Posts Tagged ‘kirk session records’

A recent piece of great news for Scottish family historians and also academic historians was the launch online of Scottish kirk session records. Kirk sessions oversee a local parish and its congregation, including in the past in particular disciplinary matters, and also poor relief payments. As a result the kirk session minutes and accounts are a goldmine for historians.

I’ve used these records on and off for 40 years. Some are included in the parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials, where the kirk session minutes were mixed up with these. But most kirk session records are held separately. For a long time they were in Edinburgh, in the National Records of Scotland (or Scottish Record Office as I long knew it). But increasingly now the manuscript original records are being transferred, where possible, to local archives.

Some years ago the kirk session records were largely digitised, and made available on computer to visitors to the National Records of Scotland, or visitors to a number of satellite archives around Scotland. But this still did not open the records in a widespread way to researchers who could not visit in person. Instead the model was still essentially based around going to Edinburgh.

Now, thankfully, that has changed, with earlier (pre-1870 ish) kirk session records now largely viewable online at ScotlandsPeople.gov.uk. The digitised images can be viewed for free, but are not indexed by name. There is a charge (2 ScotlandsPeople credits = 50p) to download and save a page image to keep. Though often this would not be necessary, especially when browsing.

The user interface is a somewhat mixed bag. Even getting to the kirk session material can be a slight challenge, finding it in the ScotlandsPeople website alongside all the other records – most of which are indexed and searchable by name. Once in the right section there are various search options for the kirk session material, to find the right record set. Though again these are somewhat problematic, e.g. searching for place “Hawick” doesn’t find Wilton parish (the northerly part of Hawick town) which is named in the system as “Wilton (Hawick).

At the moment the biggest downside with the system is that not all available kirk session records from the target period are online yet. More are being uploaded over time, but at the moment you often search, and find no records, or very incomplete ones. Note however that there is also the issue of patchy survival of kirk session material full stop, so often the manuscript originals are lost.

On plus when you do find a parish with records the documents can be extremely rewarding, though this does vary by place. For example for Melrose parish, which I have researched extensively in the 17th and 18th centuries, there is kirk session material online going back to 1642.

Opening a page to view it will vary in what it shows. Often you are presented with two manuscript pages side by side. Luckily there is a zoom function, though it took me a while to find it! It is a little clunky to use, zooming you in greatly initially, then often you will need to zoom out a bit and pan around sideways to find the part you need. Only then can you start properly reading the bit you want.

Of course the real joy is in the content in the records. Genealogists can uncover ancestors’ irregular marriages and get clues re illegitimate births, with mothers typically called in for questioning, and often the father’s name revealed. You may also strike gold re an ancestor getting entangled in another kind of disciplinary dispute with the censorious session members.

For academics the records have immense potential. For anyone undertaking an academic study of a given area any kirk session records from the same place and time are well worth a look. More generally the records give a powerful insight into social conditions, and are a rich source of information on topics such as migration, welfare and poverty, weather, family structures, social values and morals, and the impact locally of wider events.

I can’t write this without commenting on the issue of accessibility. For nearly two decades I have been too ill from my progressive neurological disease to travel to the archives in Edinburgh, or to spend time in local archives. The early digitised version of the kirk session records were effectively cut off from me and anyone else who couldn’t travel to access them. This new online access is transformative, and for me personally will open up multiple avenues of academic research, as well as family history research. So thank you, NRS/SP, not least for making these free to view! I just hope the range and depth of records will continue to grow.

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