Genealogists rely on records to research their family history. Sometimes, however, the records don't tell the whole story. The old parish register (OPR) for Old Machar parish in Aberdeen, includes a marriage entry for William Watson and Janet Gibb on 4 August 1839. Anyone researching that record would likely assume that William and Janet were married. (Even though it is widely understood that many OPR marriage registers record the publication of banns rather than weddings per se.)
However, an entry in the Kirk Session minutes for Old Machar on 2 December 1839 (NRS reference:: CH2/1020/17) tells a different story:
Compeared Janet Gibb unmarried residing in Old Aberdeen, confessing that she had brought forth a child in uncleanness, eleven weeks ago, and accusing William Watson an unmarried man formerly gardener at Causewayend & now in Yorkshire as the father. She at the same time produced a certificate of having been thrice proclaimed in the Church of Old Machar in the month of August last in order to marriage, and stated that the same week in which they were to have been married, William Watson absconded. The elders stated that they were partly acquainted with this case and that they believed the statement now made by Janet Gibb, and that in fact the only doubt they entertained on the subject was whether in the eye of the Law, the man was not considered as her husband. The elders reported favourably in other respects of the woman and the Kirk Session resolved to restore her to Church privileges. She was accordingly admonished and dismissed from censure.
So worth bearing in mind: you should always understand the nature of the record you're researching to make sure you don't make unwarranted assumptions.
Kirk Session records can be a very fruitful source for family history, but they can also be immensely frustrating. As well as the usual bugbears regarding erratic survival of records, sometimes the session clerk was less than assiduous in his work. Handwriting problems can usually be overcome, but that's not the only problem. Some clerks were plainly not keen on doing a thorough job - perhaps understandably, given that they generally weren't paid well for their efforts.
Clearly, though, some clerks were more conscientious. The following instructions come from St Cuthbert's Kirk Session in Edinburgh, and although not specifically dated, the relevant volume covers 1696-1700.
The instructions make clear that there was concern not just for properly recording relevant events, the session were also thinking of people looking through the records in future. (Although granted I very much doubt they would have anticipated me reading their comments on a computer over 300 years later!). If only all session clerks were as considerate ...
We found a slightly surprising entry in the Kirk Session minutes for Rayne, in Aberdeenshire, in 1705
At Rain, May 10th 1705
Patrick Chalmers was no stranger to controversy. He had previously been deprived of the Ministry of Boyndie on 7 November 1689 by the Privy Council for refusing to read the Proclamation of the Estates. This proclamation was intended to consolidate the rule of the new King, William. Patrick Chalmers went further than most in refusing to pray for William and Mary. He was
reported for speaking against the government, describing parliament as a pack of devils and rebels for stating that all who support William should renounce the name of Protestant and assume that of rebel
The 17th and 18th centuries were a time of social and religious turmoil in Scotland, and Patrick Chalmers was evidently right in the thick of it. It's an interesting example of how records we often use for family history can also give insight into the events in wider society of the time.
1. Kirk Session minutes, Rayne [NRS Ref: CH2/310/3 page 3]
2. Scott, Hew. Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae, Volume VI Synods of Aberdeen and Moray. New edition, 1915, p. 279
3. Stephen, Jeffrey. Defending the Revolution: The Church of Scotland 1689–1716. London: 2013
At Carriden Church, Sabbath Aprile 9th 1710
So when coal miners die in accidents, who do you blame? The mine owners for not worrying unduly about their workers' safety? No, blame the people for their sinful ways.
Source: Carriden Kirk Session Minutes, CH2/61/2 p. 113.
We were doing a lookup for client in the Kirk Session minutes for Dalziel, Lanarkshire for a client today (fixed-price, before you ask, so the client didn't pay for our time) when we found the following incident, which we thought we'd share.
Dalziel, 9th July 1820
So a church officer (the precentor lead the singing in the Church of Scotland) beats up his wife (and possibly his children) but "there must have been some irregular behaviour on the part of his wife or family". And the wife is summoned before the Session to explain herself.
