Author Topic: Why Can't I find my Ancestor's Birth/Marriage/Death?  (Read 436 times)

Offline Forfarian

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Why Can't I find my Ancestor's Birth/Marriage/Death?
« on: Tuesday 12 October 21 13:51 BST (UK) »
This is a frequent question in these forums. I often find myself replying to such queries, so I am going to try to pull some of the information together into one item for future reference.

It's important to understand what records are and are not available.

The Great Divide is 1855, when statutory civil registration was introduced. From the outset, registration was compulsory. Births had to be registered within 21 days, and deaths within 8 days. It was a bit more complicated in the case of marriages, but generally speaking it is rare for an event to be missing from the registers after 1855. All registered births, deaths and marriages are indexed on SP, and the original certificates of births over 100 years ago, marriages over 75 years ago and deaths over 50 years ago can be viewed online at Scotland's People (SP) www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk.

If an event after 1855 appears to be missing, the reasons may include
- the people involved failed to comply with the law, or
- the registrar made an error, or
- the event is registered under a name other than the name expected
- the event took place somewhere other than expected
- the name(s) have been incorrectly indexed

Before 1855, things are much more uncertain.

The principal source of information about births and marriages is the Old Parish Registers (OPRs) kept by the Church of Scotland (C of S) of baptism and proclamations of banns. Theoretically the C of S was supposed to record all births and marriages in its parish, but in practice this did not often happen. In 1855, all the surviving OPRs were compulsorily collected for safe keeping by the Registrar General for Scotland, and these are the backbone of the OPRs on SP. Baptism records do not always include the baby's date of birth, and records of proclamations of banns do not always contain the date of the wedding.

Then there are the records kept by the Roman Catholic Church. These too are available on SP, as are the surviving records of some other churches, including Dissenting, Secession, and Free Churches, held in the National Records of Scotland (NRS).

There is a very small number of surviving registers that are not available on SP
- a few of the other churches' registers held in the NRS where either it has not been possible to determine who actually owns them, or the congregation that owns them has refused permission for them to be made available on SP
- surviving records of the Scottish Episcopal Church (Episcopal Church in Scotland)/Church of England. These are either in the individual churches or in diocesan, university or local archives
- surviving records, if any, of various other Christian denominations, for example Society of Friends (Quakers), Congregational, Baptist  and Methodist churches etc etc
- records, if any, of non-Christian religions
- a very occasional OPR lurking in a dark corner that escaped being sent to the Registrar General in 1855 and has not seen the light of day since

So why might a particular baptism, say, be missing? There are many reasons, including
- the parents did not have the child baptised
- the parents neglected to have the baptism recorded in the OPR
- the minister omitted to tell the parish clerk
- the clerk forgot to write down the record
- the OPR containing the record was damaged or lost
- the baptism was performed by a clergyman of one of the minor churches whose records, if they ever existed, have not yet made it on to SP

So how many records are missing? Estimates vary wildly, and the further back you go, the more are missing.

In my tree, I have 6637 people born in Scotland before 1855. Of these, there are 834 for whom I have no record of birth or baptism. That is about one in eight. I have seen estimates as high as 30%. Not surprisingly, anecdotal evidence suggests that records of country parishes, if they exist at all, are more complete than records of city parishes of the same period.

You'll have noticed that I have not included missing deaths before 1855. I'll deal with these in a separate message because the full works exceeds the maximum allowed length.


Never trust anything you find online (especially submitted trees and transcriptions on Ancestry, MyHeritage, FindMyPast and other commercial web sites) unless it's an image of an original document - and even then be wary because errors can and do occur.

Offline Forfarian

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Re: Why Can't I find my Ancestor's Birth/Marriage/Death?
« Reply #1 on: Tuesday 12 October 21 13:52 BST (UK) »
Following on from the previous post, this is because the situation regarding deaths is different.

First, the church took the view that once you were dead and your body had been prayed over at your funeral and your soul consigned to Heaven, there was no longer any need to concern itself about your immortal soul. So in many parishes there is quite simply no record at all of who was buried when.

There are several sorts of records for finding out about a death before 1855
- the minority of OPRs that do include a register of burials. there is a list of these at https://www.nrscotland.gov.uk/research/guides/old-parish-registers/list-of-old-parish-registers - go for the county-by-county .pdf versions
- records of payments for the mortcloth. A mortcloth was a piece of cloth, sometimes richly embroidered, that was used to drape over a coffin during the funeral services, and you hired it from the parish for the occasion. Some parishes had more than one mortcloth, of varying quality and hired at varying fees. Records of income from the hire of the mortcloth can often be found in the Kirk Session (KS) minutes or accounts, which are available on SP
- gravestones. These were expensive and only a small proportion of the population could aspire to one. However the information on them is becoming ever easier to access because of the large numbers of organisations and volunteers who are recording and publishing them
- cemetery records. In some large cities, cemeteries were set up by private enterprise, for example several of the cemeteries in Edinburgh, and their burial records have often survived and are now mostly in the care of local authority archives
- newspapers. Again, this is something only wealthy or prominent people would have aspired to before 1855

And in all cases I should add 'other' because there are bound to be some I haven't thought of!
Never trust anything you find online (especially submitted trees and transcriptions on Ancestry, MyHeritage, FindMyPast and other commercial web sites) unless it's an image of an original document - and even then be wary because errors can and do occur.

Online MonicaL

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Re: Why Can't I find my Ancestor's Birth/Marriage/Death?
« Reply #2 on: Tuesday 12 October 21 22:25 BST (UK) »
Excellent overview, Forfarian.

I am sure I will point people in the direction of this thread many times in the future  ;)

Monica
Census information Crown Copyright, www.nationalarchives.gov.uk


Offline DonM

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Re: Why Can't I find my Ancestor's Birth/Marriage/Death?
« Reply #3 on: Wednesday 13 October 21 13:26 BST (UK) »
Yes it is Excellent.

Well done Forfarian!!! 

Don