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K is for Kirk Session records

What are Kirk Session records?

The kirk session is the local court of the presbyterian Church of Scotland. It is made up of: the minister (moderator or chair), the elders and a session clerk (the chief elder). Sometimes there was no session clerk, only a clerk who kept minutes. The records can include: minutes of session meetings, accounts, communicant rolls, the poor fund.

What was the role of the Kirk Session?

Historically the kirk session dealt with parish matters, spiritual, moral and social, as well as the general running of the church. The session took parishioners to task for things like immoral behaviour, particularly fornication, Sabbath-breaking, swearing, fighting, or not attending church.

Picture of stool of repentance

Stool of repentance, St Andrews, Fife

There was a range of punishments, with public repentance or penance the most well-known.

Until the Poor Law (Scotland) Act of 1845, the kirk session was also a key agent in poor relief. This is one reason why illegitimate children were such a concern: unless the father was identified and took responsibility the parish might have to support mother and child financially.

The kirk session would refer more serious cases, serial fornicators for example, to Presbytery. The highest court of the Church of Scotland is the General Assembly which meets annually but until the 1990s there was also Synod, the court between Presbytery and the General Assembly.

The value of Kirk Session minutes

Kirk session minutes give space to the ordinary people who may feature in no other record beyond a few censuses and possibly a baptism, marriage or burial register. You may find no more than a name, perhaps recording your ancestor as a new communicant or receiving money from the poors fund. Don’t discount that. I know that one set of my x3 great grandparents died after a date in 1826 for at that time the local church gave them money for a particular purpose.

In other cases, kirk session minutes can provide the vital information to break down a brick wall by naming the father of an illegitimate child. You may find out quite a lot about the circumstances too!

Some kirk session records contain baptisms, marriages and burials that are not included in the old parish registers (OPRs). These can sometimes be quite substantial lists; in other cases they are sporadic. Pre-1841 population lists and male heads of families are two other resources you may find, the former fairly rare, the latter much more common. The National Records of Scotland catalogue records will often include a note about these elements. Or check Parish Registers in the Kirk Session Minutes of the Church of Scotland (Diane Baptie, 2001) available from SAFHS or the Scottish Genealogy Society.

Very broadly, kirk session records are most useful before 1855. During the 19th century the declining role of the Church in society generally meant that records focused increasingly on strictly church matters. In more rural areas this change was slower.  Up to the 1880s, and beyond in some cases, I would still check them. Censure for ante-nuptial fornication was relatively common in my one-place study parish in the 1870s, for example. (See my page for more on the records there)

Where can I find these records?

  • The relevant local archive usually holds kirk sesssion records for its area
  • National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh – digitised records for the established Church of Scotland (and some other denominations). You can access these digital copies  in some local archives too. Follow this link to find out more.
  • There are plans to go online.

Kirk session records are not indexed so searching can be time-consuming. Names are sometimes written in the margins which is a great help.The content also varies; in some parishes it is mainly financial records that survive.

If you can’t get to the archives yourself, I can do some paid research for you. Contact me.

I haven’t quite made the A to Z blogging challenge this year, maybe next year, but this is day K (13 April 2017) so I’ve made a start.

Alexander Moncrieff, schoolmaster, and the Houton estate

Moncrieff is one of the more unusual surnames in my family tree. Unusual for Orkney that is. The name links to Houton, formerly a small estate in the parish of Orphir, Orkney. Map (name spelled Houston)

Moncrieff origins

I’d never investigated where the Moncrieffs came from but last year I had a client whose ancestry contained a schoolmaster in Orkney. This jogged a memory that I too had a forebear who was a teacher, in the parish of Harray, Orkney. Initial research showed that Alexander Moncrieff, my x6 great grandfather was the first SSPCK (Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge) schoolmaster in Harray, working there from 1712 until 1727. One source suggests he may have been of the Culfargie line in Perthshire but, as it does not mention at all that he was a schoolmaster, this may well not be reliable.

