An unexpected helping hand

Robert Muir and Margaret Lavery
Marriage record for Robert Muir and Margaret Lavery. (Click on the images to expand them.)

Tracing one’s family back to their country of origin can be daunting; often the birthplaces found on census records are just countries, with no indication given of province or county. Therefore, when I found my great-great-grandfather on the 1920 United States Federal Census, I groaned inwardly when I read the birthplaces of his parents: Scotland and Ireland.

William Muir’s parents were a Robert and Margaret Muir. As I noted yesterday, I found them in the 1860 United States Federal Census living in Charlestown, Massachusetts. While Margaret Muir gives a vague birthplace of Ireland, Robert Muir, born circa 1830, gives a more specific birthplace: Orkney, Scotland. Wondering if Robert was consistent in his birthplace, I searched for their marriage. Robert Muir married Margaret Lavery in Charlestown on 30 November 1856. Once again, Margaret lists her birthplace as Ireland; however, Robert becomes even more specific, listing his birthplace as Kirkwall in Orkney.

Robert Muir naturalizationFinally, in his petition for naturalization, Robert once again states that he was born in the Orkneys, Scotland.

Relieved that I would be saved from searching for all Robert Muirs born in Scotland circa 1830, I googled Orkney. As it turns out, Orkney refers to the Orkney Islands, a cluster of islands off of the northern coast of Scotland.

Searching for genealogical information on the Orkney Islands, I found Orkney Genealogy: Family Heritage of the Orkney Islands of Scotland, which contains a database for births and baptisms of the Orkney Islands by surname. Based on the birthdate found in Robert’s naturalization record (18 September 1830), and the parents’ names found on his marriage record (William and Margaret Muir), I was able to find a match: a Robert Muir, born 19 September 1831 – or one year and a day later – to William Muir and Margaret Guthrie.

Robert Muir birth record
Birth record of Robert Muir, Orkney Genealogy (

Using this site, I was able to find all of Robert’s siblings, along with a transcription of the marriage record of William Muir and Margaret Guthrie. I was even able to find Robert in the 1841 Scotland Census living in Kirkwall, along with his parents and siblings. With all of the snags and brick walls I have hit with my other immigrant ancestors, finding the origin of Robert Muir seems almost too easy!

About Katrina Fahy

Katrina, a native of Dedham, Massachusetts, earned a B.A. in History and Art History from St. Anselm College. Previously, she interned at the New Hampshire Historical Society, constructing biographies of New Hampshire quilt makers as well as transcribing a mid-nineteenth century New Hampshire diary and creating an educational program based on its contents. Katrina's research interests include New England and South East regions, as well as the American Revolution.

8 thoughts on “An unexpected helping hand

  1. I am most interested in your post about the Muirs. How did you locate that naturalization record, as all of those I have found are without information that is useful. Nothing of note in any of them, and I have never found a real document like you posted. Is there someplace that the documents are stored? My husbands grandmother was a Muir, from scotland (Iowa branch), and I would love to find the provenance of the family.

  2. Jade is correct. The databases at have the Scotland Old Parish Registers (church records), which often recorded birth dates when a child was baptized. Robert is there, born on 10 September, baptized/christened on 19 September at Sanday.

    1. Thank you, Doug. Another example of where full description and citation of source will clarify where a look at a more original record will clarify events and documentation.

  3. My 5th great-grandmother was a Margaret Guthrie (1716 – 1787) who married Abraham Fulton (1712 – 1787). They were from Articlave, Londonderry, Northern Ireland and came to Westmoreland County, PA in 1772. There is a clan Guthrie from Scotland, and at least one Guthrie Castle. Kirkwall is well worth a visit with its medieval St. Magnus Cathedral and some impressive ruins. Spent a day there last summer on a cruise and it is a delightful place!

  4. Hi Judith,

    Personally I have had my best results physically reviewing the naturalization records at the Federal Archives … in my case the local branch is in Waltham, Massachusetts. Research begins on microfiche as do 95% of them but when you narrow the possibilities down you can request the original records for review and select those which you would like copies of. I have been able to obtain copies of >10 original naturalization records in Waltham. Over & above (possibly) providing additional detail on place of birth, date of arrival etc. I find it interesting to note the names of the witnesses. As with any records … they will vary in terms of the additional information they provide but having a copy of the original is a valued addition to any research. One last note … if you are researching a ‘common’ name be prepared to have to go through several records and use all the other data at your disposal to narrow your results to the most likely candidate(s). Best of luck!! Katherine

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