A tale from the Kirk Session

Carol McKinvenNovember 14, 2017
Image of Church of Scotland elders meeting in the Kirk Session

When researching Scottish family history, advice sometimes turns to using the Kirk Session records. Here we use a specific record from a Kirkcaldy Kirk Session to show how useful these records can be - and how sometimes they can give information not available in other ways.

The Kirk Session was the “council” of church elders and the minister, who administered the parish and maintained Church discipline. As a result they might look after payments to the poor, running the local school and other such parochial matters. It also acted as the lowest ‘court’ in the Presbyterian ecclesiastical system.

In addition, however, they also took great interest in their parishioners’ private lives, so a couple who had a child 4 months after marriage might find themselves before the Session charged with ‘ante nuptial fornication’ for example; or women who had children outside of marriage might have to name the father of the child; or one parishioner who slandered another parishioner might be called to account.

Image of old stool and metal helmetThis photograph, taken in Holy Trinity Church in St Andrews, shows a Stool of Repentence, used for the public penance and rebuke of those who had offended, in the eyes of the Kirk Session. The helmet-type object on the stool is a ‘branks’, or scold’s bridle, used to punish and humiliate those found to have committed slander - and mostly used for women.

How can the Kirk Session records help your family history research? Well, they can add more detail to your ancestors’ lives - firstly, there might be reference to them if they needed to apply for poor relief. Secondly, there can be a lot more information, if for some reason they had cause to be in contact with the Session in its ecclesiastical discipline mode. A misbehaving ancestor can be an advantage in this respect! 

One example I came across recently in the Kirkcaldy Kirk Session records helps to illustrate how rich this source can be.

In early December 1843 Thomas Mitchell, a gardener, and Jean Adamson, the daughter of John Adamson , a labourer in Donibristle, were married in Kirkcaldy. Two daughters were born, Janet in July 1844 and Mary in December 1845, although by the time of Mary’s baptism in August 1846, Thomas had died. 

Yet in the 1851 census, Jean was shown living at Hill Street, Kirkcaldy with two daughters, Mary aged 6 and Jean aged 1. The small family lived next door to Andrew Blackwood and his family, Andrew being a teacher who had also acted as a witness at Mary’s 1846 baptism. 

So where was Janet, Jean's eldest daughter? 
And where did baby Jean come from, if her mother's husband had died in 1846 (if that isn’t a daft question)?

For the first question, Janet - known as Jessie, a common ‘family’ version of Janet - was living with her Adamson grandparents in Dalgety in the 1851 census. 

The minutes of the Kirkcaldy Kirk Session hold the answer to the second question…

Kirkcaldy 12 Feby 1851

Compeared Jean Mitchell widow of Thomas Mitchell
Gardener and being interrogated Declared that since her
husband’s death about [space] years ago she had brought forth a
female Child on the tenth day of Decr 1849 and that the
Father of said child is Alexr Doctor a married man
he being a lodger in house, that he represented him-
self as being a Widower, and that he intended to marry
her, that she was ignorant at the time of his being mar-
ried, which she found out afterwards, that she can bring
forward evidence of his declaring his intention of doing so
to the neighbours who were intimate with both parties, for
which purpose she produced Andrew Blackwood & his
wife who lived on the same floor with the said Jean Mitchell
who declared that he always gave himself out as an
unmarried man, that the said Alexr Doctor had repeatedly
declared that he would make the said Jean Mitchell his
married wife and take her with him to Newcastle whither
he intended going in search of work, all which the said
Andrew Blackwood & his wife declared to be truth and
the Kirk Session taking all these circumstances into
consideration, are inclined to take a favourable opinion
of her case, agreed to take her upon discipline for re
moving the scandal, and appoint her to make appear
ance at a future diet of Session.

CH2/636/15 p. 223 Records of Kirkcaldy St. Bryce/Kirkcaldy Old Kirk Session

Jean was perhaps fortunate to have the Blackwoods as neighbours who were able to support her explanation. Andrew was dominie (school master) of the Old Kirk Wynd School in Kirkcaldy for forty years, and well respected in the community. 

Called back to the Kirk Session the following month, Jean ‘expressed her sorrow and contrition for her sin’ and was restored to full Church standing, including receiving permission to have her daughter baptised (although, in fact, there's no record of young Jean's baptism in Kirkcaldy). 

Jean remarried just over a year later, to William McIntosh, a printer, but once again was widowed early in the marriage, and herself died in 1857, still in Kirkcaldy, at the age of 37. Both Jessie and Mary subsequently emigrated to Australia.

As you can see, Kirk Session records can offer a wealth of information to family history research. There are two limitations to bear in mind. Firstly, the records only concern the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland. While this covered much of the Scottish population, at least until the Disruption in 1843 formed the Free Church, other denominations and religions such as the Episcopalians, Catholicism, Judaism, Quakers etc. are considerably less likely to appear.

The second limitation concerns access to the records. While many records have been digitised, access to the full range of images is at the moment limited to viewing in General Register House in Edinburgh, or in certain other archives in Scotland (see Church Court Records Online for more details ). These, however, aren’t indexed or searchable, so the researcher needs to have some idea of the right parish and time frame to search in, and endless patience to read through pages (and pages) of church minutes! The ScotlandsPeople website announced plans to add Kirk Session records to the site back in 2016, but other priorities have intervened and the plans haven’t yet come to fruition. Let’s hope that progress continues to be made on this.

Marriages (OPR) Scotland. Kirkcaldy, Fife. 1843. 442/00 0060 0150.
Marriages (OPR) Scotland. Kirkcaldy. 1852. 442/00 0060 0225.
Baptisms (OPR) Scotland. Kirkcaldy, Fife. 1844. 442/00 0050 0194.
Baptisms (OPR) Scotland. Kirkcaldy, Fife. 1846. 442/00 0050 0212.
Deaths (CR) Scotland. Kirkcaldy, Fife. 1857. 442/00 0193.
1851 census Scotland. Kirkcaldy, Fife. 442/00 013/00 018.
1851 census Scotland. Dalgety, Fife. 422/00 004/00 003.
Fife Free Press & Kirkcaldy Guardian. 11 December 1909. p. 4
Main image: The Ordination of Elders in a Scottish Kirk by John Henry Lorimer, 1891, via Wikimedia Commons. 

On This Day

13 Jul 1811: James “Paraffin” Young, chemist who patented a method to extract oil from cannel coal leading to the development of the Scottish shale oil industry in the 19th century, was born in Glasgow

Scottish Words

Ane: One (pronounced “ayn”)
But and Ben: Old rural cottage with two rooms, usually (living) room and kitchen
Apoplexy: A stroke (used as cause of death)


Thank you very, very much for the report. My husband is very impressed!

MG, Coventry