Graham Holton Talk

Introduction to Genealogy

Graham introduced his subject by defining the difference between genealogy and family history.  In brief, genealogy is the skeleton, the bones of Family History on which the flesh is added.  A simple and clear cut definition as was generally true of Graham’s whole talk.  However, one could sense as Graham went on, that DNA is making a fascinating and growing contribution to genealogy.  It can be quite challenging.  Graham explained that there are three basic types of DNA searches which are useful.  One for family searches, one for female line searches and, lastly, one for male line searches.  This author felt he would have to go back to school to understand some of this once Graham started talking of ‘Sticky Segments’.  Anyway this did not detract from Graham’s logical approach to genealogy which starts with gathering information, where one might find it including both traditional and online sources and finaly finishing with a clever sales pitch for Strathclyde University’s Centre for Life Long Learning.  It runs a wide range of courses including, as it happens, courses on genealogy!

Gathering information starts with memory, what we all have within our own knowledge and then tapping into what our relatives both young and old know.  A great aid to fleshing out memories is accessing birth, marriage and death certificates.  Graham added a cautionary note and said, make careful notes of what you find out.  Many come to grief by just keeping what they find out on loose scraps of paper.  He observed that it’s useful to track dates, places and occupations as well as names because these can provide a useful means of cross checking as one goes through a wide range of records such as the Census, Church records, Occupational Records, Street Directories, etc.

Generally one finds that gathering information back to the mid 19th Century is relatively straight forward because Scottish Civil Registration records started in 1855.  The Census can only take one back until 1841 and then one has to fall back on things like Church Records, Poor Law Records, Lands Records and Wills.  These sources are a bit more challenging and are often of variable quality.  However, some parish records go back to the 16th Century.  Graham also observed that Scottish Registry Certificates contained more information than their English equivalents.  Birth Certificates, for example, provide the date and place of parent’s marriage and, in the case of Death Certificates, the parent’s names are included.

Fascinatingly we learn that Graham had been involved in DNA research which allowed confirmation of present day familial links which reach back to the times of Bannockburn and the Declaration of Arbroath.  A dramatic confirmation that DNA tests can conclusively reveal that people alive today are connected directly to individuals who participated in the Battle of Bannockburn and the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath.  This is despite having no documented ancestors before the eighteenth century.

In case members are worried about searching through drawers, cupboards and attics, much can now be accessed online.  Graham mentioned a few online services which can speed the search process.  These include Scotland’s People, a government based site with a free index search, and Ancestry and Find My Past two commercial sites. (Weblinks are provided below.)  There is also Family Search which is a free site run by the Mormon Church.  John McIndoe later, in the breakout room, provided an insight into the history of the facility.  His understanding is that all Mormons in their early days in the United States, as migrants were not born on the soil, thus they aspired to trace one’s ancestors and this provided a ‘theology’ for baptism based on their ancestry.

In addition, to online records, there is also software developed to keep your records for you.  Better than bits of paper says Graham!  These include FamilyTreeMaker, Legacy, Roots Magic, MacFamilyTree, Reunion and GEDCOM (Exchange Format).  These packages can help produce reports and it’s often possible to add images.  Of course, it’s not totally straight forward.  There are also facilities to create or upload family trees to websites such as Ancestry and Family Search. In these cases attention has to be paid to privacy choices re access to the data collected.  There are also accuracy issues and a danger of errors being replicated unintentionally.  If you get really involved in family trees, Graham said that membership of Family History Societies can be useful.  There is a National one, local ones (eg Glasgow & West of Scotland Family History Society) and specialist ones such as the Guild of One Name Studies.

Graham concluded with the basic mechanics of searching one’s family tree from scratch.  That is, start with the grandparents, get birth, marriage and death certificates.  Check out the Census back to 1841.  Before then check Church records.  However, more detective work is required at that stage.  Of course, everything would become easier if you did a course at the Centre for Lifelong Learning at Strathclyde University!!  Graham’s a great salesman! (

See also for online information :

Graham Holton Talk