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How to Research Your Ancestry on a Trip to Scotland

Scotland's government makes researching your ancestry easier than in most places. Here's where to go in Scotland to find your roots—and what to know before you make the trip.

Ancestry archive at Old Register House, Edinburgh, Scotland
If you're heading to Scotland and you know you have Scottish roots, take the opportunity to do some genealogical research. Ancestry tourism is a big industry in Scotland—the hotel concierge at the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh is as likely to hand you a card tipping you off to a good a local researcher as he is to recommend somewhere for dinner.
It so happens that the official nerve center for ancestry research Scotland is directly across the street from the famous Balmoral. They call it the ScotlandsPeople Centre. It's the archive that the government of Scotland has set aside just for research into the past, it's where massive amounts of records (birth and death certificates, census returns, official Coats of Arms, wills, and so on) are digitized and stored, and it's open to tourists. 
In fact, tourist business is a major profit center that helps fund the mountain of digitization still to be done.
1855: The Pivotal Year
Before you get to Scotland, do everything you can through online methods to figure out where your kin lived. The reason is simple: The government didn't start collecting records (in what's called Statutory Registers) until 1855. Anything before that will likely only be discovered among the church records of the parish in which they lived. To find the papers, you have to know their town, or at least a major one near it. 
That can be done, methodically, on the ScotlandsPeople webpage ( in the months before you fly over. Because the archiving is handled by an outside contractor, it costs money to get full records. You can search surnames online for free, but accessing full documents costs about £2.33 (US$3.50) to £10 (US $15) per document, depending on how elaborate it is. 
As you can imagine, the costs can mount fairly quickly, so it pays to know what you're doing or, if you can, hire a professional genealogist to lead your paper trail to the correct parish records.
If you hit a road block-- after all, you can't find everything you need on Scotland's list of the kinds of papers you'll find in its archive:
VisitScotland, the official Scottish tourism resource, has put together more resources to help you do advance research before a  trip, as well as ideas and contacts for helping you explore family roots when you're on the ground in Scotland. For that, check
Finding Your Roots in Edinburgh
In Edinburgh, the gorgeous New Register House, dating to 1788, is where to find both the computers and the stacks that hold your key to your past. The front rotunda, patterned after Rome's Pantheon, is 50 feet wide and 80 feet high. It's a gorgeous building, and it says a lot about what the Scottish people think of their heritage that it occupies one of the grandest and most primary spots in town, rising proudly at the foot of the beloved Waverley Bridge in New Town. 
Even if you're not planning family history research, the building, which combines grand stone buildings from both the 18th and 19th century, is worth a look. Deep within the complex is a five-tiered column of shelves, containing more than half a million volumes, under an ancient dome—it's a silent and dusty well of bygone souls.
It costs £15 to enter (0131/314 4300; 9am–4:30pm weekdays), but once you're there, you can dig into the computer systems, searching every spelling possibility, without being disturbed. The Centre also offers free entry for two-hour introductory sessions at 10am and 2pm daily. 
You'd be wise to begin a visit at 1pm, when a daily informational talk is delivered (£7, including refreshments; book: That will acclimate you to the computer system and acquaint you with the basics on the particulars of family research in Scotland.
If you need help, the Centre will rent you a Family History Officer for £20 an hour, but they're only able to help you find records that fall after 1855, when official government record-keeping began.

View from New Register House, Edinburgh