Why use a professional genealogist for family history?

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01 February 2021
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Searching for a missing piece in your family tree? Looking for expert help in researching your Scottish family history? Read on to find out how a professional family history researcher can help.

Whether you've been tracing your Scottish ancestors for years or have just discovered a Scottish connection in your family tree, before long you're likely to come across a family history brick wall that you just can't solve.

And this is when it might be time to call in the experts. Family Tree spoke to professional researchers around the country about their work, how they help genealogists overcome challenges, and why Scottish family history records are different to those created elsewhere.


Diane Baptie

Diane Baptie is a researcher in archives and is experienced in searching records from the 16th century onwards. She specialises in researching in the Historical Search Room in the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh and in the Special Collections Department Reading Room at the National Library of Scotland.

She has undertaken research in records covering a wide variety of subjects for academics, PhD students, authors, businesses, institutions and family and local historians.

Do you have a favourite resource or collection of historic records that you feel is not as well-known as it should be?

There are several less well-known collections of Scottish historic records which are held in the Historical Search Room at the National Records of Scotland. One of these is the Deeds which, unlike records in other countries, are not records of ownership of land. Instead, they are dated, signed and witnessed agreements, contracts and obligations which were then registered for more security in the Register of Deeds of the Court of Session or in those of the lesser Sheriff, Commissary and Burgh Courts.

They cover a wide variety of subjects. While the majority are financial ones, useful in their own right, there is also some testamentary material, such as:

  • Last Wills and Testaments
  • Bonds of Provision
  • Deeds of Settlement, Trust Dispositions
  • Mutual Dispositions
  • Discharges and Marriage Contracts

Finding a particular deed can take time, as Deeds were not necessarily registered immediately after they had been drawn up. Very often, they are found at the time of the granter’s death. 

In the past, landholding in Scotland was feudal and descended according to the law of primogeniture which meant that heritable property could not be bequeathed. So, these testamentary documents in the Deeds were a means by which a testator could get round this law by bequeathing both movable and immovable property to other members of the family. Then, in 1868, this law changed, enabling land to be bequeathed as a testator wished, although it continued to be used in cases of intestacy.

All records of land transactions was registered in Registers of Sasines which date back to 1617 when the Particular Registers of Sasines for each county and the General Register of Sasines covering the whole country were established.

Find out more about Diane Baptie's research services on her website.


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Kate Keter

Kate Keter, owner of Family Tree Tales, has been researching family trees for over 30 years. She undertook a post-graduate course in Genealogical Studies at Strathclyde University and in 2016 successfully completed the MSc. She also tutors family history courses at Strathclyde University.

Kate can help to find your family tree tales and the stories that make you who you are.

Can you tell us about a recent brickwall you've been able to help someone work through and how you were able to do this?

A professional genealogist can help to break through what can appear to be a “brick wall”.  They can help to untangle complicated relationships or sift out what is important when there is conflicting information. Was the man with the “right” name and of the “right” age that died in South Africa in 1900 the man who had deserted his wife a few years earlier? No, he was not; the father’s name on the list of soldier’s effects was wrong; something overlooked by the client. In fact, the “right” man had gone to America and was listed there in the 1900 census.

Sometimes a “brick wall” can be solved by tracking down records that that a client may not know about but of which a professional genealogist will be aware. For example, a trip to a local archive to sift through the 18th century papers of a local solicitor solved one client’s problem. In a bundle of papers there was a copy of a trust deed, dated 1793, in which a local merchant detailed the distribution of his land and assets. The existence, and enactment, of this deed meant that there had been no will for this gentleman, so there was nothing to find for him online.  

In the deed he listed bequests to all his children, and then identified his grandson as “J____ B___ natural son to the said J____ B____ Junr” which clarified relationships in a family where all the first-born sons had been given the same name and had caused considerable confusion.

In another case there was evidence that the client’s 3 x great-grandparents had been born in Scotland although they had spent most of their lives in Newcastle. No record had been found of them in Scotland, nor was the client able to find a reason why the family re-located. Having first found the couple’s marriage record in Dundee, the records of a court case there helped to explain their move. The couple were charged (not for the first time) with dealing in stolen goods.  They were initially held in prison but, against advice, were granted bail – and disappeared before the trial took place. As a result, they were tried “in their absence” and “outlawed and put to the horn”. Thus, explaining their move to Newcastle.

Find out more about Kate Keter's research service at Family Tree Tales.


Bill Lawson

Bill Lawson has been specialising in the family and social history in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland for over 40 years, and is widely recognised as an authority in the area.

Virtually every household in the Western Isles in the last 200 years has been researched and a resource bank of over 27,500 family tree sheets has been gathered, together with many emigrant families in Canada, USA, Australia etc.

Can you give us an example of a client you've been able to help overcome a brick wall and what help you were able to give them?

