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Digging Up Your Roots Top Tips

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Dr Bruce Durie | 14:23 UK time, Friday, 7 January 2011

Dr Bruce Durie, Course Director, Genealogical Studies at the University of Strathclyde and presenter of Digging Up Your Roots, shares his top tips to help you get started tracing your family ancestry.

Dr Bruce Durie

1. Decide what you want to achieve.
Do you want to find every ancestor in all lines? Concentrate on one line only? Research one surname? Explore a family story or legend? Start with that, and stick to it without diversions until you decide to pursue something else.

2. Start with someone who was alive around 1910.
Birth, marriage, death and census information is readily available back from that date, and it's close enough to be able to check details within the living family.

3. Work backwards.
It's a lot easier to track a line of ancestors than starting in the past and working all the lines forward. Someone born in 1700 will have perhaps 4,000 descendants - which lines will you chase?

4. Talk to your oldest living relatives...
...but don't necessarily believe everything they say! Over the years, stories get spun, expanded, changed and in many cases suppressed. But it's a starting point, from which you can seek out actual evidence.

5. Start from a census.
This is a snapshot of a family at one place and time. Work from that back to marriages, births and other details.

6. Never guess and trust nothing!
The ONLY worthwhile evidence is documentary evidence. Do not trust second-hand stories, published genealogies, websites or hearsay. Many family trees on the internet are merely copies of each other - mistakes, invention and all. Look for actual documents.

7. Names are not fixed.
Surname spellings can change from one generation to the next, and were not fixed until fairly recently. There is no point researching McLaren and not MacLaren. Remember too that in Scotland it's typical to call someone by a second or third forename, or by a diminutive - so the person you know as "Sandy Brown" may have been christened "John Alexander Brown".

8. Think laterally.
There is birth information in marriage and death records, and don't forget wills and testaments, land transfers, court records and so on.

9. Never despair!
You are at the bottom of a very tall mountain, and sometimes it's hard going. If you hit a log-jam, shelve it and work on another aspect, such as cousins. You'll be amazed how often that one piece of vital information comes from an unexpected direction.

10. Join a Family History Society.
Even if it isn't local to you, having experts in a particular locality with access to resources can help break down brick walls. They will also have details of courses you can take to get you started.

The New series of Digging Up your Roots starts, Sunday at 0805. Email the team with your genealogical queries and if you miss the programme you can listen again on iPlayer or download the Podcast.


  • Comment number 1.

    I'm trying to trace a William Dudson and wife - Agnes Bewley who I believe were born at Leadhills in the 1750's. They had children - William born 1772; Ann born 1781; James born 1791; and Thomas born 1798. Thomas is my direct descendant.
    Can anyone help ?


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