19th [July 1820]
Reading between the lines, perhaps Agnes had accused her husband of having an affair with a married woman. A couple of months later, John was up before the Session once again.
10th September 1820
So John showed his repentance by seemingly not beating up his wife again. What you might wonder had prompted him to seek absolution for his crime? The answer seems to appear just three days later:
13th [September 1820]
It seems likely that John had decided to move away from Motherwell, and he would need a certificate from Dalziel Kirk Session in order to become a church member in his new parish. Interestingly enough, there is no mention of his wife Agnes Watson also being granted a certificate. Five months later, though, we read the following:
26th [February 1821]
So it took seven months for Agnes Watson to be absolved from the scandal of being assaulted by her husband. Her assailant, however, was cleared from the scandal in just two months. Patriarchal double-standards are nothing new, clearly.
Source: Dalziel Church of Scotland Kirk Session Minutes [NRS Ref CH2/462/2, pages 19-21]
Three hundred years ago this week, there were recriminations in Anstruther following the Jacobite rebellion of the previous year.
July 17th 1716
Kirk Session records are a fantastic resource, not just for family history, but for Scottish history more generally. Along with the information more generally sought by genealogists - interrogations of unmarried mothers as to the paternity of their children (which we've written about here) - and the occasional panic about witchcraft and Sabbath breaking, they sometimes contain snippets of more general interest.
The following appears in the West Calder Kirk Session minutes on 1 September 1678 :
A communication from the Privy Council being read for a voluntary contribution for the relief of Robert Williamson skipper in Montross [Montrose] and the rest of his company captives with the Turks in Algiers, the Session ordains a collection to be made through the several houses of the Parish & intimation publickly to be made before the collection thereof.
This was a reference to what are known as the Barbary Pirates - privateers operating from North Africa, attacking European shipping and mounting coastal raids in the Mediterranean and further afield (Baltimore in County Cork had been raided in 1631, and even Iceland had been attacked in 1627). The purpose of the raids was to acquire captives, either to be sold as slaves or, for the lucky ones, to be ransomed. Presumably the Privy Council were hoping to pay a ransom for Robert Williamson and his crew.
England had sought relief from pirate attacks through a series of attacks and gunboat diplomacy in previous years. In 1675 Sir John Narborough, commanding a Royal Navy squadron, had negotiated a treaty with Tunis, and also - following a bombardment - with Tripoli, in modern-day Libya. The next year, peace followed with the Republic of Salé (opposite Rabat in Morocco). A peace deal had been negotiated with Algiers in 1671, but this was broken in 1677 and a large number of ships from Britain were captured by corsairs operating out of Algiers. Janeway  lists over 80 ships captured by Algiers corsairs in 1677-1679.
Evidently the men appointed to raise a collection for Robert Williamson were not particularly assiduous in carrying out their task, as seven weeks later we again read in the session minutes :
October 22 1678
We hear nothing more about the collection until finally, three months after the initial call to raise a collection, we read :
December 8 1678
Although it's not explicitly stated, it seems reasonable to assume the intention was to pay a ransom to recover Robert Williamson. Sadly, Janeway notes that it was not to be, recording that the ship (the Isabella) was lost, with all twelve crew having died. It's not clear what happened to the money raised, evidently not just in West Calder. It may well have been paid to the families of the unfortunate crew of the Isabella, but there is no mention of that in the West Calder records.
 By Workshop of Willem van de Velde the Younger - Christie's, LotFinder: entry 5080190, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18420790
 Kirk Session of West Calder, Minutes, September 1 1678, CH2/366/1, Records of Church of Scotland Synods, Presbyteries and Kirk Sessions, National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh
 A list of ships taken since July, 1677 from his Majesties subjects, by the corsairs of Algier. With their names, masters names, and places to which they belong'd, and time of taking : with a modest estimate of the loss. London: Printed for Richard Janeway, 1682.
