One of the most common themes you'll find in Kirk Session records is fornication: sex outside marriage. The records are full of women (and usually, but not always, men) being summoned to explain their actions. While the Session's disapproval of such behaviour is clear - sometimes abundantly so - what is often overlooked in the context of stern rebukes, admonitions and public reproach, is that, as well as their role in policing sexual mores in the context of an often stern, austere religious outlook, the Kirk Sessions had another responsibility, which weighed heavily on their minds in such cases: they wanted to make sure where possible that children born to unmarried mothers would not become a burden on the parish. It's worth bearing that in mind if you come across an ancestor dragged before the Session for a case of fornication.
Many fornication cases were dealt with in an almost offhand way: the parties would be summoned, would confess their guilt, and would be rebuked, sometimes before the whole Congregation, but often in a less publicly conspicuous manner, before the Session itself.
Other cases, however, were not so straightforward. For one thing, cases of adultery were treated much more seriously, and would frequently be referred to the Presbytery for their advice (which as often as not, amounted to telling the Kirk Session "You deal with it"!). From a researcher's point of view, though, it's much more interesting when the accused man denies paternity. When this happened, the mother and alleged father could call witnesses to provide evidence in support of their claims, and these can be truly fascinating, with cases sometimes dragging on for months.
The following case from Fossoway gives a good illustration of the process:
CH2/163/4 p. 14-15
So the putative father, John Young, basically tells Margaret Wright "If you tell anyone I'm the father, I'll run away." Not a good look. Two weeks later, though, John does appear, and denies everything:
CH2/163/4 p. 15-16
A week later, Margaret confronts John in front of the Session, but John continues to deny everything. Margaret is given the opportunity to call witnesses, who are then summoned to appear in two weeks time:
CH2/163/4 p. 16-17
Two weeks later, Margaret gives her version of events:
CH2/163/4 p. 18-22
This contains fascinating detail about her walk home, a distance of around 10 miles. (You can see the route on a modern map here - opens in a new window.)
John Young being then called, compeared, and continued to deny all guilt with Marg[are]t Wright. He was then heard in explanation of his conduct regarding Marg[are]t Wright at and after leaving Alloa Fair, and the statement made by him exactly corresponded with that made by Marg[are]t Wright, with the exception that instead of meeting with her on the day in question in a public house, he met her in the first instance on the street and afterwards in a public house. Denies that he joined her at her own house, or that he saw her again that evening at all, but declares that Rob[er]t Ramsay joined him a little west of Blairngone, with whom he came all the way till the separation of the roads, which is at Powmill Smithy, and considerably east of Marg[are]t Wright’s father’s house. Denies that he has ever been in her father’s house before or since the day in question, but admits that in passing he has frequently stopped and chatted with her at the door.
Margaret then calls her first witness, Robert Ramsay, from Craiglawhill:
Robert Ramsay, a witness cited for Marg[are]t Wright, unmarried, and aged [space left blank] years, who being solemnly sworn, purged of malice, and partial counsel and interrogated depones, that on the day in question he met with John Young in Alloa first on the street. That on leaving Alloa and going so far as Forest Mill the deponent went into a public house. Depones that he was there in company with John Young and Marg[are]t Wright and others. That after leaving the public house he did not see John Young again till he was considerably west of Blairngone. Depones that John Young and the Dep[onen]t went on together by themselves to the west side of the Devonshaw quarry when they came up with David and Robert Morison, who came along with them till they arrived at the houses at Crossgates, when John Young fell behind, and the Dep[onen]t saw no more of him that night. Depones that he was joined about the Devonshaw and Gartwhynean march by Peter Cree, who together with the Morisons and the Dep[onen]t came within a little distance of the Powmill Smithy, when Peter Cree and the Dep[onen]t sat down for ten minutes, but that John Young did not again come up with them. And that all this truth as the Dep[onen]t shall answer to God.
