First of all: Why the name “Red Book of Scotland”?

Within Gaelic culture it was usual for genealogical information to be written down in a “Leabhar Dearg,” or “Red Book,” the red representing the colour of blood. Thus we have the Red Book of Clanranald and then afterwards other works such as the Red Book of Menteith. Because of this tradition the most appropriate name for a project of this nature was the “Red Book.”

The Project’s Origins:

The project first took root in the mid-to late 1980s. When searching for evidence-based works of genealogy it quickly became apparent that very little existed and certainly nothing of any modern vintage. From its heights during the days of Sir William Fraser, John Maitland Thomson and their equally as worthy contemporaries, an ensuing period of nearly one hundred years had seen the steady decline of genealogy as a separate discipline worthy of having an integral place within Scottish Historical research. Not only did this impact on genealogy’s good academic standing but it also had a corresponding negative effect on the publication of works that focused principally on that study – in short, there were none. Moving beyond the sheer skill and class of Fraser & Co., when other Victorian works of family history were consulted it became normal to find that content struggled to marry up to facts contained within primary source documentation and it was also with equal amounts of dismay that many of those families of some note whom were were frequently encountered in older records had simply fallen off the map and had never been researched nor had their genealogy pieced together and recorded. In short, accounts in Burke's and Debrett's of our more senior families aside, an enormous void existed in Scotland’s genealogical history. Frustrated with the lot on offer it was at that point that genealogy became the preferred area of study and I set out in earnest with a determination to catalogue, without distinction and preference, as many of those families found in record as possible. As of today the Project extends to some 12,000+ pages of researched accounts with about 5,000 of these having been brought together and released last year in the First Series of the Red Book of Scotland.

Parameters and Methodology

Genealogy is a first class research discipline that sets strict parameters which must be followed and adhered to. Research for the Red Book of Scotland project adheres to these parameters and uses them to seek to establish the following set of criteria for each person, namely details of their birth and death and then to ascertain if they married and had issue. Developing each of these points a little further :

Birth: Generally speaking, if birth occurred within the last two hundred or so years it is probable that a person’s date of birth can be established by means of a statutory record or baptismal/christening entry. In the case of the latter, even if the relevant entry does not specify a date of birth then as the the date of the ceremony generally occurred very soon afterwards, it is possible to get as close as meaningfully possible to a birth date. The further back in time we go, though, the less likely it is to establish an exact date let alone a year of birth or baptism unless, of course, the person being researched happened to be royalty or a member of family of an extremely high social standing. Generally speaking, in those many instances when there simply is no evidence to use to gauge a person’s age, we don’t. See additional comments under “Marriage.”

Death: Sources for deaths are far more numerous than for those of births and include Obits, Testaments, Statutory Records, Monumental Inscriptions and entries in numerous other sources such as Retours and Precepts for Sasines issued by the Chancery for the entry of heirs. Should it not be possible to establish a date of death we regularly use other evidence to confirm an approximate date. For example, a person could be alive when named in a document dated 19th December 1584, and to then be styled as deceased in another dated 6th June 1595. Bringing that evidence together, even though the exact date is unknown, it is established that the person had died after the former date and prior to the latter. This is extremely useful especially when there are two or more generations all bearing the same Christian name.

Marriage: Not everyone married. Some people married only once during long lives while others married multiple times. Although establishing the identity of a spouse is an important genealogical point to prove as it offers a window on extended family relationships, I do not consider it paramount as the ability to continue to trace a person’s genealogy does not depend entirely upon it. When establishing the family to which a spouse belonged there is often sufficient evidence to work with, however, once again going back in time, there are also instances in which only a name is known and what evidence there is to hand offers no clarity as to parentage or extended relationships. When this is the case no opinions are offered on the basis that, firstly, to do so without suitable evidence is poor practice but also, secondly, because in research patience is a virtue and evidence bearing sufficient proof may very well come to hand at a later date. Where the spouse and their family is alluded to in an existing MSS account e.g. “he was married upon Mariote Chisholm, daughter to Cromlix” then, as such a tradition generally emanates from within the family or is accepted as correct by those within the locality, in the absence of primary evidence, this is considered sufficient proof of the family to which the spouse belonged.

A word of caution on marriages though: It seems to have become common practice to consider a person to have married when aged about twenty-five or so and for the date of marriage to be used to estimate their birth year. Statutory registration dismisses this however for those periods prior to then when insufficient evidence does not allow for age to be determined, this is a dubious practice as, as has always been the case, people married at varying stages of their lives. Some men didn’t marry until into their forties and fifties while when dealing with scant evidence, it is entirely possible that a marriage for which we find evidence may not actually be a first for that person as evidence necessary to prove a previous marriage is either not yet to hand or scant in the first instance, or may no longer exist. Suffice it to say that in most cases gauging age based on a date of marriage is unwise and is not something practiced in this project. Equally, as much as marriage contracts are excellent sources of genealogy, caution must also be exercised as although we may locate the contract itself or reference/s to it, it was not always the case that the parties when on to marry. Because of this we always find it preferable to locate further evidence which styles the parties as spouses.

Children: we consider this to be very much genealogy’s “lost war.” The further forward in time we come, the more evidence we have to work with to identify children and log each generation, especially with the introduction of Statutory Records. The further back we go, though, the more difficult that process becomes until we reach a point at which proving even the most basic points of genealogy is a triumph of determined research. In many instances evidence proves that a person had multiple children but often taking the genealogy of each of them forward is difficult if not impossible due to a sheer paucity of suitable evidence by which to positively identify them in record. It is not to say that all died without issue as clearly a great many did not and had issue from which a number of that surname descend, but, instead, the difficulty becomes one of proof of descent. Such cases fall into the maxim: non apparentibus, non exitentibus presaemuntur or – if a person does not appear [in record] they are presumed to have not existed in the first instance.

General Comments

There are times during our research when there is little to work with and it is then that several further guiding points must be followed especially when, despite extensive research, a point is reached at which “that’s all there is.” For example, it may be the case that several or even multiple entries are to hand which name a person as a witness to various documents executed over a number of years although none of these entries specifies or alludes to any form of relationship to another person. Generally speaking this would be a genealogical dead-end however when dealing with families possessed of an estate and an associated designation, there are other factors which must be considered and tied off, such as what happened to the estate at their death and who succeeded and by which terms. In such cases, “best available evidence” and “balance of probabilities” generally come together. This means that, for example, should there be evidence proving there to have been a person named and designated “John Hamilton of Livingston” living between 1450 and 1480, and he is then followed by a Patrick Hamilton of Livingston from 1482 onwards, the balance of probability supports them being father and son or at the very least that the latter was the heir male of the former and therefore of close shared ancestry. In such instances it can be said that John was “in all probability” Patrick’s father as on balance, and without there being any evidence suggesting the contrary, dates and succession merge to lead us to conclude that this is the most logical and straight forward relationship.

And Finally

It is a continual source of validation to the Project’s existence when extremely kind comments filter back from a variety of sources whom have used it in their own works. These include professional and amateur researchers alike, students, academics, authors, tv production personnel etc. I hope that you too find the Project’s work of some interest and perhaps even some use.

I am always very happy to discuss findings with anyone sharing similar research interests and also to offer help and advice when asked. If you would like to see research continue then please consider supporting the Project in some way.

On a final and general note on genealogy, although no academic courses or associated qualifications were available either at the establishment of this project nor for at least two decades afterwards, it is heartening that several of Scotland's Universities once again recognise the importance of genealogy and have established degree courses.

Gordon MacGregor

14th April 2017.



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