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  Scottish Census - Introduction  

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Scottish - Scotland Census - Introduction
Census: n. official count of population or a class of things [L censor].
Inventory: 1 n. detailed list (of goods etc.); goods in this 2. v.t. make inventory of; enter (goods) in inventory [L invent]

These two words, though similar, are separate. These two words, though separate, are similar, sometimes interchangeable. A paradox perhaps, but whatever the case, both words instill fear in those who hear them spoken. For Millennia, man has sought to take stock of things about him, his possessions, his environment, whatever he could count. If he had not, we may never have had a written language. Ancient Inventory Controllers set in clay tablets, marks representing the goods they tallied. From these marks came our written languages. Those ancient positions that created this still remain with us today. Such positions were held in high esteem then and now, perhaps even coveted.

I take that back, I'm an Inventory Controller and nobody holds me in high esteem if I don't have the material they need, when they need it. My excuse at times is that Production didn't notify me what they were going to produce in the next week or month, so how could I purchase more inventory and regulate the flow through the Production lines.

People with such ability to count and keep record often held high rank or wielded great power. A Kings power or a Country's wealth depended on the records these Inventory Takers kept. So, from humble beginnings, from something most often despised, some good did come from it all. Civilizations have been built on the humble Counters work.

A mother bird returning to her nest takes Inventory of her eggs in that nest, checking that the same number are there on her return as were when she left. Man followed Nature and then went to the extreme. The fear of these words comes when we hear that heads have to be counted, ours among them, or our boss tells us that everything in the workplace has to be counted. Census have been with us for a long while, much of it recorded in History, ancient tablets, Biblical Scrolls, The Doomsday Book, etc.. Often these Censuses were followed by a levy or tax on those being counted. It is perhaps this aspect of the Census that seeded the fear in man when he hears the word now.

"A simple family sit huddled around the fire, waiting. Waiting for that knock on the door. The man is coming, they know he is and they know when. What will he ask? What will they answer? They watch and they wait. A child looks out the window and sees a stranger at the door of a neighbour down the street, a large book in his arms. How long before that knock on their door"

This is isn't an opening for some Detective or Mystery novel, this is probably how it was for many of our Ancestors, who were subject to these Censuses that we now have and can examine. They feared the Census for the changes it could bring to their lives afterwards. They feared the questions that might be asked, for fear they may be forced to expose a detail they were trying to hide. Even today, though much better educated than our Ancestors, we still have the same fears of a Census as they did. We may question deeper why the Government wants such information as it asks in some of these Census and we may lie as much as they did when the stranger knocks at our door, with his large book in his arms and he asks his questions.

The better education has made more of todays people defiant and refuse to be a part of the Census in any way. There are some defiant ones amongst your Ancestors as well, but maybe not as brave as today's folks. They were faced with heavy fines or even imprisonment. As recently as the 2001 Census, I believe, at least 6 people were prosecuted for refusing the Enumerators questions and I believe one was given a prison sentence or probation. With the life people lived back then, they could neither afford a heavy fine or a prison sentence. One depriving them of badly needed funds to support them, the other depriving them of probably the only person in the household to support the family through work or craft.

The picture I painted above is a good picture to hold in your head when you go searching through Census. People often get into Census with no concept of what they are doing, no concept of what it is they are looking at. They may have an image of what they want to find, they have a list of questions they want answered. But, all of this, they are bringing with them from today, going back in search of answers from yesterday. The two don't mix and they are going to end up disappointed. If you travel to a new place, you have to read up on that place, perhaps learn a few words of a different language to converse with the locals. Doing Genealogy is exactly the same. It's a new place, you need to read up on it, learn a few words of a different language to converse with the records your Ancestors left. I've seen people go at Genealogy with 21st Century notions and pre-concepts, trying to figure out 17th Century records, ideas, values, etc.. It doesn't work. They'll find themselves with more unanswerable questions coming out as they did going in.

A Census maybe the deciding factor in solving a mystery. Some people have little information to go on when searching out their past. The reluctance of family to talk of the past, adoptions and the like, there were valid reasons for such situations. With few clues to work from, most turn to Census since it deals with location and they only have a faint inclination of where their Family came from.

A Census can provide the answers only if you are looking in the right place and know what you are looking at and looking for. Census cover large areas, so it helps to narrow the search area down to something more manageable and closer to the area your clues give. The Census gives more than just names, there is other information there as well, so, you have to be familiar with what was asked in the Census and understand what you are looking at. You have to be really sure about the person you are looking for, know as much as you can before beginning your search. You might find more than one person that fits the requirements of the person you are looking for.

Scottish Census isn't as informative as U.S. Census, not as many questions were asked and some of the questions asked then may seem strange or even peculiar. The answers aren't always found with what was in the Census, but sometimes with what wasn't there. The Census in Scotland was usually conducted on a Sunday night, figuring that most people would be at home then. These Censuses were to list only the persons who were in the household on the night the Census was taken. As well planned as the Sunday Censuses might have been, it wasn't always guaranteed to register every single individual. Some people were off visiting friends or relatives, some people were at work, this included some children as well and some people were in hospital or institution. If these people were in the Census, but not at their homes, they were likely shown at these other locations. This doesn't help the Researcher if they don't know more than the initial location to search for their people.

The information that is on a Scottish Census can't be assumed to be accurate either. The Enumerator would take his information from whatever individual in the household could supply it, if the head of household wasn't available. In some outlying districts, Enumerators faced with long treks to distant cottages or farmhouses may fill in the particulars themselves or from a neighbour who knew the Family and could provide enough information to satisfy the Census requirements. Most Scottish Censuses are well written, since many of the Enumerators were Teachers and Ministers, people with some degree of education. This is not to say that all Censuses were well written, you will come across the occasional scrawl, as if someone had a pint or two before going out on the long trek. Even the well-written entries have their faults, neat hand writing means nothing if the spelling is atrocious. How many times did I hear those words in Primary School from Miss Parlane or in High School from Mrs. Wilson. With so many dialects and accents in Scotland and Enumerators unfamiliar with their areas, they were often faced with the challenge of interpreting what answers they were hearing and setting them down on paper. This accounts for why so many names were misspelled, is WASN'T how your Family USED to spell their names, it was what the Enumerator put down. Look at the Census you are reading and try and determine what level of education your Ancestors might have had at that time period, don't assume that everyone could read and write.

The ages given in Censuses leave a lot to be desired when it comes to accuracy as well. In the 1841 Census, ages were rounded down to the nearest 5, children under 15 were usually listed with their correct age, as reported. Later Censuses often listed exact ages, as reported, of everyone in the household. Remember the vanity of some women when you look at the ages of females in Census, they would lie about the ages, upwards and downwards, whatever suited there need.

A Census is good tool, if you know how to use it. An axe is a good tool as well. So, if you're going to chop down a forest, you'd better know how to use it properly, or you'll end up sore and hurt. You could end up sore and hurt if you don't use the Census properly either. Forget about the 21st Century and concentrate on the 19th Century, you'll get back to today and move on to tomorrow quicker.


Scotland Map and Genealogical Research Information Links
County Map of Scotland
Counties of ... Scotland prior to the 1974 Boundary Changes
Genealogical research information about Scotland
Scots Origins
Cyndi's List - Scotland

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Web page made 12 July 2005 by Jon Schweitzer.
Revised 28 February 2014.
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