Scottish ecclesiastical courts
Following the Reformation in 1560, the Kirk adopted a hierarchy of ecclesiastical courts, with four tiers of jurisdiction.
The first court of instance at the parish level was the Kirk session, composed of a Kirk’s elders and minister, which would hear cases of breaches of church discipline. Among the many offences that could be prosecuted at parish level were irregular marriage, antenuptial fornication, disrespecting the Sabbath and defamation. Those who disobeyed the order to ‘compear’ before the Kirk (to appear as a witness) could be referred to the civil authorities for prosecution, while those found guilty of offences could be fined and rebuked. This was initially done before the congregation, with the guilty forced to wear sackcloth and sit on a penitent’s stool in humiliation, though by the 19th century rebukes were usually carried out in private before the session.
Overseeing a cluster of parishes was the higher authority of the Presbytery. This acted both as an appeal court and as a body to which more complicated cases could be referred to, while issues involving parishioners from more than one parish were also regularly dealt with. In certain cases, such as a putative father refusing to acknowledge paternity, the accused could be referred by his session to the Presbytery and forced to take an ‘oath of purgation’, upon pain of excommunication. Once taken, he then only had God to answer to if he had been concealing the truth. Together, several Presbyteries further constituted a synod, the third level of jurisdiction (abolished in n 1993), while the ultimate appeal court wa as the annual General Assembly. Man ny records of the Kirk sessions, Presbyteries and synods are held at the N ational Records of Scotland ( nrscotland.gov.uk), although some registers have been relocated back to local council archives, with a digital copy maintained in Edinburgh.
Chris Paton is a genealogist and author specialising in Scottish records