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Wednesday 22 February 2017

News: Church Court Records Online

A new service that opens up access to the digital images of millions of pages of church court records has been launched by the National Records of Scotland (NRS). The records consist of the minutes and accounts of kirk sessions, presbyteries, synods and the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. They also contain a wide variety of other documents, providing a picture of everyday life in Scotland from the sixteeenth century onwards and amount to more than 25,000 volumes, about 5 million pages of information

Image showing signatures of parish schoolmasters in the presbytery of Dunblane accepting the Confession of Faith, 1690 (National Archives of Scotland, CH2/723/41 p.31)

Local archive access in Scotland

Until now researchers in many parts of Scotland have found it difficult to travel to the archive where the records are physically held. Now for the first time the NRS and many local archives are combining to offer a service that researchers can use to get access to records from across Scotland. The service is being rolled out from November 2010, and it is hoped that more than a dozen local archives will be places where digital copies of the records can be consulted, in addition to the NRS itself.

The following archives currently offer the service in their search rooms:

  • Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Archives: Aberdeen
  • Ayrshire Archives: Auchincruive, Ayr
  • Ayrshire Archives: Burns Monument Centre, Kilmarnock,
  • Highland Council Archives: Archive and Registration Service, Inverness
  • Highland Council Archives: Lochaber Archive Centre, Fort William
  • Highland Council Archives: 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

Please contact the relevant archive (using the links on the left side of this page) for details of opening times and access.

Plans for wider online access

Eventually it is planned to make the church records more widely available online via a subscription-based service. Researchers will have the choice of accessing the records free of charge in various Scottish archives, or using the subscription service.

George MacKenzie, Keeper of the Records of Scotland, who heads the National Archives of Scotland, said: 'Church records have long been among the most popular records in our care. Using digital technology, and with the help of local archives, we are making the remarkable information they contain available to a much wider audience. We are confident that these exciting developments will make family history and academic historical research much easier. We expect many people will discover new avenues to follow when they begin to explore the records.'

Travelling exhibition

To mark the launch of the new service and the 450th anniversary of the Reformation in Scotland, a travelling display 'Spreading the word' is putting the spotlight on these fascinating records. It opened in Aberdeen on 26 October and can be seen at other venues around Scotland during the winter months. For more information visit our exhibitions page.

What the records contain

The Scottish Reformation saw the introduction of a new system to run church affairs: the General Assembly, synods, presbyteries, and kirk sessions. Presbyterians who later broke away from the Kirk also adopted a church court system.

The records created by church courts are very useful for family history, local history and academic research. Of most interest for genealogists and local historians are the minutes of the kirk sessions, which typically contain a detailed and often colourful record of the discipline the minister and kirk elders handed out to errant parishioners for offences such as drunkenness, swearing, breaking the Sabbath, quarrelling and sexual misdemeanours. Other records include proclamations of banns, communion rolls, seat rent books and poor relief accounts.

Deposited in the NRS in 1960, church court records are cared for by the NAS and by local archives under charge and superintendence of the Keeper of the Records of Scotland. They include the records of secession church congregations which rejoined the Church of Scotland.

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Page last updated: Tuesday, 5 March 2013

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