Learning Zone - Births, Marriages and Deaths in Scotland before 1855
On 1 January 1855, civil registration of births, marriages and deaths commenced in Scotland. As registration was compulsory from the start, very few events are missing. Searching these records is straightforward as they have all been indexed. You can search all of these records (up to the last few months) in the Scotland’s People centre in Edinburgh, as well as at various satellite locations around the UK. You can also search and view images of the historical records on www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk. To learn more about Civil Registration in Scotland after 1855 see the Civil Registration section of our ‘Learning Zone’.
The Scotland’s People website (and centre) also has access to pre-1855 birth, marriage and death (BMDs) records (or to be more precise in most cases baptism, proclamation and burial or mortcloth records) which were created by the Church of Scotland. These are known as the “Old Parish Registers”, or OPRs for short. Whilst the OPRs are an amazing resource, and definitely the place to start, they do not include all surviving pre-1855 birth, marriage and death records.
In 1616 the Scottish Government, by an Act of the Privy Council, ordered that a register be kept in every parish of persons baptised, married or buried within each parish. This register was to include those who did not attend the parish church, the Church of Scotland.
The reality was however that some parish or session clerks were better than others at keeping these registers, especially when it came to recording details of individuals who were not members of the Church of Scotland, who were few in number in early times but eventually became a sizeable proportion of the population.
The majority of these registers created by the Church of Scotland were handed into the General Register Office for Scotland, and have become what we now call the OPRs.
Non-Church of Scotland Churches
The period from the mid-18th century to the mid-19th century saw a rapid increase in the number of non-Church of Scotland congregations in Scotland. These are sometimes referred to by the English term ‘nonconformist’. The vast majority of this growth was due to Presbyterian congregations parting company with the established Church of Scotland. You will come across a bewildering variety of denominations, which split and merged in a manner that seems hard to follow today. You may come across the Associate Presbytery, the Relief Church, Burghers, Anti-Burghers, Auld Lichts, New Lichts, the United Secession, Original Secession, United Presbyterian and the Free Church to name but some of the denominations during this period.
As well as these Presbyterian Churches there was also the Episcopal Church, the Roman Catholic Church and Quaker Meeting houses as well as other smaller religions. Records relating to these groups do exist but are not often found in the OPRs. Records of Quakers in particular are very rare to find in the Church of Scotland records and like Jews they had certain exemptions written into the law when it came to marriage. You can find more information about Quaker records here.
If your ancestors lived in a parish where the clerk was very diligent and the records have survived, you will be able to find these through Scotland’s People.
Finding Surviving Records
If you don’t find an entry on Scotland’s People it could be that the record has been lost or it could be that the family did not attend the Church of Scotland.
The first thing we do is look at the ‘Coverage of the Old Parish Registers’ on the National Records of Scotland website. This gives a basic outline of what exists for each parish and for which years, although smaller gaps in the records may not be listed here.
When OPRs don’t exist or your ancestors are not recorded in them
If you have discovered that there are no records for the period and place in question, or that there are but your ancestors are not in them, there are a few alternatives you may wish to consider.
Top Tip: This next stage involves looking up references to search unindexed records. We recommend that you look up all the references at home (this can be done online) and then have a full list of records to look at when you head to the NRS. This will save you time in the NRS as if you have made a long journey, your time time there may be especially precious.
BMDs found within Kirk Session Records
The first thing to consider is that some further records of baptisms, marriages and burials can be found amongst the Kirk Session records, that is the surviving paperwork of a presbyterian congregation. The Session records are likely to include a variety of things, such as discipline cases and records of poor relief, as well as other minutes and accounts. The National Records of Scotland's website can help. Appendix 1 of the ‘Coverage of the Old Parish Registers’ that we mentioned earlier lists some Kirk Session records (of the established Church of Scotland) containing pre-1855 birth, death and marriage entries. The NRS reference number is also given. In all instances these records have been digitally imaged and are on the ‘Virtual Volumes’ system available to access for free in the NRS (and which can also be accessed at some satellite locations throughout Scotland as well as in the Scotland’s People centre). You may be surprised how many records apparently ‘missing’ from the OPRs can be found in the Kirk Session records of the NRS. We are making an effort to index these records, see our coverage page to see if we have already indexed the records you need.
Non-Church of Scotland Protestant Churches
As we have said, there were also a large number of presbyterian congregations which left the Church of Scotland and became part of other denominations. Still others may have been members of another, non-presbyterian Protestant church. It may be that the family you are looking for did not attend the Church of Scotland and the Church of Scotland session clerk failed in his duty to record events from other denominations in his parish. In this situation you may have to look in a number of places to find the registers of the other congregations.
