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census introduction census dates census 1841 census 1851 census 1861 census 1871 census 1881 census 1891 census 1901

An introduction to the censuses in Scotland

The decennial censuses of Great Britain started in 1801 and have been made every 10 years since then, apart from 1941, due to World War II.

The censuses of 1801 to 1831 were statistical only. The records kept were only a headcount of each household, and the amount of people in three categories of work. These censuses are not normally considered to be of use to genealogists. A very few censuses records from these censuses with names, ages and the like can be found, but consider these to be rare.

The first "useful to genealogists" census was in 1841, when each occupant of the house was named. The data about them was limited (limited list of occupations, adult ages rounded down to the nearest 5 or 10, whether or not they were born in the county [in which they lived at the time of that census]).

The 1851 census introduced the relationship of each person in the house to the head of the household, the proper age of each person and the place and county of birth.

By the time of the 1861 census, the responsibility of the censuses passed on the the newly formed (1855) General Register Office for Scotland. The Registration Districts were used to manage the census. The previous censuses were based on the church parishes.

The next major change was the 1881 census. Not because there was any more or better data, but because it was the first to be made available as a fully indexed census. The LDS (Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints) in co-operation with the Family History Societies across the UK transcribed the whole of the 1881 census for Scotland, England and Wales. This was then made available as a set of CDs available worldwide by the LDS and a series of booklets by the Family History Societies. The index part of this census has also been available on the ScotlandsPeople website for some time and in New Register House in Edinburgh.

Another leap in technology was made with the 1891 census. When it was put online on the ScotlandsPeople website, it was digital images of the actual census enumeration book pages, available via an index system. The digital imaging was part of the DIGROS project undertaken by the General Register Office for Scotland. Until this time, the only way to see the pages of the census was to view them on microfilm at New Register House, LDS Family History Centres and various libraries.

In January 2002, the 1901 census 100-year closure expired, so it too was made available as digital images of the census pages, fully indexed. The 1871 census followed in March 2005, the 1861 in October 2005, the 1851 in March 2006 and the 1841 in April 2006. The 1881 census images and new index came online in March 2009. The 1881 transcriptions (and previous index) were left available online too. The 1911 census came online in April 2011.

All of the censuses since 1911 are still covered by the 100-year closure rule. So the next one to be made public will be the 1921 census. It should become available in 2021.

Across the open censuses a fair number of areas have been indexed by local Family History Societies, and are available mostly as booklets, and a few as CDs. These are generally available from the FHSs. As the list of these indexes is increasing regularly, I will not attempt to list them here. Please go to the websites of theses FHSs for more information. A list of the FHS websites can be found at Copies of these indexes are held at many of the Local Studies Libraries around Scotland, alongside copies of the census microfilms. A list of these libraries can be found at