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1855 and earlier.

Scottish Presbyterians in a county Parish church - the sermon, 1855


Registration of death by civil authorities began in Scotland on 1st January 1855, when Scotland was divided into registration districts, each supposed to record all of it's births, marriages and deaths.

Prior to 1855 the principal source of information about deaths in Scotland is the collection of Old Parish Registers (OPRs) of baptisms, marriages and burials held by the General Register Office for Scotland. There are limitations to these:

A guide to Parochial Registers

  • They were compiled by Church of Scotland parishes, and so do not record the deaths of members of many other churches.
  • Birth entry will usually provide the child’s name and date of birth and/or baptism and the name of the parents (and the mother’s maiden name) but usually little else. This does not differ to any great extent from the statutory birth certificate and provides little problem for the researcher.
  • Problems arise with the marriage entry. Where the statutory marriage certificate provides the names of both the parents of the bride and groom, the OPR equivalent rarely gives any parental details and it is this omission which usually brings the search to an end.
  • In many cases the registers are of burials not deaths, and, in addition to a date of burial, these may or may not give a date and cause of death. Death records in the OPR’s are very often a scarce commodity and, where they do exist, often give no more than the name of the deceased and the date of death. On a more positive note, some death records will give the name of a spouse or, in the case of a child, the name of the father. If a death entry is found in the OPR’s it may prove beneficial to search for a gravestone.

    The birth and marriages contained in the OPR’s are now indexed for all of the 900 or so parishes and are available online.

    How to break the 1855 barrier.

    HappyHaggis newspaper articles
    In 2009 HappyHaggis first began transcribing newspaper birth, marriage and death notices, as well as other personal events as mentioned in local Scottish newspapers prior to 1855. This project will never be 100% complete, and will continue until further notice. We hope this will be a valuable source of information for family history researchers. At the moment we have around 25,000 names listed from newspapers from 1849-1854, and it is hoped work will start on the year 1848 during the summer of 2015. For a full list of relevent pages, please visit FREE BDM PAGES .

    Old Parish Registers (OPR)
    Birth, Baptism, Banns and Marriages OPR's are available from www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk and cover the period 1553-1854. The 'Old' Statistical Account (1791-99), under the direction of Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, and the 'New' Statistical Account (1834-45) offer uniquely rich and detailed parish reports for the whole of Scotland, covering a vast range of topics including agriculture, education, trades, religion and social customs. Try looking at The Statistical Accounts for Scotland site as the town and village listings will give you an idea of what Parochial record dates existed at the time, and what should still be available. (see example above).

    NOTE: If you can't find any trace of an OPR in your expected parish, try surrounding parishes, or parishes connected with the family. Also, the keeping of parish records did not stop at 1855, so if you have trouble finding a birth, marriage or death registration, check for parish baptism, marriage or burial records.

    The vast majority of Scottish Parish Records can be found at New Register House in Edinburgh with others and copies found at regional register offices. Few registers survive from the 16th century and most date from the late 17th/early-mid 18th century only. As there are no bishops in Scotland, there are no Bishop's transcripts to refer to. Maiden names usually appear in the registers and births were often recorded instead of baptisms. Godparents are often recorded where baptisms appear. Few parishes kept burial regusters but many kirk session records include 'mort cloth' dues, the renting out of the parish's black pall to cover the coffin, and these records will give you the date and deceased's name. The accounts may also record fees for digging the person's grave. Most baptisms took place soon after the children were born, but sometimes parents waited weeks or months to have a child baptised, or even have several children baptised at once. Never assume children are twins just because they were baptised on the same day. Burials were usually well recorded except in times of plague or similar epidemics. Bodies may have been burned without record or ceremony. Many were buried in hospital and workhouse graveyards and not in the parish yard.

    1841 and 1851 Census
    These dates are available from www.ancestry.co.uk and www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

    Wills and Testaments
    These are available 1513-1901 from www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk.

