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Kirk/Church Sessions (Scotland)

Nature of Source

Records from the Kirk Sessions, the lowest local court of the church. After the reformation of 1560 and the formal break with Rome and Roman Catholicism, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland formed congregations with each having a Kirk Session. The records detailed in the minute books dealt with many areas of everyday life including church non-attendance, sexual matters, bastardy and illegitimacy. They also record payments paid out to individuals and income from individuals. As the Kirk Session, together with the heritors (local landowners), ran the parish expect to find records relating to poor relief, the local school, hospital and alms houses. Therefore expect to find illegitimate births and payments to the poor amongst the papers. In the case of illegitimacy, the records can reveal the name of the child’s father following an exhaustive investigation by the kirk authorities as well as a subsequent baptism and marriage.

It might be possible to find the mention of an event such as a baptism, marriage proclamation or burial amongst the records. For example, an irregular or clandestine marriage that does not appear in the official Old Parish Register might be recorded in the kirk minutes. The minutes might record information regarding a couples proclamation with additional details about the 'cautioners' who were usually male relatives who acted as sponsors for the marriage paying a security to ensure the forthcoming marriage met the correct conditions. The minutes might also note details of the hire of the mortcloth which was used to cover the coffin prior to burial and might be the only reference to a person’s death.

In 1845 parochial boards took over responsibility for the poor rate which ended the Kirk Session's influence in local matters. Elected parish councils were introduced in 1894 and in 1929 the Kirk Sessions were finally abolished with the introduction of county, district and town councils. Most of these Session records reside in county record offices.

The minutes of the parochial boards, established in 1845, should be consulted especially in rural areas where they met with the Kirk Session and heritors if a poor rate was imposed. Parochial boards were replaced by elected parish councils and the Local Government Board for Scotland in 1894 and parish councils went with the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1929. County, district and town councils assumed the responsibilities for local government.

Also look for the minutes of the heritors who sometimes held their own meetings. Heritors were bound by law to make financial contributions to the running of the parish for such items as the maintenance of the church, poor relief, the salary of the Dominie (schoolmaster) and the stipend of the minister plus the upkeep of the manse. The heritors held considerable power within the administrative structure of the parish especially as they were likely to be Elders of the Kirk or hold other official positions. After the 1845 Poor Law Act, the influence of the heritors experienced a gradual decline.

Church Court Records Online is a project coordinated by the National Records of Scotland  (NRS) to make digital copies of the records deposited in the NRS and other Scottish archives of kirk sessions, presbyteries, synods and the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. In addition to the access at the NRS of the digital copies, the service is available at a number of local archives across Scotland (see for coverage).

Other Scotland Resources
Census Returns
Clan & Tartan Records
County & Local Histories
Court Records
Directories, Trade, Professional, Telephone & Street
Electoral Registers or Burgess Rolls
Emigration Records
Hearth Tax
Heraldic Coats of Arms & Seals
Land Tax Assessments & Returns
Maps & Gazetteers
Militia Lists
Monumental/Memorial Inscriptions
Newspapers, magazines & journals
Old Parish Registers-Baptisms (OPRs)
Old Parish Registers-Burials (OPRs)
Old Parish Registers-Marriages & Proclamations (OPRs)
Passenger Lists
Pedigrees and Family Histories
Poor Law Records
Registers of Deeds (Books of Council and Session)
Retours of Services of Heirs
Sasines, Registers of
Statistical Accounts of Scotland
Statutory Registration-Birth
Statutory Registration-Death
Statutory Registration-Marriage
Surname Origins and Distribution
Valuation Rolls & Stent Rolls
Wills/Testaments and Inheritance

Where Found

ScotlandsPeople Centre (The ScotlandsPeople Centre is the official government resource for family history research. Holdings include Church of Scotland's kirk sessions, presbyteries, synods and General Assembly; Heritors' records; Pre-Reformation Church records; Protestant church records. The centre along with a number of regional archives have made available digital images of church court records consisting of the minutes and accounts of kirk sessions, presbyteries, synods and the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. ScotlandsPeople Centre is a partnership between the National Records of Scotland and the Court of the Lord Lyon. The National Records of Scotland was created on 1 April 2011 by the amalgamation of the National Archives of Scotland and General Register Office for Scotland)

