Researching your Scottish family history pre-1855


26 January 2023
A photograph of parties from Invercreran House and Barcaldine House picnicking in the Argyll countryside, c.1860s. Crown copyright, NRS, GD1/1208/1/80 
National Records of Scotland Archivist Veronica Schreuder looks at sources on the ScotlandsPeople website which can help you discover your Scottish roots in the years preceding Statutory Registration.

Tracing your family history is daunting, exciting, addictive and frustrating.

Starting with the knowledge of your parents’ or grandparents’ names, marriage date or dates of birth and armed with credits from the ScotlandsPeople website, you eagerly type in their details, using the Statutory Registers to work your way back through the 1900s and into the 1800s.

Perhaps you have researched valuation rolls (1855-1940), and census returns (1841-1921) to follow your ancestors amongst the ‘brightly lit’ and carefully governed records of Victorian Scotland. But then details begin to get fuzzy and dead ends loom ahead as you exhaust the statutory records and arrive at the threshold of 1855. 

1855 is an important year in Scottish Family History – on 1 January it became compulsory for everyone in Scotland to register every major life event (birth, death or marriage) with the local registrar. Prior to this date, the onus fell to the local parish church to oversee these records, with the parish minister or session clerk often taking responsibility for noting names, dates and other details. These volumes are known today as Old Parish Registers, or OPRs. Left to personal preference as to what to document and the amount of information recorded, the quality of these registers vary from parish to parish.

In the Dunning OPR, in 1764, for example, it is noted: 'Any person that wants a child's name in any of the three preceding pages may scarcely expect to find it in the proper place. They being wrote by Mr King, late schoolmaster depute here without any regularity or order.' And, in different handwriting and ink: 'The above ill-natured ungentlemanlike observation was written by Mr James Whyte and stands as one mark of his own distinguished Idiotism.' (Dunning, 1764; OPR 350/1, page 119)

Whilst the earliest surviving OPR is a baptism dating from Errol, Perthshire, in 1553, many parish records do not begin until the 19th century as many were lost or destroyed over the centuries. 

Detail from the first page of the oldest surviving OPR. Christine Hay is the first entry; her baptism was recorded on 27 December 1553.

NRS, OPR 351/1 

Despite some of these limitations, the OPRs are still a useful and worthwhile record set to explore. It may be the case, however, that they do not have the information you need. So, what other records could you consult to help locate your Scottish ancestors?

The Census

In the early 1800s, enumerators were asked to provide statistical returns for the 1801 to 1831 censuses. In doing so, some kept lists of householders along with other details – notably occupations. Most of the surviving pre-1841 census entries are found in the kirk session records with a few in the OPRs. A list of those known to contain census information can be found in the census records guide on the NRS website, which also includes a guidance about pre-1841 census records held by local archives in Scotland and published transcriptions of pre-1841 census and population records.  

The census, as we think of it today, has taken place every 10 years from 1841 with the exception of 1941 (due to the Second World War) and 1921 (which coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic). Two of these, 1841 and 1851, may be helpful to you for finding family pre-1855.  The 1841 census is the earliest to provide details for the whole population. Whilst it provides fewer details than later censuses, you will still find the name and occupation of each person (but not their relation to the head of the household), the ages of each person rounded down to the nearest five years for anyone over 15, and limited information about their place of birth. 

The 1851 census provides information about the street or road and number of the house, name of each person in the house, their relationship to the head of the family, their marital status, age, sex, rank, profession or occupation, birthplace (town and county) and whether they were blind or deaf and dumb. Although exact ages are recorded, these should be treated with caution as some people were unsure of their birth date. Find out more information in the census returns guide on the ScotlandsPeople website. 

Example of a page from the 1851 census

Crown copyright, NRS, 1851 census, 319/4 page 25

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Kirk sessions

Scotland was a Catholic country until 1560 when the Scottish Reformation established the Presbyterian Church as the state church. A new system was introduced to run church affairs, education and poor relief after this date overseen by a hierarchy of church courts from the General Assembly at the head, descending through the synods, presbyteries, and kirk sessions. Find out more in the church court records guide on the ScotlandsPeople website.

A kirk session is the lowest court in the Church of Scotland, comprising the minister and elders of an individual parish or congregation. In undertaking their business, these courts—and in particular the elder appointed to the office of session clerk—produced records documenting their meetings, decisions and transactions. 

