SCOTTISH KIRK RECORDS
Chris Paton explores the wide range of parish records that can help anyone with Scottish forebears grow their tree
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 bit.ly/list- 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 ( scotlandspeople.gov.uk), 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.edina.ac.uk. 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 familysearch.org/ 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.nrscotland.gov.uk/ 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 ( bit.ly/ancestry-fasti) and in a series of searchable volumes on the Internet Archive ( bit.ly/ 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 at bit.ly/archive- 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)
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