To respect the privacy of those still living, census records are closed to the public until 100 years have passed; presently available for public access are census records for the years 1841-1901 (a census is taken every 10 years). Public access is allowed to records for censuses conducted on the following dates: June 7, 1841; March 31, 1851; April 8, 1861; April 3, 1871; April 4, 1881; April 6, 1891; and March 31, 1901. Census records are held by The General Register Office for Scotland.
Beginning in 1851, the census recorded name, occupation and age for each household member, the relationship of each to the head of household (which can show you if persons residing at an address are visitors, servants or lodgers), marital status, and birthplace. One thing to consider when researching census returns: censuses represent a snapshot of where people were on the night the census-taker came calling, and may not accurately reflect their actual place of residence. If your great-great-grandfather happened to be visiting his uncle's country house on the night of the census, that particular census recorded him as a member of your uncle's household. A similar situation applies for servants or apprentices in residence, who are recorded as members of the master's household rather than as members of their blood families.
When doing ancestor research through census returns and other records, be aware that there may be many ways to spell a Scottish surname. For best research results, keep a list of spelling variants for every surname you are researching. Your list will help you avoid overlooking important data due to a slight misspelling of your ancestors' names. Family history societies in some localities have published their own surname indexes, as an aid for genealogical researchers. The Scottish Association of Family History Societies is the best source for information on local family history societies.
Particularly in the earliest years returns are available (i.e., 1841-1871), a successful census search may depend on a number of factors, including whether your ancestors lived in the city or in the country. Knowing the address can be critical to your search. In rural areas, if you know the village name alone, you are likely to be able to turn up a valid census entry. For city dwellers, you may be able to locate and use 19th- century urban street indexes as a reference for narrowing down the address. Among its voluminous holdings, The General Register Office for Scotland holds street indexes for selected urban areas, as well as an ever-expanding collection of more than 1,000 name indexes relating to 1841-1871 censuses that have been compiled by family history societies and other private sources.