George Owenson, family-tree tips


NAMES - General

Surnames - or family names - generally provide the best starting point in any research.   At first, individual names were satisfactory but as population grew, some secondary identifier was required.   (Look at Robin Hood & Little John)   Names can be traced to individual characteristics, locations, activities or jobs.   Archer, Bowman, Hillman, Farmer, Foot, Legge are just a few.   A later development was the addition of 'son' or 'mac' denoting 'son of.   This persists today in Iceland where children may still be known (for example) as Magnusson, Ingridsdottir.

NAMES - Scottish

At one time it was quite common for first names to be used more than once in the same family.   One reason for this was during the Middle Ages when infant mortality rate was high,some families would use the same 'family' name twice or more in the same generation so that there could be several children with the same name if more than one child survived.   Some families changed their surnames if they changed residence.   Even until the 19th century many women retained their own names when they married.   Earlier still, there are examples of the man taking the wife's name at the time of marriage.

Scottish surnames are generally categorised as either Highland or Lowland.   Right up until the 18th century a man would be designated by his father's name.   The clan system perpetuated the old Highlands traditions.   A man would join a clan for protection and, to show his allegiance, he would then adopt a clan surname - usually Mac followed by the chief's name.   As chieftainship was hereditary; the names were mainly patronymic.   (eg Donald McDonald: Gregor MacGregor)

In the rest of Scotland, names developed in a similar way to those in England.   Some surnames are indistinguishable from English ones.   Following the example of land-owners, some Scots families took on names from locations so that even small farmers would purport a ‘title’, eg Leslie, Ramsay.   Other examples of surnames of Scottish origin include Mawhiney (well going), Muir (from moor), and Rutherford (a river passage used by cattle).

NAMES - English

By the end of the 13th century, Englishmen and English personal names were to be found not just in England but in many parts of Scotland, Wales and Ireland as well.   These personal names were derived from a variety of sources.   Some were biblical in origin, or were the names of saints and martyrs of the early Christian Church.   Many were Norman, and a handful were Anglo-Saxon survivals or revivals.   Also, saints who were popular in particular regions, such as Cuthbert in the north, might influence the choice of personal names in those regions.

NAMES - Welsh

Fixed family names are a recent introduction to Wales.   Before they were imposed for legal purposes, fixed family names were neglected in favour of patronymic surnames.   These were essentially a genealogical history of the family; where one generation was connected to another by ap, which means 'son of." At the end of the 19th century, this practice ceased and ap was usually combined with one name to yield surnames such asUpjohn (from Apjohn) and Prichard (from Aprichard).


Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths did not begin in Scotland until 1855.  Both Civil Registration records and the Old Parochial Registers can be found at the General Register Office, New Register House, Princes Street, Edinburgh EH1 3YT,Scotland.   Census Returns for the years 1841,1851, 1861, 1871, 1881 and 1891 are also held at New Register House.   If you cannot visit the office in person, particularsearches can be made by post.   Or try the Records Office web site.

Unfortunately, the Scottish parish registers were for the most part poorly kept.   Many of the registers were not started until the early 18th century.   However, one should still search these parochial and parish registers; who knows what you will find.

An advantage to people tracing their ancestry in Scotland is the existence of the Sasines Registers.   This large register records the transfer of land titles from one owner to another.   Therefore, it is possible to trace anyone who was a landowner, even if he was the owner of only a small cottage.   These records exist from the early 17th century and are located at the Scottish Records Office, which also has a large quantity of public and privately donated records and family histories.

The following addresses might be of use to anyone interested in Scottish Ancestry.

  • Scottish Records Office, General Register House, Princes Street, Edinburgh, EH1 3YY, UK
  • Scotland's People, SRO online database
  • Scottish Tartan Society, Hall of Records, Port-na-Craigie Road, Pitlochry, Perthshire, PHI6 5ND, Scotland
  • Scottish Genealogy Society, 15 Victoria Terrace, Edinburgh, EH1 2JL, Scotland
  • Scots Ancestry Research Society, 29B Albany Street, Edinburgh, EH1 3QN, Scotland
  • National Library of Scotland, 57 George IV Bridge, Edinburgh, EH1 lEW, Scotland, UK.
    This latter cannot help trace family history, but does have a large archive of material some of which may be accessed electronically.

Helpful Assistance From The Mormon Church

A usually useful place for information is the Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.   They possess the largest single source of genealogical information in the world.   The Mormons interest in genealogical research begins from their belief that family relationships are meant to be eternal.

They have compiled a comprehensive genealogical database on over 10 million families.   Some 60 million names can be found in the International Genealogical Index.   They have copied such documents as parish registers, marriage bonds, cemetery records, deeds, military records, and grants and probate records.

Much of this information can be obtained by contacting the nearest Mormon library.   The Church has copied and indexed the parish registers in some countries, and for a small fee you may be able to obtain a computer listing of this index for the surname you are researching.   The Mormons have extensive microfilm records from around the world.   They are able to provide a small booklet for each country outlining the information they hold.   Although these records are vast and comprehensive, they are a starting point and not the final word.   They are a guide to further research from other sources.

Following are addresses of the main libraries of The Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Main Library
Church of Latter-Day Saints , 35 N West Temple Street, Salt Lake City, Utah, 84150, USA
Online family History Search (very busy site!)

Branch Libraries are found at

  • Scotland Family History Center, North Anderson Drive, Aberdeen, Scotland, UK
  • England Family History Center, 64-68 Exhibition Road, South Kensington, London, UK
  • Ireland Family History Center, The Willows, Finglass Road, Dublin, Ireland
  • Tay / East Scotland Genealogy

Other possible sources are

And this is where you can help me!

I would be grateful for any information on my family name, or similar names, or other sources to try for information.

Although my direct family antecedents and origins are Scottish, family legend has the source of the name as Scandinavian, with some Spanish influences alleged too!!   I have traced this particular line to Eskbank / Musselburgh near Edinburgh, where the earliest note I have is in 1824 recording ANDREW OWENSON as the "Towns Porter".

Am I related to any famous Owensons?   I doubt it.   But you can read about Robert Owenson, Actor and Sydney Owenson (Lady Morgan) Author, by clicking here.

Local cemeteries are often useful in assisting with tracing family roots.   The Book -- Of Monks and Ministers -- includes details of the interesting gravestone epitaphs at St Bridget's in Dalgety Bay.
( Now sadly out-of-print although copies may remain in libraries etc)

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