In preparation for the sacrament, the Kirk Session would distribute communion tokens to would-be communicants. Without these tokens, parishioners were unable to take part in communion. Sometimes records were kept of the distribution of these tokens, but more commonly records were kept of attendance at communion itself. These records are generally referred to as Communion Rolls.
Within the Church of Scotland, when people moved and sought to join the parish in their new place of residence, they generally had to produce a certificate (sometimes referred to as a testificate) from their home parish, confirming that they were communicants. To qualify for such certification, they had to have attended communion at least once in the previous three years.
At their simplest, communion rolls are just lists of parishioners who attended communion. The earliest surviving rolls are merely lists of names. The oldest we have found is from St Madoes in Perthshire and covers the period 1596 to 1611. We have not found many surviving Church of Scotland communion rolls before the nineteenth century (5 in the 17th century, 7 more before 1750 and only 25 before 1800).
They really start to become more common – and more useful – around the middle of the nineteenth century. We have identified around 3000 nineteenth-century communion rolls from the Church of Scotland. By the mid-1800s they were sufficiently widespread that two separate church stationers were producing printed forms to simplify the job of clerks in recording communicants.
There were several ways for an individual to be admitted to communion. They could be admitted as Young Communicants (sometimes referred to as Catechumens). This involved someone, usually the Minister or sometimes an Elder, testing their knowledge of scripture and religious doctrine, often after a series of lessons. The term Young Communicant may in some cases be somewhat misleading – in most cases, Young Communicants would be around 18 to 21, but we have found a few instances of individuals significantly older being admitted for the first time. Indeed some clerks recorded this form of admission as “First Time” or “By Examination”.
The other main form of admission is by certificate. On moving to a new parish, church members would present certificates from their previous parish indicating that they were in communion with the church and not subject to scandal for misbehaviour. Some communion rolls only record the fact that an individual was certified, but others record the date and – more usefully – the parish that issued the certificate. This can help identify where an individual came from.
Disjunction information can also be very useful. Sometimes clerks would simply record that an individual “Left” or was “Certified”. In some cases, the fact that an individual died was also recorded – in many cases the date or year of death is given. Disjunction information becomes much more useful when the clerk records the place the parishioner moved to. Usually it’s just a parish, but sometimes a full address is given, and other times the clerk will record that the individual emigrated. This can be very useful as sometimes it can be the only confirmation of the identity of a Scottish emigrant to for instance the United States.
The completeness of information varies from parish to parish – and over time within the same parish. Even so, communion rolls can prove very useful in tracking individuals.
An example is James Wilson, a farm servant. He was recorded with his wife Catherine Methven at Lochton in Abernyte, Perthshire. The communion roll notes that he had been admitted by certificate from Kilspindie in 1881. They were then certificated to Kinnaird in 1882, where they were found living at Kinnaird in the communion roll. They were then again certificated to Longforgan in 1883. The Longforgan communion roll describes James as a ploughman at The Mains and shows that the family were certificated onwards to Perth in 1885.
If you look at census records for this couple, they were at Nether Durdie in Kilspindie in 1881 with 9 children. The second youngest, Jemima, aged 2, was born at Longforgan and the youngest, David, just a month old, was born at Kilspindie. By 1891, James was a farmer at Old Gallows Road in Perth (where he’d moved in 1885). Any attempt to track this couple relying solely on census and birth records would have missed their short stay in Kinnaird. Without the communion roll, this sojourn would have likely been unidentifiable.
We are working on a project to extract and publish information from Communion Rolls. We have so far transcribed around 50 rolls from Perthshire. You can see an example of the sort of information contained in the communion roll for Kinclaven 1880-1894. (Note that this particular communion roll is held privately, and is not recorded in any archive catalogue.) You can also browse the communion rolls that we have transcribed so far here.