Many clan members share an interest in their family origins, which for all Mathesons contains at least one Scottish element.  Some members have even published books about their family origins, and all families have stories that are worth recording, even just as a personal record for the next generation.  Go on — you might be able to produce an account that your descendants and other relatives will really appreciate in years to come.  Here are a few tips to get you started.

1     Write down what you already know

If you’re even vaguely interested in your family origins, and you must be to be reading this page, you will have heard and remembered plenty of family stories.  Jot down notes about what you have heard and thus know (or think you know).  Make a list of the obvious gaps.

You might find it helpful to start drawing up a family chart, using a template such as this.

2     Assemble what records you have

If you’re lucky you might already have a cardboard box of Grandma’s family documents, or at least a few certificates and pieces of memorabilia.  Go through them carefully and extract what information you can.  Add to your notes about what you know, and what you don’t know.

Scan important documents and start saving them in a consistent way on your computer.  Organise these well.  I prefer more, smaller folders so it’s easier to find things.  To keep documents or photos in date order you can start the file name with a date in international or ‘reverse’ date order (e.g. 2012-12-25 for Christmas Day 2012).

3     Talk to your relatives

You have an invaluable resource right in your own family, through talking to your relatives about their lives and the stories they heard from earlier generations.  This is more useful for learning about your family history than just getting names and dates for your family tree, though you may also find out plenty of ‘facts’ that are useful in themselves and/or can be checked later.

Use whatever method you and your relatives feel comfortable with: an informal chat, you taking notes or even using a tape or digital voice recorder.  You need to show some tact in this — stuffing a microphone in someone’s face and saying you need to pick their brains before they shuffle off probably isn’t the best way to start.  There are some good tips about interviewing as a family history tool here and here.  The National Oral History Association of New Zealand has some good resource guides.

Depending on what tools you used, after the interview you might want to write notes of the conversation, review and edit your existing notes, or transcribe an audio recording.

4     Look for more family records

You might well come away from interviews with a bundle of useful records to be copied and returned, or you might be able to scan or photograph records during your visit.  Contact other relatives to see what other treasures you can locate.

5     Plan your research

Serendipity is a wonderful part of family history research — following surprising twists and turns in the trail and discovering things you weren’t expecting.  But this can be a time-waster too.  The bulk of your research should be planned and thorough.

Set targets for what you want to find out, and start searching.  Record where you have looked and what you have found, and just as importantly keep a note of where you have looked unsuccessfully so you don’t waste time there again.  You will probably find it best to work backwards, unless you know or can easily find out which ship(s) your ancestor(s) came on and want to jump straight to your Scottish story.  (There are plenty of passenger lists available to help in that search, such as here, here, here and here.)

6     Be thankful your relatives were Scottish!

Be very thankful.  The Scottish government has shown enormous foresight by establishing Scotland’s People, which has digitised and indexed more than 100 million official records from north of the border.  This includes all statutory records (since 1855) and all existing parish records from before that date.

Scotland’s People is very good value for money.  You don’t need to subscribe, but instead you buy credits (in 7-pound installments) that last for a year, though even when expired they become valid again whenever you buy additional credits after that.  The cost of finding a record and getting a digital image of it (which you can save to your computer) is less than NZ$3.

7     Use a range of databases

The internet has revolutionised family history research and there is an extraordinary wealth of reliable material available on line.  Some sites are free:

Familysearch.  The Mormon church is putting its records on line for anyone to see and use.

Volunteers are transcribing the civil registers of births, deaths and marriages for England and Wales, and the parish registers from throughout the UK.  This is a work in progress, but you may find what you are looking for.  Volunteers are also transcribing the 19th-century UK censuses.

There are several subscription family history research services that are a great boon to researchers.  Perhaps the best-known is, where a global ‘all you can eat’ subscription is about NZ$1 per day.  This is still cheaper than a daily newspaper, though it might be too much for some.  Don’t worry, as many public libraries have their own Ancestry subscriptions for library users to access.  In some libraries you may be able to save records onto a memory stick for later use at home.  Other subscription services include Findmypast and MyHeritage, and some libraries may have access to these too.

8     Look for New Zealand records

All New Zealand births, deaths and marriages are available online.  There are some date restrictions so you can see only births from at least 100 years ago, marriages 80 and deaths 50 (or where the deceased was born more than 80 years ago).  And you can see only the index record for free; a printout of the record (most useful for family history research) will set you back between $20 and $27, depending on the date.  This is still a useful site for checking facts, though.

There are plenty of other records available.  Public libraries may have electoral rolls.  To look for service personnel who are now deceased check out the Auckland Museum Cenotaph site.  Information about military service can be very useful, and the WW100 site has a WW100 useful guide to information sources relating to the First World War.  Look at private sites such as Kiwicelts or Pearl’s Pad, or those listed here, here and here.

We are very lucky to have in New Zealand a high-quality and freely-available digital archive of historical newspapers.  You can search Papers Past for your relatives’ names or browse to find out more about the era they lived in.  The site is being continually expanded, so check back to see which newspapers or time periods have been added.

9     Learn about family history research

Your public library will probably have some family history magazines such as Family Tree, Discover Your History or Your Family Tree.  These have useful articles on family history themes, are a useful source of information about genealogical techniques.  There are some useful articles and family history blogs around, such as those from New Zealand’s own Jan Gow, or Dick Eastman and in the USA.

The New Zealand Society of Genealogists is a useful source of information and advice.

The BBC television show “Who do you think you are?” shows on UKTV in New Zealand, and even has its own magazine.  BBC Radio Scotland has a programme called ‘Digging up your roots‘.

10     Build your family tree

There are some good computer programs for building a family tree and generating reports from your basic data, such as RootsMagic, Legacy and Family Tree Builder.  Remember to back up your data regularly!

11     There’s an app for that

You can export data from most family tree programs to a portable device such as a smartphone or tablet, to give you access to your information wherever you are.  Some allow editing on the go while others are just viewers.

12     Check, check and recheck

Be careful of jumping to conclusions in your research.  And while oral history is often supported by documentary evidence, some stories become rather fanciful after being retold for a few generations.  Try to corroborate what you hear from documentary sources.  Use multiple sources where possible.  Consider variations in names and recorded details.

A final word

Note that I started this article by talking about a ‘family story’ rather than a ‘family tree’.  I prefer to use the term ‘family history’, and not ‘genealogy’.  There’s nothing wrong with constructing a family tree — I am doing that — and the term ‘genealogy’ is fine.  But for me what is more interesting than simply a list of names and dates is the story behind my ancestors and other relatives.  Who were they?  How did they live?  What were their aspirations and horizons?

You can be guaranteed to find some fascinating stories about your relatives, some extraordinary and others quite mundane but no less interesting for that.  Think of genealogy and the family tree as the skeleton, and family history as the flesh to put on the bones.  Delve into your ancestors’ lives and try to find out more about them as people, rather than just historical figures.

And beware … once you get the bug you might find yourself totally absorbed.  Good luck with your family story!

Andrew Matheson
Clan Matheson New Zealand Branch Webmaster

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