 Kirk Session of West Calder, Minutes, October 22 1678, CH2/366/1, Records of Church of Scotland Synods, Presbyteries and Kirk Sessions, National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh
 Kirk Session of West Calder, Minutes, December 8 1678, CH2/366/1, Records of Church of Scotland Synods, Presbyteries and Kirk Sessions, National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh
So you're researching your ancestry, and you find your ancestor's birth record. You find that his mother wasn't married when he was born. What do you do?
When statutory registration was introduced in Scotland under the Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages (Scotland) Act 1854, particular rules were enacted for children whose parents were unmarried. Apart from the stigma of having the word "illegitimate" recorded, the other main rule relevant to family history research was about recording the father's name. Section 35 of the Act was clear:
XXXV. In the Case of an illegitimate Child it shall not be lawful for the Registrar to enter the Name of any Person as the Father of such Child, unless at the joint Request of the Mother and of the Person acknowledging himself to be the Father of such Child, and who shall in such Case sign the Register as Informant along with the Mother: Provided always, that when the Paternity of any illegitimate Child has been found by Decree of any competent Court, the Clerk of Court shall, within Ten Days after the Date of such Decree, send by Post to the Registrar. of the Parish in which the Father is or was last domiciled, or in which the Birth shall have been registered, Notice of the Import of such Decree in the Form of the Schedule (F.) to this Act annexed, or to the like Effect, under a Penalty not exceeding Forty Shillings in case of Failure; and on Receipt of such Notice the Registrar shall add to the Entry of the Birth of such Child in the Register the Name of the Father and the Word "Illegitimate," and shall make upon the Margin of the Register opposite to such Entry a Note of such Decree and of the Import thereof; and in like Manner in the event of any Child registered as illegitimate being subsequently found by Decree of any competent Court to be legitimate, the Clerk of Court shall notify such Decree to the Registrar, in the Form as nearly as may be of the said Schedule (F.), who shall forthwith make upon the Margin of the Register in which the Birth is entered, and opposite to such Entry, a Note of such Decree and of the Import thereof, under a Penalty not exceeding Forty Shillings in case of Failure.
So in general, the father's name could not be recorded unless the father agreed and attended the Registry Office to sign the register himself. The only exception was where paternity was fixed by a court order. This can prove frustrating for family historians who may feel that they have hit what is colloquially known as a brick wall.
Fortunately, though, these brick walls may not always be insurmountable. And the reason is - as much in life - all about money. Until 1845 - and in many parts of Scotland for some time thereafter - poor relief was at least partly the responsibility of local parishes (as we have previously written about). Of course, Kirk Sessions considered themselves the moral guardians of Scottish society, and were keen to root out what they considered immoral behaviour. But, rarely flush with money at the best of times, they were also always anxious to ensure that children did not become a burden on the parish. This was a major factor in their strong desire to identify fathers of illegitimate children.
Kirk Session minutes are full of mothers dragged before the session to name the fathers of their children. We were curious about how often it was possible to identify fathers not named in birth records. We decided to look at Fife in the first 20 years of statutory registration. The table below shows the results we've had so far
These figures are still provisional. Many fathers are identified in the records of parishes other than those where the child was born (a little over half of the total), so we expect the final figures to be considerably higher. (There are around 60 parishes in Fife: so far we've only looked at ten of them). Already though, significant variations are emerging, and we will continue to look at the remaining parishes over the next few weeks.
Upcoming family history talks and events in Scotland, 16 - 22 May 2016
Note that there may be a small charge for some of these events, and some may be for members only. We will be publishing lists of upcoming talks and events regularly - if you are organising a talk or event relating to Scottish genealogy or history, please let us know and we will be happy to add your events to our list.
