Place in Focus, Scotland

Place in Focus, Scotland

Chris Paton takes both the high and the low roads through the history of Scotland, which has always been very distinct from England and Wales

Header Image: Balmoral Castle from TheGenealogists Image Archive

Chris Paton, Specialist in Scotland and Ireland Family History

Chris Paton

Specialist in Scotland and Ireland Family History

Scotland threw in its lot with England in 1707 to form the nation of Great Britain, but in many ways remained independent. Following the union, the country maintained its own separate legal system of Scots Law, its own education system and its own state church. As a result, Scottish family history records tend to be very different to those found elsewhere in the British Isles.

The civil registration of Scottish births, marriages and deaths, for example, started in 1855, 18 years after England – but the records hold twice as much information as their British counterparts, such as the names of both parents (including maiden name) in each. The land system of feudalism in England and Wales, with ‘vassals’ holding land of their ‘superiors’, was abolished in medieval times, but governed virtually every land transfer in Scotland until its abolition in 2004. And where the state church in England, Wales and Ireland was the Anglican Church, administered by bishops and archbishops etc, the Scottish ‘Kirk’ had no bishops at all for most of its existence, with congregations instead democratically electing their own ministers.

A traditional black house on the Isle of Skye
A traditional black house on the Isle of Skye

Scotland was one of the main powerhouses of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, but prior to the invention of steam power was largely rural. People worked on their own plots of land as well as that of their laird, or put themselves out for hire for set periods at the Scottish term days of Whitsun and Martinmas. To the north of the Highland line, the Gaelic speaking clans lived in small separate territories under the protection of a clan chief. Those in the more urbanised population lived in the main trading burghs of the Scots-speaking central belt and eastern coast, working as craftsmen and merchants, and with constant contact with their English neighbours. The inhabitants of the Lowlands and the Highlands regarded each as other as foreigners and with much suspicion.

Several major developments changed the country by the end of the 17th century and early 18th. The Scottish-based Stuart dynasty had assumed the British throne in 1603, but its power was finally ended when James VII and II was forced into exile at the Glorious Revolution of 1689. The result was the union 18 years later, but this was not popular with the common folk of the country, who saw it as a means for the Scottish nobility to advance themselves at the people’s expense.

Old Cemetery at Stirling
Old Cemetery at Stirling

With strong support from the peoples of the Highlands, there were several Jacobite rebellions in the first half of the 18th century to try to restore the power of the Stuarts (the name ‘Jacobite’ comes from ‘Jacobus’, Latin for ‘James’). With their failure the clan system breathed its last, with the resultant pacification of the Highlands. Many of the chiefs then adopted the idea of trying to make money from their lands rather than protect the clans to which they were supposed to give a lead. Thousands of people were forced from their homes into exile during what became known as the ‘clearances’, and in their wake came more profitable sheep.

In the southern half of the country a different story would unfold. Vast open estates were enclosed into more efficient farms, and many former agricultural labourers flocked to the big cities to seek work. As the Industrial Revolution took a hold, coal and iron ore was mined in Ayrshire, Lanarkshire and Fife, while textiles mills were established in Glasgow, Perth and Dundee. Navvies carved out an infrastructure of canals and then built the railways and, on the Clyde, John Brown’s shipyard workers built a fleet for the rapidly growing British Empire, first from wood and then of iron.

As the country grew, the church’s structure of parishes found it hard to cope with the expansion of the major cities. There were regular disagreements about the role of the state and the role of landowners in the affairs of the Kirk. During the 18th and 19th centuries various wings split from the establishment, the most important being in 1843 when a third of the Kirk’s ministers walked away to form the Free Church of Scotland. The role of the Kirk itself declined in everyday life, and the various roles it once had were gradually transferred to the state, such as education, discipline and the administration of poor relief.

The people themselves changed with the times. In a rural community, naming patterns preserved family names for generations – the first son named after the father’s father, the first daughter after the mother’s mother, and so on. By the end of the 19th century such traditions dissipated and middle names were increasingly given to children. On the plus side for researchers, with the exception of the census, a woman never lost her maiden name in any official documents throughout.

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Timeline: Scotland

The National Covenant signed across Scotland, supporting Presbyterian rule
Charles II restored to English throne – religious policies lead to the ‘Killing Times’ and war with the Covenanters
Revolutionary settlement secures Presbyterianism
James Stuart, the Old Pretender, leads failed Jacobite uprising
The Battle of Culloden ends Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite rebellion
1762 – 1856
Sir John Lockhart-Ross initiates first clearances policy in Highlands
’Year of the Sheep’ – mass emigration from Highlands
The Disruption – Kirk split leads to formation of Free Church of Scotland
Poor Law (Scotland) Act – major reform of poor relief
Poor Law (Scotland) Act – major reform of poor relief

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