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BOOKS FOR GENEALOGY

2nd May 2013

By Gordon Johnson

When it comes to deciding what books would be useful for researching your family history, the basic problem is that the original records are not in books which you can buy. All the original source materials are held in archives and libraries all over Scotland.

So where do books come in?
The answer is in several parts: reference books on genealogical sources; books of the How-to kind; books which describe the location where your ancestors lived; and books which help you to understand the conditions under which they lived.

There are loads of books on clans and tartans, most of which will have little relevance to your research, unless your family came from the Highlands, or were Border reivers (basically cattle-thieves). Most people in Scotland were NEVER part of a clan, and tartan was not invented as a surname-related material until about the 18th century, and new tartans are being invented all the time: there is even a Church of Scotland tartan! Heraldry is another subject best avoided. Coats of arms were devised to identify an individual, NOT a surname, and a genuine Scottish coat of arms is expensive and has to be applied for to the Lord Lyon, king of arms, at his office in Edinburgh.

The reference books can range from complete listings of all the sources to specifics on the source materials on, for example, merchant seamen; or booklets detailing what is recorded on gravestones in a specific cemetery. Some give details of a parish, and what county, commissariat, etc. that fits into. Other works may list all the known people of a particular trade or occupation in the country in past centuries; and dont forget to obtain at least one dictionary of the language used in Scotland a group of variants of English, full of words peculiar to parts of Scotland. A MUST is a copy of George Blacks The Surnames of Scotland which gives the origin of most Scottish surnames, and details of some of the earliest occurrences of the surname. It was published by New York Public Library in 1946, and is in print as a publication by Birlinn Books, Edinburgh. There are also books on forenames that can be illuminating.

The How-to books MUST be those either published in Scotland, or with a title which makes clear it is about Scottish genealogy. The reason is that Scottish genealogical records are different from those in other parts of the United Kingdom. To give a simple example: a birth certificate in England which gives a time of birth, indicates that this was a multiple birth (twins, triplets, etc.); but ALL Scottish birth certificates include the time of birth.

Books of the geographical kind are an important aspect of the subject. They tell you about the countryside where your ancestors lived and worked. Was it a coastal parish, with fishermen, or an inland rural parish almost entirely agricultural; or an urban parish full of industry? There are many books which can help, but do not ignore the Statistical Accounts of Scotland, compiled in the 1790s, 1830/1840s; and the 1950s/1960s. The first two are nowadays available online, courtesy of Edinburgh University; searchable either by county or by parish. Read the parish account it is not all statistics, but descriptive as well. The Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland, a multi-volume work published in the 19th century, gives basic details of places counties, towns, villages which can be very helpful.

Book on conditions are more subjective. These can be historical diaries about life as a farmer, as a minister of a parish, or simply a resident of a village. Some histories of villages, churches, or companies can tell you about people in these circumstances. If you want to flesh out your own family history, you need to get hold of these works which tell about the way families survived, worked, believed, and interacted in society. If any ancestor was in the armed forces, there are regimental histories, and histories of specific branches or campaigns.

Another type of work-oriented book is a trade directory. This can be as simple as a list of people who worked as clockmakers; people who operated as gunsmiths or other arms-maker; or legal experts such as the Society of Writers to the Signet. There are directories of men who served in the Scottish Parliament (pre-1707) as Burgh or Shire Commissioners; listings of doctors who served in the army as medical officers. Dont neglect the generalised biographical dictionaries you can find in most libraries: you may find a relative there that you had not heard of before.

About Gordon Johnson
Gordon lives at Papigoe near Wick and was formerly a librarian much further south. He has many years experience as a researcher and has an extensive private library. His knowledge and contacts give him a head start on most people trying to find out about their family history. He also runs a web site www.kinhelp.co.uk full of advice and interesting facts and information.

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