To find the whereabouts of Kirk session material held at the National Records of Scotland (NRS) or other repositories, search the online catalogue. First type in the place name in the 'Search for' box and then type the series code 'CH2' in the 'Reference' box. The search results will display a number of references. For a full breakdown of the available material for each reference, conduct a new search using one of the reference numbers. Some Kirk session material, not just records from the NRS, has been digitised and is available in the search rooms on the 'Virtual Volumes' system. The search results page on the NRS catalogue will provide details of the whereabouts of the records and whether they are available in a digital format as part of the 'Virtual Volumes' collection.

Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Archives (Access to Kirk session records for the whole of Scotland. Following a collaborative project between the National Archives of Scotland and the Church of Scotland, digital images of Kirk session records can now be viewed online)
Local Council Archives

Period Covered

1590 - Onwards

Genealogical Value

Names, addresses, occupations

Further References

Kirk Specific  
Baptie, Diane (comp). Parish Registers in the Kirk Session Minutes of the Church of Scotland: The Scottish Association of Family History Societies, 2001
Edgar, Andrew. Old Church Life in Scotland; Lectures on Kirk-Session and Presbytery Records: Alexander Gardner, 1886 Buy Now on Amazon
Mitchell, Alexander. Inverness Kirk Session Records 1661-1880: Carruthers, 1902 (Available to read online or download at the Internet Archive) Buy Now on Amazon
Stuart, John. Selections from the Records of the Kirk Session, Presbytery, and Synod of Aberdeen: Spalding Club, 1846 Buy Now on Amazon
Todd, Margo. The Perth Kirk Session Books, 1577-1590: Scottish History Society, 2012 Buy Now on Amazon
Family History Guides  
Adolph, Anthony. Tracing Your Scottish Family History: Collins, 2008 Buy Now on Amazon
Bigwood, Rosemary: The Scottish Family Tree Detective: Tracing Your Ancestors in Scotland: Manchester University Press, 2007  Buy Now on Amazon
Clarke, T. Tracing Your Scottish Ancestors: The Official Guide: Birlinn, 2012  Buy Now on Amazon
Cory, Kathleen B. Tracing Your Scottish Ancestry: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2009 Buy Now on Amazon
Durie, Bruce. Scottish Genealogy: The History Press, 2012  Buy Now on Amazon
Durie, Bruce. Documents for Genealogy & Local History: The History Press, 2013 Buy Now on Amazon
Hamilton-Edwards, Gerald. In Search of Scottish Ancestry: Phillimore, 1983  Buy Now on Amazon
Holton, Graham & Winch, Jack. Discover Your Scottish Ancestry: Internet and Traditional Resources: Edinburgh University Press, 2009 (Preview available from Google Books)
 Buy Now on Amazon
James, Alwyn. Scottish Roots: From Gravestone to Website: The Step-By-Step Guide to Tracing Your Scottish Ancestors: Luath Press, 2005 Buy Now on Amazon
Maxwell, Ian. Tracing your Scottish Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians: Pen & Sword, 2009  
Paton, Chris. Researching Scottish Family History: The Family History Partnership, 2010  Buy Now on Amazon
Stewart, Alan. My Ancestor was Scottish: Society of Genealogists, 2012  Buy Now on Amazon
Tovey, Helen. My Scottish Ancestry: Lomond Books, 2011  Buy Now on Amazon
Concise Scots Dictionary: Edinburgh University Press, 1999 (Preview available from Google Books) Buy Now on Amazon
Lynch, Michael. Oxford Companion to Scottish History: OUP Oxford, 2011 Buy Now on Amazon
Moffat, Alistair & Wilson, James. The Scots: A Genetic Journey: Birlinn, 2011 Buy Now on Amazon
Richards, Eric. The Highland Clearances: Birlinn, 2013 Buy Now on Amazon
Scots Dictionary: Collins, 2014 Buy Now on Amazon
Timperley, Loretta R, (ed). A Directory of Land Ownership in Scotland c 1770: Scottish Record Society, 1976 Buy Now on Amazon
Torrance, Richard D. Scottish Trades, Professions, Vital Documents & Directories: Scottish Association of Family History Societies, 1998 Buy Now on Amazon

