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.
I had a case of fornication and adultery associated with my family...what voluminous notes were involved! And as a result lots of references I'd never have found on my family. I just love kirk sessions...if only they were online.
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