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Census Returns (Scotland)

Nature of Source

Records form the population count and social data taken every ten years. The census is essentially a record of all individuals at a particular location on census day, whether a residential dwelling or an institution. The procedure for taking Scottish censuses and the format of the returns is very nearly identical to that of the English and Welsh versions. The procedure for taking the census involved the enumerator delivering a form or schedule to the head of household with areas divided into enumeration districts. The person completed the schedule and handed the form to the enumerator after the night of the census. In the event of illiteracy, the enumerator copied down answers orally from the head of household. The enumerator later copied the census returns into enumerator books (the authorities destroyed the original returns) and handed them into the registrar. The registrar then sent the returns to the central office in London. Following the Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages (Scotland) Act of 1854, the newly established General Register Office for Scotland assumed responsibility for taking Scottish censuses with the first being the 1861 census.

For the 1911 census machines were used for the first time to tabulate the results directly from the household schedules.

Public access to census returns is closed for a hundred years and none was taken in 1941.

A form of census substitute known as the 1939 Register is available to the general public. The information was gathered at the beginning of WWII by an Act of Parliament known as the National Registration Act 1939. The Act required the registration of each member of every household in England and Wales as of the night of Friday 29th September 1939, known as National Registration Day. Each household member then received a National Registration Number, and an identity card which was used for obtaining a ration book later. Information gathered for each person was their full name, sex, address, date of birth, marital status, occupation and whether a member of the armed forces or reserves. Findmypast, in partnership with The National Archives, has made records of the 40 million civilians held in the 1939 register available online. In 1939 the country was divided into more than 1400 administrative areas, each of which was assigned a three letter code. A forth letter has been appended to the end of the code which specifies the enumeration district. A table of all the codes and areas here. Records of people younger than 100 and still alive, or who died after 1991 are officially closed. For details of applying in Scotland see the guide from the National Records of Scotland.

The 1801-1831 census were headcounts only and were mostly destroyed. A few returns with personal data survive and are located in CROs. Some transcription work has been carried out by enthusiasts, for example Lisa Conrad has published images and transcriptions of the 1821 census for the Orkney Islands of South Ronaldsay, Burray, Swona and Pentland Skerries. Despite the lack of personal data these early censuses can provide statistical summaries. In some cases whole pieces of the census are missing or severely damaged. For example a number of returns for the 1841 census covering Fife parishes were lost at sea while being transported to Edinburgh. A list of missing census data can be found at the ScotlandsPeople web site. Check with local societies if damaged pieces have been transcribed. Also look for one-off local census and population lists. These censuses were often taken for taxation, charitable or religious reasons. Consult two books, one by Gibson & Medlycott and the other by Chapman (see below) for more details of locating these sources. ScotlandsPeople has made available the Census Street Index Books for the main towns and cities in Scotland. These books can make it easier to find the registration district and enumeration book details for an address. It is a useful tool for seeing which streets existed during those census years and which enumeration book contains their entry.

References might be made to a Quoad Sacra parish or a Quoad Omnia parish on census returns. The former was a religious entity and an outpost of an existing parish whilst the latter also dealt with the civil administration of the parish. A General Register Office for Scotland (GROS) census reference adheres to the following pattern: Parish Number, Enumeration District Number, Entry Page Number, Parish Name, County Name, Census Year.

Be aware that the census returns are littered with mistakes some intentional and some accidental; some made by the enumerator and some by the subject. This arose due to widespread illiteracy, mishearing by the enumerator, illegible handwriting or the failing memory of those enumerated. 'Dressmaker' and 'Of independent means' were common euphemisms for women working as prostitutes. In towns few houses were numbered until the end of the 19th century and many streets were renumbered or renamed. Only the online 1881, 1901 and 1911 censuses can be searched by address.

First names may have been recorded in their diminutive form and some enumerators themselves abbreviated names such as Jas for James. Also be aware that transcriptions and indexes can have numerous errors so try a variety of search strategies and try different providers.

When searching online census transcriptions, remember that the vast majority of the population were recorded in the censuses. Use a variety of search strategies and providers if an individual is proving difficult to track down. Some people were away from home on census night working away from home, visiting friends or staying at a hotel and are collectively known as 'Census Strays'. However it is possible that the person being searched was not at any dwelling on census night or was simply not enumerated or even changed their name. It is also possible that the person was away from the country especially as overseas travel became increasingly affordable in the 19th century.

