S is for Statistical Accounts of Scotland

Keep reading! They are far more than numbers. NunbersThe Statistical Accounts are two fascinating sets of reports on each Scottish parish in the 1790s and the 1830s/40s.  They cover economic and social activities as well as natural resources.

What, when, who, how?

Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster sent out 171 queries to the ministers of each of the 938 parishes in Scotland in the 1790s. Their responses form the Old Statistical Account (OSA). In 1832, because of all the changes that had taken place in Scotland, a new survey was agreed. The responses are collectively known as the New Statistical Account (NSA). Find out more about the background.

How are the Statistical Accounts useful for family history?

  • Context for our ancestors’ lives. “The prejudices, entertained by the inhabitants of this parish, against inoculation [sic] were, for a long time, invincible. But the better sort, setting the example, the rest gradually followed… In one season 460 were inoculated, of whom only 3 died” (Kilmalie, Invernesshire, OSA, p409). Mortality by age group statistics (Glasgow, OSA p508).
  • Information on churches other than the established Church of Scotland. “There is in St Ninians a Relief meeting-house… there is another meeting-house in Ba-burn connected with the United Secession” (St Ninians, Stirlingshire, NSA p336).   Information on the state of the parish registers: “the fourth is a mere ragged fragment” (Wick Caithness, NSA p137).  These may explain why you can’t find a baptism and indicate other records to trace.
  • Names of landowners which could lead you to estate records. See Menteith, Perthshire, NSA p 108, for example.
  • Local history generally, development of industries, migration and so on. “What accounts for this [population] increase of 71 is the settlement of a colony of Highlanders, who had been forced to emigrate from Strathnaven [sic], where their farms had been converted into sheep pasture” (Walls, Orkney, OSA p313).
  • The minister’s view on his parishioners. This snip from the Dalziel, Lanarkshire, (Motherwell area) NSA p 454 is particularly rich:

DalzielParish New Statistical Accounts note about use of Scots and the hours people worked.

Statistical Accounts – summary

Topography, geology, botany, agriculture, weather, population statistics,diseases, the state of the church and manse, manufactures, occupations (see Inverness, OSA p 622 for a good table), wages, prisons, schools, language,history, antiquities, communications – and much more. Each account as individual as the minister who wrote it. You can find them all on on the Statistical Accounts of Scotland website. Free, with additional features available by subscription.

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.


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






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.

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