When I was applying to university in the mid-1980s, the then Scottish Education Department maintained a register of educational trusts that were available to provide support to prospective students. There were hundreds of such funds, some of them very specific. One of my university friends was given a significant amount of money each year from a variety of these funds, because of his surname and the small town where he was born. Most of these funds derived from bequests left over the years to various good causes.
Kirk Session records often contain records of these legacies – often described as mortifications – as they were often tied to specific locales, and the Kirk Session was the obvious group to administer them. Aberdeenshire and the North-East in general are particularly well represented in such legacies, at least in terms of records surviving in the Kirk Session collections. There are a number covering large parts of the region, and many more covering individual parishes. Some legacies were intended to benefit the poor of the parish in the form of poor relief, but in keeping with the traditional Scots respect for education, many were intended to fund education in one form or another.
The minutes of one such trust fund can be found among the Kirk Session records of Birse, in Aberdeenshire.  These minutes largely consist of details of payments made every six months to “the most indigent of the poor of the parish”, and are a handy source of information about some of the poorest people in this part of the north-east in the early 19th century. They even include a few payments to cover the cost of funerals of paupers, a useful source for genealogists given that the Old Parish Registers for Birse do not include any death or burial records.
As is often the case for records of legacies and mortifications, the minutes include a transcript of the original deed or will establishing the fund. In this case, although the minutes begin in 1800, the fund was actually established in the will of Doctor Gilbert Ramsay, written in 1728. Dr Ramsay was an Episcopalian minister, originally from Birse. In 1686, he had arrived in the Caribbean as minister of St Paul’s, in Antigua. 
By 1689, Dr Ramsay had moved to Barbados, where he became Rector of Christ Church. He remained at Christ Church for nearly forty years, before returning to the UK, “sojourning” in Bath, where he wrote his will. Presumably he was in Bath to partake of the waters, as in his will he writes that he is
sick and weak in body, but (thanks to God) of sound and perfect disposition, mind and memory
His first legacy is £4800 sterling to the “Corporation of New Aberdeen in North Britain, i.e. to the Provost, Bailiffs, Town Council, and governing members of the same city for the time being”, which is to be used to purchase land “as near to the City of New Aberdeen as can conveniently be purchased”. The proceeds from these lands are to be divided among various good causes. The “yearly Rent, Interest or Income” of £1000 is to be paid as a salary
to a Pious, Learned, and well qualified Professor of Hebrew, Arabic and Oriental Languages, in the Marischall College of the said city of New Aberdeen, for the advancement of true learning, to the glory of God and the good of his Church.
The second provision is that the proceeds from £2000 (of the £4800 left to the city of Aberdeen) should be used to provide a yearly pension to
four hopeful, deserving young scholars, Masters of Arts, students of Divinity, which four students of Divinity conscionably elected I order shall be placed in said Marischal College of New Aberdeen to pursue diligently their Theological Studies there, for the Service of the Church … for the term of three years and no longer.
The third provision of Ramsay’s will is a continuation of a Deed initially granted by him in Barbados in 1714, to provide for “four hopeful young men called Bursars, for ever to be educated in the knowledge of the Greek Tongue and Philosophy in the said Marischall College in New Aberdeen, during the space of four years and no longer.” This was to be funded from the proceeds of £800 of the legacy left to the Corporation.
Ramsay did not forget his home parish. The “yearly rent, interest or income of five hundred pounds sterling” was to fund a salary to a
pious, provident and experienced Schoolmaster well qualified to instruct the youth in the Parish of Birse … the place of my nativity … in the Principles of Religion, to read and write English, and to understand both Greek and Latin
Before employing a schoolmaster, the proceeds were to be used to fund “building a schoolhouse in the most convenient place of the said Parish of Birse”.
The remaining £500 of the legacy was to be given “to the order of the Reverend Ministers and Elders of the said Parish of Birse … to be forever by them conscionably and impartially distributed yearly among the poor of the said parish of Birse” on the first Monday of January and July each year.
Patronage of the foundation was granted to Gilbert’s cousin, Sir Alexander Ramsay, Baronet and Laird of Balmain in Kincardineshire.
Various other smaller legacies are given to “the poor Episcopal Clergy of Scotland”, to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, the Scots Corporation in London, Balliol College, Oxford, and to various family and friends. Another £500 is left to Christ Church, Barbados to educate the poor youth of the parish.
Reading all of this, you cannot help but wonder how an Episcopalian minister born in 17th century Aberdeenshire could have accumulated what was, for the time, a substantial sum of money. One clue is given in another provision of his will
and my will is that all my slaves except my negroe man Robert here now attending me, be immediately sold after my death by my executor after named to such persons as will use them well tho’ at a cheaper rate than to others and to my said negroe man I give him his freedom from the day of my decease, and I will that he shall be taken care of and sent to Barbadoes at my charge, as soon as may be after my death and that the executors of this my will do pay him five pounds of that country money on his arrival at Barbadoes and likewise order, and appoint that all the money arising by such sale of my negroes shall be applied with the rest of my estate to pay off my legacies.
Gilbert had evidently benefited significantly from the proceeds of slavery in Barbados. And his legacy continued to have knock-on benefits for a very long time. The Minute book of the Birse trust only cover the period 1800-1838, but the National Records of Scotland hold files on the Birse Mortification dating from 1886  and 1889  over 160 years after the bequest was made. Even that is not the end of the story: another record held by the NRS shows that it was not until 1961 that the trust fund was wound up.
