Research Your Scottish Ancestry

Robert WilbanksScotland's Records of Occupations

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

One of the best ways to learn about your ancestors is by learning what kind of work they did. Tracing the occupations of your ancestors can be one of the best ways to learn more about their everyday lives, skills, and their financial and social status. This in turn can help you distinguish your ancestor from other individuals with the same name in the same location. Additionally, records associated with some of the more unique occupations can provide more family information, as well as individual facts, and in turn provide direction for other research.

In some areas of occupations, records may exist noting persons within specific occupations. Examples would be apprenticeship records, burgh records, and records relating to guilds. These can include family relationships or birthplaces, former and current places of residences, and more.

Before the reign of David I, King of Scotland (1124-1153), Scotland had no officially recognized towns or villages. Outside of the normal scattered hamlets, the closest things to a town were the larger than average concentrated populations around large monasteries or fortifications. David I began to found the earliest burghs in 1124, each with a royal charter (hence royal burghs) and with a Leges Burgorum (Laws of the Burghs) the written rules for governing, and dictating every aspect of life and work within the burgh. These were copied almost verbatim from the customs of Newcastle upon Tyne, in Northeast England. As Scotland was primarily agricultural, and rural, these burghs initially relied on craftsmen and tradesmen from England, France and Germany to settle there and begin to conduct trade.

The royal charter to establish a burgh was a method by which to create commerce and conduct foreign trade. The ability to work or conduct business within the burgh was regulated by the governing body of the burgh. In turn, this 'right' created a unique citizenship status known as burgher or burgess or later Freeman, a person with full freedom of a city. As a result, 'Records of Freeman' is a common type of record for most burghs. These records can provide date and place of residence, name of the freeman, name of the father, occupation, and possible other information.

Meanwhile, certain burgesses of a town would band together based upon craft or trade, forming guilds. These guilds would regulate trade and protect members' interests. A guild could monopolize business within a burgh, and they kept very careful records of their members. A person could become a member of such a guild by completing an apprenticeship, being the son of a burgess, or marrying the daughter of a burgess.

An apprenticeship was a method of learning a skill and eventually establishing a trade within a burgh. An apprenticeship was an indenture, or contract, which usually bound a boy over to a master for about seven or so years, usually to the age of 21, varying by type of trade. There are many forms of apprenticeship records with a wide variety of information that can be very helpful in genealogy. These records may usually be found in Court Records. This custom was brought over to the New World.

The National Records of Scotland house many of the guild and burgh records. More about their collection of records of 'Crafts and Trades' can be found at this page: Information about their 'Burgh Records' can be found on this page:

The Scottish Record Society, one of Scotland's oldest historical societies has published many historical records. They have many published lists of burgesses and guilds, as well as records of various other occupations, including doctors, lawyers, architects, railway men, schoolmasters, coal miners, and more. A listing of all their publications are on this webpage:

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.