Chris Pa­ton ex­plores the wide range of par­ish records that can help any­one with Scot­tish fore­bears grow their tree

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The civil regis­tra­tion of vi­tal events did not be­gin in Scot­land un­til 1855. Prior to this the records of the Scot­tish churches are an im­por­tant al­ter­na­tive re­source, not­ing the dates of baptisms, mar­riages and buri­als, as well as ad­di­tional con­tem­po­rary records for our an­ces­tors’ lives.

The Pres­by­te­rian-based Church of Scot­land (‘the Kirk’) was trans­formed from its pre­vi­ous ex­is­tence in the Ro­man Catholic world by the Scot­tish Re­for­ma­tion of 1560. The na­ture of this Re­for­ma­tion, how­ever, was very dif­fer­ent to that in­sti­gated un­der Henry VIII in Eng­land a quar­ter of a cen­tury ear­lier. Fol­low­ing the Act of Supremacy of 1534, Henry’s new church largely re­tained the pre­vi­ous ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal in­fra­struc­ture, with a hi­er­ar­chy of priests, bish­ops and arch­bish­ops, but with the king’s au­thor­ity re­plac­ing that of the pope. In Scot­land the Re­for­ma­tion was in­stead both a demo­cratic and the­o­log­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion, lead­ing to years of con­flict with the state.

For al­most 130 years con­trol of the re­formed Kirk re­peat­edly passed be­tween two sep­a­rate, ide­o­log­i­cally op­posed fac­tions, one be­liev­ing in Epis­co­pacy, the idea of a state-backed hi­er­ar­chy of bish­ops, the other in Pres­by­te­ri­an­ism, where con­gre­ga­tions con­trolled their own af­fairs, and elected their own min­is­ters and el­ders. This di­vide con­trib­uted to the Wars of the Three King­doms (1639–1651) and, fol­low­ing the Restora­tion

Record-keep­ing was not stan­dard­ised be­tween par­ishes, and the in­for­ma­tion varies enor­mously

of Charles II, the strug­gle of the Pres­by­te­rian Covenan­ters and the Killing Times (when Pres­by­te­rian wor­ship­pers could be shot on sight by the king’s sol­diers). The is­sue was not set­tled un­til the Glo­ri­ous Rev­o­lu­tion of 1688–1689, when the Kirk’s Pres­by­te­rian sta­tus was fi­nally se­cured. Fur­ther dis­rup­tion nev­er­the­less con­tin­ued right up un­til the start of civil regis­tra­tion in 1855, es­pe­cially when Scot­tish landown­ers were given the right of pa­tron­age in 1712. This al­lowed them to de­cide who the minister in their par­ishes could be, in­stead of the con­gre­ga­tions, lead­ing to sev­eral splits from the Kirk to form non­con­formist Pres­by­te­rian de­nom­i­na­tions, and se­verely weak­en­ing the Kirk’s dom­i­nance in so­ci­ety.

Back to the 16th cen­tury

For fam­ily his­to­ri­ans the most im­por­tant records of the es­tab­lished Kirk are its par­ish reg­is­ters, with the ear­li­est sur­viv­ing vol­umes record­ing baptisms and mar­riage banns from 1553, for the preRe­for­ma­tion Perthshire par­ish of Er­rol. A notable sur­viv­ing record in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the Re­for­ma­tion is from the Ed­in­burgh par­ish of Canon­gate on 22 June 1565, de­scrib­ing the mar­riage of Mary, Queen of Scots, to Henry Ste­wart, Lord Darn­ley, the par­ents of the fu­ture James VI of Scot­land and James I of Great Bri­tain. The cov­er­age for the whole of Scot­land is quite poor at this point, how­ever, de­spite re­peated at­tempts by the Kirk to en­cour­age par­ishes to keep reg­is­ters, in­clud­ing early at­tempts in 1616 and again in 1636. Many par­ishes in the Western Isles did not in fact record such reg­is­ters un­til well into the 19th cen­tury.

Record-keep­ing was not stan­dard­ised be­tween par­ishes (as hap­pened in Eng­land through Rose’s Act of 1812), and the level of in­for­ma­tion in­cluded varies enor­mously. An ex­cep­tion­ally de­tailed par­ish mar­riage reg­is­ter, for ex­am­ple, might name the two spouses; the bride’s fa­ther’s name; the groom’s oc­cu­pa­tion; where in the par­ish they resided; the three sep­a­rate dates on which the banns were called; the date of the mar­riage; the name of the minister; the ses­sion clerk or el­der record­ing the in­for­ma­tion; and the names of any wit­nesses. By con­trast, a poor mar­riage record in an ad­ja­cent par­ish may sim­ply pro­vide the names of the two spouses and a sum of money paid by way of ‘pledge money’ or ‘procla­ma­tion money’ in ad­vance of any pro­ceed­ings. In such a record there is not even a guar­an­tee that the mar­riage in fact hap­pened, un­less a sub­se­quent bap­tism record for a child notes that child to have been of “law­ful” birth (ver­sus a “nat­u­ral” birth out of wed­lock).

Even in ar­eas where records were well kept, you may find

oc­ca­sional lapses in de­tail. For ex­am­ple in the Ayr­shire par­ish of Ochiltree, a record notes that a “Ge­orge Some­thing law­ful son to what-ye-call-him in Mains of Barskim­ming was bap­tized April 9th 1704”. His­tory has failed to record the sub­se­quent progress of the Some­thing fam­ily.