Robert can't prove that Margaret is telling the truth. Margaret's second witness is more forthcoming, providing hearsay evidence that John admitted having been with Margaret, but claiming he wasn't the only one:
Comp[eare]d Catharine Blackwood, a witness in this case cited for Marg[are]t Wright, married and aged 23 years, who being solemnly sworn &c and interrogated Depones that since it was reported that Marg[are]t Wright was with child, John Young called on the Dep[onen]t and said that farmers and farmers’ sons had been with Marg[are]t Wright as well as he, and this is truth as the Dep[onen]t shall answer to God, and declares that she cannot write.
Over the course of the next week, rumour evidently reaches members of the Kirk Session that Catharine knows more than she told them, because we read:
CH2/163/4 p. 23
Sure enough, a few weeks later, Catharine changes her evidence:
CH2/163/4 p. 24-26
If there was any doubt as to what John meant when he claimed that "farmers and farmers' sons had been with Margaret", that doubt has been removed. John has reverted to name calling, although by so doing, he allegedly admits to having been with Margaret himself. Still, though, he persists in denying everything to the Session:
John Young states that about the end of Harvest he came west in James Taylor’s cart as far as the road which leads off to the Cocklaws. That this might be nearly ten o’clock at night. That he saw Marg[are]t Wright’s door open. That he tapped on the window, but that Marg[are]t Wright did not make her appearance. From the circumstance he is of opinion that she was engaged with some other person. That he then returned home without making any enquiry whether Marg[are]t Wright was any wise engaged with any other person or not.
A month later, though, John appears before the Session once again, and has evidently had a change of heart. Whether he's had pangs of conscience, or has been persuaded to admit his actions by some unknown person, John recants his earlier evidence unequivocally:
CH2/163/4 p. 28
There's no record of the Session meeting two weeks later, but instead six weeks later John appears before the Session to be rebuked pro primo (literally: for the first time):
CH2/163/4 p. 28
Two weeks later, John appears pro secundo ('for the second time'), is once again rebuked, and is ordered to produce a certificate of good behaviour from the parish of Kinross, where he now lives:
CH2/163/4 p. 29
Another two weeks later, John returns with a note from one of the Kinross elders, and is ordered to appear for public rebuke before the full congregation:
CH2/163/4 p. 29
Finally, six months after the case began, John is made to appear as a penitent before the congregation, is admonished by the Moderator (in this case, the Parish Minister), and is restored to full membership of the Church:
CH2/163/4 p. 30
There is one further postscript, in the Cash book for Fossoway parish:
CH2/163/6 p. 94
This illustrates another purpose of disciplinary proceedings - to raise money, which in most cases went towards the Poor Funds maintained by each parish.
We are gradually rolling out a lookup service for Kirk Session records across Scotland. If your ancestors were from Fossoway, you can see the records we can check for you here. For other parts of Scotland, start here.
E is for Education, in Ellon
The Reformation in Scotland placed great emphasis on education. In 1560, the First Book of Discipline established the ideal of universal education, of a school in every parish. Although the ideal was never actually realised in practice, it remained a worthy objective.
As a consequence, many wealthy individuals left legacies for educational purposes. Some, such as George Heriot in Edinburgh, left money to establish educational institutions for poor children, often referred to slightly confusingly as Hospitals. Others endowed funds to pay school fees for children in a district. One such fund was the Milne Bequest in the parish of Ellon, Aberdeenshire. The Parliamentary Educational Endowments (Scotland) Commission described it thus:
The Milne Bequest, which is said to be dated in 1797, but did not come into operation till 1808, its precise date not being ascertainable, but a record of it appearing in the kirk session minutes under date July 21, 1808, was left by the Rev James Milne, minister of Ellon, ‘for the purpose of educating poor children’. Its amount is nearly £20 of capital, and it is paid to the School Board for the education of poor children.
