The Church of Scotland is a Presbyterian church. Although the term Presbyterian is now often associated with a stern, austere form of Christianity, strictly speaking the term refers to the Church's hierarchical organisational structure. The supreme body of the Church of Scotland is the General Assembly, which meets annually in Edinburgh. The next level down from the General Assembly are the Synods, which are organised on a territorial basis. Synods are further subdivided into Presbyteries (whence the word Presbyterian). Finally, presbyteries are in turn divided into parishes. The parish is the basic unit of church governance.
Each parish had its own governing body, known as the Kirk Session. Each Kirk Session was convened by a Moderator, who in practice was the parish minister. The Session also had a Session Clerk who, in addition to his (until relatively recently, all members of the Kirk Sessions were men) duties as minute taker and record keeper, also had a significant role as an intermediary between the minister and the congregation. Parish schoolmasters often served as Session Clerks to supplement their meagre teaching incomes. The other members of the Kirk Session were the elders, generally chosen by the congregation. Elders were ordained for life, or until they resigned their position (usually through ill health, but occasionally elders were effectively forced out by scandal).
Perhaps the best way to understand the role of Kirk Sessions is to consider them as a combination of court and management body. In some parishes – particularly larger urban parishes – the administrative functions of the Session were hived off to a separate management committee, responsible for such matters as maintaining the church buildings, secular business and the like. Before 1845, and to some extent afterwards, Kirk Sessions were also responsible for provision of support to local paupers – often including members of other denominations – and Kirk Session records contain a great deal of information about payments to poor people. These records can be particularly informative where a dispute arose as to which parish was responsible for supporting paupers. Parishes would often make interim payments to poor people, and then claim the money back from the responsible parish. We will consider Sessions' role in poor relief in a future post.
But perhaps the most useful role of the Kirk Session was its quasi-judicial role. Kirk Sessions were notoriously inquisitive about what were considered sexual improprieties – particularly children born outwith marriage – and records of their interrogations of unmarried mothers are among the most interesting and useful of the Kirk Session records (see for instance here, here and here). Even if your ancestors were not cited to compear before the Session for sexual misdemeanours, they may have been cited as witnesses, or for other “scandals”, such as Sabbath breaking and irregular marriage.
Other records produced by the Kirk Session include Communion Rolls (see here for an example from Kinclaven), accounts (which can include payments for mortcloth hire, which can serve as a substitute where no burial or death registers survive), testificates (the system used when parishioners moved from one parish to another, certifying that they were members of the Church), registers of marriages and baptisms (which continued after the introduction of civil registration of births and marriages in 1855, and as we have seen, can sometimes contain important information not included in the statutory registers), as well as many other records.
Kirk Session records are a fantastic resource for genealogists and family historians. Unfortunately, unlike birth, marriage and death records, they have for the most part not been indexed, and are therefore much harder to access, particularly if you don’t live in Scotland. That is why we have started offering a lookup service, to make them accessible to Scottish genealogists around the world. To see which records we are currently able to lookup, browse our parish pages starting here. If we haven’t yet listed the available records for your parish, let us know and we will be glad to do so.
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.