Family History Month at my local Library

Family History MonthAugust is Family History month at my local library. After giving a presentation to my local genealogy group, a couple of the ladies there volunteered me to repeat the presentation during the Family History month event at the library. Today was the day that I gave the presentation.

I extended it a little from the first run, making it into three distinct sections.

Tauranga Library Speakers SeriesIt was a pleasantly informal event, with the projector and screen set up in the middle of the library in an area that is usually a small conversation area with some comfortable chairs (see photo below). There were a few questions at the end, and everyone seemed genuinely interested. One lady brought me a present of a Shetland dialect story book, “Da Peesterleeties an da Curse o da Njuggle” by Valerie Watt which was a lovely gesture.

Tauranga Library Presentation Area

A photo from another event showing where I was presenting in among the books
Photo courtesy of ARTbop

Scotlands People Centre

Register House, Edinburgh

Register House in Edinburgh

Whenever I’m in Edinburgh, I make sure I have time to visit the Scotlands People Centre in New Register House on Princes Street in Edinburgh. It’s a location where you can view, on computer, scans of all the records useful for family historians; the Statutory Records, Old Parish Records, Census Returns and many others.

Inside the building itself is very library like, it is lined with books (the old registers themselves) and everyone there works away quietly. However, the architecture of the building gives another sensation, perhaps one of a place of worship, and certainly it is where Scottish Genealogists come to worship the records of old. It is also a respectful silence, where people are looking for long dead ancestors.

These various links have more photos of the inside of the centre.

ScotlandsPeople Centre

Book lined search room at the ScotlandsPeople Centre in Edinburgh.
Photo source: Telegraph article

The combination of all these things on your senses; the sight of the old books; the quietness of the sounds around you; and the library smell (old books do have such a wonderful smell) do provide a motivational ambiance which encourages you in your search for ancestors (although the £15 per seat per day may also have a motivational effect!).

I do love visiting the place for my ‘old records fix’.

This post was prompted by the WordPress Discover Challange: Blogging the senses

Presentation at Genealogy Group

I joined a local genealogy group, and today I gave a small presentation about James Moar, the man who turned to knitting when he do no other task to support himself. I’ve written about him in a number of blog posts before.

I created the presentation from the material I had in the above blog posts, using some of the photographs as illustrations as I talked. I also used old maps to show where they lived, and showed the various census records and birth and death records that I had discovered when researching James’ life. I also talked about getting his Death record updated so that he was finally recorded correctly, which seemed to be met with great approval.

Aberdeen Show Newspaper Cutting

Aberdeen Show Newspaper Cutting, from Dundee Courier, Wednesday, July 25th 1894

I had one new piece of information in the presentation that is not in any of the previous blog posts. As you’ll know if you’ve read the others, James turned to knitting when he was invalided, and while he had a slow start, he did clearly get better. In the 1901 and 1911 census he is listed as a Shetland Lace Knitter, which shows a certain skill as that is a complex and delicate knitting style. Well he, must have been quite good because he won first prize in the Aberdeen Highland show (held on Tuesday, July 24th 1894) for a Fine White Shetland Shawl, beating another lady from the same village, Uyeasound, into second place.

I brought along my copy of the Unst Heritage Lace book for the group members to look at as well, since James is also mentioned in there.

I think the presentation was well received, and I hope to maybe do another subject at a future meeting.

Look around for clues

It’s certainly true that you can’t always use ancestral records in isolation. Sometimes there is simply not enough information in them to be able to use them alone. However, the supporting information can sometimes be closer to hand than you realise.

I am gradually working my way through the Statutory Death records from Unst and trying to process one for a man called John Henderson. The record is quite early in the Statutory Records processing, 1857 – only a couple of years after they started in 1855, and they record whether a person was married, but not who to. I have a number of John Henderson’s but which one is it. How can I be sure? After trying a variety of different ways of looking at it (looking for siblings with the same parents; trying to track down the Brother-in-law who was the informant on the record) but I get the feeling I’m not going to be able to place this one.

