Janet Bishop ex­plores the realm of Scot­tish death records and the wealth of in­for­ma­tion they can of­fer to fam­ily his­to­ri­ans

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Janet Bishop re­veals the fas­ci­nat­ing in­for­ma­tion that can be found us­ing death records in Scot­land

Scot­tish statu­tory death cer­tifi­cates can pro­vide an in­stant bi­o­graph­i­cal frame­work for an in­di­vid­ual, in that they give the fol­low­ing in­for­ma­tion: name; oc­cu­pa­tion; name and oc­cu­pa­tion of any spouse; date and place of death; age; names and oc­cu­pa­tions of par­ents; cause of death; hope­fully a rel­a­tive as in­for­mant. Be­cause of this, it is of­ten the first record to be sought out when be­gin­ning a new piece of re­search. How­ever, a death cer­tifi­cate is not the only record that can pro­vide this frame­work, or in­deed add to it.

Early reg­is­tra­tion

Statu­tory reg­is­tra­tion be­gan in Scot­land on 1 Jan­uary 1855, 18 years af­ter Eng­land, and this date marks the be­gin­ning of the manda­tory civil reg­is­tra­tion of births, mar­riages and deaths. For the first time, the date, place and cause of death were recorded by the gov­ern­ment, pro­vid­ing in­for­ma­tion which now helps the fam­ily his­to­rian enor­mously. The gov­ern­ment in this case was the UK gov­ern­ment, but Scot­land has al­ways had its own Gen­eral Reg­is­ter Of­fice ( Scot­land) and its own sep­a­rate ad­min­is­tra­tive struc­ture. As a re­sult, Scot­land’s unique death cer­tifi­cates are the envy of the world and full of use­ful de­tails for modern-day ge­neal­o­gists, giv­ing much more in­for­ma­tion than Eng­lish death cer­tifi­cates.

New Reg­is­ter House was built and opened to the pub­lic in 1861, its pur­pose be­ing to house all the birth, mar­riage and death records for Scot­land. In 2000, Ce­cil Sin­clair pub­lished Jock Tam­son’s Bairns: A His­tory of the Records of the Gen­eral Reg­is­ter Of­fice for Scot­land ( Ed­in­burgh,

2000). This book is now out of print, but an up­dated ver­sion is avail­able to down­load from the Na­tional Records of Scot­land web­site – it’s well worth a read (­tam­son).

Cer­tifi­cates in the first year of statu­tory reg­is­tra­tion had much more in­for­ma­tion than in any year since, so a death in that year is a great find! Ex­tra de­tails recorded in 1855 were the ages and place of birth of both par­ents, how many chil­dren they al­ready had, as well as where and when they had mar­ried. From 1855-1860 the place of burial was in­cluded (which is use­ful for an­ces­tral vis­its), usu­ally cer­ti­fied by the un­der­taker. This is a carry-over from death records very ir­reg­u­larly kept prior to 1855, when the record of a death or burial was some­times recorded in a church reg­is­ter, or even just the sex­ton’s note­book. From 1861 to the present day, the in­for­ma­tion on a death cer­tifi­cate has changed very lit­tle, and is the sin­gle most valu­able doc­u­ment in fam­ily his­tory re­search post-1855. Sir Harry Lauder’s death on 26 Feb­ru­ary 1950, was reg­is­tered by his nephew-in-law the next day. He is recorded as a “va­ri­ety artiste” and wid­ower of Ann Val­lance, 79 years of age. He died at Lauder Ha’, Strathaven, and it is noted that his mother re­mar­ried af­ter his fa­ther’s death: all that in­for­ma­tion can be found on one cer­tifi­cate.

Go back in time

Statu­tory records are all very well, but most of us want to progress our fam­ily his­tory back fur­ther than 1855, so where do we go when our pe­riod of study falls out­with the statu­tory years of 1855 to the present day?

