Just like England and Wales, a census has been taken in Scotland every year since 1801. As with the rest of the UK, prior to 1841 the census was more of a headcount. However, from 1841 onwards, the Scottish census data will be of great interest to family historians with roots north of the border.
As an Ancestry.co.uk subscriber, you have access to a database of transcriptions from all of the surviving Scottish censuses from 1841 to 1901. After performing a search, you’ll be able to find useful details about the ancestors you’re looking for, including their names, occupations and the county or country they were born in. In some cases on the 1841 census, ages are rounded down to the nearest five years, so someone who’s 19 might be recorded as being 15. Don’t let that trip you up when searching for their birth.
As with the census in England, from 1851 onwards the information becomes slightly more detailed. The ages are accurate to a year and the transcription will tell you which parish or town each person was born in. Relationships between members in a household were also recorded, along with marital status.
When researching Scottish census transcriptions, it’s useful to know about some of the quirks that occurred in how they were originally recorded. Names were often written in more formal terms than those used in everyday life. Somebody regularly called Jessie, for example, may end up on the document as Janet.
There are also some regional naming traditions that cause confusion. In the north east of Scotland, some communities gave their members nicknames, known as ‘tee names’. This helped to distinguish individuals who shared similar names. A gent by the name of John Noble, for example, may have had ‘Farmer’ appended locally as his tee name. He would become John Noble-Farmer. This may mean he appears on a census as John N Farmer, rather than John Noble.
The tradition of a woman taking their husband’s surname after marriage was very much imported from Victorian England. In prior generations, Scottish women didn’t lose their maiden name after marriage. In most cases the census documents recorded a woman with her husband’s surname, but if you can’t find someone, try searching by her maiden name. She may well be listed that way even if she was living at home with her husband and children. When a woman was widowed in Scotland, it’s common to find her in subsequent census records having reverted to her maiden name.
Our collection of Scottish census returns is fully searchable. If you can’t find an individual by their name, try looking for them by their occupation or address, and don’t forget that you can also narrow down results by specifying additional members of the household, if you know who they were.