Why your Scottish ancestor might not be in the parish registers

Why your Scottish ancestor might not be in the parish registers

Before civil registration of births, marriages and deaths was introduced in Scotland in 1855, the only record of major life events for most people were the records of baptisms, marriages and burials kept by churches. The Church of Scotland also concerned itself with the moral behaviour of parishioners, the education of children, and the provision of relief to the poor. The keeping of parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials (known as the Old Parish Registers or OPRs) was required from the beginning of the protestant Church of Scotland, which was formed during theReformation of 1560 when Scotland, following on from England, broke from the Catholic Church of Rome. Not all parishes complied, however, so not all Scottish parishes have OPRs going back so far: many didn’t start keeping a proper Parish Register until the 1700s or in a few cases early 1800s.

Each parish had a Minister and a number of Elders who formed the Kirk Session. The Session Clerk was responsible for writing up both the Registers and the Kirk Session Minutes, which meant he had to be able to read and write, hence it was common for the session clerk to also be the schoolmaster.

There are many reasons, however, why it’s difficult to find specific ancestors in the OPRS, and difficult to prove an entry for someone of the same name is actually your ancestor.

Problems with lack of detail in the OPRs

As well as a degree of non-compliance with the need to keep a Parish Register, there was also little guidance given as to what information the registers should contain. The amount of detail therefore varied by Parish and by Session Clerk.

Often there is little more than names and dates, although baptism entries usually state the father’s name and often give the mother’s name too, including her maiden surname. In some parishes, the parents’ place of residence and occupation of the father is provided.

Marriages don’t give much more than names although they often say which parish the two people were from, but some OPRs say where the marriage took place and indicate whether the entry is for the reading of banns or the actual marriage. When a marriage was conducted by a Church of Scotland minister, banns had to be proclaimed on three successive Sundays immediately before the marriage. Although OPR marriage entries can sometimes just be a record of the registration of banns, they may also state “and were married on …”.

Deaths are not well recorded at all – in fact it’s burials that are recorded, not deaths, and where such records survive they are usually just a list of names, sometimes with an age given. In some parishes, however, a spouse or parent name is included, and sometimes there’s a description of where in the graveyard the body was buried. When a burial took place, the family of the deceased would rent the parish mortcloth. This was a heavily embroidered cloth used to cover the coffin at a funeral. Details of mortcloth rents received can sometimes be found in the Kirk Session Minutes rather than the Parish Register, but often only list the date and amount received and not the name of the deceased.

How much detail you can get from the OPRs about your ancestors therefore depends on how the records were kept in the parish in which they lived.

Problems with lack of survival of entries in the OPRs

A major stumbling block to tracking ancestors before 1855 is that not all the baptisms and marriages that took place actually made it into the OPRs. Many if not most baptisms and marriages didn’t take place in the Kirk itself but were conducted by the Minister at people’s homes, although sometimes the OPR will say “before the congregation” if a baptism was done as part of a kirk service. As the Session Clerk wasn’t sitting there with the Parish Register open as the event took place, the Minister would keep a note to give to the Session Clerk or simply relied on his memory. This, unfortunately, means that some events never made into the Register at all, and no doubt it also means that sometimes the information that did go in wasn’t correct.

The ScotlandsPeople web site shows an image of an entry from 1704 that won’t be at all helpful to the ancestors of whoever was baptised: it says “George Something lawful son to What-ye-call-him in Mains”. So forgetfulness and laziness need to be taken into account as Ministers and Session Clerks were only human!

Even when an entry did make it into the Register, not all OPRs have survived for all the years they were kept. There are lots of reasons for their loss: they were never handed over, someone stole them, they were destroyed by damp, fire or mice, or someone at some stage thought they weren’t important and would be better used to light a fire. Who knows. ScotlandsPeople web site contains a list of which Parish Registers for which years have survived. When you look through the list it’s clear that entries for deaths/burials have not survived in many parishes, which makes it questionable as to whether they existed in the first place, but there can also be gaps for births and marriages in some parishes, which means a Register has gone astray.

