Parish Chest Records in Scotland

Scottish parish churches kept parish chest records (i.e., valuable documents and church records which were locked up in the parish chest), in addition to documenting births, marriages, and deaths.

The Presbyterian church was the Scottish ‘national’ church, and operated in much the same manner as the Church of England, in terms of its function as an arm of the state in regulating local affairs. The terminology used, however, is different, due to the different church system.

The principal documents of interest to genealogists in the parish chest records are the Kirk Session records.

A Kirk Session was the body which dealt, among other things, with disciplinary matters in the local parish, and operated as a form of ‘church court’.

Composed of the local minister, who served as moderator, and a number of elders, the kirk sessions dealt with the investigation of illegitimate births, including interrogations of unwed pregnant women.

Other types of behaviours warranting disciplinary action included fornication, adultery, drunkenness, swearing, breaking the Sabbath, and quarrelling.

Scottish Poet Robert Burns (1759 – 1796).
Painting by Naysmith. Wikimedia Commons.

Painting by Naysmith – Poet Robbie Burns

Those found to have committed such ‘infractions’ often were called up before the congregation, to stand on the cuttie-stool, or cutty stool, while their behaviour was publicly announced and rebuked, and they were enjoined to forsake their wanton behaviour. Fines were imposed on those with ‘guilt’. Monies thus collected were used to assist the poor - another area which the Kirk Sessions oversaw.

In everyday language, a ‘cutty stool’ is the name for the little three-legged stool used on a farm for milking cows. It has three stubby little legs, allowing the farm worker to sit while performing his duties.

In the church, however, it described a larger structure – a slightly raised platform, on which those accused of misdeeds would stand, as described above.

One individual who apparently was chastised for ‘guilt’ was Robert Burns, the Scottish poet. I will not name the poem in which he describes the incident, leaving you to find it by your own devices.

Burns himself clearly did not take the Kirk Sessions, or their disciplinary action, very seriously. He describes standing on the cutty stool with a young lady, his eyes downcast, and paying the fine. The rest, I’ll leave you to discover!

The Kirk Sessions did not always lead to paying a fine, although public humiliation seems to have been a consistent element.

One type of punishment which was peculiarly Scottish was the use of the ‘joug’. When this punishment was meted out, an individual was required to spend a certain number of hours with his neck enclosed in a ‘joug’, which was a metal device affixed to the outer wall of a church.

Joug still attached to the church wall at Duddingston Kirk.
Wikimedia Commons
Joug attached to church wall at Duddingston Kirk

The Minutes of the Kirk Sessions may also contain references to individuals of other faiths who misbehaved within the parish. As previously mentioned in Vital Records - Scotland, the Scottish had a long tradition of non-conformism, meaning that many of them attended a church other than the official Church of Scotland (the Presbyterian church).

The local parish church kept an eye on everyone, however, and parish church officials reported any misdeeds by those from other places of worship to their respective places of worship. The misdeeds, and the reporting, would be recorded in the Kirk Sessions.

The Minutes of the Kirk Sessions of the local parish church, therefore, can be quite revealing, as they record the misdeeds and liaisons, as far as they were known, of the parish inhabitants. This is the nearest one can get to a record of everyday life several hundred years ago.

Only the more serious cases of wrongdoing were referred to the higher church courts, which were called the Presbytery, the Synod, and the General Assembly. The vast majority of misdeeds were handled at the local level, and were recorded in the Kirk Sessions.

The system of caring for the poor and overseeing village life began to change around 1845, with the establishment of Parochial Boards. These Boards were composed of members of the Kirk Session, and of local property owners with property valued at more than GBP20.

In addition to poor relief, the Parochial Boards were responsible for things like the provision of burial grounds; vaccinations; public libraries; and the registration of vital statistics (births, marriages, and deaths).

Parochial Boards were replaced by Parish Councils in the late 1800s.

Other Parish Chest Records

The contents of the parish chest varied from parish to parish. However, some documents tended to be found there as a matter of course. Examples of other documents which could be found among the parish chest records include:

  • communion rolls,
  • seat rent books, and
  • poor relief accounts.

Other, more private records include

  • family papers (in some cases, documenting land transactions, dowries, and other legal papers of wealthy families over a number of centuries);
  • registers of wills or testaments, and records of writs (wills as processed by the courts); and
  • records of monumental inscriptions (that is, inscriptions on headstones).

Where can I Find Parish Chest Records Today?

Kirk Session records have been in the care of the National Archives of Scotland since 1960. They are located in various archival centers around Scotland.

In the autumn of 2010, the NAS began rolling out a service in various archives offices, by which individuals could access digital images of the kirk session records for all of Scotland, free of charge, on their internal computer system.

As of January 2012, the following archives are providing this access:

  • Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Archives: Aberdeen
  • Ayrshire Archives:
    • Auchincruive, Ayr
    • Burns Monument Centre, Kilmarnock
    • Highland Council Archives:
    • Archive and Registration Service, Inverness
    • Lochaber Archive Centre, Fort William
    • Caithness Archive Centre, Wick
  • Orkney Library and Archive: Kirkwall
  • Scottish Borders Archive and Local History Centre: Hawick
  • Shetland Islands Council Archives: Lerwick
  • Stirling Council Archives: Stirling

These records continue to be available, with free access, at the above locations.

For those who are unable to go to one of those archival offices, the records are available on the pay-per-view site Scotland’s People.

The other parish chest records are not mentioned as being among the digitized documents in the free database. The best place to look to locate them is in the Scottish Archive Network, which has an online catalogue. The vast majority of these records are within the National Archives system; this catalogue should assist in finding out exactly where.

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