    Trade Directories
    Directories began to appear in the 18th century, with Edinburgh first appearing in 1773 and Glasgow in 1783. They became more common in the 19th century, and generally listed tradesmen, merchants, craftsmen, farmers, professionals, clergy, gentry and nobility. Eventually many directories started to include private residents. Directories offered a description of the area covered, and assist in offering possible company names if your ancestor's trade is known. Following your ancestor's appearance through a series of directories assists in you watching their career develop, and can suggest a time of death or relocation when their name stops appearing. Note that directories were usually compiled the year prior to publication so regard the information as one year old. Also remember that a person with several occupations may only be listed once, and the continuity of a company name may hide the fact that the founder has passed but the son, maybe with the same name, has continued running the business. The majority of poor people were not listed in directories, so don't assume their non-appearance suggests they weren't there. Collections of directories are held at the SoG at the Guildhall Library, as well as local county record offices, libraries and museums. Some directories are available in second hand bookshops and for sale through Ebay.

    Cemetery Transcriptions
    The details available from ancient headstones can give a wealth of information. Sometimes the details list a name only, but if you are lucky it could list dates, spouses, children, parents and even occupations. Unfortunately, transcribing such information is an enormous task, and very few Scottish cemetery transcriptions appear on the internet. Some transcriptions appear on CD for sale, but most still involve some groundwork. UP Relief Church Burial Ground, Paisley, Renfrewshire The first place to start should be the local library. Any transcriptions should be held there, or the staff will be able to direct your enquiry. For library contacts see the HappyHaggis County page and by selecting the required county, check for links to the applicable County library service under 'Libraries, Museums and Archives'. Ask nicely and the staff may check their records for you.

    In 1850 a Government law was passed in England which permitted London local authorities to purchase land and to create public cemeteries. This law was passed across England and Scotland a few years later. By this point many church cemeteries were filling, so the law allowed extra cemeteries to be created at that time, usually on the outskirts of the towns. Most public cemeteries date from this time. Paupers Graves are now referred to as the more politically correct 'Environmental Lairs in Common Ground'. Most cemeteries had these plots, but today local Councils usually only have one or two cemeteries, as most deceased would be cremated. For the record, common ground can be used on more than one occasion, but will not be used after the fourth burial.

    When searching cemetery records it may be useful to know when the new cemeteries were created in the town in which you are searching. Headstones were not used in churchyards until the 17th century. Wealthy people were often buried inside the church. The oldest headstones are usually found nearest the church, on the south side, where the sun shines most. In old graveyards, note how the headstones usually face east, the direction from which 'the new day dawns'. TIP: Be careful when reading the wording on headstones. If you find a memorial which says something like "died in his 50th year" this means he hadn't reached 50, but died at 49.

    There is no easy way of finding where a relative is buried. Newspaper announcements will give clues. Most cemeteries kept records, which can be searched at county record offices. Alternatively, try contacting the local council or the cemetery office directly if it is still in operation. Many parishes have their gravestones transcribed and details can be found in county record offices and in the SoG collections. Once the graveyard has been traced, even though you have all the details you need, visiting the site is recommended as it builds a physical bond with a past relative.

    HappyHaggis has placed online in excess of 800 names from the index of the 1834 book 'Collection of Epitaphs and Monumental Inscriptions, Chiefly in Scotland'. These inscriptions range from the 16th-18th centuries, and a list of names can be found HERE.HappyHaggis. Happy to Help.


    Burial and death registers of other protestant churches
    The records of churches other than the Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church, are held by a variety of archives and by churches themselves. The National Archives of Scotland (NAS) hold the kirk session records of presbyterian churches (such as the Free Church, United Free Church, Anti-Burgher Church, etc). Some kirk session records are held by local authority archives under charge and superintendence (i.e. under special conditions laid down by the Keeper of the Records of Scotland). sometimes kirk session records contain registers of baptisms, marriages and burials. The surviving records of other churches can sometimes also be found either in the National Archives of Scotland (NAS) or in local authority archives. The NAS hold records of the Society of Friends or ‘Quakers’ (CH10), Methodists (CH11), Episcopal Church (CH12), Congregational churches (CH14), and Unitarians (CH15). However, important collections of Episcopal, Methodist and Congregationalist church records have been deposited in local authority archives in recent years, especially in Glasgow City Archives. The survival of death or burial registers for these churches is patchy.