I sit back and stare absently at my screen.

No. Surname and Name.
Rank or Profession, & Condition,
(whether Married or Single,
Widower or Widow.)
When and Where Died,
with Hour of Death.
Parents’ Names,
Rank, Profession, or Occupation.
Cause of Death, and how long
Disease continued. – Medical
Attendant by whom certified,and
when he last saw deceased.
Signature, Qualification, and Resi-
dence of Informant, If out of the
House in which the Death
16 Henderson


7.30 am

Some miles
off Skaw

Andw Henderson

Margt Henderson
maiden name
Gray (deceased)

Drowned at Sea
in a gale of wind
John Priest
Brother in law
of Deceased
17 Henderson


7.30 am

Some miles
off Skaw

John Henderson

Mary Henderson
maiden name

Drowned at Sea
in a gale of wind
John Priest
Uncle of Deceased

Skaw Map

Map showing Skaw in the north of Unst. Click on the map to go to the zoom-able version on the NLS website

It’s then I notice that the informant for all three death records on this page is the same name. It’s clearly a boating accident as all three are recorded as “Drowned at Sea in a gale of wind” at the same date and time, and “Some miles off Skaw”. Three people registered with the same cause of death on the same day, and the informant has the same name surely means that the informant is the same man.

This man, John Priest, is a Brother-in-law to the first man, Uncle to the second man, and neighbour to the third. The second man is recorded with a father’s name the same as the name of the first man. Given the relationship of John Priest to each of them, this means that the first man is the father to the second man. Father and son working in the same fishing boat is certainly a common occurrence.

This also means that the mother recorded on the second man’s death record is the missing spouse on the first man’s death record. Now I can place them both.

Knowing the spouse is Mary Spence, I am also then able to place John Priest, as there is a John Priest married to Catherine Spence (who lives in Norwick in 1851 which is not far from Skaw) which tells me something about the Spence girls – that they are sisters – that I didn’t previously know. Finding both their death records also confirms they have the same parents.

So, when all looks lost, sit back and look around you!

Conveying Accuracy

I’ve mentioned a few times that I plan to get my Genealogical research onto a website eventually. One of the things I’ve been considering for the design of my website is how to convey the accuracy of the information; after all, genealogical research is fraught with accuracy issues.

This is described well in 5 Ways To Tell If Your Genealogy Research Is Accurate.

I think there are several types of accuracy I’ll wish to convey about the records I’ll have used. Here are my thoughts on them.

Transcription Accuracy

I use a range of records, from those I have seen photographs of the original document and made my own transcriptions (5 star) through to facts I’ve been told by other people without any documentary evidence to back it up (1 star). I can imagine a rating scale something like this.

Star rating Meaning
☆☆☆☆☆ I have seen the document, or a photograph of the document that the transcription was made from.
☆☆☆☆ Full transcription provided by someone else without a photograph, e.g. Ancestry website Scottish census records.
☆☆☆ Partial transcription provided by someone else without a photograph, e.g. Ancestry website Scottish Old Parish records.
☆☆ Fact provided from someone else with a note of the record where they found it, but without any transcription.
Fact provided from someone else without any documentary evidence to back it up.

Recording accuracy

There are various ways to look at the accuracy of the recording; the distance in time since the event, e.g. age on a death record; the likelihood of the informant knowing the information, e.g. a neighbour instead of a relative; the kind of record, e.g. a statutory record versus something less formal or rigorous. I can imagine a rating scale something like this.

Star rating Examples
☆☆☆☆☆ Birth/Marriage/Death date from Statutory record of the same.
☆☆☆☆ Age from Statutory Marriage Record.
Parents marriage date on Statutory Birth record of child.
☆☆☆ Age from Statutory Death Record if recorded by a relative.
Age from Census Record.
☆☆ Age from Statutory Death Record if recorded by a neighbour.
Any other record/fact not listed above.