Monday, May 16 2016
The Latest from the Guild of One Name Studies
Monday, May 16 2016, 7.30 pm - 9.30 pm
AGM cheese & wine
Venue: Alloa Town Hall (Tommy Downs Room)
Tuesday, May 17 2016, 7.30 pm
AGM — Speaker to be arranged
Venue: Leith Community Education Centre in the New Kirkgate
Wednesday, May 18 2016, 2 pm
History of Fishtown of Usan
Venue: Monifieth Community Cabin, South Union Street, DD5 4JG
Entry to talks followed by afternoon tea £4
Wednesday, May 18 2016, 7.30 pm
Erskine Hospital 1916 - 2016
Venue: Selkirk Parish Church Hall
Preceded by AGM
Wednesday, May 18 2016, 7.30 pm
Building the Forth Road Bridge: stories of a young engineer
Venue: Chalmers Hall, Linlithgow Bridge
Thursday, May 19 2016, 7 pm
Thursday, May 19 2016, 7.00 pm
Magnus Jackson – 19th Century Perth Photographer
Venue: Soutar Theatre, Perth
Preceded by AGM at 6:30 pm
Thursday, May 19 2016, 7.30 pm
Nick Lindsay (Clyne Heritage Society)
Venue: Brora Community Centre
Thursday, May 19 2016, 7.30 pm
Venue: Paisley Museum, High Street, Paisley
Saturday, May 21 2016, 2.00 pm
Scottish Kirk Session Minutes The Sins, Lives, Loves of a Parish
Venue: Manchester Central Library
As a genealogist I've long identified with Haley Joel Osment's famous line in the film The Sixth Sense: "I see dead people". To non-genealogists, family historians can sometimes seem obsessed with death. Death comes to us all, in the end, and ultimately much of genealogy involves not seeing but researching dead people. Friends and family have come to accept that I can't pass a graveyard without wanting to pop in for a quick - or not so quick - look around.
Of course, most of our ancestors are dead, and as genealogists we want to know when they met their end. In Scotland there has been a legal requirement since 1855 to register all deaths, and statutory registers of death are excellent sources for family historians. In most cases, they record the name of the deceased, their spouse(s) if any, their parents, the cause of death and so on. Before 1855, however, the records are less helpful.
There are gravestones, tangible reminders of the existence of our ancestors. Many graveyards have been recorded by enthusiasts and their inscriptions published (usually referred to as Monumental Inscriptions or MIs). More recently, the rise of digital photography has made collections of photographs of gravestones popular. But not everybody could afford a gravestone, and not all gravestones survive in a legible condition.
A few years ago, Scotland's People made available the burials recorded in the Old Parish Registers (OPRs). These are a great resource, but they are far from complete. There are some OPR burials for around two-thirds of Church of Scotland parishes, but in some cases there are very few burials recorded - there are only two for Fearn in Angus, and only nine for Galston in Ayr.
So if there is no gravestone, and no OPR burial, does that mean we can't find out when our ancestor died? Not necessarily. There is another type of record that can help: mortcloth accounts.
A mortcloth (from the Latin mors meaning death) was a ceremonial cloth draped over a coffin (or a corpse if the family could not afford a coffin) at a funeral. Most families didn't have their own mortcloths - not unreasonable when you consider that any one person only needs it once! - instead hiring them for the occasion. In burghs, the individual trades might have their own mortcloths which were lent to members for the occasion. But in most cases, mortcloths were available to hire from the Kirk Sessions.
In many cases, the Kirk Sessions owned more than one mortcloth - smaller ones for children, or more elaborate ones for a higher fee. (Even in death, not everyone was equal.) The money raised from renting out the mortcloth was generally used for poor relief, and as a result, the Sessions often kept good records of payments received. While they may not necessarily contain a great amount of detail, mortcloth accounts may be the only way to identify when an ancestor died. (See for instance Aberlady accounts 1826-1846, Forgandenny minutes 1783-1836 and Dalmeny Accounts 1736-1779.) They should however be treated with a degree of caution, as the date recorded for payment may be some time after the death and funeral.
We've extracted some entries from Dalmeny [NRS Reference CH2/86/8 p. 294-295] below.
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.