate family and continues on to sources in record repositories and on the Internet. Subsequent chapters introduce the main forms of records: statutory registers of births, marriages and deaths, decennial censuses, parish registers and other religious records, deeds, and testaments. Examples are included as well as advice on auxiliary aids to reading old handwriting, languages other than English and vocabulary and meanings.

Progressing beyond the sources which help to fill in the names and dates on a chart, Adolph takes the researcher on to “how they lived.” The topics covered include occupations in town and countryside, government, military, and the private sector, land ownership and life in the Highlands, and the records these myriad activities engendered. Adolph completes the book with discussions of emigration from Scotland, the early origins of the Scottish people, and the place of DNA investigation into ancestry, particularly as it pertains to Scottish family history. Adolph’s book introduces the reader to his subject in an ’eminently readable manner. The tone is conversational, not pedantic. His penchant for telling a good story leads the reader down the path to desired information, and then to the summit of what to do with it once it has been located. Both beginners and veteran researchers will find much that is useful and instructive in this book. Whereas other titles in this genre populate my library shelves as reference books, Tracing Your Scottish Family History will likely remain next to my chair, to be reread and enjoyed in small doses. By such means, the many interesting illustrations and exemplary vignettes can be savoured again and again. Robbie Burns would be proud.

Tracing Your Scottish Family History was recommended in Alastair Moffat’s article “Clan Connections”, Family History Monthly, July 2010, p. 28.

Mrs B. Davis’s review of the book stated that “Even if you are not of Scottish ancestry, this is a book worth reading. It delivers interesting insights into the history of Scotland. It also generously guides you, if of Scottish ancestry, through the websites and other sources of information for your own private research. The pictures are first rate”.

‘An expert helping hand in retracing your family’s past…’ Family Chronicle, July/August 2012, centerfold.

‘If you’re looking for a complete reference on this subject, you may well find it in this book. The author, Anthony Adolph, is a professional genealogist. Among his credentials is a period of study at the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies, Canterbury. He’s been a contributor to the general genealogical press in Britain and to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

‘Those of our readers who subscribe to The Highlander Magazine, in my opinion the very best Scottish interest periodical in the US, may have noticed that Adolph will now be taking over as genealogy columnist there, which already promises good things ahead.

‘Apart from its author, the book itself is a bargain at the price of $29.95. It’s paperback, but of the best quality with sturdy covers, suitable for hauling around from one archive to another. The running text is well organized and punctuated with informative sidebars, plus an appendix of “useful addresses” in the back., including local libraries and archives across the countryside of Scotland. Lest I forget, the book is beautifully designed and generously illustrated.

‘Much of the very detailed material in this book—things like testaments, commissary courts, tailzies and sasines— may be over the head of the reader (they are for me). But that’s where the word “complete” comes in. However far along you are in your quest to discover’ your ancestors, at some point a book like this may be the key to unlocking that next door. Family history research will always call on us at times to broaden our knowledge base. Nothing wrong with that. It’s better than sitting there stymied, frustrated and incapable of making further progress.

‘Besides the wealth of detail available in the book, Adolph’s writing style makes for pretty easy reading. You will always find him sympathetic and with a nice sense of humor at times to carry you along.

‘The structure of this book reveals the author’s intention of illuminating not just useful research references but an account that conveys much about the nature of Scotland itself —how its society evolved, the many facets of its population from the folk of the barren Western Isles to its sophisticated urban cognoscente, all the forms through which government and courts preserved a record of the past, and more. It will be a worthwhile addition to your library’. – Bruce P. McGillivray, “A Very Good Reference on Scottish Genealogy”, Clach an Airm (the Clan MacGillivray Society USA newsletter), 2013.