Some old parish reg­is­ters (OPRs), such as Ed­in­burgh St Cuth­bert’s and Dalkeith, have good death, or, more likely, burial records from these ear­lier pe­ri­ods, even if the in­for­ma­tion is not as full as in a statu­tory death cer­tifi­cate. More ru­ral parishes of­ten have no sur­viv­ing records of pre-1855 deaths. There’s no guar­an­tee, but it’s al­ways worth a look. The OPR death records are avail­able in the Scot­land­sPeo­ple Cen­tre and on­line ( scot­land­speo­ple.

Kirk ses­sions

Kirk ses­sion min­utes of­ten con­tain in­for­ma­tion about deaths and/or buri­als, al­though the de­tail in­cluded is not uni­ver­sal. A List of In­ter­ments in Knockando Church­yard, Mo­ray is beau­ti­fully writ­ten and gives names, res­i­dences, ap­prox­i­mate age, re­la­tion­ships and date of in­ter­ment, while Al­loa, Stir­ling­shire, Ac­counts of Mort­cloths, Bell Money, Lairs and Head­stones, 1775-1779, doc­u­ments well the in­come that was made by the church from the hir­ing out of the nec­es­sary el­e­ments of a de­cent fu­neral. Of­ten over­looked are the com­mu­nion rolls, which, as well as de­tail­ing seathold­ers in the church and their at­ten­dance at com­mu­nion, of­ten record or im­ply the demise of a reg­u­lar church­goer. Dalkeith’s com­mu­nion rolls are a good ex­am­ple of this. Some kirk ses­sion min­utes have in­ter­est­ing notes, such as in Mort­lach, Banff­shire, in the 1760s, where it is recorded that dur­ing one win­ter the ground was frozen so hard that graves could not be dug, and the bod­ies were stacked out­side against the church wall un­til the thaw. Don’t for­get to look at pre-1855 poor lists, as al­most ev­ery parish­ioner even­tu­ally ended up on the poor list of the parish – a dili­gent ses­sion clerk will have care­fully crossed out names or marked them as dead – with any luck also en­ter­ing an ac­tual or ap­prox­i­mate date. A good ex­am­ple of this is the Poor List for Tain, 1745. There are also in ex­is­tence kirk ses­sion min­utes of non-es­tab­lished churches – af­ter the Sec­ond Se­ces­sion of 1761, the kirk ses­sions of the numer­ous churches in Scot­land each kept their own records. The Quaker Church, for ex­am­ple, has some lists of deaths, such as Ed­in­burgh Buri­als, 1680-1716.

Mon­u­men­tal in­scrip­tions are an­other great re­source for re­searchers. Fam­ily His­tory So­ci­eties through­out Scot­land have over the years un­der­taken a pro­gramme of record­ing tomb­stone in­scrip­tions. Some groups have also un­cov­ered and recorded buried tomb­stones. The re­sult of this ded­i­cated vol­un­tary work has been to pro­vide a range of pub­lished mon­u­men­tal in­scrip­tion books. Most of these pub­li­ca­tions are avail­able to view in the Scot­land­sPeo­ple Cen­tre and the Scot­tish Ge­neal­ogy So­ci­ety Li­brary, both in Ed­in­burgh. They are also avail­able to pur­chase from the rel­e­vant so­ci­ety – see the Scot­tish As­so­ci­a­tion of Fam­ily His­tory So­ci­eties ( SAFHS) web­site for de­tails ( www.safhs.

A ‘ lair’ is a burial plot, a term which seems to be pe­cu­liar to Scot­land. The buri­als and cre­ma­tions de­part­ments (some­times the leisure and recre­ation de­part­ments) of all lo­cal au­thor­i­ties hold the lair reg­is­ters for their ar­eas of re­spon­si­bil­ity. Lair reg­is­ters record mainly the owner of the

Don’t for­get to look at pre-1855 poor lists, as al­most ev­ery parish­ioner even­tu­ally ended up on the poor list

lair, but also recorded should be the peo­ple who have been in­terred in the lair. Most of these lair records date from the mid-19th cen­tury, when parish coun­cils and later lo­cal coun­cils took over the re­spon­si­bil­ity from the Church for the ceme­ter­ies.