It’s always good to know where there is a gap in parishes in which you’re searching, so you don’t make the mistake of assuming the event must have taken place elsewhere and end up thinking someone is your ancestor just because there’s an entry in a nearby parish for the right name and time frame. I have a family living in Tarves, Aberdeenshire in the first half of the 1800s and unfortunately the OPR for that parish has marriages from 1736 to 1801 and then from 1850 to 1861, but they’ve gone missing for 1802-1849, which is when some of my ancestors’ marriages took place.

Some OPRs may also have pages missing or have some pages in such a poor state they’re now illegible. There’s no way of knowing whether your ancestor may have been mentioned on the pages that haven’t survived.

Problems with the event not happening in the first place

There are two main problems here: parents who didn’t have their children baptised and couples who had an “irregular” marriage.

Not everyone had all their children baptised. There was often a fee to be paid to have an event recorded, but by no means everyone was willing, or could afford, to pay. There was also no law that forced people to register events, so as it wasn’t compulsory there were bound to people who didn’t bother, or perhaps meant to but didn’t get round to it. Also, the registers were kept by the Church of Scotland so anyone of a different faith (known as non-conformists) might not have given their information to Session Clerks. From what I’ve read and from looking for records for my own ancestors, it also seems that non-baptism was more likely in rapidly growing urban areas and in families who moved from parish to parish rather then spent their whole lives in the same place. My Ayrshire coal mining ancestors moved regularly, and all too often they failed to get one or more of their children into the OPR.

Not all marriages were recorded due to “irregular marriage” being reasonably common in Scotland – although it was dying out during the 1800s it remained legal until the 1940s. An irregular marriage happened when a man and a woman lived together as man and wife “by habit and repute”. They could declare themselves married in front of witnesses without the benefit of church involvement, and such marriages were legally binding. Occasionally you can come across a marriage entry in an OPR which says “having been irregularly married on …”. This means it’s possible that there are marriages in the OPR that took place some time after the irregular marriage and after the birth of one or more children. It also means it’s possible to find baptisms for a couple’s children without being able to find their marriage.

Problems with reading the writing and the spelling of names

Handwriting and lettering styles have changed a great deal over time, making the earlier OPRs quite difficult to read. Earlier Scottish handwriting had its own cursive style and isn’t easy for us to work out what was written when we’re only used to contemporary handwriting. Transcribing the OPRs in order to create a digital index – which has been done by FamilySearch and ScotlandsPeople – can’t have been an easy job, and no doubt errors have been made.

In addition, up until around the mid 1800s there wasn’t uniform spelling of names as there is today, and most of the people being recorded wouldn’t have been able to read and write and therefore didn’t know how to spell their name. Session Clerks wrote a lot of names using the best phonetic approximation they could come up. Strachan proved challenging for many Ayrshire Session Clerks, hence the very many variations found in the OPRs. Surnames also changed spelling as time went on: my Hutcheon ancestors eventually turned into Hutchison, and my Symon ancestors became Simon. I’ve also learnt to search for Fraser using a wildcard, where I can, searching for Fra*er so I pick up both Fraser and Frazer.

Not every Session Clerk had good handwriting, and faded ink, ink blots and damage due to age and damp also add to the difficulties faced when reading and transcribing OPRs. So you need to be flexible about how the name might have been originally written and then how that might have been transcribed when you’re doing a search of indexes to OPRs. At FamilySearch you can only see a transcript. At ScotlandsPeople you’re using transcripts to search the index, but once you find something you think is the right entry you can then download an image of the actual OPR page.

Illegitimate children

Illegitimate children are often referred to as unlawful child, begat by fornication, bastard child or simply have their mother named with no father recorded. However, Kirk Sessions were keen to identify the father of illegitimate children so they could make him financially responsible and prevent illegitimate children becoming a burden on the parish. Where a subsequent marriage did not take place, the father was often fined by the Kirk Session.

