But now amateur historians or the just plain curious can get a unique glimpse into the financial affairs of Scots such as industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie and Scottish Labour founder and MP Keir Hardie with the publication today online of a collection of historical probate records.
They reveal the final fortunes of more than 650,000 Scots – including many soldiers killed during the Great War and ordinary Scots who previously escaped public notice.
The records from Ancestry.co.uk, the world’s largest family history resource, span 60 years from 1876 to 1936 covering the key First World War (1914-18) years.
Each entry details the full name of the deceased and their place and date of death.
Typically, they also state the testament date – where a will was made – name of executor and final value of the estate – making the collection a vital resource for anybody wanting to track down a lost fortune in their Scottish family trees.
Ancestry has digitised original records from the Scotland, National Probate Index (Calendar of Confirmations and Inventories) 1876-1936 which includes an index and images relating to the annually published Calendar of Confirmations and Inventories (probate records) filed in Scotland, held at the AK Bell Library in Perth.
Miriam Silverman, senior UK content manager from Ancestry, said: “This collection show the highs and lows of people’s lives. From people like Carnegie, one of the great philanthropists who was an inspiration to Bill Gates, to ordinary people like jobbing gardeners and clerks leaving money mostly to their families.
“The collection, which also lists the maiden name of women, is also of huge significance for anybody looking to find out more about a Scottish ancestor, from their final resting place to the executor of their estate – opening up exciting new channels of discovery – and perhaps even unlocking an unknown family fortune.”
As well as famous names, further analysis of the collection reveals the date most deaths were recorded: 25 September 1915. This followed the Battle of Loos on the Western Front, and saw 259 Scots registered dead in a 24-hour period.