Alexander and the SSPCK

As the SSPCK was formed in 1709, he was one of their first teachers so, by good fortune, there is quite a lot about him in a recent Ph.D on the early years of the organisation. When he first applied to work with the Society his arithmetic was not good enough it seems but he put that right. He was a Gaelic speaker and, due to his language skills, the Society wanted to move him to Gairloch in 1714 but he made the case for remaining in Harray. Nonetheless, the Society still gave him the salary supplement for those in Gaelic parishes. An attempt to poach him for a new school in South Ronaldsay was also unsuccessful. From other sources, it appears that he had been to university, possibly St Andrews though this theory needs further research.

Marriage and the link to Houton

On 30 June 1715 Alexander married Katharin Spence in the parish of Birsay but she must have died for on 28 August 1718 he married Christian Halcro of Houton. Christian’s father Robert was dead by this time and her brother Robert, cautioner or guarantor for her marriage, died around 1725 when the estate passed to her.

Houth, home of the Moncrieffs of Houton

Houth, home of the Moncrieffs of Houton

She died in 1729 leaving Alexander with five children. One son, Robert, became laird of Houton though he was never served heir; a Thomas Moncrieff, described as factor of the Houton estate in the baptism record of  Alexander (Orphir, 1757) may be another son. There are no baptism records for Harray before 1766 and though those of Orphir start in 1708, I have not found the other three children so far.

After Harray

In 1733 Alexander moved to Raining’s School, Inverness and remained there until 1748. From a 1733 list of SSPCK schools and schoolmasters, he had an assistant there so it the appointment would have been a promotion of sorts. One of my questions is what happened to his children? Did they remain in Orkney? If so, with whom?

So far, apart from OPRs and estate records, I’ve used secondary sources (see below). My next steps are to explore some of the SSPCK records for myself, check Orkney sasines and retours for information on the Halcro to Moncrieff succession, see what else can be found on Alexander’s life before Harray and after Inverness. If he was a teacher by 1712, he is likely to have been born no later than the mid 1690s. His entry in AS Cowper’s very useful book (see below) states that he was “superannuated” so his death would be 1748 or later.

What of Houton?

There’s a very persistent family story that a young woman from the Moncrieff line was tricked into signing away “our” rights to Houton. I’ve not so far established the truth of this. Williamina Moncrieff (Mrs John Groundwater) my great great grandmother brought up her large family at Scorridale, with one of the finest views in Orkney and some of the poorest land on the estate. In the late 1880s and 1890s, and probably earlier, though there are no estate records, she received an annual payment of £12 from the Houton estate. Meantime her husband was often in arrears with the rent. Her descendants sigh over what might have been.

Isabella Hiddleston, née Sands, bequeathed the estate to the Indigent Gentlewomen’s Society when she died in 1889. She was the widow of Hector, great grandson of Alexander, and later of Robert Hiddleston, minister of Orphir, 1846-1875. Isabella had no children though Hector had two illegitimate daughters, both of whom received allowances from the Houton estate.


  • Factory accounts of Estate of Houton, Orphir 1889-1900. Macrae & Robertson Solicitors, Kirkwall. D34/V/51. Orkney Archive, Kirkwall.
  • Orkney OPRs
  • Cowper, AS (1997) SSPCK schoolmasters 1709-1872. Edinburgh: Scottish Record Society
  • Decennial indexes to the Services of heirs in Scotland (1999). Edinburgh: Scottish Genealogy Society
  • Clouston, J Storer (1914 ) Records of the Earldom of Orkney. Edinburgh: Scottish History Society
  • Gray, Nathan P (2011) ‘A publick benefite to the nation’: the charitable and religious origins of the SSPCK, 1690 -1715. University of Glasgow: Ph.D thesis
  • Seton, George (1890) House of Moncrieff  Edinburgh: Private publication


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Posted on 6 January 2017.   Filed under General
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