P is for parish

In family history research you will often have to search for records at parish level. Looking at the OPRs (old parish registers) on ScotlandsPeople, for example, you can narrow your search by county and then by parish.

Parishes in time

In many parts of western Europe, the parish was originally the area round a church. People living there paid tithes or teinds for the maintenance of the clergy. In Scotland, parishes developed in the lowlands from around the 12th century but much later in the Highlands. Over time, the parish became central to local administration for both church and civil purposes including taxation and education.

Scottish parishes varied hugely in size and population. In the West Highlands they were often very large with relatively small populations. In central Scotland rapid industrialisation and population growth led to new settlements which often dwarfed the original parish centres though the old names were kept. Wishaw and Airdrie were part of Cambusnethan and New Monkland parishes, for example. See ScotlandsPeople Guide to parishes and districts for more background.

Spits, mergers, name changes, separate development for ecclesiastical and civil purposes and even county changes. It can all be rather complicated. Then from 1855 there are registration districts which were set up for the start of civil registration. They are sometimes the same as parishes but not always.  Local government reform in 1929 and 1975 virtually ended the role of the parish.

Help

The key thing is to know about your own area. If you can’t find a baptism or marriage in one parish, could it have been in the neighbouring one? Check a map – where did your people live? Some counties are big: how likely is it that someone from Gairloch, west Ross & Cromarty, for example, married in Fearn, right over in the east of the county? Not impossible but perhaps less likely?

Parish maps and places

outline map showing name of each parish in Caithness, Sutherland and Ross & Cromarty

Other links

  • History of parishes and counties, see A Gazetteer of Scotland
  • The Statistical Accounts – reports on each Scottish parish from the 1790s and 1830s/40s. Written by local ministers topics include agriculture, education and religion.
  • Parishes listed in a different county for the 1861 census