Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Researching Scottish Death Records

Another article from the now departed Discover my Past Scotland magazine, this time from early 2010 (and suitably updated):

Researching Scottish Death Records

Genealogist Chris Paton offers some tips on how to trace evidence of your forebears’ demise…

One of the real ironies about family history research is that records surrounding the deaths of our ancestors can often tell us a great deal about how they once lived and provide useful information on the families that they left behind.

From 1855 to the present day, the death of every person in Scotland has been registered by the state and a copy held at the General Register Office for Scotland. The records have been digitised and are easily accessible at the ScotlandsPeople Centre in Edinburgh (https://www.nrscotland.gov.uk/research/visit-us/scotlandspeople-centre), with online access also available via the pay-per-view ScotlandsPeople website (www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk). The latter site restricts access to the full register records prior to the last fifty years only, for privacy reasons, although an online index is available, with which certified copies of more recent records can be ordered.

All statutory death records list the names of the deceased’s parents, including mother’s maiden name, a place, date and cause of death, usual residence and the informant’s details. From 1855 to 1860, the records noted the burial place of the deceased, but the name of any spouse was unfortunately omitted from 1856-1860. If your ancestor died in 1855, the records are especially helpful, in further listing the names of any children born to the deceased, with their ages, and if they had died before 1855, their own dates of death were also given. From 1967, the deceased’s date of birth has also been recorded. Military death records can be frustrating to use as no parent information is included, but if your ancestor died in the two world wars, the free to access Commonwealth War Graves Commission website at www.cwgc.org is also worth checking.

In some cases, where a cause of death has yet to be investigated (for example if there are suspicious circumstances), an initial cause may be noted and subsequently re-entered via the Register of Corrected Entries (RCE) once the procurator fiscal has concluded the investigation. This corrected entry will then be referred to in the margin of the original record, and can also be consulted, which may shed considerable further light on the circumstances.

Some illnesses described in early death records can seem incredibly unfamiliar, with tuberculosis for example noted variously as ‘phthisis pulmonala’, ‘consumption’, and ‘decline’, but websites such as https://www.medicinenet.com/medterms-medical-dictionary/article.htm can help to explain some of the ailments that you may encounter.

Prior to 1855, burials were recorded in both parish church records and in some cases in municipal registers held by the local town and burgh councils. The church records are often poor, and in many cases simply refer to a money payment made to hire a ‘mort cloth’ to drape over the coffin. About a third of Scottish churches kept any such records, and what survives is located in the main OPR and kirk session registers. Those records that have survived from the Church of Scotland records have been digitised and made available on the ScotlandsPeople website, along with records concerning the dissenting Presbyterian churches.

The pay-per-view Deceased Online website (www.deceasedonline.com) also has some burial records, including for the county of Angus, whilst most family history societies will have books and CDs listing monumental inscriptions from churchyards within their area, which can be particularly useful in identifying other family members (identify your local FHS from www.safhs.org.uk). Often gravestone inscriptions are the only record of an ancestor’s passing, but it is also worth noting that most people were not buried with headstones, it was simply too expensive. It is also worth checking your local county archives website for burial information, with records for Perth from 1794 available at http://www.pkc.gov.uk/article/3887/Perth-burgh-burial-registers-1794-1855-, for example, whilst the Friends of Dundee City Archives have placed a database for the city’s Howff cemetery online at https://www.fdca.org.uk/Howff_Burials.html. Another handy site worth visiting is Memento Mori at www.memento-mori.co.uk which has indices to many graveyards mainly in the Central Belt, and photographs of individual stones can be ordered up at a reasonable price.

Newspapers often carry obituaries or death notices, and in some cases where there may not be such a notice, there may well be a brief message listed a few days after a burial to thank people for their help at a difficult time, so it is always worth checking up to a couple of weeks beyond an actual date of death. Various titles can be accessed at local county libraries or at the National Library of Scotland, whilst several have also been digitised and made available online. The 19th Century British Library Newspaper Collection, for example, freely available via the National Library of Scotland's licensed digital collections (see www.nls.uk), has many editions of the Glasgow Herald, the Caledonian Mercury and the Aberdeen Journal, whilst the Scotsman is available online from 1817-1950 at http://archive.scotsman.com (and also free via the NLS). Many other titles are available through the British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk). The Edinburgh Gazette is also worth checking, freely available at https://www.thegazette.co.uk, as sometimes notices were issued for possible claimants of a deceased’s estate (creditors etc) to make themselves known to the executors.

Probate records can also provide information on the place and date of death. The ScotlandsPeople site has made available digital copies of all Scottish wills and testaments confirmed from 1513-1901, for just £5 per document, no matter its length. If the deceased left a will, he or she was said to have died ‘testate’, and the record of confirmation will be known as a ‘testament testamentar’. This will include the deceased’s date of death, a copy of the will, an inventory of his possessions, and further details such as where confirmation happened and who was appointed as executor or executrix. If the deceased was ‘intestate’, an inventory of possessions may have been recorded and the confirmation document issued known as a ‘testament dative’. The documents can help to build up a profile of the deceased’s wealth and can help to identify other family members. From 1877 to 1959 a series of ‘Calendars of Confirmations and Inventories’ was also produced, providing a summary of testaments confirmed in that period, and these can be accessed at many institutions, such as the National Archives of Scotland and the Mitchell Library, and even via your local LDS Family History Library. If your ancestor had property in England or Wales, it is also worth checking the PCC Wills collection at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/wills-1384-1858/.


Married women could not leave a will until 1882, and land could not be bequeathed through such a document until 1868. Wills before this period deal only with the deceased’s ‘movable’ estate (clothing, money, bedding etc), which was usually split into three parts – the dead’s part, the bairn’s part and the widow’s part. As the eldest son usually inherited the land or property instead, he may not in fact be recorded in a will at all, but may appear in documents from a separate process altogether, whereby he would have to be confirmed by the courts as the legal heir before he could take possession. This was done through the ‘Services of Heirs’ process, with the judgement ‘retoured’ or returned to the Scottish Chancery, giving them the name of ‘retours’. Indexes and abridgements to these, covering the periods 1530-1699 and 1700-1859, are now freely available online - see https://britishgenes.blogspot.com/2018/08/scottish-services-of-heirs-indexes-1700.html.

It is worth noting that whilst a death record prior to 1855 may be difficult to locate, evidence for death can still be pursued, for example when listings in directories suddenly cease, or when land changes hands, as recorded in sasines registers and charters. Finally, remember that not a single death record will have been written by your ancestor, so always try to corroborate any information concerning a death from as many sources as possible, particularly wit regard to statutory death certificates, where the information given to the registrar was only as good as the informant providing it.

For more on Scottish death records, consult my Unlock the Past books, Discover Scottish Church Records (2nd edition) and Discover Scottish  Civil Registration Records - details on how to purchase from various worldwide outlets can be found at https://britishgenes.blogspot.com/p/my-books.html.

Chris

My next Scottish Research Online course starts on 24 September 2018 - details at https://www.pharostutors.com/details.php?coursenumber=102. For my genealogy guide books, visit http://britishgenes.blogspot.co.uk/p/my-books.html, whilst details of my research service are at www.ScotlandsGreatestStory.co.uk. Further content is also published daily on The GENES Blog Facebook page at www.facebook.com/BritishGENES.

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