The Ultimate Guide To How To Research Your Scottish Heritage

Article by: Aly Wight


Time to read 6 min

Intrepid Scots have been spreading out all over the world for hundreds of years, looking for new lives and taking the unique values, traditions and spirit of Scottishness with them. Almost 40 million people worldwide are estimated to have a Scottish connection. Are you one of them?

Where Are You In Researching Your Scottish Heritage?

If you have recently discovered your family has Scottish roots and want to know more, or you've known for a while but never delved further into past generations and their stories, then this article is exactly where you should start.

In this guide we have compiled a comprehensive way to start your Scottish ancestry research, with tips, pointers and resources to help you in each step.

How to Tell if You Are of Scottish Descent

You might just be beginning to ask 'Am I Scottish?" If you are not entirely sure whether you have Scottish ancestors, the easiest places to start are here:

  • Surnames not only tell you if you have Scottish roots but can sometimes tell you where in Scotland your distant ancestors may have lived. Many Scottish surnames grew out of the clan system, a uniquely Scottish aspect of identity. Once you start compiling a family tree (more on this later) you will be able to check out the origins of each name to reveal possible Scottish connections.

  • Speak to relatives, you might be surprised by how casual your family members can be about family history. A lot of emigrating Scots wanted to blend into the new places they settled in, so maybe people in your family have kept stories about their background to themselves. Don't assume that Scottish roots would have been mentioned, get curious and start considerate conversations with relatives. More on how to do this later!

  • DNA testing can be a fast track way to know a lot about your past, however don't assume this is the only way you'll be able to trace your roots. Having private companies process your DNA comes with some considerable practical and ethical implications for you and everyone you're related to.

Why Research Your Scottish Heritage?

Embracing your Scottishness is something you will never regret. And thankfully, if you've found a Scottish branch of your family tree, then it might just be one of the easiest ones to research. Scotland has kept excellent official records of its people for centuries and it's all available to you. 

How to Start Tracing Your Scottish Ancestry

Researching your Scottish heritage is going to be an adventure, hopefully you'll have some of the most memorable conversations of your life with family members, discover the unexpected, gain connection and build a sense of belonging. 

It may seem like you've got a mountain to climb but all mountaineering starts with a few simple steps:

Step 1: Choosing Ancestry Research Tools

Before you do anything else decide how you are going to document your research. Embrace the dedicated digital tools that can keep you on track, helping to really focus and aid your research.

Step 2: Brain Dump

Start by documenting all the stuff you already know. This could be family stories you've heard, names and dates from conversations, or any documents, letters or certificates tucked away in family albums. Every piece of information helps inform your next questions.

Step 3: Conversations with Family Members

Ask family members for some time to chat, especially the older generations if you're lucky enough to still have them around. They can provide anecdotes, names, dates, and perhaps even old documents that haven't been previously considered. This can be a rich source of information and often brings unexpected insights.

💡Tip: It is really important to approach these conversations with care and consideration. If you are asking relatives, out of the blue, to answer lots of questions about the past then make sure you get them on-side before you start. Here's our Guide to Discussing Family History with Relatives.

Step 4: Document Everything

Take notes during your conversations and if it's an option (and you have people's permission) you could record your chats in audio or video format. 

Look for tangible records like birth certificates, marriage licenses, old letters, and diaries. These documents can offer concrete facts and dates. Digitising or copying them ensures they are preserved and easily accessible for future reference.

Step 5: Building Your Family Tree

With the material you've gathered, start constructing your family tree. Online tools can be pretty helpful here, letting you to organise your findings and see where there are gaps in your knowledge that need more research.

Check out this blog postHow To Make A Family Tree: To Trace Your Scottish Heritage for evertything you'll need to get started.

Step 6: Compile Family Photographs

Photographs will put faces to names and can offer visual clues about your ancestors' lives and times. They can also sometimes reveal locations, occupations, and significant events. Organising these photos can help connect the dots between different pieces of your family history.

vintage photograph showing four women from the 1950s sitting on a wall with a baby.
Image copyright protected property of Clanscape

Photo Tip 1: Gather Together

Family albums and collections of photos may have spread across different households in your wider family so ask relatives what photos they have and if you can borrow them in order to scan or make copies. This might be a lot of work for relatives so help them with the task and make it as easy and pleasant as possible for them.

Photo Tip 2: Handle With Care

It may sound pretty obvious but be extra careful with old photos, check out this post for 10 Tips to Care For Old Photos. Handling these treasured possessions correctly can save you from the heartache of damaging or losing them.

Photo Tip 3: Digitise & Organise

Use an app to digitise and organise your family photos, some have facial recognition built into them so you can start to attach names to faces in each photo. We love an app called Photomyne but there are plenty other ones available in app stores.

Step 7: Investigate Online Records

Utilise online genealogy databases and resources to find official records and other families' tree connections. This step can help fill in the gaps and extend branches of your family tree you didn't know existed. Some Scottish Records go back as far as the 1500s so there may be a lot to discover.

Record room of a library that contains Scottish family history records.

Step 8: Join Scottish Ancestry Groups or Clan Society

Connecting with others who are researching their Scottish roots can provide support, insights, and potentially valuable information. There are many online forums, social media groups, and ancestry societies dedicated to Scottish genealogy. These communities can offer tips, help you to research your Scottish heritage, and maybe even connect you with distant relatives.

Step 9: Visualise Your Scottish Heritage With A Clanscape Print

Once you've gathered a wealth of information about your Scottish roots, take a moment to visually connect with your heritage through Clanscape. Our online print store offers a unique collection of beautiful Scottish landscape photography prints that bring to life the stories and origins of Scottish clans and family names. By exploring our collection, you can find prints that resonate with the areas of Scotland your ancestors hailed from.

A great way to incorporate our prints into your ancestry project is to create an ancestry wall in your home. An ancestry wall, also known as a genealogy wall, serves as a special area within your home to display photographs, documents, and artefacts that tell the story of your family's past. You can follow our guide to making your own ancestry wall here.

Step 10: Visit Scotland

If possible, planning a visit to Scotland can be an incredibly enriching part of tracing your Scottish ancestry. Not only can you walk in the footsteps of your ancestors, but you may also be able to visit the very places they lived, worked, and socialized. Local archives, churches, graveyards, and historical societies can be treasure troves of information not available online. Plus, experiencing the culture, landscape, and people of Scotland firsthand can deepen your connection to your heritage.

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