5 stars

Overall accuracy of a Fact

There therefore needs to be a formula that conveys the likely accuracy of any one fact recorded for a person, for example if the birthdate comes from a Statutory Birth Record that I have seen the image of, that would be 5-stars on both of the above scales, and therefore the best possible score, however if it doesn’t match all the other records for the same fact, like all the ages on census returns, then that should reduce the score. I suspect I’m going to have some fun trying to come up with said formula!

Overall rating for a person

Having given each fact a score, the average of all the scores could be used to convey an overall rating for each person.

I suspect these ideas will solidify over time and, especially, when I try to put them into practice when I get to the point of creating my website. I will no doubt find other examples that need rated, and complications to any formula that I come up with. Should be fun though!

Tracking down Catherine Thomson

In my approach to building a family tree I’m coming at things from a slightly different angle. Instead of following people back and locating their records, I’m starting with the records, and trying to figure out which people they apply to. I can do this because I’m trying to find ALL the people in Unst, not just a percentage of them that are related to me.

Today, I have been struggling with one particular woman whose death record I am trying to process. She died in 1856 so squarely between the extremely verbose 1855 death record format and the 1861 changes that put some removed data back in (see Early Scottish Statutory Death Records for more information). So, she is recorded as being widowed, but her husband’s name is not recorded, and since we are in the time where patronymics are still sometimes used, it is uncertain whether we have her married name or not. Here’s what we know:-

Woman SymbolCatherine Thomson
d. 18 Dec 1856 at age 70, in Norwick (Widow)
=> b. about 1786
Father: John Thomson
Mother: Margaret Johnson

Of all the possible women named Catherine, of approximately the correct age, living in Unst in the 1851 census, we have one strong possibility.

1851 Census

Name of Street, Place, or
Road, and Name or
No. of House
Name and Surname of each Person
who abode in the house
on the Night of 30th March, 1851.
Head of Family
Age of Rank, Profession,
Males Females
Norwick James Thomson Head 26 Fisherman Crofter
Barbara do Wife 28
Ursella do Daughter 3
Mary do Daughter 1
Robert Smith Father-in-law 70 Fisherman
Cath Farker Aunt 69 Pauper F’s Wids

She lives in Norwick, she is widowed, and it would be a fair guess that she is recorded with her married name here, but that her maiden name is Thomson given her relationship to the Thomson’s in the same house. We need to track down a marriage between a Catherine and a Mr Farker. I find a marriage record for 30 Dec 1824 between Magnus Farquhar and Catherine Thomson. So she was a Thomson before she was married.

Norwick beach

Norwick Beach.
Photo Source: Shetland Museum

Now to check the rest of the information also matches up. We know the parents of the woman in the death record are John Thomson and Margaret Johnson. The woman in the 1851 census is recorded as being an Aunt of James, likely a sister of James’ father. From other research we know James’ father is Nicol Thomson. If we can find Nicol’s death record, we will see his parents. Nicol died on 25 Sep 1864, in Norwick, and his parents are listed as Walter Thomson and Margaret Laurenson. So Nicol and the woman in the death record are not siblings.

So, where does that leave me? Either:-

  • There are two woman called Catherine Thomson, of approximately the same age, widowed, and living in Norwick, but only one shows up on the 1851 census. EDIT: From Pat’s comment, this may be the answer, need to go back to any of the other possibilities in the 1851 census and follow them through. She has to be hiding somewhere!
  • Catherine is not the Aunt of James.
  • Her death record does not record the correct parents – the information was provided by her nephew, but his signature is so scrawly it makes it very hard to decipher. The majority of the time, the informant (who signs in his own hand) and the undertaker (whose name is written by the registrar) are the same people. The undertaker on this death record is Anthony Thomson. If Catherine was the sister of Nicol, she would have a nephew Anthony.
  • Nicol’s death record does not record his parents correctly.

It leaves me with a 50% likelihood that these two Catherine’s are the same person, enough to believe the likelihood but not enough to feel I can record it as fact. For the mean time I will have two Catherine Thomson’s in my tree with a comment on each one pointing at the other saying that they are likely the same person.

