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Genealogy With - Gordon Johson

Gordon Johnson Index Page

Family History

Advice for beginners in family history - by Gordon Johnson.

Here are a few tips to help you get started and hopefully avoid the pitfalls! 

1. Family history is not sitting around for you to pick it up, or buy it in a book, no matter what claims you might hear. YOUR family line is unique, and will lead back to many other lines of enquiry. Beware of books offered by post of YOUR family history - it is a con, and not what you expect.

2. It is a hobby that can keep you busy for the next 20 years, if you want to be thorough, and accurate.

3. Don't expect to be able get back very much further than around 1800, unless you get lucky. There are many gaps in the surviving records. Anyone who claims to have their line back to Robert the Bruce or William Wallace is mistaken, conned, or suffers from wishful thinking, except in a very few instances.

4. ALWAYS start by working from yourself backwards. NEVER start from a supposed ancestor, who may not exist, or who may be from an entirely different family. Not everyone of the same name is connected.

5. Don't assume that all your ancestors lived in the one area for generations. People have always moved around, which is why Caithness folk can have Viking, Celt, Anglo-Saxon, Dutch, or any other kind of genetic input. For example, I was born and grew up in Renfrewshire, but my mothers Glasgow family mostly came from Angus, and my father's Glasgow ancestors originally came from Ayrshire. I now live in Wick, and my young brother lives in Gloucester, England, married to an English girl whose father is Welsh and her mother Scottish.
Be prepared for anything!

6. NO, your surname was not always spelled as it is today. Fixed spelling is a recent idea, and old records may have your surname spelled differently.  My Johnson side turned out to be Johnston in Ayrshire in 1800.  One thing can indeed help you. Certain surnames are rare except in specific localities, and this can guide you to possible origins. Check your surname against George Black's "The Surnames of Scotland", published by New York Public Library in 1945, and now published in Edinburgh by Birlinn Books. It is a hefty tome, but authoritative. I have found few errors in it. 

7. One volume worth looking at, and Highland Libraries have copies in their Caithness branches, is Caithness Family History, by J. Henderson, published way back in 1884 and still very useful.

8. There are lots of genealogical sources on the Internet, but treat them all with suspicion. Many of them are posted by amateurs who have made many mistakes. I'll do something later about genealogy on the Internet, to provide some guidance.