Some phrases or markings in registers definitely show that the parents aren't married, while others may just be hinting as much. The following phrases/abbreviations are unambiguous:
- Illegitimate (sometimes abbreviated to Illeg or Ill): usually written next to the child's name, but in some registers it's written next to the father's or mother's name.
- Natural son/daughter: sometimes abbreviated to Nat son/daughter, Na: son/daughter, or NS/ND
- Natural child: sometimes abbreviated to NC, although beware that this abbreviation is also used for non-communicant, i.e. someone who is not a member of the congregation.
- Unlawful son/daughter: used in contrast to lawful son/daughter (meaning the parents are lawfully married)
- John Smith and Mary Brown, unmarried.
- Putative father: sometimes abbreviated to PF, indicating that this man is alleged to be the father, but may or may not have formally acknowledged as much.
- Reputed father: sometimes abbreviated to RF, with the same implications as putative father.
Other phrases or markings are less clear - they may or may not indicate that the parents are unmarried:
- Mother or grandparent sponsor: sponsors generally vouched that the children would be brought up "in the faith". In most cases, the father was sponsor, and when this is the case it's generally not specifically mentioned. You will sometimes find references in Kirk Session minutes to the Session agreeing to permit the mother to act as sponsor. However there may be other reasons why the mother (or some other adult) would be sponsor - the father may be absent, or dead, or a member of a different church - so this should only be treated as a hint that the parents were unmarried.
- Baptised in front of the Session: some registers, particularly later registers, give the names of witnesses to the baptism, or state that the child was baptised "before the Congregation". You may find in such registers instances where the child was baptised before the Session. This is sometimes an indication that the parents were unmarried: again, Kirk Session minutes often contain references to children being brought to the Session house for baptism. Similarly, if the child was baptised at home, it might be an indication that the child was poorly, and was too unwell to be brought to church.
- Father's name given in brackets: we've seen a number of registers where a few entries give the father's name in brackets. This may be an indication that the parents were not married, or it may simply mean that the father was not present - perhaps because he was working away from home at the time (we've noticed a number of such cases where the father was a mariner or seaman, and may well have been away at sea).
- An alternative surname is given: the child is described as for instance James Anderson or McDonald: this would usually suggest the parents were unmarried, but there are other possible explanations.
- The child's surname does not match the father's surname: some registers are ambiguous about the surnames of children, or simply do not give the child's surname. If however they do, and the child's surname doesn't match the father's, this is a strong indication that the parents were not married.
One important and unusual characteristic of Scots law which distinguishes it from English law is the concept of legitimisation. A child born out of wedlock whose parents subsequently marry becomes legitimate provided that his or her parents were free to marry at the time of his or her birth.
In the first twenty years of civil registration in Scotland, around 140,000 children were born with no father named on their birth certificates. Our initial research suggests that at least one in three of these fathers can be identified from various historical records. If you have an illegitimate Scottish ancestor in your family tree, why not try our no-win, no-fee Find the Father service to see if your ancestor is one of them?