Vital Records in Scotland

Are you looking for vital records (births, deaths, and marriages) for your Scottish ancestors?

As you progress in your Scottish genealogy research, you will discvoer that there are two sets of records:

  1. The parish records, and
  2. the civil registration records, or civil records.

Scottish flag.
Wikimedia Commons.

1. The Parish Records

In 1552, a law was passed requiring all parish churches to record vital records (i.e., baptisms, banns, and marriages, but not deaths and burials). It was up to the minister or the session clerk of the local parish church of the Church of Scotland (the Presbyterian church) to make sure that the records were made and to maintain them.

While some records do exist from around that time period - the oldest vital records date from 1553 - some parishes, especially those in very remote areas, did not start to keep these vital records until the 1800s!

Naturally, some of the vital records that were kept were destroyed by fire, flood, mold, or any of the other "disasters" that befall old records. Those that do survive are not consistent in the data that they record, or in the format in which they were recorded, as there was no regulation of just what was to be included and how it was to be recorded.

Parish Church in Nairn, Scotland
Source: Wikimedia Commons

There also was a strong nonconformist tradition in Scotland, and many people attended and/or were members of other churches. Those churches often kept very good vital records for their congregations.

As it was necessary to pay for having vital records recorded in the Church of Scotland, many people did not bother. Many events therefore either went unrecorded, or were recorded in the nonconformist church's records, rather than those of the "official" church.

The result is that the "official" vital records available are somewhat scanty. Of the parishes that did make vital records, some did so more thoroughly than others.

Two types of marriages were recognized in Scotland - those that were performed by a Presbyterian minister (a "regular" marriage), and those that occurred by "public declaration" followed by cohabitation (an "irregular" marriage). "Irregular" marriages are discussed in the Civil Marriages section.

For a "regular" marriage, banns were to be proclaimed on three consecutive Sundays before the marriage. However, in practice, the three readings, or proclamations, could all occur in one sitting, upon payment of a fee.

The only place where the banns could be read was in the Church of Scotland.

Until 1838, only a minister of the Church of Scotland could legally marry a couple. Even then, the banns still had to be read in the Church of Scotland before the marriage by non-conformist clergy could occur and be legal.

The marriage ceremony itself did not have to be in the Presbyterian church, as a majority of marriages occurred in the home.

It therefore is possible to find Roman Catholic couples’ banns being read in the Presbyterian church, and their marriage either recorded in the Catholic parish records, or not recorded at all.

A fee, called a 'caution', might be required of the bride and groom or their designate to prove the seriousness of their intention to marry.

Wedding Cake with Scottish bride and groom as Topper.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

If the bride and groom lived in separate parishes, the banns were read in both parishes, but not necessarily on the same day. The dates recorded in the two registers therefore may differ somewhat.

Also, either the proclamation of banns or the marriage date would be recorded, but not both, in the vital records of a parish. So if the separate parishes recorded different dates, it could be that one was recording the date of reading of the banns in their parish, while the other recorded the actual date of marriage. The records will not tell you which it was.

I recall reading a report by a distant cousin with respect to a common Scottish ancestor's marriage. He stated that he had found two records of the marriage, in neighbouring parishes. The dates were different in the two locations. He noted that the family lived close to the border of the two parishes, and was an equal distance between the two parish churches.

Given the above explanation, the records he found were either of the reading of the banns in the two parishes, or the proclamation of the banns in one parish and the actual marriage date in the other.

The information recorded in the marriage registers ranged from the names of the bride and groom and the fee they paid as a caution, to the names of the bride and groom, their parishes, occasionally the groom's occupation, and sometimes the name of the bride's father.

c. Deaths – Parish Records

As parish churches were not required to report deaths, most did not do so. For most of those that did, the records have either been lost or damaged. Often, the only record of a death and burial is the rental of a mortcloth.

A mortcloth, as its name implies, was a “death cloth”, a cloth that was draped over the casket, or over the body itself. Different sizes were available, depending on whether the deceased was a child or an adult. Families that were well-off might own their own mortcloth, in which case there would be no record of a rental from the parish church.

When records did refer to a death, married women could be referred to in a number of different ways, some more helpful to family historians than others. That is:

  • by their married name (i.e., Mrs. Mary Steele);

Tombstone - Durisdeer, Scotland.
Public Domain.

  • by their maiden name (ie, Mary McMullan, wife of John Steele);
  • using their husband's name, as "Mrs. John Steele", or simply "Mrs. Steele";
  • as "Widow Steele", or "relict of John Steele", or "Mary McMullan, widow of the late John Steele

Still-born children were recorded as "male/female child of John Steele", without a first name.

d. Church Court Sessions Records

On February 10, 2011, the General Records Office announced that they had digitized the church court records, and that they are available online for free access in various local Records Offices within Scotland. Later in 2011, they plan to make them available on a subscription basis, likely on the ScotlandsPeople website.