We had an interesting request for research recently which gave a grand example of a major problem in genealogical research in the Gaelic-speaking areas of Highland and Islands of Scotland – that the records were all kept in a foreign language – English!

Registrars etc were required to translate all names in English, and unfortunately very often could not agree on the alter thus the Gaelic name Morag was usually translated at Marion or Mirren, but also in some area as Sarah, which also stood for the Gaelic Sorocha.

The recent example came in tracing the ancestry of a Samuel Murchison, who came from the Isle of Skye to the Isle of Benbecula in the 1780s. He was married to an Ann Campbell, and her death appears in the register for South Uist in 1855. In 1855, the first year of registration in Scotland, much more information was asked than later, and the register entry includes a list of her children, living and dead. She appeared with her husband in the census of 1851, but there is no registration of a death for that name, so it would be assumed that Samuel had died between 1851 and 1855 and so would be untraceable.

Further examination of the death register showed the death of a Somerled MacCalman, married to an Ann Campbell, with the same list of children. Samuel is used as an equivalent for the Gaelic Somhairle, and Sorley is also found, but Somerled is rather unusual. Why MacCalman was translated as Murchison is not clear, but Ann’s registrar obviously thought MacCalman was too Gaelic and substituted a mainland name.

By recognising that Samuel Murchison and Somerled MacCalman were the same person, we were able to find his parents’ names and so continue his family history, which would otherwise have been impossible. 

So, the moral would be that when you hit a brick wall you should consult a professional researcher working in the area, who may well be able to recognise clues which would not appear to the general searcher.

Find out more about Bill Lawson's research services on his website.


Ian Leith

Ian Leith runs Caithness-based Baseline Research, who conduct research projects across all geographies and most historical periods.

From organisational histories to family genealogies, Baseline Research offers an annotated timeline approach to capturing the history of an organisation or community or family - telling the story not just from the documentary evidence but also from the perspective of those who have lived along the timeline of history.

What can you tell us about the timelines that you create for clients and how such an approach can help family historians?

A great deal of family history research is about finding dates – birth, marriage, death etc. However, these are simply key markers in a person or family’s timeline. The real family history resides between these dates – where they were born, which school did they attend and so on. Baseline Research’s approach is to build a timeline that charts not just the key dates but all the other aspects of a person’s life and places it alongside local and, where relevant, wider contexts.

Suppose, for example, we have an ancestor born 1660 in Caithness. A search of various archival sources might attach him to the town of Wick. Now we have another timeline – the history of that place and potentially his place in it. 

In 1660 Wick had ten merchants, six tailors, five weavers, four smiths, five shoemakers and four coopers. In a wider Caithness context, we find out more about the county and a third timeline starts to emerge. The remains we see today of Thurso Castle date to 1660 when it was built by George, Earl of Caithness.

A further related timeline that places our ancestor in the national context might include the fact that this was the time when Charles II was proclaimed.

Admittedly, our ancestor’s life may not have touched any of these events, yet in placing them in context we at least get a picture of not just his life but his life and times. 

Baseline Research is therefore as much about finding and relating archival material that can help build this wider family history timeline. 

Find out more about Baseline Research on their website.


Alex Wood

Alex Wood has been an active genealogical researcher for thirty years. He holds the University of Strathclyde’s MSc in Genealogical, Palaeographic and Heraldic Studies and is a full member of the Association of Scottish Genealogists and Researchers in Archives. 

Using the Scotland’s People Centre at New Register House, he is able to examine birth, marriage and death certificates, census returns and tombstone inscriptions. He can also research your Irish roots.

What challenges does tracing Scottish ancestors pose that tracing English, Irish or Welsh ancestors might not?

Tracing recent Scottish ancestors can be easier than tracing English, Welsh and Irish ancestors. The introduction, in 1855, of Scottish statutory civil registration, created a more detailed system of recording data than elsewhere in these islands. 

Scottish birth certificates carried the date and place of parental marriage; marriage certificates noted the names of both parents of both parties; and death certificates noted the names of the deceased’s parents, all great genealogical boons. 

The problems are prior to 1855. Scottish Church records are less comprehensive than those in England. This is partly because the Scottish Church split and re-split at various points after the Reformation. As well as the Established Church of Scotland and a tiny Roman Catholic remnant (for which almost no pre-19th century records exist) there was the Episcopalian Church, countless Presbyterian splinters (the Secession Church, the Relief Church, the Free Church) and the products of reunifications (the Associate Presbyterians, the United Presbyterians, the United Frees), not to mention imported English denominations (Baptists, Methodists). 

Navigating these currents requires some knowledge of which are which, where records exist, and what exist (Monumental Inscriptions, Wills, Church Session Minutes, local trades minutes, legal papers etc.) to supplement the scant ecclesiastical records. A researcher with a sound understanding of these records is of huge assistance for any pre-1855 work.

Find out more about Alex Wood's research services on his website.