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Posts Tagged ‘local history’

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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I’m a long-time member of the Guild of One-Name Studies (GOONS), which is a society for people who are researching specific surnames, all holders, rather than just their own family trees. My own GOONS surname is Cavers, which is one of my ancestral surnames.

The Guild holds a number of seminars and an annual conference, but these are typically in the south of England, so far too far away from me. So it was nice that the new regional rep for southern Scotland (I sneak into that, even though I think I live in the north!) Lorna Kinnaird was keen to hold regional meetings for us. On the downside those in the past have been in Glasgow or Edinburgh, which with my MS-like illness is too far for me to manage now. The long journey there would drain me, and I wouldn’t be in a fit state for the meeting, or the journey back. So I jumped at the chance to attend a rare northerly meeting, in Perth.

The meeting was held at the AK Bell Library in Perth, which I know well, having been to the archives there a lot during my part-time history PhD and also Research Assistant job for Dundee University’s history department. The meeting was to run from 10am until 4pm. I knew I couldn’t manage the whole thing, with my MS-like illness, and with the final timetable I would be there for the pre-lunch session only. But that worked out well.

Lorna gave a good opening introduction, which raised lots of interesting points, before Roger Moult took over, speaking about researching First World War Soldiers, in Britain in particular. This was very interesting. I’d done quite a lot of research into these myself, though generally relying on resources available online. It was useful to learn more details about the different types of records that survive, their strengths and weaknesses, and which can be accessed remotely, and which must be researched at The National Archives at Kew.

After a break for tea and coffee we were then given a tour, by Nicola Cowmeadow and Colin Proudfoot, of the library’s local studies collection. As I said earlier I know the archives section of this library well. I had not used the local studies section before though, so this was eye opening for me, and I must return in future to investigate more.

The final item before lunch was me talking, about my Cavers one-name study. This was a 20 minute talk, and seemed to be well received. I’ve been researching my one-name study for nearly 30 years, and wanted to talk about how it has evolved over time, and different techniques I use, as well as newer things, like moving into social networking and DNA tests. This was followed by a lively discussion about some of the issues that I had raised, such as legacy concerns, data preservation, whether to use a genealogy package or a spreadsheet or both, and the pros and cons of different DNA testing companies.

In the afternoon the group was to be given a tour of the archives, and have some personal research time there. I had to leave before that, but I am very glad that I was there for the time I was. I was particularly impressed by the engaged questioning manner of the group members, which meant that we had lively and informative discussions, both during talks and afterwards, and many useful ideas were shared. I do hope to get to a future regional meeting, and would definitely recommend that other GOONS members attend their regional meetings where these are available.

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