A single forward slash in the books indicates the end of a household whilst a double forward slash indicates the end of a building. When looking at a census form remember that the year is rarely shown on the page and the schedule number is not the house number. Ages were often struck through by the census collector checking off entries. Census forms often have a line drawn under the end of one household and another under the following head. Always search surrounding streets for other family members. If a child's birthplace (especially the eldest) is shown different from that of the parents or of the census place, it could indicate that the mother had returned to her family's home for the first birth. This could be a vital clue showing her childhood address. Some people may not be where expected as they were visiting another area or were serving in the army.

Royal Navy crew appear in the census from 1861, whilst the merchant navy only if in port. The 1911 census enumerated all servicemen and women serving in the arm or navy whether stationed here or abroad. The 1911 census site also offers the enumerators' summary books which provide a detailed description of each district. In some cases whole pieces of the census are missing or severely damaged.

Other Scotland Resources
Census Returns
Clan & Tartan Records
County & Local Histories
Court Records
Directories, Trade, Professional, Telephone & Street
Electoral Registers or Burgess Rolls
Emigration Records
Hearth Tax
Heraldic Coats of Arms & Seals
Kirk/Church Sessions
Land Tax Assessments & Returns
Maps & Gazetteers
Militia Lists
Monumental/Memorial Inscriptions
Newspapers, magazines & journals
Old Parish Registers-Baptisms (OPRs)
Old Parish Registers-Burials (OPRs)
Old Parish Registers-Marriages & Proclamations (OPRs)
Passenger Lists
Pedigrees and Family Histories
Poor Law Records
Registers of Deeds (Books of Council and Session)
Retours of Services of Heirs
Sasines, Registers of
Statistical Accounts of Scotland
Statutory Registration-Birth
Statutory Registration-Death
Statutory Registration-Marriage
Surname Origins and Distribution
Valuation Rolls & Stent Rolls
Wills/Testaments and Inheritance

Where Found

ScotlandsPeople Centre (The ScotlandsPeople Centre is the official government resource for family history research. Holdings include Scottish census enumeration books with indexes and images of census records from 1841 to 1911. ScotlandsPeople Centre is a partnership between the National Records of Scotland and the Court of the Lord Lyon. The National Records of Scotland was created on 1 April 2011 by the amalgamation of the National Archives of Scotland and General Register Office for Scotland)
Scottish Genealogy Society (The society and library holds Monumental Inscriptions, collections of Old Parish Registers and census returns. They also hold a large collection of pedigrees and family histories which are indexed on their web site at the Family History Index. Some material is available on CD)
National Library of Scotland (Indexes to the census for 1841, 1851 and 1861 published by local family history societies and the 1881 census with name index on CD-ROM)
LDS FamilySearch Centers (1881 census transcription)

Period Covered

1841 - 1911

Genealogical Value

First name, middle name (often only initials) and surname. Relationship to the head of household, usually the oldest male (not available in the 1841 census). Marital status (not available in the 1841 census). Age, at last birthday (ages were rounded down to the nearest 5 years in the 1841 census). Gender & Occupation. County and parish of birth, if born in England or Wales (A simple Yes or No is recorded in the 1841 census). Country of birth if born outside of England and Wales (In the 1841 census only an 'S' for Scotland, an 'I' for Ireland and an 'F' for foreign parts is recorded). Disabilities (not available in the 1841 census). 

Additional fields included in the 1911 census were: years married, total children born alive, number of children still living and number who have died, industry employed in and nationality of those born abroad.

Useful for house histories.

