Findmypast has records going back over 1000 years. Many of these come with images of the original pages, particularly in our parish records collection, where in many areas we have full colour digitised scans going back to the early 1500s.
The earliest samples of records, those dating back to the 16th or 17th centuries, are usually written in 'secretary hand', identifiable by its exaggerated loops and flourishes.
Although it came from a need for a more legible and universally recognisable hand, it eventually became so stylised that it was unreadable by anyone who hadn’t specifically learnt its quirks.
Secretary hand was banned from the English law courts in 1731. The copperplate found in 19th century legal documents tends to be far clearer although less formal documents from the period, using scratchy, flexible metal nibs on thick rough paper can look as if a spider lost its way.
Personal documents, written perhaps in a hurried scrawl in pencil on almost transparent 'onionskin' paper are in a special league that can come closer to divination than interpretation.
It’s a relief when printed documents appear later in history with their uniform fonts and ease of readability!
When we get to the point in our family history journey when we have to rely on interpreting older documents, it can take quite a lot of skill to decipher what can sometimes look almost like secret code.
The process of interpreting old handwriting is called 'paleography'. Here are some handy tips that can help you to get further with these records, and to get those all important names.
Understand the context
If you know the sort of thing that would be included in these documents it will help you to decipher tricky words. For example, you might know that whatever is missing must be an occupation.
Look at entries around the one you can’t read
Most entries in registers from the same period were entered by the same person. Pick out other words with similar letters in that you can understand, so that you can spot what they may be.
There may be a letter you think could be an M or an N in the word you can't decipher for example but you can see it clearly in the word "FARMER" just above.
Try to do this with as many undecipherable letters as you can and then plot out the letters you know with the gaps. What's left, what are the possible options.
Print the document
Once you have the document in front of you read it again a few more times. Take a pen or pencil and try to write over the text, following the path of the ink.
Does that seem to follow a letter pattern you recognise? Try and write the same thing on plain paper and see if that reminds you of anything else.
Get a second opinion
Sometimes it’s hard to see the wood for the trees through no fault of our own and it takes a fresh pair of eyes to spot something that we've missed.
Ask a friend or fellow genealogist for their opinion. Even if they can't also decipher it, ask what they think of each letter they see so that you can use their thoughts to take another look and build up the letters that you are sure of to fill in the gaps later.
Different regions and periods have different handwriting styles
There are national and regional variations in everything, Scottish handwriting is different from English (there were very different influences to the two forms of script) but you can see differences even region to region.
Handwriting became simpler over the course of hundreds of years, so you will find things more difficult the further you go back.
Be sure to look at a few records from that particular location and of that period to be sure you know as much as you can about what you are looking at.
Make use of other tools
When you've completed all previous steps you usually should have part of a word you can't decipher. Crossword solvers (you can find plenty on Google) can be very useful when you enter the letters you know, especially for occupations and in passages of text.
Enter the letters you have and they should return a list of all of the possible words that your mystery entry!
Standards of literacy have improved greatly over the past few centuries. During the reformation, when writing was looked upon as something of an art, there can be no surprise that it was indeed far more artistic.
You can be proud that even if you find yourself a little stuck due to this very issue, it's no small achievement to get this far back with your family tree!