If you have an illegitimate ancestor, and can get to Edinburgh, it’s worth looking in the Kirk Session Minutes to see whether the parents had been interrogated by the Session. If they were, the record of their appearance often includes a wealth of detail. ScotlandsPeople is working on digitising the Kirk Session Minutes and they’ll be available online at some point in the future.

Civil Registration began in Scotland in 1855

The Registrar General’s Office was established in Scotland in 1855, and from then on statutory registration of births, marriages and deaths took place. However, not everyone complied immediately so it’s possible to fail to find a registration that ought to be there, especially for the period not long after 1855.

With civil registration came the requirement that births, marriages and deaths had to be recorded using preprinted forms that asked for much more information than can be found in the OPRs. Scottish certificates also contain more information than English ones – birth and death certificates contain the mother’s maiden name, marriage certificates contain both mother’s names, and death certificates name the parents when the informant knew who they were. Do bear in mind, though, that it says on a certificate what the Registrar was told, so sometimes they’re not exactly accurate. Registrars also occasionally made mistakes.

But once you get to 1855 researching Scottish ancestors becomes a lot easier. In addition, all Scottish post 1855 birth, marriage and death certificates have been digitised and their images made available online at the Scottish government’s pay to use web site ScotlandsPeople. One day England might catch up!

9 responses to “Why your Scottish ancestor might not be in the parish registers

  1. Thanks Judy; that;s really helpful. 🙂

  2. Thanks Su – glad it’s of help.

    I have noticed, over the years I’ve been doing research, that some people attach the wrong people to their trees because they think their ancestors MUST be in the OPR and so pick whoever they find that makes the best fit. But all too often, the “right” person just isn’t there.

    On my Strachan line, I have a direct ancestor who managed to be the only offspring of their parents who failed to get a baptism recorded, and another where the baptisms of the first five children are missing. Fortunately, if they live long enough to be in the census and have a death certificate you can work it out that way, but for ancestors who die before 1855 it’s a problem. Which is why most of us fail to get back further than the late 1700s with any certainty.

  3. Judy: YOUR WORK IS EXCELLENT! However the situation on illegitimates (bastards) is more complex than you say, and believe. For example: In my ggrandfather’s case, George Thomson, a bastard, born June 9th, 1822 probably at Benwells (a croft) about 2 miles west of the village of Old Deer in Old Deer Parish at his grandmother’s (MRS. John Thomson). there was never any record that he was baptized. His mother would have been about fifteen and a half then.
    Three and a half years later she marries Andrew Gall,,a master carpenter. It did not hurt her chances much, in that pre-social security Scotland, as a sensible man might reasonably count on creating a family member(s) to care for him in old age.
    .George was raised at Quartale House just north of Stuartfield in such parish and in the 1841census he was living with his mother and stepfather and three half brothers.. Shortly afterwards he located to Logie Buchan Parish not far away.
    George married your distant relative, Elspet Milne, daughter of Margaret McWilliam Milne.. Margaret was was one of 14 children of William McWilliam and Jean (Jane) Rainie of Peterhead. William was also the grandfather of Nathaniel McWilliam(I believe Nate’s father was William Jr.) who emigrated to Postville, Iowa. Wade Buchan who recently had a Peterhead Genealogy web site is related to all McWilliams (however he lives In Melbourne ////aus, 1st generation there
    The senior William McWilliam was recruited by the Duchess of Gordon at an inn called Hardhaugh in Mortlach Parish (near\Dufftown, established In 1817) in 1778 to serve five years in the Northern Gordon Fencibles He and his brother, Robert, had to go, as their father rented their land from the Duke, who would be their leader of the Fencibles.
    There appears to be a pattern in larger populous parishes where(bastardy was 20 percent or higher) in prideful families to hide their daughter’s problem(these girls were not necessarily easy,, but extreme poverty forced them out to work at a very early age into situations as to which they mentally were not prepared to cope)
    I feel guilty but I do see the same (heuristic) pattern in the family of David Henderson, who was born at Old Deer and also was in the 1841 census, but no baptismal record; David became only one of two foreign born who ever became Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives. David was raised less than 10 miles away in Iowa from where Nathaniel McWilliam located. A U. of Aberdeen Prof and expert on Scottish family matters concedes that these situations probably happened, but statistical proof is necessarily absent..