These records are very useful for family and local history research as they contain details of key events in communities across the country, usually in the form of evidence in church court cases. In this period, cases could involve paternity of children and irregular marriages. Functions later taken over by local government, including school education and poor relief, registering births, death and marriages and disciplining parishioners for what would now be termed anti-social behaviour, were also managed by the church. They also record accounts of exceptional events such as outbreaks of epidemics, crop failures and extreme weather. 

For family historians, these records are often the first step away from sources (such as registers of births and census returns) which are not indexed intensively by personal names. The records can give details of births, marriages, burials and the movement of people from one part of Scotland to another. To find your family member, keep in mind that you first need to know which parish they belonged to and then find out whether its records have survived.

The records of most interest for genealogists are the minutes of the kirk sessions, which typically contain a detailed and often colourful record of the discipline the minister and kirk elders handed out to errant parishioners for offences such as drunkenness, swearing, breaking the Sabbath, quarrelling and sexual misdemeanours. In one example of a discipline case before Lanark kirk session in December 1724, James Weir and Helen Hastie ‘both single persons, were found together under Cloud of Night, in an outer Coalhouse in the Ministers close’ and it was ‘suspected they have been guiltie of unsuitable behaviour with each other’. 

William Rob, was also ‘suspected to be concerned in that Wickedness’. All three were solemnly rebuked by the session for their ‘uncircumspect Behaviour’ and were dismissed ‘with a grave Admonition leaving Room for further process, if any Thing shall be discovered by the providence of God’ and ‘their Absolution from this Scandal’ was delayed ‘till they see, whether anything be discovered in providence or not.’ (NRS, CH2/1529/1/3) 

The kirk sessions may also provide information about the inhabitants of the parish. For example, the kirk session minutes for Dallas, Morayshire, includes a list of the population of the parish from June 1811. It is very unusual for early census records to include children, making the 1811 census of Dallas one of the best of the known surviving records. Each entry includes address, name, rank (this can be occupation, marital status, lodger) and age.

Detail from a page from Dallas kirk session recording a list of the population of the parish, June 1811. 

NRS, CH2/1129/2, page 25.

The kirk session was the primary body that provided poor relief to members of the parish. It also sought to determine who the fathers of children born outside marriage were, in order to confirm whether the parish was financially responsible for supporting the mother and child, if the father could not be identified.

Wills and testaments

Wills and testaments can be found in the records of the commissary and sheriff courts and are very useful for family historians. Testaments (the legal document drawn up after a person has died) provide information about how people lived as they include an inventory of the deceased’s property. This may be a brief summary valuation of the goods involved, or it can be a long list of individual items and valuations.

Depending on the means of the individual, they can tell us how someone dressed, furnished their home, conducted their affairs, the tools of their trade, what land they owned, the crops they grew and, in the 19th century, which public utilities they invested in and which railway companies they owned shares in. 

A will is a document drawn up by an individual wishing to settle his or her affairs prior to death and sets out instructions for the disposal of their possessions. They can potentially tell us names of family members, their relationships and details of everyday possessions, as well as details of the debts they owed at the time of their death.  

You can search for over 611,000 wills and testaments on ScotlandsPeople covering the period 1513 to 1925.

Detail of the Inventory of William Mackay, Guard of the Inverness and Perth Mail, 16th September 1842

Crown copyright, NRS, SC29/44/6/111

Highland and Island Emigration Records

The Highland and Island Emigration Society was a voluntary organisation set up in 1852 by private subscription with the aim of alleviating destitution in the Highlands by promoting and assisting emigration. Between 1852 and 1857, the Society assisted 4919 men, women and children to leave Western Scotland for Australia. Their details were recorded in the Society’s passenger lists, which are one of the few sources for emigration held by the National Records of Scotland (reference HD4/5) and are free to view. If your ancestors left Scotland in the mid-1850s, it may be worthwhile searching for them in these lists

Detail from a page of list of emigrants assisted by the Highland and Island Emigration Society who were onboard the Georgiana in 1852.

NRS, HD4/5 page 17

These are a number of suggestions for how to further your research using records found on ScotlandsPeople. For further information about our records, including other historical records held by National Records of Scotland, consult our handbook ‘Tracing Your Scottish Ancestors’, which can be purchased for the first time in paperback and e-book versions through our publishers, Birlinn.

Good luck with your research and for more information about any of the record sets on ScotlandsPeople please read our guides or contact us.