FOCUS ON: SCOTTISH DEATHS
Janet Bishop explores the realm of Scottish death records and the wealth of information they can offer to family historians
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.
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 ( bit.ly/jocktamson).
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. gov.uk).
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. org.uk).
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 .co.uk).
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 ancestry.co.uk.
On the subject of death in war service, the website of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission ( cwgc.org) 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