By: Carolyn L. Barkley
One of the three “C’s” of Scottish research is church records (the other two being census and civil registration). One of the most extensive collections of church records can be found in the Old Parochial Registers (OPR), which document births/baptisms, marriages/proclamations, and deaths/burials in the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) from the late 1500s through the end of 1854, although the dates for extant registers differ with each parish. As such, these records represent the best source for vital (birth, marriage, death) records prior to the beginning of civil registration in Scotland at the beginning of 1855.
It is important to understand what information can be found in OPR records as the details may vary. First, registration was costly, and therefore unpopular, and thus events often went unrecorded. In addition, the denominational history of churches in Scotland is quite convoluted. If your ancestor was a non-conformist during certain time periods, there will be no record of birth, marriage, or death events in the registers of the established church.
Baptismal registers may provide as little information as the date of baptism, name of the child, and name of the father. If you are looking for a George Duncan, born ca. 1809, who was the son of Charles Duncan, and you don’t know the parish in which he was born, your search will be more difficult and time-consuming. If a baptismal record, in addition to the more basic information as noted above, including the mother’s maiden name, it will be much easier to determine if you have identified the correct child and father combination. Additional information in the register might also include the father’s occupation, residence and the names of witnesses.
Marriage records also vary in content. In addition to the name of the bride and groom, they may document the dates of three (usually) proclamations (notices of upcoming marriage), either instead of, or sometimes in addition to, the actual marriage date. In addition, the parish(es) of the bride and groom, their residences, the groom’s occupation, and sometimes the name of the bride’s father, although seldom the name of the groom’s father, may also be provided. If the bride and groom come from separate parishes, both should be searched.
Burial and mortcloth rental records may be available for some parishes, but are found much less frequently. A mortcloth was the pall draped over the casket at a funeral. Such a pall was often owned by the parish and rented out for a fee. If the parish mortcloth was used, the receipt of the fee and by whom it was paid would have been recorded in the register. Rentals may not have been paid in other circumstances including the funeral of a child, or when a mortcloth was owned privately. The information provided in a burial record may be very brief, perhaps only a surname and a date. Remember also that burial records are not indexed in the microfiche OPR index.
When I first began researching in the OPR, the best access to these records was through the Old Parochial Registers Index on microfiche at the Family History Library or a local Family History Center. The index could locate an ancestor’s parish, document an ancestor’s christening, marriage, or burial date, or identify an ancestor’s spouse or parent. There are several drawbacks in using the OPR fiche, however: it contains christenings and marriages only (burials were not indexed); and the microfiche are arranged by county, the very piece of information that you might not know. For example, I cannot look at all of the records for a christening of a George Duncan, born ca. 1809 (county unknown), without searching through the fiche for each individual county. Obviously if I already knew the parish and/or mother’s name, my search would be much simpler.
Once an entry of interest is located in the index, the microfilm of the original register can be identified either through the batch number for the entry (located in the right-hand column on the fiche) or through the Family History Library Catalog. This index continues to be available both in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and in your local Family History Center. You do not need to go to General Register House in Edinburgh to do this research. If you do, you will be looking at Family History Library film! Save your time and look at documents not available to you on this “side of the pond.”
Today, OPR records are much more accessible, with several research opportunities available, some at no cost, some for a reasonable fee.
- Scotland Births and Baptisms, 1564-1950. This free electronic database has an interesting description in the FamilySearch Wiki: “This index is an electronic index for the years 1564 to 1955. It is not necessarily intended to index any specific set of records. This index is not complete for any particular place or region. This collection may include information previously published in the International Genealogical Index or Vital Records Index collections.”However, the Wiki goes on to state the primary record collections are pre-1855 Church of Scotland and Civil Registration 1855 to 1875. In addition, researchers are prompted to use the following wording as part of any citation of information from this database: “…citing Scotland Registrar General, Registers of births, marriages and deaths, FHL microfilm 232638, The New Register House, Edinburgh, Scotland.” My current research about George Duncan, my great-great-great grandfather, has led me to a hypothesis that he might by George Duncan, born 1809 in Auchterless, Aberdeenshire, the son of Charles Duncan and Elizabeth Middleton, although my reasoning is very circumstantial at this stage in my research. My search for George in this database identified 167 entries for George Duncan, but did not identify a record for a George Duncan, son of Charles and Elizabeth, in the parishes of Auchterless or nearby Fyvie.