    Death registers of Catholic churches
    Registers of baptisms, marriages and deaths kept by Roman Catholic (RC) priests are generally held by RC parish churches or by RC archives (for example some registers for churches in the Glasgow area are held by the Archives of the Archdiocese of Glasgow. In many cases these predate civil registration (1855) and the earliest dates from 1703. However, photocopies of many of the surviving registers are held by the National Archives of Scotland (RH21). For other records of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, contact the Scottish Catholic Archives, Columba House, 16 Drummond Place, Edinburgh EH3 6PL, telephone 0131 556 3661 (opening hours: by appointment only: Monday to Friday 0930-1300; 1400-1630).

    Mortcloth payments
    A mortcloth (from the Latin word mors, mortis, meaning ‘death’) was a form of pall, i.e. a large cloth (usually black) thrown over a coffin or corpse at a funeral. Mortcloths were kept by kirk sessions (church courts in each parish). Some were more elaborate than others, and a wealthier parish might have more than one (including a small one for corpses of children). They were hired, usually by the family or next of kin of the deceased, to cover the coffin (if a coffin could be afforded), or the corpse itself (if a coffin could not be afforded). As the kirk session was responsible for poor relief until 1845, it might allow use of a mortcloth without charge, if the deceased or his family were paupers. For example an act of the kirk session of Penicuick (National Archives of Scotland, reference GD18/3980) records that a velvet mortcloth was purchased in 1670 for £192 and 19 shillings Scots, and that those who contributed to the cost were allowed use of it for free. Otherwise it was hired out for 2 shillings and 6 pence Scots for burials in the parish, and 40 shillings Scots for burials outwith the parish. In the 18th and 19th centuries some people formed or joined friendly societies, paying subscriptions which paid for future funeral expenses. For example the rules of the Haddington Mortcloth Society, 1833, survive in the National Archives of Scotland (reference GD302/142). References to payments for mortcloths (along with payments for coffins or digging the grave of named persons may appear in kirk session minutes and accounts, heritors’ minutes and accounts, and old parish registers. By recording a payment for a mortcloth, these may provide the approximate date of death for the deceased.

    Disposal of the dead. From medieval times until the mid-19th century the disposal of the dead was carried out almost exclusively by burial in churchyards. In the 18th century, secession churches and other sects (such as Quakers), particularly in larger burghs, opened their own burial grounds. In some towns there were separate burial grounds for the Town’s Hospital (or poorhouse), and for certain burgh organisations, such as merchants or trade incorporations. By the mid-19th century many churchyards were full, and burial had become a public health concern, especially following outbreaks of smallpox, typhus and cholera. The problem of overcrowding was partly solved by the emergence of commercial cemeteries; the first being the Necropolis in Glasgow, opened in 1833. In the second half of the 19th century many municipal cemeteries were opened by burghs and civil parishes. Responsibility for burial grounds (including churchyards) was placed on parish councils under the 1894 Local Government (Scotland) Act, and on the districts of county councils under the 1929 Local Government (Scotland) Act. Scotland’s first crematorium was built in Glasgow’s Western Necropolis in 1895. Others opened in the late-1930s in Dundee, Aberdeen, Paisley, and Leith. In the 1950s and 60s municipal crematoria were built in many parts of Scotland. For further information about cremation click here. Body-snatching was a relatively brief phenomenon in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, effectively stamped out by the Anatomy Act of 1832.

    Some of the above text was found at the Scottish Archive Network website at www.scan.org.uk. Please visit this excellent site for additional information and links.

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