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Beginning Your Family History:
First Steps

By Roger E. Chisholm Batten, Immediate Past Journal Editor, The Clan Chisholm Society

How many Chisholms were there before the dispersions? Until 1755, there are no records of the Highland population. Referring to this first census, Webster’s Census in 1755, Scotland then had a total population of 1,265,380 persons, whilst that of Inverness-shire was 59,563 persons.

Working backwards, and taking a generation as 25 years, accepting that this is probably an outer estimation as until recently many women bore children at a very much younger age, means that in 1746, the date of Culloden, ten generations ago, each of us had at least 1,024 ancestors.

If one says that about 60 true Chisholms attended the 1996 International Gathering, then our ancestors could have comfortably populated the entire old county of Inverness-shire without any help from other clans. Whilst this is obviously an inexact assumption, it does mean that most of those attending, whether they are domiciled here in the UK or further afield must have very recent common ancestry and are therefore cousins of varying distance and proximity.

It is therefore not for nothing that the late Mrs. Tinney, former manager of Erchless Castle, was quite definite that she could recognise a Chisholm without fail.

Most enquiries that the Society receives about Chisholm ancestors, state that the enquirer can trace their ancestry back to a town or city usually in England, but after that, the line goes blank. Paradoxically, it is therefore the English records that emigrant Scots have to look to for information of their forebears.

Please note that unfortunately the ‘Parent Branch’ of the Clan Chisholm Society is not at present able to undertake research on behalf of members due to the Society’s limited resources. So where does one go from here?

Family Sources

First get your own relatives interested, and interrogate them. Being frail is no excuse, as those who are elderly often have the most to tell provided you have the patience to extract it. All known relatives should be quizzed, not only about their knowledge of whom was related to whom, but also what they can recall about these relatives and what their interests were, thus bringing these individuals alive.

‘Family Lore’ may be recalled differently by cousins! ‘Black Sheep’ of the family though ‘forgotten about’ are often imprinted vividly in someone’s memory. It is worth remembering that one generation’s ‘Black Sheep’ is another’s ‘Romantic Hero’.

It is also worth checking the Family Bible, if this exists, looking for names and dates of Christenings, Marriages and Burials. More likely, old books in the family’s possession may be inscribed with the donor and their relationship to the recipient.

Negatives can be as useful as positives, firmly closing possible paths of enquiry, thus savings many hours fruitless work.

Even if you are researching just your ‘Chisholm’ ancestry, it is still worth enquiring after your maternal ancestors, as well as your paternal. Distant cousins unknown to each other do commonly marry and raise families blissfully unaware of their relationship prior to marriage.

After your own personal family research, the time will come when you need to look further afield, looking up national and ecclesiastical records among others. It should be noted that fees are likely to be charged and that you may not have the most recent rate. You should confirm prices and the range of services, always enclosing a Stamped Self-Addressed Envelope or International Reply Coupons to facilitate a reply, before starting any line of enquiry.

Other Sources of Information

The first problem is where to look. Wide ranging unfocused searches are expensive both of time and money, as well as being frustrating to all concerned. Below is a very brief outline of the paths to follow.

Gravestones - The Society of Genealogists (S.O.G.) has built up a substantial collection of churchyard and other burial ground records, concentrating on those at risk. Local libraries and Genealogical Societies may also hold records, as will normally the Cemetery Office.

Civil Registration - All births, marriages and deaths since 1st July 1837 in England and 1855 in Scotland are supposed to have been registered by the State. The full national indexes are housed at St. Catherine’s House, Kingsway, London WC8 6JP or New Register House, Edinburgh. Inspections are free of charge. It should be noted that the date in the index is the date when the event was registered, not when it happened.

Microfilm copies are held by the S.O.G. and of course by the Family History Centres of the Church of Latter-Day Saints.

Census Returns - A census has taken place every 10 years since 1801 (except 1941). Strangely it was only after 1841 that the returns had to be preserved. In England and Wales the censuses are closed for 100 years before they can be consulted, thus the latest one available is the 1891 census. Microfilms are kept at Census Room, Public Record Office, Chancery Lane, WC2A 1LR. County Record Offices will also hold complete holdings.

Parish Registers - The earliest date from 1538 in England, but due to a variety of circumstances are erratic and incomplete. They may be inspected either at the Parish concerned at the convenience of the Incumbent, or more likely in the Diocesan Record Office or the local County Record Office. Parish records also may provide a rich source of information about the life and conditions especially of the poor, as by Law from 1601 each Parish was responsible for the relief of the poor within their parish.

In Scotland the majority of records date from the 18th century. These are deposited at New Register House, Edinburgh. The Church of the Latter-Day Saints is compiling a Scottish county index on microfiche.

Wills (England) & Testaments (Scotland) - English and Scottish law has differed in the past. In Scotland unlike in England until recently, a man can only freely dispose of his estate if his wife and children do not survive him. As a result, a Scottish will (to be legal) had to list all offspring and is therefore much more informative in some ways than a similar English will for genealogical purposes.

In England prior to 1858, wills had to be proved in Ecclesiastical Courts. After this, the proving became secular and records from this date are held at Probate Registry, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 1LP. Incidentally, the cost for looking for a will, which also holds much more information, is considerably cheaper than getting a death certificate.

In Scotland until 1868, only moveable property could be bequeathed by will. Indexes are held at General Registry House, Edinburgh–unless still with the appropriate sheriff clerks.

Other Useful Sources

Directories - Local Directories have been published since 1780 and give a listing of prominent persons and tradesmen.

Newspapers - The most comprehensive collection of National and Local newspapers starting from about 1700 is held by the British Library at Colindale Avenue, Colindale, London NW9 5HE.

Taxation - The earliest records are the Subsidy Rolls which date from 1290. In 1662 the Hearth Tax was imposed. From 1696 to 1851, the Window Tax was operational. Few records survive for these taxes. The Land Tax (1690 to 1832) is probably the most useful and well preserved. The Public Record Office holds remaining records.

Petitions - The 1641 ‘Protestation Returns’ signed by most adult men in support of Parliament is held by the House of Lords Record Office. The ‘Association Oath’ in support of William III was signed by all office-holders and a great many others. This list is held by the Public Records Office at Chancery Lane.

Army & Navy Lists - It is easier to trace an officer than other ranks. It is essential to know the Regiment. The list of retired officers compiled 1828 gives dates of marriage and births of children. The active list 1829-1919 includes date and place of birth. Records are held in the Public Record Office.


Beginning Your Family History by George Pelling, Countryside Books, 3 Catherine Road, Newbury, Berkshire.

Society of Genealogists (S.O.G.) publishes a large number of helpful articles and books: 14 Charterhouse Buildings, Goswell Road, London EC1M 7BA.

Federation of Family History Societies, Federation Administrator, c/o Benson Room, Birmingham & Midland Institute, Margaret Street, Birmingham B3 3BS.