Reay, Caithness, Scotland Genealogy

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Scotland Gotoarrow.png Caithness-shire Gotoarrow.png Reay

Parish # 40

This is a guide to the history and major genealogical records of Scotland as they pertain to the parish of Reay. To learn more about how to use these records to search for your ancestors, go to the Scotland: Research Strategies.


REAY, a parish, partly in the county of Sutherland, but chiefly in that of Caithness, 9½ miles (W. S. W.) from Thurso; containing the fishing-villages of Melvich and Portskerray. This place, of which the history is involved in great obscurity, is supposed to have derived its name, originally Urray, from a Pictish chieftain who anciently occupied a castle here. The parish is bounded on the north by the North Sea. The church, erected in 1739, is a plain substantial structure in the village, and has 650 sittings. A missionary, who officiates every third Sunday at Dispolly, in the district of Halladale. A church at Shurery has been partly endowed in connexion with the Established Church. The members of the Free Church have a place of worship.[1]

There are various conjectures respecting the etymology of the name of this parish. It is supposed to be a corruption of Mein-Reidk, or Miora, two Gaelic terms signifying smooth and plain. But the most probable derivation is that Reay is a corruption from Urray, the name of a Pictish hero, who inhabited the castle, called Knock-Urray. The greater part of this parish lies in the county of Caithness, and a part, Strathalladale, is in the county of Sutherland. It is bounded on the east and south-east, by the parishes of Thurso and Halkirk, in Caithness; and on the west and south-west, by the parishes of Farr and Kildonan in Sutherland.

The nearest market-town is Thurso, which is eleven miles distance, and the only village is New Reay.

Tradition relates that, at the time when the Danes overran these northern parts, a son of a Danish prince, named Alluva, was slain, and interred at a place in Strathalladale, called after his name Dalallova, and that another Danish prince, named Farquhar, was interred at Brubster, in a place to this day denominated Clashna Farquhar.

The Rev. David Mackay, was the minister of the parish upwards of half a century. Amid the varied trials he was called to bear during a life of eighty-four, and a ministry of more than fifty-one years, the word of God was his support. Perhaps the most remarkable feature in his character was the interest he took in young men of talent, and unwearied efforts he made to bring them forward from humble life, to stations of usefulness and respectability.

The land-owners of this parish are; Sir John Gordon Sinclair of Murkle, Bart., the Duke of Sutherland; Major Innes of Sandside; James Sinclair of Forss; and Captain Macdonald of Shebster.

The population of the parish in 1801 was 2406 souls, and by the year of 1831 when the census was taken, it had increased to 2881.

The Cheviot breed of sheep are the most common since the introduction of sheep-farming. The breed of cattle is the black Highland. Prior to the introduction of sheep-farming, improvements in agriculture were daily increasing, and still a considerable extent of new land is cultivated from the moor or hill, by Major Innes of Sandside and Captain Macdonald of Shebster.

For several years there has been a herring-fishery established here, at Portskerray, Sandside bay, and Lybster.

The parish church was built in 1789, is in good repair, and conveniently situated for the greater part of the population. It affords accommodation for 650 sitters. All the sittings are free, except in one gallery, built out of the poor’s fund, and rented in behalf of the poor of the parish. There are no Dissenting nor Seceding chapels, nor and Dissenters. Divine service on the Lord’s day is well attended.

The earliest entry in the parochial registers is dated 1745; but the registers were not regularly kept until the year 1783.

This account was written July 1840.

Source:  New Statistical Account of Scotland for Reay, FHL book 941 B4sa, series 2, vol. 15.


The New Statistical Account of Scotland (pub. 1834-45) offers uniquely rich and detailed parish reports for the whole of Scotland, covering a vast range of topics including history, agriculture, education, trades, religion and social customs. The reports, written by the parish ministers, are available online at  Click on ‘Browse scanned pages’ then search the parish reports for Reay. Also available at the Family History Library.

Census Records

A census is a count and description of the population, taken by the government, arranged by locality and by household. Read more about census records.

Here is a list of the Family History Library microfilm numbers for the census records of Reay, as well as the library numbers for any surname indexes available:

FHL Film Number
Surname Indexes
1041494, 1042001
6086538 ( 2 fiches )

The 1901 census of Scotland is indexed To use it, you must register and pay a small access fee. All available censuses, 1841-1901, are indexed on this website. It may be easier for you to pay to use the website rather than access the separate indexes

Church Records

The Established Church of Scotland was Presbyterian. Read more about church records.

Here are the pre-1855 records that exist for this parish.

Established Church—Old Parochial Registers

Record Type
Years Covered
FHL Film Number
1732-1770, 1783-1855
1745-1768, 1784-1854


Condition of Original Registers—

Index: For an index to these records, see Scotland’s People website, a pay-for-view website. The Scottish Church Records Index is also still available at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.  The records may be indexed in the
Births: Prior to 1745 there are only ten entries and there is only one entry from September 1700-April 1783. There is a duplicate of the record for 1783-1791.
Marriages: No entries exist for December 1763-February 1768 and December 1768-January 1784. There is a duplicate record for 1784-1791.
Source: Key to the Parochial Registers of Scotland, by V. Ben Bloxham, pub. 1970. British Book 941 K23b.

Established Church—Kirk Session Records

The Kirk session was the court of the parish. The session was made up of he minister and the land owners and business men of the parish, chosen to serve on the session. The Kirk session dealt with moral issues, minor criminal cases, matters of the poor and education, matters of discipline, and the general concerns of the parish. Kirk session records may also mention births, marriages, and deaths.

Here is a list of the surviving Kirk session records for this parish:

Minutes (mostly of poor fund) 1835-1866
Poor Roll 1835-1845
Poor Fund 1845-1847
Accounts 1845-1868
Collections 1844-1872
Note: Available at the National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh, record CH2/698.

Nonconformist Church Records

A nonconformist church is any church that is not the Established church. Read more about nonconformity in Scotland in the article on the Scotland Church Records Union Lists.

Reay Free Church

The minister of Reay and a large congregation left the Established Church in 1843. The population decreased thereafter.
Membership: 1855, 665 including adherents; 1900, 88.
Source: Annals of the Free Church of Scotland, 1843-1900, ed. Rev. William Ewing, D.D., 2 vols. pub. 1914. Film #918572. More details are given in the source.

The extent of records is unknown. No pre-1855 records may exist.

Civil Registration Records

Government or civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths (also called statutory records) began on January 1, 1855 in Scotland. Each parish has a registrar's office and large cities have several. The records are created by the registrars and copies are sent to the General Register Office in Edinburgh. Annual indexes are then created for the records for the whole country.

See the article on Scotland Civil Registration for more information and to access the records.

Probate Records

Reay was under the probate jurisdiction of the Commissary Court of Caithness until 1823, and since then has been under the Sheriff's Court of Wick. Probate records for 1513- 1901 are indexed online at You must register on the website but use of the index to probate records, called 'Wills & Testaments,' is free. You may then purchase a copy of the document or, if the document is before 1823, it will be on microfilm at the Family History Library. To find the microfilm numbers, search in the library catalog  for the 'Place-names' of Caithness and the subject of 'Probate records.' Then click on the link to the records of the Commissariat of Caithness.

The library also has some post-1823 probate records for Caithness. Look in the library catalog for the 'Place-names' of Caithness and the subjects of 'Probate Records' and 'Probate Records - Indexes.'


  1. Lewis, Samuel A., A Topographical Dictionary of Scotland (1846), pp. 499-514. Adapted. Date accessed: 7 August 2014.

Return to Caithness parish list.