Further References

Census Specific  
Chapman, Colin. Pre-1841 Censuses & Population Listings in the British Isles: Lochin Publishing, 1994 (Preview available from Google Books) Buy Now on Amazon
Gibson, Jeremy and Medlycott, Mervyn. Local Census Listings 1522-1930: Federation of Family History Societies, 2001 Buy Now on Amazon
Johnson, Gordon. Census Records for Scottish Families at home and abroad. 3rd edn: Aberdeen & N.E. Scotland Family History Society, 1997 (Lists census holdings in Scottish libraries) Buy Now on Amazon
Jolly, Emma. Tracing Your Ancestors Using the Census: A Guide for Family Historians: Pen & Sword Books, 2013
Ruthven-Murray, Peter. Scottish Census Indexes, 1841-1871, Scottish Association of Family History Societies (Includes lists of counties and parishes as they existed in the 19th century)  
Family History Guides  
Adolph, Anthony. Tracing Your Scottish Family History: Collins, 2008 Buy Now on Amazon
Bigwood, Rosemary: The Scottish Family Tree Detective: Tracing Your Ancestors in Scotland: Manchester University Press, 2007  Buy Now on Amazon
Clarke, T. Tracing Your Scottish Ancestors: The Official Guide: Birlinn, 2012  Buy Now on Amazon
Cory, Kathleen B. Tracing Your Scottish Ancestry: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2009 Buy Now on Amazon
Durie, Bruce. Scottish Genealogy: The History Press, 2012  Buy Now on Amazon
Durie, Bruce. Documents for Genealogy & Local History: The History Press, 2013 Buy Now on Amazon
Hamilton-Edwards, Gerald. In Search of Scottish Ancestry: Phillimore, 1983  Buy Now on Amazon
Holton, Graham & Winch, Jack. Discover Your Scottish Ancestry: Internet and Traditional Resources: Edinburgh University Press, 2009 (Preview available from Google Books)
 Buy Now on Amazon
James, Alwyn. Scottish Roots: From Gravestone to Website: The Step-By-Step Guide to Tracing Your Scottish Ancestors: Luath Press, 2005 Buy Now on Amazon
Maxwell, Ian. Tracing your Scottish Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians: Pen & Sword, 2009  
Paton, Chris. Researching Scottish Family History: The Family History Partnership, 2010  Buy Now on Amazon
Stewart, Alan. My Ancestor was Scottish: Society of Genealogists, 2012  Buy Now on Amazon
Tovey, Helen. My Scottish Ancestry: Lomond Books, 2011  Buy Now on Amazon
Concise Scots Dictionary: Edinburgh University Press, 1999 (Preview available from Google Books) Buy Now on Amazon
Lynch, Michael. Oxford Companion to Scottish History: OUP Oxford, 2011 Buy Now on Amazon
Moffat, Alistair & Wilson, James. The Scots: A Genetic Journey: Birlinn, 2011 Buy Now on Amazon
Richards, Eric. The Highland Clearances: Birlinn, 2013 Buy Now on Amazon
Scots Dictionary: Collins, 2014 Buy Now on Amazon
Timperley, Loretta R, (ed). A Directory of Land Ownership in Scotland c 1770: Scottish Record Society, 1976 Buy Now on Amazon
Torrance, Richard D. Scottish Trades, Professions, Vital Documents & Directories: Scottish Association of Family History Societies, 1998 Buy Now on Amazon

Websites (National Records of Scotland: Research Guides: Census Records) (ScotlandsPeople Guide: Census returns) (Listing of free resources) (Links to online genealogy records & useful information) (CensusTools: Downloadable spreadsheets for recording census information) (My Ain Folk: Scottish Genealogy Resources: Scottish Censuses, Population Listings & Communion Rolls) (Official reports, legislation and essays on the censuses including statistical analysis. The documents on the site include indexes to parishes, townships and places used in the official reports) (Links to sites offering census transcriptions) (Listing of reports into each years census including statistical analysis of surnames and occupations. Guides to using the census and its history)

Online Databases (The ScotlandsPeople website is the official Scottish Government site for searching government records and archives including 1841-1911 census transcriptions with original images. The 1911 original household schedules have not survived with the records consisting only of the enumerator's returns) (Transcriptions only covering the 1841-1901 censuses for Scotland. Original census images are not available due to the General Register Office for Scotland's licensing regulations)
(Scotland Pre-1841 Censuses and Population Lists. The collection consists of over 3,500 early census fragments and parish lists from Jedburgh, Greenlaw, Ladykirk, Melrose, Applegarth, and Sibbaldbie. Most of the censuses and parish lists were created by parish Kirk Sessions, the lowest of the church courts in the Presbyterian Church) (1841-1901 census transcriptions with no images)
(Scottish Indexes: 1841, 1851 and 1861 Census returns. See website for place coverage) (Transcriptions, check site for census year and geographical coverage) (Links to online census records) (Free census transcripts covering a number of counties for 1841-1861) (Transcribed returns of the 1851 Census Returns for Dumfriesshire, Kirkcudbrightshire and Wigtownshire)
(Sample of the 1851 Scottish census)

Check with local Family History Societies for local census transcriptions.

CD Roms

Family History Societies (Local census transcriptions)