While you still have the ‘Coverage of the Old Parish Registers’ on the NRS website, take a look at Appendix 3. This appendix lists non-Church of Scotland parish registers held by what was once the General Register Office (Scotland), or GRO(S), and now accessible via the Scotland’s People centre. For various reasons, rather than ending up with the majority of Kirk Session records in the NRS, the items in this list made their way into the GRO(S), or as we may now call it, the Scotland’s People centre. These ‘miscellaneous records’ are not available online (nor are they on the NRS ‘Virtual Volumes’ system) but are only available in the Scotland’s People centre in Edinburgh, usually in microfilm format.
The next step is to look at the catalogue of the National Records of Scotland, where the majority of these records are held. Go to www.catalogue.nrscotland.gov.uk. In the ‘Search for’ box, enter the name of the parish or town (you may have to look under both). In the ‘reference’ box, type either ‘CH2’ to search session records of the established Church of Scotland which are not OPRs, or ‘CH3’ which ensures a search the records of most other presbyterian denominations). You can add covering dates if you like, but this may not be necessary in many cases.
There are other some other church records listed under ‘CH’, which are as follows:
Methodist - CH11
Episcopal - CH12
United Free Church - CH13
Congregational - CH14
Unitarian - CH15
Free Church (please note most Free Church records are in CH3) - CH16
You will now be told how many results there are, click on ‘Display Catalogue results’. Now you will need to work through the results and see which churches have records for the period you need. Click on the reference to see a full description.
Top Tip: When you look at the description make sure you are looking at the ‘File’ level not ‘Fonds’ or ‘Series’ level. CH3/1151 for example is the ‘Fonds’ level, and to access the document you need the ‘File’ level reference. For example, CH3/1151/1 is the reference for Hawick, Free Church Baptismal register 1842-82 and Marriage register 1843-72.
It is sometimes clear from later records that your family were Roman Catholics. An index to most surviving Catholic registers can be searched on the Scotland’s People website where you can also pay to view images of the registers.
Top Tip: The Catholic registers available via Scotland’s People (where you have to pay) are available to view for free in the Historical Search Room of the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh.
The National Records of Scotland also hold the records of the Quakers or the Religious Society of Friends. A digest to all birth, marriages and deaths was made in the mid 19th century. We have indeed the births and marriages and you can search them for free on this website, where you will also be given the reference number so that you can view the original in Edinburgh. Quaker records all begin with the reference ‘CH10’.
The Scottish Jewish Archives Centre is the place to go if your ancestors were Jewish. They have a database of almost 40,000 Scottish Jews!
Accessing the NRS record
The NRS catalogue will also tell you the ‘Access Status’ and if the volume has been digitally imaged. Almost all CH2 and CH3 volumes prior to 1900 are digitally imaged, and you can access these for free in the NRS or at one of the satellite locations. The catalogue also tells you the ‘Repository’. This is often the NRS, but now that the volumes have been digitally imaged and some have been sent to local archives, it may easier for you to consult the records locally.
Top Tip: If you are new to the National Records of Scotland, email them and tell them the references records you would like to consult and ask them to confirm that they are on the 'Virtual Volumes' system in their entirety.
Having completed this process, you will have a list of reference numbers, all documents which may record the date of birth of your great-great-great-grandfather or the place of your great-great-great-great grandparent’s wedding! All you have to do now is head to the NRS and search the volumes. Once you find what you are looking you may well be able to print the page in beautiful high resolution colour!
If you can’t access these records in person, you still have a few options. Websites like Rootschat are full of members willing to do searches as long as you offer to do similar searches in your local area. Professionals like ourselves can also make these searches for you. Another option is to ‘Sponsor an Index’. We have begun indexing these vital records, and the idea behind the ‘Sponsor an Index’ initiative is to speed up this process. If you need to search these volumes, somebody else probably does too. Our idea is for individuals to sponsor us to index the records then we can make the index available on this website for free.
Need more help?
There’s no denying that this process is complex, and it’s easy to miss something, especially if you’re new to genealogy. Feel free to email us if you need any assistance.
Top Tip: Post-1855 marriage certificates can indicate which church the family attended. If the couple were married by a minister it will say ‘According to the forms of the Church of Scotland/the Free Church of Scotland' etc. Of course it’s only a pointer, perhaps only the bride’s family attended that church, but this may still be helpful.