If you have ever heard of the Scottish Kirk Session records, then you may have first been drawn to them due to their research potential for finding out about the fathers of illegitimate babies born in the 19th century or earlier. However, there is much more to the Kirk Session records than this...
First, however, a little bit of background about what they are and where they can be found. Kirk Session minutes (recordings of the proceedings of the Session) can be found for a large number of parishes across Scotland for both the established Church of Scotland as well as dissenting Presbyterian churches (there are also records of other non-Presbyterian churches, but these really deserve a whole blog post of their own).
The Kirk Session comprised the minister and elders of the parish, and it was concerned with (in addition to the business of the parish) the morals of the parishioners. This is the reason that Kirk Session records are so useful for finding out more about the parentage of illegitimate children - the Session would often interrogate any unwed mothers and put strong pressure on them to name the father of their baby. Sometimes the couple would have to do penance for their sin of 'fornication' and other times you will find the whole circumstances of the case detailed over a number of pages of the Kirk Session records.
So how would you find out more about an illegitimate child? Firstly, you need to know the relevant parish in which to look - often this is the parish where the mother usually resided, although you may find that the case moves to another parish once proceedings have started: if the session found that another parish was really responsible for the case, then the proceedings would sometimes move to that parish. But, what you want to do is find out where the baby may have been born and/or where the mother usually lived.
Next you need to locate the relevant parish records. Although many Kirk Session records are held locally, there are digital images of the majority of the pre-1901 minutes at the National Records of Scotland (formerly National Archives of Scotland) in Edinburgh. This means that you can view most of the early records for the established churches (and some of the dissenting churches) in Edinburgh for no charge (all you need is a reader's ticket - check the NRS website for details).
As yet (March 2012) there is no widely available remote access to these, although some local archives also have access to digital images of these records (check with your local archive for details). Once you have physically located the relevant minutes for the parish in question, then it is simply a case of identifying the correct volume which covers the dates in question and then searching through that volume for 'your' entry. Not all illegitimate children appear in these records, but they are worth consulting if you have had no luck elsewhere.
|St Cuthberts Church, Edinburgh, from the flickr collection of the National Galleries of Scotland|
(click here to link to their photostream)
The Kirk Session Minutes have much more to offer than simply telling you 'who's the daddy'!
In just a few examples, I can give a brief idea of the wealth of historical information that can be found in the Kirk Session records. Most parishes have Minute Books where many discipline cases were recorded - this is not just illegitimacy cases, but drunkeness, breaching the sabbath, disputes between neighbours, even accusations of witchcraft! If your ancestors lived in any parish for a length of time it is almost always worth browsing the minutes to see if your ancestors appear.
But, the specific example of the catalogue entries for the Kirk Session of Forgue [NRS ref. CH2/459] gives a flavour of the other types of information that you might find in the Kirk Session records:
Forgue Kirk Session records have Minutes dating from the 1630s, but they also contain:
Poor Fund Records from the 1700s and 1800s;
List of communicants from the 1830s and 1840s;
A census of the lands in the parish from the 1830s.
There are also many items of interest in many other collections of Kirk Session records. The records of Glencorse Kirk Session [NRS ref. CH2/181] include:
Mortcloth records (relating to burials) from the early 1700s;
Testimonials or 'testificats'(a type of 'character reference' given when a person moved parish) dating from the late 1600s;
Communion rolls from the 1830s.
All of these may be of immense interest to those with family from these parishes - as any genealogist will know, information from the period before the mid-19th century is always to be treasured!
So, if you have a day to spare and are looking to expand your knowledge of your ancestors, then you could do far worse than to spend some time looking into the Kirk Session records of the parishes in which they lived.