About Me

My photo

Beautifully illustrated family history books with a difference by a frequent contributor to the UK family history press. I write for Family Tree Magazine UK; Discover Your Ancestors Online Periodical and Bookazine; Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine. The publishers of my family history books are Pen and Sword Books and The History Press. I tweet (and retweet) thought-provoking content designed to help you tweak your approach to (your family) history at @RuthaSymes . Do follow me.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Scottish Census 1861

Scotland's Bungled Census (1861)

Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

 [This article first appeared in Discover My Past Scotland 2008] 

‘Riddled with errors,’ ‘incomplete’ and ‘inconsistent’. These terms have all been used to describe the Scottish census of 1861 – a record that has become known in some genealogical circles as ‘the bungled census.’ Yet, as the third ‘proper’ census of the nineteenth century, this one ought to provide you with a great deal more information about your ancestors than those that preceded it. If you are about to take a look at this fascinating resource online or in the archives, be forewarned. Your quest might not be as straightforward as you thought.


Taken on the night of April 7th ,   the 1861 census was a new proposition for Scotland. Ten and twenty years earlier, the General Register Office for England had overseen arrangements for taking the census north of the border – but this time, the country had its own General Register Office and its own Registrar General named Sir William Pitt Dundas.  The new system was much cheaper than the previous one (costing £18.5 thousand as opposed to the well over £25 thousand of 1851).  But, as we shall see, this economic saving caused a lot of administrative problems. Here are ten points to consider as you begin your search.


How can I access the 1861 census?

You can access the 1861 census for Scotland and search for your ancestors at the following websites. Some of these are free sites, at others you will have to pay to view the entries.


If you wish to view the original census enumerators’ books, you must visit the General Register Office (Scotland) New Register House, Edinburgh, EH1, 3YT.


Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes


1.     Administered by Fools?


It’s generally agreed that the quality of the enumerators appointed to administer the 1861 Scottish census was not what it had been for earlier censuses. These men were appointed to take the schedules round to individual householders, to collect them, and to transcribe the results into enumerators’ books which were then presented to local registrars. In the previous censuses of 1841 and 1851, the enumerators’ job had generally been done by schoolteachers. This time, less pay was offered and the calibre of enumerators dropped considerably. The 8,075 men who eventually agreed to do the job were from varying occupations including fish curers and foresters. Not all of them fully understood what was required. 

  1. Checking the facts
But all is not lost! Remember that this census was the first Scottish census after the introduction of  Civil Registration in Scotland (which started in 1855). This means that you can seek corroboration of at least some of the information obtained in this census from birth, marriage and death certificates rather than having to resort to the Old Parish Registers.

  1. Your Growing Family

You may be surprised to find that your Scottish family has grown quite considerably since the previous census of 1851. With increasing industrialisation, the population was growing exponentially. There were 3.2 million people living in Scotland in 1861 (double the number at the beginning of the nineteenth century). And your ancestors might have been experiencing quite cramped conditions. In 1861, 64% of Scotland’s population lived in homes with just one or two rooms and the average number of people living in a single room was five.



  1. Moving South
The West Highlands and Islands lost one third of their population in the twenty years after the 1841 census. This demographic change marked the second wave of a process of enforced movement that had begun much earlier. There were many reasons for this including the increasing use of land for sheep farming rather than agriculture, the decline of old clan structures, the collapse of the kelp industry which had employed many thousands, and the potato famine of 1846-1857. Ongoing clearance policies led to many people being forcibly evicted by their landlords, others voluntarily migrated. You may find that by 1861, your rural ancestors have migrated from these areas to other parts of Scotland – particularly to Glasgow - to find work in textile mills, on the railways in coalmines and in shipbuilding.



  1. Empty Streets? Enumerators in 1861 were asked to record the number of uninhabited buildings in their allotted area. But before you assume that your ancestor lived in a street of mainly empty houses and wonder why, remember that some enumerators included in this figure places of work which were occupied during the day and empty at night, as well as churches and other public buildings. Again, some enumerators misunderstood their instructions.

6. To School or not to School?


The 1861 census included a ‘scholar’ column intended to ascertain how many children in each family were at school. The enumerators were asked to record ‘whether any and how many of such persons, being of the Age of from five to fifteen years, attended school during the week preceding.’ However, don’t be surprised if your young ancestors appear not to have been enjoying an education. The census was taken in April when many schools in rural districts and on the islands were closed so that children could help out with agricultural matters.

There were further confusions on the school issue, as well. Enumerators were unsure whether to record students who were taught at home by governesses, to include day school students as well as boarding school students, and to include children who attended Sunday schools (but not ordinary schools). Again, there was little consistency about all this up and down the country and you should take the information about your own family’s school attendance with a pinch of salt. 

7. Rooms with a View?


This census could give you an interesting glimpse of the physical properties of your ancestor’s dwelling place since it asked how many rooms in each residence had windows.  This question was generated by the general mid-nineteenth century concern about the lack of ventilation in overcrowded homes. The number of windows given in the census should provide you with some idea about the size of your ancestor’s home. 

But, be careful. Yet again, there was a lot of confusion about how to answer this question. Some householder’s wrote down the number of windows in the house rather than the number of rooms with windows. There was also discussion about what constituted a window and what didn’t. Your cottage-dwelling Highland ancestors may have had skylights rather than windows or small window frames covered by boards but without glass. The official line on all this was that a window had to be glazed to qualify as a window, but many enumerators would have been unaware of this rule. Other questions concerned what constituted a room. Did, for example, a kitchen or pantry count? What about a workshop that was not strictly part of the living accommodation? All this confusion means that the statistic for the number of windowed rooms may not mean much.

8. But they didn’t speak English….

If your ancestors lived in the Highlands and Islands, it is likely that they spoke Gaelic and that they may not have been able to read or speak any English. Indeed, they may have been illiterate in both languages. You may wonder then how they came to fill in the census schedules at all! In fact, in these cases the enumerators had to fill out the schedules themselves. This meant that they had to translate the questions into Gaelic for the householder and then translate the answers back into English – a process that may have involved many mistakes. Enumerators themselves were not necessarily totally competent in both languages!

9. Novelists in their Infancy

Two of Scotland’s most famous novelists were just little babies at the time of the 1861 census. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (later the writer of the Sherlock Holmes series) is recorded as a one year old child living at 11 Picardy Place in the parish of St Andrew, Edinburgh with his parents Charles Almonte Doyle, mother Mary Josephine, sister and grandparents. Interestingly, his middle name appears erroneously as ‘Conda’ in some transcriptions. James M. Barrie, the linen manufacturer’s son who later wrote Peter Pan is recorded in the 1861 census at 11months old in  Kirriemuir, Angus with his parents and five older brothers and sisters.


10. Can’t Find Your Ancestor?

The 1861 census for Scotland, as we have seen, included a number of bungles. But perhaps worse than any of the problems mentioned so far was the fact that some households were overlooked all together. This was unfortunately sometimes the case in the big cities of Dundee, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Unfortunately, you may not find your ancestors on this census simply because of administrative incompetence!

Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

Useful Websites and Books


 a report and tables on the 1861 Scottish census

http://www.highlandclearances.info On the Highland clearances.
Eric Richards, The Highland Clearances, Berlinn Ltd 2007

Donald Gunn and Mari Spankie, Life During the Highland Clearances, Hodder Wayland, 1995


Keywords: European ancestors, Europe, ancestry, family history, genealogy, Scotland, Scottish, census


No comments:

Post a Comment