Sur­viv­ing Church of Scot­land par­ish records, known as the Old Par­ish Reg­is­ters ( OPRs), are held at the Na­tional Records of Scot­land ( NRS) in Ed­in­burgh, and a use­ful guide out­lin­ing the records that ex­ist is avail­able at oprs. For cat­a­logu­ing pur­poses each par­ish has ret­ro­spec­tively been given a number by the NRS, from the north of the coun­try to the south; OPR 1 is the number for Bres­say, Burra and Quarff in Shet­land to the north, while the fi­nal batch, OPR 901, is for Wig­town in Wig­town­shire in the south-west. These Church of Scot­land OPR records, in ad­di­tion to some non­con­formist and Ro­man Catholic records, have been digi­tised and made avail­able on the pay-per-view web­site Scot­land­sPeo­ple ( scot­land­speo­, as well as at Fam­ily His­tory Cen­tres across the coun­try.

In ad­di­tion to par­ish reg­is­ters, the records of the church courts and par­ish ac­counts can also be of great as­sis­tance. For the es­tab­lished Kirk, there were

Ev­ery par­ish had a kirk ses­sion, which lis­tened to cases of breaches of dis­ci­pline

four ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal courts that over­saw is­sues of church gov­er­nance, ed­u­ca­tion and dis­ci­pline. At the low­est level, ev­ery par­ish had a kirk ses­sion, at­tended by the minister and par­ish el­ders, which lis­tened to cases of breaches of dis­ci­pline, such as an­tenup­tial for­ni­ca­tion, blas­phemy, ir­reg­u­lar mar­riage and work­ing on the Sab­bath. On 8 De­cem­ber 1752, in the kirk ses­sion for the non­con­formist As­so­ciate Pres­bytery par­ish church in Kin­claven, some of the con­gre­ga­tion were con­victed for “the in­de­cent be­hav­iour of pro­mis­cu­ous danc­ing”, ad­mit­ting the “In­delacicy [sic] & Sin­full­ness of such a Practise” and “thro’ Grace re­solved ag[ains]t the same for the fu­ture”.

The lo­cal pres­bytery, com­pris­ing sev­eral kirk ses­sions, acted as an ap­peal court, or pro­vided ju­ris­dic­tion in cases that may have in­volved par­tic­i­pants from more than one par­ish. Above the pres­bytery was the wider synod, while the ul­ti­mate court was the an­nual Gen­eral Assem­bly. Fam­ily his­to­ri­ans will usu­ally need to go no fur­ther than the kirk ses­sion and the pres­bytery for use­ful ma­te­rial. If you’re un­sure which pres­bytery and synod a cer­tain par­ish be­longed to, con­sult the rel­e­vant par­ish en­try in the Sta­tis­ti­cal Ac­counts of Scot­land at stat­acc­scot.ed­ In ad­di­tion the records of the par­ish her­i­tors (landown­ers) note the ap­point­ment of, and pay­ments to, teach­ers and min­is­ters, as well as business ex­pen­di­ture for which they were legally re­spon­si­ble. Records may be at the NRS, or in lo­cal archives or pri­vate hands.

Most sur­viv­ing kirk ses­sion and pres­bytery records for the Church of Scot­land, and some non­con­formist ses­sion records, have been digi­tised, and can be con­sulted at the His­tor­i­cal Search Room of the NRS, or at var­i­ous archives across the coun­try. In ad­di­tion Fam­il­y­Search hosts a data­base of some in­dexed records, en­ti­tled ‘Scot­land Church Records and Kirk Ses­sion Records, 1658– 1919’, at fam­il­y­ search/col­lec­tion/ 2390848. Many lo­cal archives have fur­ther reg­is­ters that have not been digi­tised; to lo­cate them, con­sult the Scot­tish Ar­chive Net­work cat­a­logue at cat­a­logue.nrscot­ scan­cat­a­logue.

Fi­nally if your an­ces­tor was a minister, there are sev­eral ad­di­tional re­sources. The Fasti Ec­cle­siae Scot­i­canae is a bi­o­graph­i­cal re­source for Church of Scot­land min­is­ters, ini­tially pub­lished in 1866 and re­vised in the early 20th cen­tury. The col­lec­tion is avail­able on An­ces­try (­ces­try-fasti) and in a se­ries of search­able vol­umes on the In­ter­net Ar­chive ( ar­chive-fasti). Ad­di­tional pub­li­ca­tions that can help are His­tory of the Con­gre­ga­tions of the United Pres­by­te­rian Church from 1733 to 1900 (avail­able on the In­ter­net Ar­chive at­chive- hcupc), Fasti of the United Free Church of Scot­land 1900–1929 (edited by Rev John Alexan­der Lamb, 1956) and Scot­tish Epis­co­pal Clergy 1689–2000 (edited by David M Ber­tie, 2000).

Chris Pa­ton is the au­thor of Dis­cover Scot­tish Church Records, Sec­ond Edi­tion (Un­lock the Past, 2017)

The reg­is­ters of Kil­birnie Auld Kirk, North Ayr­shire, can now be searched on Scot­land­sPeo­ple

The sign­ing of the Na­tional Covenant in Ed­in­burgh in 1638 had an enor­mous im­pact on Scot­land’s de­vel­op­ment

Dr Alexan­der Web­ster, a for­mer mod­er­a­tor of the Gen­eral Assem­bly, preaches in 1785 in the Tol­booth Church in Ed­in­burgh

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