In addition to records regarding seat rent books, communion rolls, poor relief accounts and proclamations of banns, the church records include the minutes of the kirk (church) sessions.

Kirk session records detail the discipline which the minister and the elders of the local parish church meted out for various and sundry offences, including drunkenness, swearing, breaking the Sabbath, quarrelling and sexual misdemeanours – a very interesting collection of records for family historians!

e. Where can I find the records?

Parish records of the Established Church (Church of Scotland) are now located at the General Register Office, in Edinburgh.

National Archives of Scotland
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Records of nonconformist churches and copies of the Roman Catholic parish registers are located in the National Archives of Scotland,in Edinburgh.

The original Roman Catholic parish registers are located at the Scottish Catholic Archives ,at Columba House in Edinburgh, although some parishes (i.e., the Archdiocese of Glasgow and the Diocese of Paisley) retain their own records.

2. Civil Registration

Registration of vital records was taken out of the parish church and into the Register Office as of January 1, 1855. A Register Office was opened in nearly every parish, and fines were imposed for those who failed to register births, marriages, and deaths.

The local registrar kept two copies of all vital record registrations, which were inspected yearly, at which time one copy was sent to the General Register Office in Edinburgh.

Once all the vital records registers were received, the Register General's office compiled an index of all of the vital records nationwide. This process continues to the present time.

a. Birth Records – Civil Registration

A birth record contains the following information:

  • Name and gender of the child
  • Date and place of birth
  • Name and occupation of the father
  • Name of the mother, including her maiden name
  • Name of the informant, signature, residence, and qualification (often relationship).

Baby Sucking Fingers.
Source: Wikimedia. Public Domain.

After 1860, the parents’ marriage date and location was also included in the record.

If a child was illegitimate, the father's name was not included in the birth record unless he acknowledged the child as his. If he did, the child was recorded under the father's surname, with "illegitimate" written after the child’s name.

b. Marriage Records – Civil Registration

As previously noted, many marriages in Scotland took place in a home, rather than in a church. As of 1834, priests and ministers of nonconformist faiths were allowed to perform marriage ceremonies.

After January 1, 1855, the option of a civil ceremony was added. If the couple opted for a civil ceremony, a registrar or assistant registrar had to be present. Whether the couple chose a religious or a civil ceremony, two witnesses were required.

Up until July 1, 1940, Scotland also recognized “irregular” marriages. These were marriages based on Pre-Reformation Scottish law, and involved several different forms of "declaration" by the couple that they were married, before witnesses, followed by cohabitation.

These “irregular” marriages could be entered into the marriage register by appearing before the Sheriff or a Justice of the Peace, admitting to an irregular marriage, and paying a fine.

These marriages appear in the registers or marriage certificates as marriages “by declaration” or by “warrant of sheriff substitute”. You may also see a reference to a “date of confession”.

Many found this route to be less expensive than the reading of the banns and a regular marriage ceremony.

Also, by the end of the 1800s, the divorce rate was rising. Many churches would not marry a divorced person to another spouse. This method therefore became popular among divorced persons who wanted to remarry.

All but one form of "irregular" marriage was banned by statute in 1940.

Wedding Rings. Public Domain.

A marriage record includes the following information:

  • Names, ages, and occupations of the bride and the groom
  • Their marital status at the time of marriage (i.e., single, married, divorced, widowed)
  • Residences of the Bride and Groom
  • Place and date of marriage
  • The names and occupations of the fathers of the bride and groom and whether they were deceased.
  • The names and maiden surnames of the mothers of the bride and groom and whether they were deceased.
  • Witnesses
  • Whether the marriage was announced by banns or public notice
  • Date and place of registration

c. Death Records – Civil Registration

A death record shows:

  • Name, age, and gender of the deceased
  • Occupation
  • Marital Status of the deceased
  • Date, place, and cause of death
  • Name and occupation of the father
  • Name and maiden surname of the mother
  • The informant’s signature, residence, and qualification
  • The date and place the death was registered

New Register House, Edinburgh, Scotland,
which houses the General Register Office and the Lyons Court.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

d. Merger of the National Archives and the General Register Office

In early November 2010, Scotland announced that the National Archives and the General Registry Office would merge. No date for the merger has yet been finalized, but plans are underway.

e. Where can I find the Records?

Civil registration records can be accessed at the local Register Office, or at the General Register Office.

Certificates for vital records can be ordered online at the General Register Office

The Scotland's People Centre is specifically for those interested in genealogy. It is a partnership between the National Archives of Scotland (NAS), the General Registry Office of Scotland (GROS), and the Court of the Lord Lyon.

There is also a website of this name: Scotland’s People. To view results of searching on this site, you must purchase credits.

In summary, vital records in Scotland can be somewhat of a challenge, not so much in locating them, as in the fact that you never know what information they will contain. However, together with other records, such as census records and other civil documents, you should be able to grow your Scottish family tree, or pursue your Scottish genealogy quests, fairly easily.

The best of luck with your family history research in Scotland!

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