Websites (National Records of Scotland: Research Guides: Church Records) (National Records of Scotland: Research Guides: Church Court Records Online) (The GENES Blog: Kirk History: Introduction and background to the history of the Kirk and the many turmoils it went through from 1560-1854) (ScotlandsPeople Guide: Parishes and districts) (Church of Scotland History) (Church of Scotland Historical Records) (Christians Together: Presbyterianism - Scottish style: Brief History of the Presbyterian Christian Church in Scotland) (Scotland's churches after 1700) (The Dictionary of the Scots Language: Electronic editions of the Older Scottish Tongue [DOST] and the Scottish National Dictionary [SND]) (Scottish Language Dictionaries: The nation's resource for the Scots language) (Translate from Scots to English)

Online Databases (Dumfries Kirk Session and Presbytery Minutes 1689-1838; Troqueer Kirk Session Minutes 1698-1771; Mouswald Kirk Session 1640 to 1659) (National Library of Scotland: Scottish History Society publications: The Register of the Kirk Session of St Andrews, part i, 1559-1582 (ed.) D.H. Fleming, 1889; The Register of the Kirk Session of St Andrews, part ii, 1583-1600 (ed.), D.H. Fleming, 1890. Download or read online) (Scottish Covenanters 1679-1688. These records document the names of those who were labelled as rebels or covenanters by the English government. They signed the National Covenant to defend their Presbyterian faith against the intrusion of the government. The transcripts were created by sources found at The National Archives and the National Library of Scotland) (FamilySearch: Scotland Presbyterian & Protestant Church Records, 1736-1990. Records of Free, United Presbyterian, United Free and other Protestant Churches in Scotland originally filmed at the National Archives of Scotland, CH3 series) (BBC Guide to religions: Unitarianism) (The General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches) (Unitarian History) (Unitarians in the UK & Ireland) (Unitarian Historical Society. Resources include a location list of the records and archives of most Unitarian congregations in Great Britain and an Index and Synopsis of Obituaries of Unitarian Ministers) (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Unitarianism) (History of Unitarianism) (Unitarian theology and history)
(The Chapels Society: The Society seeks to foster public interest in the architectural and historical importance of all nonconformist places of worship including churches, chapels and meeting houses throughout the United Kingdom) (The Genealogist Research Guide: Non-Conformist & Non-Parochial Records)
(West Yorkshire Archive Service: Collections Guide 2 Nonconformist Registers)
Victoria County History (Description and location of chapels and meeting houses county by county with some volumes online at British History Online. The Victoria County History series of county histories is an ongoing project recording county by county England's places and people from earliest times to the present day) (North Devon Record Office Information Leaflet: Nonconformist Records) (Devon Heritage Centre Information Leaflet Non-Conformist Records) (Links to missionary collections) (The Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies) (The Dissenting Academies Project: The site has historical information and a timeline on the dissenting academies and Protestant dissent in the British Isles with as well as an Encyclopedia and Virtual Library System) (Researching the history of chapels) (Guide to the Non-Parochial Registers) (Whereabouts of Berkshire nonconformist registers and other records) (Nonconformist Records guide from the Society of Genealogists) (Online store selling nonconformist records from a variety of suppliers) (London Metropolitan Archives Information Leaflet No. 3: Records of nonconformists in London) (London Metropolitan Archives Information Leaflet Number 60: Non-Anglican register transcripts held in London Metropolitan Archives) (Sources for Scottish Church history in the National Archives of Scotland) (Christians Together: Presbyterianism - Scottish style: Brief History of the Presbyterian Christian Church in Scotland)
(Church of Scotland and some other churches: Brief History) (TravelScotland: The Great Disruption of 1843) (Scottish History Online: The Scottish Roots of the Episcopal Church)