The benefactor being a minister, it is perhaps not surprising that operation of the Milne Bequest was placed in the hands of the Kirk Session of Ellon. Fortunately, the elders kept excellent records of payments made under the bequest. The entries for 1862/63 are as follows:
The Kirk Session records of Ellon parish include payments made from the Milne Bequest from 1852 to 1880. Apart from the details of ill health as shown above, and the details of guardians of children - presumably orphans - some of the earlier records also include comments on the individual pupils ("giddy, thoughtless", "less fair from want of parental oversight") that offer a unique insight into their characters. You can request a lookup in these and other Ellon parish records here.
D is for Dissenters
Monday 1st January 1855 is a key date in Scottish genealogy research. That was when the system of statutory registration was introduced, covering - in theory at least - every birth, marriage and death in Scotland. However, if you want to research back before 1855, things get a little trickier. The most commonly used records for tracing Scottish ancestry before statutory registration, are the so called OPRs, or Old Parish Registers. These have been indexed, and are available - for a fee - on the Scotland's People website. However, they only cover the established Church of Scotland. You may have a marriage record (often inaccurately referred to as a certificate) for your ancestors, showing that they were members of a dissenting church.
Scotland's fractious religious history means that historically, many Scots did not belong to the Church of Scotland. There have been numerous schisms over the centuries since the Reformation, as a result of dissent over Church doctrine and practice.
In 1733, Ebenezer Erskine, William Wilson, Alexander Moncrieff and James Fisher led what became known as the First Secession, forming the Associate Presbytery. A Second Secession led by Thomas Gillespie followed in 1761. In 1820, several of the dissenting groups combined to form the United Secession Church, initially with 261,000 followers in 361 congregations. By 1830, around one in three Scots were members.
But the largest secession from the Church of Scotland came with the Disruption of 1843, when a long-running dispute over patronage (triggered by the 1834 Veto Act of the General Assembly: see our parish records pages for 150,000 free records of heads of families created as a result of this Act) within the Church of Scotland led to the formation of the Free Church of Scotland. Over a third of serving ministers in the established church joined the Free Church, leaving the Church of Scotland as a minority church for the first time.
Most of these various denominations kept registers of the baptisms of the children of members. Many of these registers survive today in Scottish archives. Unfortunately, for the most part they have not been indexed at all, and the registers are not available online, so finding your ancestors can be challenging.
Over the last few months, we have been extracting the pre-1855 entries from many of these registers, and making them available online. These extractions are not just indexes, but full extracts of all the information contained in the registers - not just names and dates, but often home addresses, father's occupations, and in a number of instances additional notes added by the church officers. Many of these registers continue past 1855, but as there are statutory registers from that time on, we have not extracted them. So far, we've extracted the registers listed below. Click on a link to see what names these registers contain - perhaps your ancestors were dissenters?