Good News for people searching for relatives in England

Looks like the General Register Office (GRO) can take steps to allow access to birth, marriage and death information in England without the need to order expensive certificates, after a change in the law.

Read more in GRO information on Births, Marriages and Death doesn’t have to be on expensive certificates on the Society of Genealogists Blog

Early Scottish Statutory Death Records

In order to build my complete Unst Family Tree I first worked through the census records, and now I am gradually working my way through the statutory records for Unst page by page so that I can find everybody from Unst. Doing so also allows me to observe the evolution of these records, and the changes in what is recorded over the initial few years until the records settle down into something very similar to what we have now.

The Statutory records for Scotland start in 1855 and the first thing you notice in the 1855 records is the fact that they span two pages rather than just the one page as the later years do. This is only the case for 1855. 1856 moves to a single page, although the record does look a little squeezed for space!

So what information do they drop and would it have been handy for family history research? Comparing the column heading for the records is perhaps the easiest way to illustrate the changes made from the two page 1855 record to the one page 1856 record.

Headings from page 1 from an 1855 Scottish record

Name, Rank, Profession, or Occupation. Sex. Age. Where born
and how long in this District.
Parents’ Names,
and Rank, Profession, or Occupation.
If Deceased was married,
To  whom. Issue, in Order of Birth, their Names and Ages.

Headings from page 2 from an 1855 Scottish record

PARTICULARS OF DEATH. Signature of Informant. When and where registered, and
Signature of Registrar.
When died.
Year, Day of Month, Hour.
Where died. Cause of Death, and how long Disease continued.
Medical Attendant by whom certified, and when
he last saw deceased.
Burial Place.
Undertaker by whom certified.

Headings from a page from an 1856 Scottish record

No. Surname and Name.

Rank or Profession, and Condition
(whether Married or Single, Widower or Widow.
When and where Died,
with Hour of Death.
Sex. Age. Parents’ Names,
Rank, Profession, or Occupation.
Cause of Death, and how long
Disease continued.– Medical
Attendant by whom certified, and
when he last saw deceased.
Burial Place.
Undertaker, or other Person,
by whom certified.
Signature, Qualification, and Resi-
dence of Informant, if out of the
House in which the Death
When and where Registered,
and Signature of Registrar.

In this change from two pages down to a rather squeezed looking one page, we have retained most the information, but what we lose is the information about where the person was born, and a huge amount of information recorded in the column with the deceased’s issue. This really did give an awful lot of information in one column and we only have it for those people who died in 1855. It was the sort of information that family historians would have lapped up! Here is an example:-

Finding Stuff

Finding stuff like this is SOOO helpful to family history research

Issue, in Order of Birth, their Names and Ages
1. Thomas 30
2. William died at 27 in 1854
3. Gilbert 25
4. Catherine 23
5. Robert 20
6. James 18
7. Stillborn
8. Andrew, dead
9. Stillborn

Imagine having that for every person in your tree on their death record. What a resource that would have been!

The other thing we lose in this change is the name of the deceased’s spouse. This is reinstated with a further change to the record in 1861, although the column heading doesn’t indicate it is needed, an instruction was likely sent out to registrars to indicate that this information was to be recorded in the second column along with the condition (single/married/widowed).

Headings from a page from an 1861 Scottish record

No. Name and Surname.

Rank or Profession, and whether
Single, Married, or Widowed.
When and where Died. Sex. Age. Name, Surname, & Rank or Profession
of Father

Name, and Maiden Surname of Mother.
Cause of Death, Duration of
Disease, and Medical Attendant
by whom certified.
Signature & Qualification of Informant,
and Residence, if out of the House in
which the Death occurred.
When and where Registered,
and Signature of Registrar.

So we gain the spouse’s name, but lose the information about the burial.

So the currents records are a good source of information, especially considering that now we also have statutory marriage and birth records, but what would family historians give for those early records to have kept on going with extra information for a few years longer?

Tracking Alexander Pennant

While the period from 1851 onwards makes life easier for the Scottish family historian, trying to figure out how people fit together going further back than that is much harder.