Wills and papers

Fam­ily papers, such as those some­times found in the gifts and de­posits col­lec­tion in ar­chives, can throw up some in­ter­est­ing in­for­ma­tion. The papers of the Mur­ray Fam­ily of Ochter­tyre in Perthshire, for ex­am­ple, in­cludes this in­ter­est­ing en­try: “Pa­trick Mur­ray killed at Flow­don [Flod­den] 1513. El­iz­a­beth Char­ters his spous [sic] died 1535. David his son killed at Pinkie 1547. Agnes Hay his

spouse died 1603 be­ing one hun­dred and one year[s] of age.”

Mourn­ing cards are quite a com­mon find in fam­ily papers, as well as black-edged let­ters in­form­ing a re­cip­i­ent of a death of some­one known to them. In the Innes of Stow papers there is a list of An­nounce­ments of Deaths 1779-1838, which con­tains some 106 death no­tices.

By the late 1800s, it was be­com­ing usual for fam­i­lies to place a death no­tice in the lo­cal news­pa­per, with de­tails of the fu­neral, re­la­tion­ships, etc. Lo­cal his­tory li­braries or lo­cal ar­chives will hold their lo­cal news­pa­pers on mi­cro­film. News­pa­per records can also be searched via the Bri­tish News­pa­per Ar­chive web­site ( british­news­pa­per­ar­chive

In­ven­to­ries and wills

In­ven­to­ries and wills can be found up un­til 1925 on the Scot­land­sPeo­ple sys­tem. From 1925-2000 (or there­abouts), the Na­tional Records of Scot­land ( NRS) is the place to search for con­fir­ma­tions, in­ven­to­ries and wills. In modern times, wills have be­come stan­dard­ised and more stream­lined, but older doc­u­ments can give valu­able in­for­ma­tion on mem­bers of a de­ceased’s fam­ily, if your de­ceased per­son ac­tu­ally left a will. For modern con­fir­ma­tions, in­ven­to­ries and wills, you will need to go to the sher­iff court near­est to you and ask for a com­mis­sary search – there is a charge for this ser­vice.

Wills of Scot­tish Peo­ple who died abroad may be recorded in Scot­land, as in the case of Charles Percy Grant, Glen Grant, Rothes, Mo­ray, indigo planter, who died in 1899 at Moti­hari, Ben­gal, tes­tate, who is men­tioned in the El­gin Sher­iff Court Wills held by Scot­land­sPeo­ple.

Sim­ple sol­diers’ wills can be a poignant ad­di­tion to a fam­ily his­tory study. Pri­vate Joseph Mur­ray, who served with the 1/ 6th Gor­don High­landers wrote: “In the event of my death I give the whole of my prop­erty and ef­fects to my wife, Mrs Grace Muir­head, Tay View, Fri­ar­ton, Perth, Scot­land.” His will can be found at NRS. Al­though it is widely thought that sol­diers’ wills are only avail­able for those who died in war, you may come across a will in the First World War ser­vice record of a sur­vivor – try ances­

On the sub­ject of death in war ser­vice, the web­site of the Com­mon­wealth War Graves Com­mis­sion ( shouldn’t be for­got­ten if a death can’t be found in the statu­tory death in­dexes. Janet Bishop is chair­man of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Scot­tish Ge­neal­o­gists and Re­searchers in Ar­chives (ASGRA)

A High­land fu­neral in the late 19th cen­tury, painted by Sir James Guthrie

Glas­gow Ne­crop­o­lis grave­yard in the 19th cen­tury

A fu­neral pro­ces­sion for 158 sol­diers killed in a rail­way crash in Gretna Green in 1915

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