Essential Reading

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Saturday, 14 April 2012

Scottish Census 1841

Ten Things You May Not Know About the 1841 Scottish Census

Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

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

The 1841 Scottish census has had a bad press. Not as sophisticated as the censuses that came after it, you may have been led to believe that it won’t be able to tell you very much.  In fact, it provides a remarkable and exciting opportunity to find out all sorts of things about your Scottish ancestors over 160 years ago. Recording the details (in one day 6th-7th June, 1841) of  2, 620,184 people - many of them living in obscure parishes or on remote islands - was no mean feat in an age when horses were the principal method of transport. And bear in mind that Civil Registration (the secular system of registering births, marriages and deaths) was not introduced in Scotland until 1855. This means that the censuses of 1841 and 1851 are the only comprehensive statutory records that can tell you anything about the size and shape of your family in the mid nineteenth century.

How can I access the 1841 census online?

You can access the 1841 census and search for your ancestors at any of the following websites. Some of these are free sites, at others you will have to pay to view the entries.

The 1841 census deserves to be championed if only because it was the first in which the actual names of your ancestors will have appeared. Earlier censuses (taken between 1801 and 1831) simply counted heads and are of little use to you if you are searching for a particular family. But entries in 1841 include the address, the names of all those living in a household (though not their relationships to each other), their sex, occupations within broad categories, information about whether they were born in the same county in which they were residing (Y = Yes and N = No) and whether or not they were born in England (E) or Ireland (I) or elsewhere (F for foreign). These details, in themselves, can be a veritable treasure trove for a family historian, but here are ten other facts about the 1841 census that may make your search even more fruitful.

1. The Elusive Women

If you are looking for a female ancestor, be aware that, even if she was married by 1841, she may appear on the 1841 census under her maiden name. Also, census enumerators were encouraged to record only one first name per person, so she may appear with an unfamiliar Christian name. If your great-great-grandmother was about to have or had just had a baby, she may well appear in the census for the parish where her parents were living rather than the one where her husband was living. This is because Scottish women often returned home to their parents during the time of their confinement.

2. Their Unfathomable Youth

Don’t be surprised if your ancestor appears to be somewhat younger than you expected him to be in 1841. Unless he or she was under 16 when the census was taken, you will not be able to find out his or her exact age. Ages were rounded down to the nearest five years – so somebody aged 24 would be recorded as being 20, someone of 39 would appear as 35 etc. Also, as this census was the first to link names and ages – many people had yet to understand the importance of giving their true age. Women particularly often claimed to be younger than they actually were! 

3. What They Did for a Living

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Scottish economy was (arguably) one characterised by underemployment, low pay and much piecemeal and casual work. Don’t be surprised to find your ancestor doing very menial work. The top ten Scottish occupations in 1841 were:

1.     Agricultural labourer

2.     Female Servant

3.     Independent (living off his or her own means)

4.     Farmer

5.     Labourer

6.     Male Servant

7.     Cotton Hand Loom Weaver

8.     Linen Hand Loom Weaver

9.     Coal Miner

10.  Hand Loom Weaver

If you happen to know that your ancestor had a somewhat unusual occupation, bear in mind that the Scottish 1841 census is one of the few that can be searched at by occupation.

4. Cracking the Code

You may find it difficult to understand what your ancestor’s occupation actually was. This is because the Scottish census enumerators were asked to use a system of abbreviations to record this information. These included such puzzles as ‘Sp. Deal’ (Spirit dealer), ‘Sh.’ (Shopman), ‘P. Pauper ‘((Parish Pauper), ‘M.S.’ (Male Servant) and many others. You can read more about the rules that the Scottish enumerators had to follow and see the full list of these abbreviations at

5. A Matter of Space

You may be surprised to find how many people are living at the same address as your family members. Already by 1841, there was a great deal of overcrowding in Scottish cities. A family might be confined to a single room in a larger building. The 1841 census enumerators were encouraged to record this. They used the slash mark (/) to separate families living in the same building. Families living in different buildings are separated by a double slash (//).

6. Scottish or Irish?

It’s quite likely that your search of this Scottish census will end with you turning to Irish records as you continue your journey further back into the past. In 1841, 126, 326 Scottish residents claimed to have been born in Ireland. This figure was probably particularly high because many Irish workers were working in Scotland on a seasonal basis at this time helping with the harvesting.

7. The Lost Parishes

If you can’t find your ancestors records on the 1841 census, it is possible that these documents were lost at sea when they were being returned from England in 1910. Most of these were from the Fife parishes of Auchtermuchty, Balmerio, Ceres, Collessie, Creich, Cults, Cupar, Dairsie, Dunbog, Kinghorn, Kinglassie, Kirkcaldy, and Leslie. A full list of all missing parishes is available at Click on 1841 Scottish census.

8. The Forgotten Island

If your ancestors were among the 105 people who lived on the remote island of St Kilda, you will not find their records in the 1841 census. This is because the island was missed out of the census. Perhaps the designated enumerator just couldn’t be bothered to travel there! The inhabitants of St Kilda were only officially recorded in 1842 by James Wilson in his book A Voyage Around the Coasts of Scotland and the Isles.

9. Entries of the Famous

Many famous Scotsmen appear in the 1841 census. Two Premiers of the Australian state of Victoria, for example, are listed. Duncan Gillies was born near Glasgow in 1834. He emigrated to Victoria in 1852 and became joint Premier of the state in 1886. James Munro was born in Sutherlandshire in 1832. He emigrated to Australia in 1858  and became Premier and Treasurer of Victoria in 1890. Today more than two million Australians claim Scottish ancestry, much of it going back to the mid nineteenth century.

10. Getting it Right

It’s important to bear in mind that the transcriptions of the Scottish censuses on some sites are not complete. The fullest transcriptions of Scottish censuses appear at which is linked to the General Register Office for Scotland’s website As there are particular problems of legibility with the 1841 census, all transcriptions are to a degree inaccurate. If you wish to view the original census enumerators’ books, you must visit the General Register Office (Scotland), New Register House, Edinburgh, EH1, 3YT.

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

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