Researching Scottish Genealogy

So, in my last post I regaled you with resources for tracking down German-Russian genealogy. Now, I’m turning my personal focus over to my Scottish side, thanks to my father and his ancestors. I mean, with the surname Angus, what did you expect?

Again, we can consider and Cyndi’s List as good beginning points with the same provisos as I stated before.

In the case of German-Russians in the US and Canada, we found a number of local organizations dedicated to preserving that ethnic history. In the case of Scottish folk, there are similar organizations but with some singular differences. First, Scotland still exists while the system of government that supported the German-Russian colonists in South Russia vanished almost a century ago. So, the existing government of Scotland provides access to records useful for genealogical research itself, for example, ScotlandsPeople. This is the official online repository for any and all useful government documents in Scotland, such as birth, death, wedding, and census records.

Like Cyndi’s List, there is Electric Scotland, maintained by one Alistair McIntyre. For the beginner, this is a great starting point for digging into concepts of clan structure in Scotland, and who might or might not have been in a clan and why.

To simply several hundreds of years of Scottish history, at the time of the Romans, the inhabitants of what is now called Scotland were referred to by them as Picti, meaning painted or tattooed people. That word has transmogrified into Pict. The Picts’ language is unknown, as is much of their culture. By around 800AD, along the west coast of Scotland, invaders from northern Ireland were occupying the land, then called Dál Riata. These people were Gaels, and called by the Romans, Scottii. As the Viking invasions began to cause depredations everywhere along the coastlines of Britain and Ireland, pressures increased between the Scots and the Picts. Between conflicts on the one hand, and a need to band together against the Viking invaders, the Scots and the Picts formed a common cause. As well, the clan system evolved as a mechanism for a clan chief to call together the military resources that might be essential to defeat Viking raiding parties.

By legend, the three original clans in Dál Riata were associated with the three sons of Erc, Lorn, Fergus, and Angus. More properly, these three groups are called Cenél Loairn, Cenél nGabráin, and the Cenél nÓengusa. While the Clan Lorn and Clan Angus were named after the original sons of Erc, the Clan Gabran took its name from one of Fergus’ grandsons. In Gaelic, Cenél means kindred and might include not just those with family ties to the chieftain, but also anyone who swore allegiance for purposes of convenience. If your choices were standing up to Viking raiders on your own, or throwing your lot in with the strongest local chieftain, what would you do? As this clan system expanded to repulse and control Viking raids, it was increasingly adopted by kindred groups throughout the highlands of Scotland. It never really “took” in the lowlands, who knows, perhaps because of remnants of Pictish culture. That’s purely speculation.

If one believed all of these legends, one would subscribe to the idea that I am part of the Clan MacInnes, the current name of this clan, and that I am descended from Óengus Mór mac Eirc (aka Angus the Great, son of Erc), the founder of the clan way back when. Well, that’s rather unlikely as my genetic genealogy displays; but I’m getting ahead of myself to another post, on DNA in genealogy.

By now, the clan system has become rooted in a mythos that may not be a particularly accurate representation of how things really were. There are many online resources for researching clan backgrounds and names. One example is Clans and Families of Ireland and Scotland by Cairney which is also available in book form. Another excellent book is The Surnames of Scotland by George F. Black, ISBN 0-87104-172-3; Library of Congress card A47-1716.

There are also more commercial sites, like Ancestral Scotland, which promotes trips to Scotland to visit the “ancestral home.” If you have anything like a Scottish or Irish name, it is possible to find one or more sites on line, like this one, where you can enter your surname and find the clan that your family name is now associated with. For example, my surname, “Angus” is a sept (or division) of Clan MacInnes. Once you discover your clan, you are very likely to find that your clan has its own web site and organization; for example, my Clan MacInnes is here. If you are lucky enough to find a clan organization, other opportunities for research open up. Many clan organizations have one or more folk assigned to a role of genealogy and DNA testing.

DNA testing has become increasingly popular in clan organizations. This tends to strip away some of that mythos and reveal more detailed truths of the composition of the clans. One example is that, to my observation anyway, many Scottish clans include folk with distinctively Scandinavian backgrounds, implying that somehow some Viking DNA has come in from somewhere or other. Considering those thrilling days of yesteryear, this isn’t that surprising, is it? Even further afield, it is not too unusual to find members with DNA typical of African or Jewish ancestry. Again, considering the melting pot that the world has become, even these outcomes are not beyond the pale (that’s an Irish reference, look it up).

In any case, clan organizations can play a valuable role in assisting in researching your Scottish roots. Similarly, there are many local historical organizations based in Scotland. For example, in my case one of the pertinent such organizations is the Aberdeen & North-East Scotland Family History Society (ANESFHS). Like the German-Russian associations in North America that I referred to in my previous post, these organizations maintain family records throughout their regions and maintain affiliations with similar organizations in other parts of Scotland. To the extent that anyone with similar family backgrounds as you as already done research through them or with their records, they are very likely to be able to assist your searches and even introduce you to other members of the organization from your family. This was certainly true in my case with the ANESFHS.

Some of these organizations are part of The Scottish Association of Family History Societies. Now, an individual like you or I would not join the SAFHS, but organization members, like the ANESFHS, could be of great assistance to us in finding our Scottish roots. Another example organization is the Buckie and District Fishing Heritage Center, of interest to me personally because of a location tie to some of my family. Even when one’s own family doesn’t appear in some of this material, it remains fascinating to review old snippets of news to get a sense of how one’s ancestors might have lived in these places and times.

Other great sites include Scotland Genealogy, and Looking4Kin’s Scottish group.

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