Canisbay, Caithness, Scotland Genealogy

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Parish # 35

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


It is difficult to say just where the origin of the name of this parish comes from. Some have supposed it to be a corruption of “Canute’s bay.” Others have supposed it to be from the plant Canna, which seems to have been at one time very abundant. This appears to be more probable, because in all the older parochial registers the name is spelt Cannasbay. It forms the north-east corner of Scotland; and is bounded on the east, by the German Ocean; on the north, by the Pentland Firth; on the west, by the parish of Dunnet; and on the south, by the parishes of Bower and Wick. The island of Stroma, situated in the Pentland Firth, and about a league distant from the mainland, belongs to the parish. The word Stroma is supposed to be of Danish or Norwegian origin, and signifies the island in the current.

There is no market-town in the parish. Wick is the market-town of the east end of the parish, and is sixteen and one half miles distant from the church, and ten miles from the nearest boundary; and Thurso, of the west end of the parish, being eighteen miles from the church and twelve miles from the nearest boundary.

The Rev. John Morison, D.D., has been the Minister of this parish for eighteen years. He was the author of several of the paraphrases approved by a Committee of the General Assembly, and appended the Version of the Psalms used in the Church of Scotland. By testimony of all who knew him, Dr. Morison was an accomplished scholar, and an eloquent preacher. He was a native of Aberdeenshire, and died on the 12th of June 1798, at the age of 49.

The proprietors of the parish are, the Right Honorable the Earl of Caithness; William James John Alexander Sinclair of Freswick, at present a minor, patron of the parish; and George Sutherland Sinclair, Esq. of Brabster, who is the only permanently residing heritor.

The population of the parish in 1755 was numbered as 1481 persons, and in 1836 the count was 2409.

There are only two farms in the parish, with the exception of what the heritors themselves cultivate. The principle dependence of the people is upon fishing, and with very few exceptions, all the men fish for themselves and their families.

The time that the church was built is not known, but about 1832-33 it received substantial repair. Previously, the inhabitants had seats of their own, which they claimed as private property, but since the new seating in 1833, the heritors have divided the sittings according to their respective valued rents, and let them annually, a system considered by the people not only an innovation but an imposition.

The church was built in the form of a cross; it is as conveniently situated as it can possibly be, being six and one half miles from the one extremity of the parish, and five and a half from the other. Giving the customary allowance to each sitter, the church would let for 512 sitters, but will accommodate more. There are no free sittings. There are no government churches in the parish; but to the Government church at Keiss, in the parish of Wick, there is annexed contiguous district of this parish of 160 individuals. There is no Dissenting place of worship in the parish, unless the few Scotch Baptists who meet at the west end of the parish could be considered as such.

The registers commence in 1651, and were regularly kept till the Restoration. From that time down to 1706, there are no records of any kind whatever. The only other gap occurs a few years prior to 1747, and from this date down to the present time, the registers have been regularly kept; all the births and marriages are registered; the deaths are not.

This account was written October 1840.

Source: New Statistical Account of Scotland for Canisbay, Family History Library 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 Canisbay. 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 Canisbay, as well as the library numbers for any surname indexes available:

Family Histiry Library Film Number
Surname Indexes
6086538 ( 2 fiches )

The 1901 census of Scotland is indexed on 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 through the library.

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 Family History Library Film Number
Births: 1652-1666, 1707-1722,1747-1861 0990520
Marriages: 1652-1666, 1706-1721, 1747-1854 0990520
Deaths: No entries none


Condition of Original Registers—

Index: For an index to these records, see the Scottish Church Records Index available on computers at the Family History Library and family history centers.  The records may be indexed in the
Births: There are only two entries for 1661 and none for 1662. They are mixed with marriages and other matters from 1663 to 1866. No entries exist for April 1716-August 1717, August 1719-July 1720, and March 1722-September 1747. Neglected entries for 1841-1854 are found at the end of those for 1854. Entries for the Geddes, Houston, Munro, and Sutherland families for 1847–1862 are inserted in 1880. A register of neglected birth entries, with only one entry for 1833, but register in 1861 is found at the end of the marriages.
Marriages: Marriage entries are mixed with baptisms and other matters from 1663-1666. No entries exist between November 1721-October 1747, and between 1779-November 1780 except for one entry for July 1780. There are duplicate entries of marriages for 1814-1819. A new columnar format starts December 1814.
Source: Key to the Parochial Registers of Scotland, by V. Ben Bloxham, pub. 1970. British Book 941 K23b and an inspection of the record on microfilm.

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 1652-1661, 1706-1738, 1747-1855
Accounts 1832-1864
Note: Available at the Scottish National Archives, Edinburgh, record CH2/52.

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 List

The Statistical Account of Scotland for Caithness 1840, states that there were no Dissenting families in the parish, and only 24 Baptists and 6 Independents who, along with their families, made about 80 nonconformists total at that time.

Canisbay Free Church

The minister of the parish did not leave the Established Church in 1843; however, services were provided for adherents of the Free Church. Although the charge was sanctioned in August 1843, no minister was settled until 1851. The congregation, composed mainly of crofters and fishermen, decreased because of emigration.
Membership: 1855, 520 (including adherents); 1900, 162.
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.

Baptismal Register 1843-1949
Note: Available at the National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh, record CH3/894.

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

Canisby 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 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.'

Read more about Scotland Probate Records.

Return to Caithness parish list.