Research Your Scottish Ancestry

Geography: Past and Present

Robert Wilbanksby Robert M. Wilbanks IV, B.A.
Chief Genealogist & Historian, C.S.A.

By now, through this column of the last year, you are seeing the many facets of researching your family history, incorporating a wide variety of topics, record types, online resources, continuous learning, etc., combined with thinking strategies. Donít let it overwhelm you. It isnít difficult, but there is a lot to think about when doing genealogy.

In the core of researching your family history, everything comes down to one significant factor: placing your ancestor at a time and in a place; finding your ancestor in a particular time at a specific place. Knowing your ancestorís time and place helps direct your research further in the correct records of a particular time in a certain place. Time and place, time and place, this is key to your genealogical research. Many kinds of records will help identify the town, parish or county of origin for a family. Records of you ancestor in one time and place, can identify him from a previous time and place.

In this writing, I will talk about understanding Place: natural geography and manmade jurisdictions. In genealogical research, it is necessary to know at least the county where the family came from, thus allowing you to search the correct collection of local records according to jurisdiction. Whether researching in America, Canada, England and Scotland, it is important to know where to specifically begin the search. Determining the relevant record-keeping jurisdictions to which your ancestor belonged is a critical part of genealogy research.

Knowing where your ancestor lived helps to identify specific political or religious jurisdictions and their unique records and where they are located. Genealogy is significantly based upon a knowledge and understanding of geography, both present and past. Genealogists must learn to identify place-names and geographical jurisdictions, and their relationship between past and present.

In regard to geography, three significant factors can occur separately or in any combination: generations change, people move, and jurisdictions and place-names are newly created or change. For example, an Alexander Kirkpatrick in a particular county could be a young man just come of age, or a newcomer recently arrived, or a longtime resident who was shifted into the area merely by a boundary change. An example of a boundary change is if one record shows Donald Gordon as born in 1813 in Mississippi while another record shows him born in Alabama. Realize that Alabama was part of the Mississippi Territory until 1817. Another name change example is Charleston, South Carolina which was originally Charles Town.

Also, be aware of multiple jurisdictions and place-names of the same name, and then there is the topography. An example of the former is in America where in almost all 50 states there are towns and counties with the names of Washington, Jefferson, Adams or Lincoln. Also, there is Portland, Maine, Portland, Oregon, Portland, Alabama and Portland, Texas. Meanwhile, topography effects your research, such as when William McNair, to avoid crossing a canyon or wide rushing river to get to the county courthouse of the county that he was living in, instead goes to the courthouse of the bordering county to record the birth, death, marriage or deed.

Like in America, land in Scotland is divided into many different jurisdictions; political and religious. Because libraries and archives organize and catalog their holdings by these geographical divisions, it is important to understand what divisions are used. One confusion of these many administrative districts is their intersecting of each other. Additionally, in 1974, Scotland reorganized its thirty-four counties of old into twelve jurisdictional regions. Most libraries organized and based their cataloging of their Scottish holdings according to the county system as of 1891; firmly established after the 1889 Local Government Scotland Act.

Within Scotlandís counties are multiple jurisdictions called parishes: both church parishes and civil parishes. Records may be organized depending upon these two types of parishes. For example, birth, death and marriage records, before 1855, are filed with the historic church parishes, but then beginning in 1855 they are filed in the civil parishes of the county. Ecclesiastical parishes are based upon the Church of Scotland, but those parishes can be identical to the civil parishes of the same are, though there are exceptions. Civil Parishes, created around 1845, are the government's parishes which in 1930 were re-designated as districts and then in 1975 changed to Council Area. Realize that many towns can have the same names of civil parishes; distinguish the difference. Wikipedia has a page that provides a good explanation of the Civil Parishes of Scotland and identifies all 871:

If you can locate a county in Scotland where your ancestor came from, you may be able to narrow down your research to one of the parishes in that county. However, if you already know the town the ancestor came from, identifying the parish and county is easier.

Other administrative divisions include a variety of sub-denominations, smaller divisions within a parish, as well as geographical features and communities. An electoral division is a civil unit which was used to keep valuation records. This FamilySearch Wiki page talks about Scotlandís Historical Geography:

Maps, atlases, and gazetteers are necessary tools in genealogy. Maps can be either political, topographical or historical. All can show the names of towns, counties and states, and rivers and mountains. These maps come in various sizes. Numerous historical maps for various countries, states, and counties help genealogists know how the region has changed and who was living where, and when. Gazetteers are significant at identifying any place name in Scotland, past and present. This FamilySearch Wiki page discusses Scotlandís many historical and current Gazetteers both in book and online:

Here I have explained the importance of understanding the administrative divisions when doing genealogy research. This applies to any country you are researching, whether the United States, Canada, England, etc. Here I tried to fundamentally show you the significance of knowing the region where in Scotland your family is from, knowing more about your research locale, and studying maps and the history of this region to help you in your research.

This is another of a series of articles in which I show you the basics of searching for your family history, discussing the use of family records, public records, and online resources nationally and internationally, etc. The previous articles are now available on the Genealogy Section of this website.   See “Genealogy” in the menu options at the top of the web page.