5 ways to find your criminal ancestors


01 February 2021
It often proves to be the case that if our ancestors fell on hard times, we can find out more about them. This is certainly true when it comes to our criminal ancestors, as Emma Maxwell explains.

Whether it is discovering what our ancestor’s tattoos looked like, learning they were the same height we are, or reading their own words in witness testimony, records of our criminal ancestors are packed with fascinating detail that we are unlikely to find elsewhere. We will look at five ways you can find your criminal ancestors. 

1. Newspapers

Newspapers are a great way we can find out about our ancestors. Just as they do today, historical newspapers reported crimes and court cases, often in fascinating detail. Between 1830 and 1855, taxes on newspapers were gradually lifted, making newspapers accessible to a greater proportion of the population. 

Begin by searching for your ancestor’s name, within the time period and geographical area where your ancestors lived. If you find a report of a court case, it’s worth expanding your search to find the first report of the crime. That first report may not mention your ancestor, so use information such as the location of the crime and the type of crime to expand your search. 

There are now many projects to digitise historical Scottish newspapers. The British Newspaper Archive is the largest, and fastest-growing archive, with new titles being added every week. This archive can also be searched through FindMyPast, so it’s worth checking to see if this is already included in your FindMyPast subscription. Gale Historical Newspapers and Google News Archive may also be useful (the latter gives free access to The Glasgow Herald Archive).

Top Tip - Many libraries subscribe to resource websites so their members can use them free of charge at home. For example, the National Library of Scotland give their members free access to many newspaper archives from home. Find out what is available in your country or region.

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2. High Court

Scotland’s highest criminal court is the High Court of Justiciary, usually referred to simply as the High Court. The High Court heard a great variety of cases, usually for more serious crimes, but the Court also heard cases of repeat offenders and appeals from lower courts, such as the Sheriff Courts.

These detailed records tell us exactly what crime or crimes the person was accused of. They also include declarations from the accused and the depositions of witnesses. These could include a neighbour who happened to witness the crime, a family member or perhaps a doctor who examined the victim. These cases are very extensive and can even include paper evidence.

Shown here is an example of the fascinating paper evidence that can be found in the expansive High Court papers. This is from the 1843 trial papers relating to David Vallance. This is a ‘paper cut’ of footprint found at the scene of the crime (NRS Ref. JC26/1843/214)

The National Records of Scotland (NRS) has individually catalogued the High Court records from 1790 to 1919 (records less than 100 years old are closed). You can also search these High Court records through the comprehensive index on Scottish Indexes which gives you expanded search features, enabling you to find your elusive ancestors.

3. Prison Registers

Even if your ancestor just spent one night in jail, and the case didn’t go to trial, you may still find them recorded in a prison register. These registers are full of detail. Most in the Victorian period will give the full name (including aliases), age, place of birth and also the very useful detail ‘where spent the greater part of life’. This information can help you identify your ancestors and make progress tracing your family history.

You will also discover how long your ancestor spent in prison, what their crime was and which court convicted them. Another fascinating detail is the ‘marks’ column, designed so that a prisoner could be identified if they escaped! Often, the prisoner’s height, hair colour and complexion are recorded, and sometimes we even find a gem like a drawing of their tattoo, or a revealing detail like ‘marked with smallpox’. 

Criminal records can reveal more than we might expect, here in a Scottish prison register we see that the inmate was ‘Marked with smallpox’, a fascinating insight into a person’s health which we are unlikely to find in any other records (NRS Ref. HH21/17/1)

Most prison registers are held by the National Records of Scotland (NRS) in Edinburgh and are easy to search in person if you can visit. There are also some free indexes online. Inveraray Prison Records can be searched here, Dumfries Jail Books and Bail Bond Registers 1714-1810 can be searched on the D&G Council website and Scottish Indexes now has an index to over 26,000 prison register entries.

There are also prison register entries in the Fife Kalendar of Convicts, 1790-1880, which is available as a digital download from the Fife Family History Society here.

Top Tip - In an effort to keep track of a person’s criminal behaviour individuals can also be recorded with an alias. This may be because they were using an assumed name to evade capture, or it could be a step-father’s name, their mother’s maiden name or their biological father’s name. Look out for these extra clues as you search.

4. Sheriff Court Records

Most Scottish Sheriff Court criminal records are also held by the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh. An entry in a newspaper or a prison register may tell you that your ancestor’s crime was heard by the Sheriff Court. Although little indexing has been done, if you know which court heard the case, and the date, a search can be made in the Sheriff Court criminal records. The National Records of Scotland (NRS) catalogue can help you determine what records are available for each court and for which time periods.

With little indexing, and not a lot of digitisation having yet been done, searching these records can be challenging, but it’s worth the search to discover your ancestor’s story! The records vary. Jury trials are usually the most informative. Like the High Court records, they may include declarations and evidence. Summary trials were heard by a judge alone, and although these entries can be briefer, they are still often worth searching for. 

5. Local Archives

In local archives across Scotland, you will find a variety of court and police records, some of which are particularly exciting. For example, the Dumfries Archive Centre holds a ‘Criminal album' and records including photographs and descriptions of criminals and details of their offences from the 1870s onwards, compiled by Dumfries Burgh Police Force’. You will find similar items in archives around the country.

Find the archive that covers where your family used to live, and use their catalogues or guides to work out what survives. You never know, you may just find your ancestor’s photograph!

Top Tip - Use the Scottish Archive Network catalogue to find collections held in archives throughout Scotland. Sadly, not all records have been added to this catalogue but it’s a good place to start. 

About the Author

Emma Maxwell is a genealogist at Scottish Indexes with a special interest in criminal and medical records. Along with her husband Graham Maxwell, they have been indexing historical records for 20 years. All their indexes are available to search on Scottish Indexes -  no login, no subscription, just search. 

Scotland's Criminal Database is available to search on the Scottish Indexes website. It currently contains over 160,000 entries with more entries being added all the time.