Scot­tish ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal courts

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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

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