For over 230 years, the people of Aberdeenshire benefited from an endowment established on the basis of profits from slavery. A number of prominent scholars are today attempting to unravel the ramifications of the proceeds of slavery on Scottish society. You have to wonder how many – if any - of the beneficiaries of this foundation were aware of where the money came from to fund their education.
Kirk Sessions weren't only concerned with the behaviour of their parishioners. Sometimes they were concerned about other worldly matters, such as the content of schoolbooks.
Stonehouse Free Church, 6 December 1869
William Collins actually responded:
Stonehouse Free Church, 7th March 1870
Note to self: Check out "The Advanced Reader. Lessons in Literature and Science etc" published by Collins in 1867 next time I'm in the National Library of Scotland ...
Scotland has a long and proud education tradition. This is often traced back to the Scottish Reformation, which espoused the principle of universal education, with the call for a school in every parish. In practice this didn’t necessarily happen, but at the time it was a fairly radical idea.
But the roots of Scottish education reach back much further than 1560. Several schools still in existence today can trace their origins to the twelfth century (Dunfermline High School, High School of Glasgow, Royal High School Edinburgh, Stirling High School and Lanark Grammar School). Higher education also has a long history in Scotland. Before 1410, Scots had to leave Scotland to obtain a higher education. The most common destinations were England (Oxford and Cambridge), France (Paris and Orleans), and Italy (Bologna), although doubtless some Scots studied elsewhere. An excellent source for these early Scottish students is Donald Watt’s A Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Graduates to AD 1410 (Oxford, 1977).
By 1410, the division of the Catholic Church with two rival Popes made it essential to found a seat of higher learning in Scotland itself. A group of masters, mostly graduates from the University of Paris, set about founding an institution in St Andrews, in Fife. Henry Wardlaw, Bishop of St Andrews, granted the school a charter in May 1411. At the time, only the Pope or the Emperor could grant university status, so Bishop Wardlaw wrote to Pope Benedict XIII seeking confirmation. On 28 August 1413, Benedict granted university status to what was now the University of St Andrews in the Bull of Foundation.
St Andrews was to remain the only university in Scotland until Pope Nicholas V granted a papal bull to Bishop William Turnbull (a St Andrews graduate), authorising him to establish the University of Glasgow. In February 1495, Pope Alexander VI granted a bull to William Elphinstone, Bishop of Aberdeen and a Glasgow graduate, establishing King’s College in Aberdeen.
The last of the four ancient universities of Scotland to be founded, the University of Edinburgh, had a different start in life. Unusually for the time, it was established as a civic institution, by Royal Charter of James VI, in 1582 as the Tounis College. They were to remain the only universities in Scotland for hundreds of years.
These days, when around half of school-leavers go on to higher education, it’s easy to forget that for most of their history, universities were for a very few only. My own alma mater, the University of St Andrews, has doubled in size in the 25 years since I graduated. So it’s likely that few of your ancestors would have gone to university. If they did, however, there are records to be found, although they may not provide much information.
One very useful source for identifying people who studied at St Andrews is James Maitland Anderson’s The Matriculation Roll of the University of St Andrews 1747-1897 (Edinburgh, 1905). This has been digitised by the Internet Archive and can be found here. The information included is very limited, but it can offer some confirmation that your ancestor studied at the finest university in the world. (That last sentence may contain some personal bias …) For students before 1747, there is Robert N Smart’s Alphabetical Register of the Students, Graduates and Officials of the University of St Andrews 1579-1747 (St Andrews, 2012), although this is not available online.
The University of Glasgow has an excellent site dedicated to the history of the University. As well as background information, it includes a database of nearly 20,000 graduates to 1915. Many of these entries contain additional information about the lives and careers of Glasgow graduates. This is an ongoing project and is regularly updated by the University Archive Services, who welcome any contributions of photographs and information about individual graduates.
The University of Edinburgh Library and University Collections maintains a database of Alumni. As the site itself acknowledges, it is far from complete. The Special Collections department holds the University archive which includes many other records of university life. There are also some printed registers of graduates which can also help track ancestral students. Several of them are available in digitised versions online:
Alphabetical List of Graduates of the University of Edinburgh from 1859 to 1888
A Catalogue of the Graduates in the Faculties of Arts, Divinity, and Law, Of the University of Edinburgh, Since Its Foundation (Edinburgh, 1858)
There are also a number of graduate rolls for the University of Aberdeen:
Officers and Graduates of University and King's College, Aberdeen, 1495-1860 edited by Peter John Anderson (Aberdeen, 1893).
Roll of the Graduates of the University of Aberdeen, 1860-1900 edited by William Johnston (Aberdeen, 1906)
Roll of Graduates of the University of Aberdeen : 1901-1925 : with supplement 1860-1900 by Theodore Watt (Aberdeen, 1935) [We are unaware of any online version of this]
Roll of Graduates of the University of Aberdeen : 1926-1955 ; with supplement 1860-1925 compiled by John Mackintosh (Aberdeen, 1960) [We are unaware of any online version of this]
The individual universities may have additional information on some of their graduates, and it is always worth contacting their alumnus relations departments or libraries/archives to check, although you should always bear in mind that sometimes they may be unable to search their records due to a lack of resources, and that often the records themselves may contain limited information about your ancestors.
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.
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.