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Researching your family’s history at the John Gray Centre: guide 1

Download a pdf version of this guide

Before you arrive

If you can bring the following information with you your research will be much more fruitful and enjoyable:

  • FamilyGroup_Haddington_c1910_2Gather together as much information about your ancestors as possible from family members.
  • Try to get your family information back to 1901. If this isn’t possible don’t worry, we can access later records via the Scotland’s People website ( There will be an initial charge of £7 if you need to do this (£5.60 for top-ups).
  • Have your information sorted into a basic family tree – this makes it easier for our staff to help you.
  • Try and research one ancestor/family group at a time. If you jump around your family tree there’s a good chance you’ll get in a muddle. Also, whenever possible you should research backwards. Coming forward in time is much more difficult.
  • Bring your library card and PIN so that you can log on to the free wi-fi and use online resources.

At the John Gray Centre’s Archives and Local History department you can, in theory, trace your ancestors from the cradle to the grave. In many cases you can add wonderful detail to their lives along the way. We have a number of resources that can help any prospective genealogist.

General resources

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The UK census is taken every 10 years. We have free access to those between 1841 and 1901 via Ancestry ( They list all people staying at a particular address on census night, plus additional information that becomes more detailed in later censuses.

Valuation rolls

If you need to fill in gaps between censuses, this can be done by looking at the Valuation Rolls, which were an annual attempt to value property. These contain very limited information, but can be useful for finding when a family moved from one property to another.

Old Parish Registers

Prior to 1855 birth, marriage and death information was kept by local churches. The Church of Scotland’s records are available as the Old Parish Registers (known as the OPRs). The earliest East Lothian OPR dates from 1596 (in Prestonpans) – but remember, the records are fragmentary, many having been lost and/or destroyed over the years.

Tranent church yard gravestone

Monumental inscriptions & burial/mortcloth books

When researchers find a death date their next stop is often to try and find some tangible evidence of their ancestor. This is usually found in the form of a gravestone (‘monument’), but researchers should keep in mind that not everyone had a gravestone. If you don’t find a gravestone it is not the very end of the trail – we also have a number of burial and mortcloth books that may highlight a person’s burial plot or note the hire of cloths used to cover coffins during the funeral, the fees for which can give an insight into the finances of the family concerned.


Many people think that their ancestors will not be written about in a book. This is quite often not the case. Many local history books mention local people. All our books are keyworded, so there is a good chance that any local person mentioned can easily be found in the library catalogue (online and in the Centre/libraries). One researcher found a book detailing the whole of his ancestor’s childhood!

James Hadden Musselburgh News Nov 18Newspapers & scrapbooks

Now we get to the really exciting bit. Over the years our staff and volunteers have helped us to create an extensive newspaper index for the Haddingtonshire Courier (now the East Lothian Courier) and the Musselburgh News. As well as the newspapers we also have a number of indexed scrapbooks containing newspaper articles from various newspapers. Both the newspapers and scrapbooks can lead to fantastically detailed information about your ancestors, including court cases, obituaries, sporting achievements, photographs and even murders. The newspapers indexed so far are:

Haddingtonshire Courier 1859–1945
East Lothian Courier and East Lothian News 1980–2003
Musselburgh News 1889–1898 and 1914–1916

Most of the Courier indexes and some of the Musselburgh News indexes are on our website, where you can search them online:

Online resources

At the Centre there is free wi-fi, and also several public computers that you can use. So whether you’re here or not, you can browse various online resources to help with your research:

  1. The John Gray Centre website (

All East Lothian Council’s heritage catalogues are available to browse and search; they are cross-searchable, and can be browsed via a search box, maps or an image gallery. These are the catalogues for:

  1. ( This valuable tool for genealogy research is available for free at East Lothian’s libraries and in the Local History Centre, where we can help you use it.
  2. Scotland’s People ( This site holds Scotland’s statutory records of birth, marriage and death since 1855, and is searchable for a fee of £7 (£5.60 for top-ups). This fee is available only at the Local History Centre, and libraries at Haddington, Dunbar, North Berwick and Musselburgh.
  3. SCRAN ( The Scottish Cultural Resources Access Network holds a vast collection of images and information contributed by museums, archives, libraries, universities, societies and other organisations and individuals. Access is free to library members, and we can help you use it.

Come and visit

Haddington Sasine ELCAS_EL31That sounds a lot. But we have much, much more, including our Sasines records (which record the transfer of ownership of land or buildings), the county almanacs, the Musselburgh street indexes, the pedlars’ index, the East Lothian Life index, the taxation records and the photos of World War One soldiers. So, if your family were/are from East Lothian, you should consider us as your first port of call.

Download a pdf version of this guide.

Other guides in this series

2 Scottish emigration and immigration: a brief history, with online and in-house resource lists
3 Poor Law and Poor Records
4 Tracing your ancestor’s military records
5 Court & criminal records
6 Burgh records
Old Scottish money
8 School records and sources

One thought on “Researching your family’s history at the John Gray Centre: guide 1”

  1. Eileen Hoppe says:

    I am reasearching my family history. I live in Germany, so everything has to be done online.
    I am looking for one of my relatives 3xG Grandfather. his name is John Beaumont born ca 1775. Moved up to East Lothian from England, he was a gardener, and was in the 1841 census in Haddington, he was 66.
    Does anyone have any info on him??
    Much appreciated


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