Aberdeen St Paul Street United Presbyterian, Aberdeenshire
Aberdeen Bon Accord Free Church, Aberdeenshire
Newhills Free Church, Aberdeenshire
Arbroath Erskine United Presbyterian Church, Angus
St George's Free Church Montrose, Angus
Ardrossan St John's Free Church, Ayrshire
Coldingham United Presbyterian Church, Berwickshire
Langton Free Church, Berwickshire
Canisbay Free Church, Caithness
Lybster Free Church, Caithness
Pulteneytown Free Church, Caithness
Johnstone and Wamphray Free Church, Dumfriesshire
Innerwick Free Church, East Lothian
Edinburgh St Luke's Free Church, Edinburgh
Portobello United Presbyterian Church, Edinburgh
St Georges Free Church, Edinburgh
Gorbals United Presbyterian Church, Glasgow
Shamrock Street United Presbyterian Church Glasgow, Glasgow
Strachan Free Church, Kincardineshire
Milnathort United Presbyterian, Kinross-shire
Auchencairn Free Church, Kirkcudbrightshire
Dalbeattie Free Church, Kirkcudbrightshire
Tongland and Twynholm Free Church, Kirkcudbrightshire
Blantyre United Presbyterian Church, Lanarkshire
Cambusnethan Associate Church, Lanarkshire
Hamilton St. John's Free Church, Lanarkshire
Roberton United Presbyterian Church, Lanarkshire
Wellwynd United Associate Congregation Airdrie, Lanarkshire
Musselburgh United Presbyterian, Midlothian
Sandwick United Presbyterian Church, Orkney
Stromness United Presbyterian, Orkney
Aberfeldy Free Church, Perthshire
Alyth Associate Congregation, Perthshire
Blackford Free Church, Perthshire
St Leonards Free Church Perth, Perthshire
Alexandria United Secession Church, Renfrewshire
Erskine Free Church, Renfrewshire
Paisley, Reformed Presbyterian, Renfrewshire
Bowden Free Church, Roxburghshire
Kelso United Presbyterian, Roxburghshire
Denny Free Church, Stirlingshire
Tongue Free Church, Sutherland
Scotland's People website run by the National Records of Scotland is giving away 20 free credits (normal price: £7 for 30 credits). Simply login (you'll have to register first if you haven't already done so), click on Buy more credits at the top right of the screen:
Then use "Scotland" as the Voucher Code.
Searches cost 1 credit for up to 25 results, while viewing images of historical records costs 5 credits (10 credits for wills and testaments).
If there are too many matches for you to buy online (with a surname like Smith, I know how that feels!), or if the record you're interested in is not available on the website, why not ask us about our affordable lookup service?
Birthdays - but which one?
One of the slightly unusual features of the Scottish system of statutory registration is the Register of Corrected Entries (now known as the Register of Corrections, Etc, or RCE). This allows for errors in original records to be corrected. In modern times, the RCE is a separate volume - the original register is not actually changed; instead a note is added in the margin, with a reference to the RCE.
While the RCE system only applies to statutory registration of births, marriages and deaths, as introduced in Scotland in 1855, it was clearly not without precedent, as the following entry from the Kirk Session of Barony, in Glasgow, shows:
31 October 1832
Several things stand out from this entry. Firstly, it shows that even contemporary, primary sources can be incorrect: although in this case, it seems that the clerk did change the original register, and a modern researcher would find the correct date (assuming the father was telling the truth). Secondly, you have to wonder how and why the father noticed the error, almost exactly 21 years after the event. Perhaps the children were involved in some legal matter that required them to be 21 years of age, possibly an inheritance. And thirdly, it also inadvertently offers a glimpse into family history as opposed to genealogy: Mary Ann and John were twins, but they were born 2 days apart, suggesting that their mother (unnamed in this entry, but she was Agnes Robertson) must have experienced a lengthy labour of at least 24 hours, more than 35 years before James Young Simpson pioneered the use of anaesthesia in childbirth.
Adultery in Athelstaneford
The following entries are from Athelstaneford Kirk Session minutes, and the minutes of the Presbytery of Haddington.
Athelstaneford Kirk Session minutes CH2/18/1 p. 180
Thomas Darling is not mentioned again in the Kirk Session minutes for Athelstaneford. He does appear at West Fortune in the 1841 census, a farmer aged 42. Janet Brook is also found living in Athelstaneford village in 1841, with her 7 year old son, David Darling. Although the child is not named in the Athelstaneford Kirk Session or Presbytery of Haddington records, it seems almost certain that David Darling is in fact Thomas Darling's son.
Without the Kirk Session records, it might not otherwise have been possible to identify David's father. These entries also illustrate how individual Kirk Sessions could refer cases to their Presbytery for a ruling. As well as revealing the likely father of David Darling, the entries also reveal something of the character of Thomas Darling. You can see what other records are available for Athelstaneford here.
Genealogy and Family History - A mix of our news, curious and intriguing discoveries. Research hints and resources to grow your family tree in Scotland from our team.