Scottish Genealogy

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Kirk Session Records: more than just illegitimate children...

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.

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.  

You never know what you might find...


  1. Great Post - that's a lot of useful info. I might even make the effort to get to Edinburgh and look at this stuff...

  2. Glad you enjoyed it - if you do get a chance to look into these records, then I hope they help.

  3. I live in the US and am researching my Scottish Ancestry... My 2nd Great Grandmother Janet Mitchell was born in Peterhead Aberdeenshire in 1835. Her birth record shows her as the NATURAL child of Robert Mitchel of Dens Peterhead & Isobel Shirras of Nether Kinmundy. She was baptised in the Parish of Longside. How would I access the Kirk Session minutes from here???

    Thanks Kindly,
    Lisa Reid Hansen

    1. They are not available online...yet. But there are plans to make access available online (it's at the 'testing' stage - keep an eye on for details).

      This means that at the moment the only way to get access from overseas is to ask someone here to have a look for you. There are minutes from Longside parish (Church of Scotland) available for 1835 under reference number CH2/699/7 - there might be a record relating to Janet here, or in her mother's or father's home parishes.

      It might be worth e-mailing the archives ( to see if someone there might be able to have a quick look (they cannot always help, sadly, as the staff are kept pretty busy there!) or alternatively, ask a professional researcher (see for lists of researchers) to go into the search room and look for you.

      The only other option really is to wait for the Kirk Sessions to appear online - but I haven't heard a precise date for this yet...

      Hope this helps :)

  4. Hi Kirsteen,
    I just came across your blog and was wondering if you knew/know who to contact to "interpret" the writing of a birth record extract. I found my great grandfather on and have analyzed the writing but I am unable to figure some of it out. Regards, Darcy Johnston Hurst

    1. Hi Darcy,
      I'd be happy to help if I can.
      Do send me an e-mail ( and I'll see what I can do.
      Best wishes