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Scotland Church Records
Church records are an excellent source for accurate information on names, dates, and places of birth, marriage, and death. Most people in Scotland before the mid-nineteenth century are listed in church records. Since civil authorities did not begin registering vital statistics until 1855, church records are the best source of family information before that date.
Understanding Church Organization
- The General Assembly is the highest organizational body and serves as the final ecclesiastical court of appeals.
- A Synod is made up of several presbyteries and serves as the court of appeals for those presbyteries.
- A Presbytery is made up of several parishes and serves as the court of appeals for those parishes.
- A parish is the lowest governing body.
- A chapelry or chapel of ease is a small church which serves a distant part of a parish.
Each local parish (parochin) keeps records. The two major record types are parochial or parish registers and kirk session records. See details below under Old Parochial Registers (OPR), or go to Scotland Established (Presbyterian) Church Records.
The National Archives of Scotland maintains these records under the following references: CH1, CH2, CH3. A more detailed description of each of these record types is available online at the University of Glasgow (Archive Services).
It may be necessary to know the parish where your ancestor was born, married, or died so you can search parish registers. If you do not know the parish but know the name of a village or town, you may use a gazetteer to locate the parish. For more information, read the article Scotland Gazetteers. Gazetteers may provide:
- Descriptions of parishes can be found at Genuki.org.uk.
- Maps showing parish boundaries to help determine which parish records to search
- Lists of neighboring parishes can be found at Genuki.org.uk.
Churches which are not part of the Church of Scotland are often referred to as nonconformist although this word's correct use does not have valid application in a country with no state church and properly applies only in England where the Church of Scotland is a non-conformist church. There were two categories of so-called nonconformist churches in Scotland:
- Seceders -- Those who seceded from the main church but were still Presbyterian in form.
- Dissenters -- Those who were not Presbyterian in form, such as Baptist, Methodist, or Catholic.
Nonconformists had their own congregations and kept their own records. They could go to church whereever they wished and were not confined to parish boundaries. However, before 1834, nonconformist ministers were not authorized to perform marriages as clergyman; after 1834 they could perform marriages if the banns had first been read in the parish church. Total authority was granted in 1855.In the context of Scots Law as it applied until 1939 this only in practice affected the mode of marriage as until then any declaration of marriage in front of witnesses was valid although many might have failed to be recorded.
The National Archives of Scotland maintains these types of records under the following references: CH4-CH16. A detailed description of the record types is available online at the University of Glasgow (Archive Services).
For more background information on churches in Scotland, including a historical time-line, read the article Scotland Church History.
The following books contain maps that show parish boundaries:
- Civil Parishes and Counties of North East Scotland Showing Overall Dates of Old Parochial Records: Held in Edinburgh and Available Worldwide on Microfilm [Scotland]: Aberdeen and North East Scotland Family History Society[ 198-]. (Family History Library Map Case 941 E7c pt. 4)
- The Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers, 2nd ed. Chichester, England: Phillimore & Co. Ltd, 1995. (Family History Library Book 941 E7pa)
- Parish Maps of Scotland. Salt Lake City, Utah: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1991. (Family History Library Book 941 E7ch; Fiche 6036350)
- Phillips’ Handy Atlas of the Counties of Scotland 1881. London, England: G. Phillip, 1881. (Family History Library Book 941 E7p; Film 423175)
Parish outline maps are also available online at http://www.scotlandsfamily.com/parish-maps.htm.
1851 Census of Places of Worship
Popularly called the 1851 Religious Census, this is a resource for identifying what churches existed where in 1851. Read more...
The Union List of Church Records
The staff of the Family History Library has compiled a resource called the Scotland Church Records Union List which strives to identify all pre-1855 churches in Scotland and whether they have surviving records. It also contains brief parish and congregation histories. This information, arranged by county then parish, is available through the Wiki by searching for a county or parish of interest.
Old Parochial Registers (OPR)
The term old parochial registers refers to the parish records kept by the Presbyterian Church (Church of Scotland) from the time the church began keeping records up to the year 1855. The records include registers of births/baptisms, marriages/proclamations, and deaths/burials. The amount of information in registers varies from parish to parish. Later records generally give more complete information than earlier ones. For more information see Scotland Established (Presbyterian) Church Records.
Most parish registers begin after 1650. Some kirk session (parish court) records begin earlier than the parish registers. Kirk session records may have some christening, marriage, and burial records in them.
Some early parish registers may be in Latin. Scotland has its own version of English, so you may need to use a dictionary to understand some words and terms. Read more in Language and Languages.
For an interesting article on what is found in the registers, see:
- Whyte, Donald. "Old Parochial Registers of Scotland." Refers to people from various parts of Ireland - baptisms, marriages - that were held in various Scotland Old Parish Registers for the years 1691-1846. Article in The Irish Ancestor, vol.III, no.2,1971, pages 79-82. Family History Library book 941.5 B2i.
Indexes to the old parochial registers have been created and are available in various forms. See the following Wiki articles for more information:
Key Web Sites
ScotlandsPeople: A paid subscription site
National Archives of Scotland: Online catalogue show holdings viewed while physically there.
Part of the National Archives of Scotland: Digitized collections
Scottish Archive Network: Digitized Collections
National Archives of England: Link to catalogue
Records of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland: Scottish Catholic archive, The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Glasgow Archive and individaul parishes of the Roman Catholic Church. some Roman Catholic Registers are held at the National Archives of Scotland with the identifier of NAS REF: RH21.
Wiki articles describing online collections are found at:
- Scotland Births and Baptisms (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- Scotland Marriages (FamilySearch Historical Records)
Ancestry.co.uk, a paid subscription site, has some Scotland Parish Records available online. This site is available at the Family History Library and Regional Centers for free.