    • Hello James, and thanks for reading my blog and posting your comment. Illegitimacy certainly was rife in that part of SCotland, but was also an ordinary event and certainly nothing to do with girls being “easy” (or any other moral opinions people these days may have). The book Illegitimacy, Sex and Society in North-Easy Scotland is an excellent read in the subject.

      I haven’t researched the McWilliams prior to the children of William McWilliam and Janet Sangster, as I am descended form Jamt Sangster and therefore not related to the earlier McWilliams. So it’s interesting to read what you have to say about them.


  4. Hi Judy, Thank you for this very interesting and helpful post. I have recently restarted researching my family tree after putting it to one side since 2005. I didn’t get very far then but the digitised records have now allowed me to get back to 1801. The line I’m tracing at the moment lived in Fife and, as you would probably have predicted, I’m stuck. I became convinced that records of births and baptisms must have been lost or maybe that my family hadn’t had their children baptised. A Google search brought me to your post. I’ll keep plodding on and try to discover more of my family history, keeping your information in mind. Thank you very much for taking the time to write it down. Avis

  5. Hello Judy, I’m writing to you from Hawaii–actually, the farthest of the inhabited islands of the Hawaiian Isles, Kaua`i. I am working on tracking a Fraser grandfather who left Scotland at the beginning of the 20th century and went out to India to complete medical training begun in Scotland and become head of a hospital and a gentleman farmer, never to return. He had been orphaned, so goes the family information, and raised by a maiden aunt.
    I found your discourse on “irregular marriages” very interesting, because there’s a question about whether or not this grandfather was perhaps the illegitimate son of a Lord of the area. Also, your mention of searching with a wild card, such as the asterisk you show in Fra*er that brings up either Fraser or Frazer, may prove valuable to us.
    Thank you! MAHALO, Dawn

  6. Laurie Hanes-Lypps

    Hi Judy, Boy, do I know about poor record keeping! Here in Canada the early records beginning with Loyalist migration and throughout most of the 19th century is filled with semi-literate, hard to read bmd’s and census records. I am constantly correcting or adding alternate info on ancestry.
    My problem concerns ancestors in the Dumfries and Galway region of Scotland. It doesn’t seem to be an area of migrant families in the 18th c., but more of a farming region. Did families still “parish hop”, for example one child baptized in one parish and one baptized in another parish? The physical area of one parish to the next in the lower region of Dumfries county are sometimes less than 4.5 square miles in area. Also the families multiplied plentifully. One name I am researching is Rae, and the other is Johnstone. I also read that the surname Johnstone is the highest population density in this county than anywhere else in Scotland. My Rae ancestors used the Scottish naming pattern, but with so many offspring throughout the generations, there are many with the same name. Two and a half miles seems like nothing today, but what would the population density be like in that area of Scotland during the 17th c. in a rural community? I am sure that my ancestors had no property nor were they land owners. That was the reason they came to Canada. Thanks, Laurie

  7. Judy….I also have Scottish Hutcheon and Hutchison ancestors! Please contact me so we can compare notes! Thanks, Rich

  8. Never mind, Judy…read all your very concise info on your Hutcheons…mine are from New Deer/Monquhitter and while there may be some connection way way back don’t see anything that jumps right out at me…although my connection begins with an Alexander Hutcheon as well but just a coincidence! Take care!

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