Finding locations for old houses

If your ancestors lived rurally, it is possible that the house they lived in is no longer occupied, or even standing. This is certainly the case for many of the houses mentioned on census in Unst, where the old croft houses are “vod”, that is unoccupied, as Rhoda wrote about here. If you see a house name on a census, how can you find where it is now?

Let’s look at an example, Ed Johnson and his family living in Watquoy – here from the 1881 census (ED2 Page 11).

1881 Census

ROAD, STREET, &c., and
No. or NAME of HOUSE.
NAME and Surname of each
to Head of
as to
[last birthday]
Rank, Profession, or OCCUPATION
Males Females
Watquoy Edward Johnson Head Unm 43 Stone Mason, Crofter
Janet Do Sister Do 47 Stocking Knitter
Joan Do Do Do 45 Spinner of Wool
Sinney Do Do Do 33 Invalid
Andrina Sinclair Serv. Do 51 General Serv.

First thing to do is take note of the house names that neighbour the house you are looking for – to give you a few more names to find on a map. Watquoy has neighbours “Stove” and “Watquoy Brake”.

Each parish was broken down into enumeration districts to ensure that they covered an area that could be enumerated in a single day. The parish of Unst was broken into 5 enumeration districts (ED) in 1851 – 1911 (1841 it had 9 EDs). You can read the description of the ED from the header page of the census return booklet. Access to this page in Scotland’s People is free as described here.

The description for Enumeration District 2 in 1881 is as follows:-

So much of the Parish of Unst as lies between Houston and North-Dale, between North-Dale and Burrafirth, thernce southward to Houland, then to Petister. Comprehending – Houston, Gardie of Haroldswick, Houl, Roadside, Bothen, Mullapund, North Dale, North Fael, Supton, Ungerstae, Budigarth, Westergarth, Stove, Watquoy, Quoyhouse, Budabrake, Sandfield, School-house, Sotland or East Burrafirth, Biggershoul, West Burrafirth, including Lighthouse, Petister, Cathoul, Gardie of Baliasta, Houland.

With this information we can see that we are looking at the north-western end of the island. Now we get the maps out. I’ve written about the NLS Maps before, and we’re going to look at them again now.

Unst Graphic Index North

Unst Graphic Index (North of island)

Using the graphic index I zoom in on the north end of Unst, and identify that I need to look at the sheets II.12, II.13, II.15 and 11.16. Each of these sheets can be selected from the Ordnance Survey Maps – 25 inch 1st edition, Scotland, 1855-1882.

I open each sheet in turn looking for the house names that I noted earlier, “Stove”, “Watquoy” itself, and “Watquoy Brake”. I spot “Watquoy Brake” on sheet II.12 near the south of the sheet, so I suspect the other two houses will be nearby and decide to open sheet II.15 next because it is south of sheet II.12 and sure enough there they both are.

Map of Watquoy and Stove on Unst

Map showing the houses of Watquoy and Stove. Click on the map to go to the zoom-able version on the NLS website

Now we need to align that map with a modern day Google Map to get it’s geographic coordinates. This is the fiddly part. There may be tools out there that help, but the way I do it is to find the approximate area in Google Maps Satellite view, and then in my favourite layered paint program, take a screen grab of each map, lay one on top of the other and make the top one 50% transparent so that I can see through it. Then I resize and move the map until it lines up with the features that are on both maps. In this example there is a small quarry and various field boundaries that are clearly visible to line things up. Hopefully the animated gif below of my two layers will show what I mean.

Watquoy animated gif

Animated gif of two layers to find Watquoy

Now I know, by joining the two maps with transparent layers, exactly which building on the Google Maps Satellite view, is in the same location as the house on the old map. I go back to Google Maps and single click on that point in the map. Google will place a ‘pin’ on that location and at the bottom of the screen pop up a little banner that shows the longitude and latitude of that pin.

Watquoy Located

Place a pin and Google Maps will give you the longitude and latitude.

And that’s how I find the location of old houses on a map.


2 thoughts on “Finding locations for old houses

  1. If you use the ‘Georeferenced maps’ option on the National Library of Scotland website, on the left hand panel you’ll find a slider that fades from the OS first edition map to the current satellite image. So you can see how the old house sites relate to modern features.

    • Hi Olivia, Thanks for the hint. I’ve just tried it out and it’s pretty good. They allow the use of the 25 inch maps that they didn’t use to include, and they are the only ones that often show all the houses. That they added these now too is brilliant. I will write up a little additional “how to” soon.

Morag would love to hear what you think. Leave a comment here.

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