H is for Heads of families
On 31 May 1834, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, meeting in Edinburgh, enacted the Overtures and Interim Acts on the Calling of Ministers. This was the latest instalment in a long-running dispute within the Church about who should appoint the minister when a parish fell vacant. The right of patronage – the right of patrons, usually nobles or major landowners, to appoint ministers – had been controversial since the Reformation. An Act of the Scottish Parliament in 1690 vested patronage in the heritors and elders of each parish. They were given the right to propose a candidate, with the whole congregation then given the right to accept or reject the proposal.
In 1711, the British Parliament passed the Church Patronage (Scotland) Act, which restored the rights of the original patrons. The Church was strongly opposed to this, and made an annual protest to Parliament every year until 1784. Two factions emerged, the Moderates, who reluctantly accepted the Patronage Act, and the Evangelicals, who opposed it in principle.
In 1730, the General Assembly passed an Act removing the right of objectors to have their objections officially recorded. The Evangelicals viewed this as an attempt to silence them. Two years later, the General Assembly granted the right of patronage to heritors and elders where a patron failed to nominate a candidate within six months. Some in the Church – notably Ebenezer Erskine – wanted this right to be transferred to the Heads of Families within a congregation. But the fact that objections could no longer even be recorded led to a schism in the Church, known as the Original Secession.
A hundred years later, in 1834, the General Assembly passed the Overtures and Interim Acts on the Calling of Ministers, more commonly known as the Veto Act. The Veto Act was a victory for the Evangelical party, preventing a patron from presenting a minister if a majority of the heads of households objected to the candidate.
This led to a series of court actions by patrons, and eventually led to the Veto Act being declared ultra vires in the House of Lords. For many this was the final straw, and the main consequence of the annulment of the Veto Act was the Great Disruption of 1843, with about 40% of ministers walking out of the Church of Scotland, founding the Free Church of Scotland and leaving the Church of Scotland as a minority church.
Aside from the consequences for genealogy research of the Disruption itself – less than half of Scots were now members of the Church of Scotland, so researchers often have to look elsewhere than the Old Parish Registers to find their ancestors – the Veto Act is also relevant for family historians. The Act required all parishes to draw up rolls of "male heads of families, being members of the congregation, and in full communion with the Church" within two months, and to insert these rolls into the Kirk Session records.
While not all of these rolls of heads of families survive, hundreds of them do, and they provide a very useful record of inhabitants all over Scotland in the years before the first nominal census of 1841. We have transcribed them (more than 150,000 names), and made them available on our website free of charge. The table below gives a complete list of them, with links to the individual parishes.
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