- Scotland Marriages, 1561-1910. This free electronic database includes the same FamilySearch Wiki caveat as did Scotland Births and Baptisms. I searched in this database for a marriage between Charles Duncan and Elizabeth Middleton in Auchterless ca. 1806, information that I had obtained from a family tree on Ancestry.com. Once again, I was unsuccessful in searching based on the information currently available to me, and I was equally unsuccessful when I searched for any Charles Duncan who was married in 1806 in Auchterless.
- ScotlandsPeople. This site is fee-based and in addition to the OPRs, provides access to wills and testaments, coats of arms, Catholic parish registers, statutory registers (civil registration), and census records. In the case of an OPR search, the cost is approximately $11.00, which provides thirty “page credits” and access for one year after your credit card payment is authorized. You may extend your access for a further year and additional page credits can be purchased for about $7.00. Before using the site, read the information on charges carefully to understand their intricacies. Because other known information suggests that George was not married in Scotland, I searched for the marriage/banns of George’s possible parents, Charles Duncan (and variants of Duncan) and Elizabeth Middleton, for whom I had located a specific date and place in an Ancestry.com family tree (with no documentation provided). As I had such specific information, I first searched narrowly for a marriage between Charles Duncan and Elizabeth Middleton between 1 April 1806 and 1 June 1806 (the marriage date in the family tree was 6 April 1806) in the parish of Auchterless, Aberdeenshire. There were no matches. I tried several other searches including a very broad search for this bride and groom in all parishes and counties in Scotland from 1800 to 1810. Again, there were no matches. I also searched in the marriages and banns in Catholic registers. This search yielded two marriage records, but neither event occurred in Auchterless, and neither bride’s name was Elizabeth Middleton.
Not willing to give up, I tried one last, very broad search for a Charles Duncan marrying any woman between 1 January 1800 and 31 December 1810 in the parish of Auchterless. Bingo! The entry I received was for 6 April 1806, Charles Duncan to Elisabeth Midleton (please note spelling!) in the parish of Auchterless in Aberdeenshire. The lesson to be learned from this group of searches is that unexpected spelling variants can trip you up every time! Less information can often produce a more successful search. The entire search cost me seven page credits, three to view index entries identified by my searches and five to view the actual register page. I was able to print an image of the original register page at no cost.
You will also want to learn more about pre-1855 church records in Scotland in general and about the availability of specific parish registers. After you identify a possible parish, search for more information about it and its records, including pages for specific parishes on the FamilySearch Wiki. For example, there is a specific page for the parish of Auchterless. You can also consult V. Ben Bloxham’s Key to the Parochial Registers of Scotland from Earliest Times Thru 1854 (1872, Brigham Young University Press, 1970). This title is available at the Family History Library (British Book 941 K236) and is also available digitally online.
There are numerous titles providing general assistance with Scottish research. In particular, I recommend the 3rd rev. and updated edition of Kathleen B. Cory’s Tracing Your Scottish Ancestry (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2004). Appendix three in this book is particularly useful as it provides an alphabetical list of parishes with, for each, its district number (Registration Act of 1854), county, the year of its earliest OPR, and its earliest testament or inventory.
Other titles include:
- Tracing Your Scottish Ancestors: the Official Guide (National Archives of Scotland), 6th ed. (Birlinn, 2012).
- Linda Jonas and Paul Milner’s A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your Scottish Ancestors (Betterway Books, 2002), in particular Chapter nine.
- Sherry Irvine’s Scottish Ancestry: Research Methods for Family Historians (2nd ed., Ancestry, 2003), in particular Chapter five and Appendix A.