  • Census: In 1851, census returns include the relationship between the different people recorded in a house, in 1841 you just get the names.
  • Birth Records: From 1855 the Statutory Birth records contain the names of both parents and their marriage date, whereas before that Old Parish Records only gave the father’s name.
  • Marriage Records: From 1855 the Statutory Marriage records contain the names of both parents of each party marrying, as well as their residence and occupation, whereas before that Old Parish Records only give the names and residence of the marrying couple.
  • Death Records: From 1855 the Statutory Death records include the age, residence, occupation, and parents names of the deceased, as well as sometimes another relative as the informant, whereas before that the few Old Parish Records that exist only give the name, age and residence.

Working on my complete Unst Family Tree there are of course many times when I come across people of the same name and a similar age. When these people are living in the era before 1851 more care is needed.

Today I’m tracking Alexander Pennant and his family. I find him in the 1841 census as follows (remember there are no relationships recorded:-

of each Person who Abode in each House
on the Night of 6th June.
Here insert
Name of Village,
Street, Square, Close
Court, &c.
NAME and SURNAME AGE Of what Profession,
Trade, Employment, or
whether of
independent means.
Male Female
Littlegarth Alexander Penant 76 Fisherman
William do 66 do
Christian do 35
Anderina do 30
Ursla do 22
Catherine do 21
Map of Littlegarth, Unst

Map showing Littlegarth, Unst
Click on the map to go to the zoom-able version on the NLS website

It seems likely from this that the four women are sisters and either Alexander or William are their father, and perhaps their mother has died. Following the four women through later census returns and eventually finding their death records, I find they are all children of Alexander Penant and Janet Sinclair. Knowing the name of his wife, I can now find that they were married on 25th January 1800 with Alexander from Littlegarth, and Janet from Uya.


Littlegarth with the Blue Banks of Fetlar behind

Now that I know the four women were daughters of Alexander, I can see from the 1851 census return that William is the brother of Alexander, as the four women are still living in Littlegarth with him and are listed as his nieces.

Name of Street, Place, or
Road, and Name or
No. of House
Name and Surname of each Person
who abode in the house
on the Night of 30th March, 1851.
Head of Family
Age of Rank, Profession,
Males Females
Littlegarth William Penant Head 77 Fisherman; Crofter
Christian do Niece 46 Spinner; Knitter
Anderina do Niece 41
Ursula do Niece 35 Spinner; Knitter
Catherine do Niece 31 Spinner; Knitter

Alexander is not living with them, and a little searching turns up his death in the Old Parish Records Obituary for 1849, recording that he died in Littlegarth.

There’s another Alexander Penant also living in Unst at Savedale in the 1841 census. He lives there with a woman of the same age called Barbara.

of each Person who Abode in each House
on the Night of 6th June.
Here insert
Name of Village,
Street, Square, Close
Court, &c.
NAME and SURNAME AGE Of what Profession,
Trade, Employment, or
whether of
independent means.
Male Female
Savedale Alexander Penant 60
Barbara do 60

Likelihood is that this is his wife, and sure enough there is an Alexander Penant marrying a Barbara Christie on 29th May 1827 recording them both from Snabrough (nearby to Savedale where they lived after marrying).

Map of Snabrough

Map showing Snabrough and Savedale on Unst
Click on the map to go to the zoom-able version on the NLS website

Alexander Penant's Children

Alexander Penant’s Children

Clearly these two Alexander’s are not the same person, so we must take care not to confuse them. They are different ages too, Janet’s husband was born around 1765, whereas Barbara’s husband was born around 1780.

Searching for all the children born in Unst to father Alexander Penant, we end up with a list of 12 children (click on the diagram to see the list of children in Their birth dates ranging from 1802 (just after Alexander married Janet) to 1819 (still before Alexander and Barbara were married). Their birth dates combined with the higher likelihood that children were born in wedlock, suggest that these are all the children of Alexander and Janet. Those that I have found death records for I have been able to verify both parents names.