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Death and Death Records

A Highland Funeral by James Guthrie (1882)

For the Medieval period (pre 1500), there is very little surviving evidence, and no parish records exist. During this time people had very little understanding about what caused disease and blamed it on the planets and unbalanced humours in the body. The main three causes of death were from disease, accidents and childbirth. Disease was often caused by poor sanitation, damp and cold living conditions, poor storage of food and infestations, often from the thatched roofs.

During the Early Modern period (1500-1760), life expectancy in Britain was about 32-40yrs, although if people survived past adolescence and childbirth they could live well into old age. Infant mortality was at its peak in the early 1700ís, although in many rural areas there was a lower infant mortality. One of the biggest killers at this time was Bubonic plague, which commenced in 1647. Remedies during this time were mainly herbal.

In the sixteenth century the common man and woman was usually buried in an unmarked grave and without a coffin, the body perhaps wrapped in a shroud if one could be afforded. In some, but not all, areas, the shroud for the poor was provided by the Kirk Session , or by a Guild if the deceased belonged to one. The practice of burial in†a shroud (or not) continued for some time, especially in the rural areas.† The Reformation of 1560, the establishment of a Protestant Presbyterian† faith, saw the introduction of quite severe, albeit reverential,† instruction to and by the Kirk. This focussed on respect for the dead and public health, but ceremony and images of any kind was deemed popery and forbidden.

It would be the 18th century before everybody was deemed eligible for a coffin, even the very poorest. Scottish ingenuity was shown in the use of a `mort coffin` - a reusable coffin owned by a church. The corpse was wrapped in a shroud, tied at head and foot,† and placed in the coffin. At the graveside it was lowered part way down and bolts were then withdrawn allowing the floor of the coffin to swing open and the body fall into the grave. The `mort coffin` was then lifted out ready for further use. At another extreme was the protection of the body from body snatchers who stole and sold corpses to doctors and medical schools for dissection. The infamous pair Burke and Hare were a 19th century manifestation of this. A common method of securing bodies was to lock them in a purpose built stone building or `mort house` adjacent to the church until the burial service. In other places an iron cage was used or a the coffin placed in a `mort safe`† for maybe six weeks ( until the body became unusable for anatomy lessons) and then re interred.

Maternal mortality rates for England and Wales would have been similar in Scotland. Around 50 deaths per 1000 births was the average from 1850 until 1900, when there was a gradual fall until the mid 1930's and then a sharp drop to today's very low figure. With the average number of children reaching five or six children per family, the highest rate in modern British history, the chances of the mother dying at childbirth were higher than at any other time.

Between 1783 and 1794 a duty of three pence was put on every baptism, marriage or burial recorded in Scottish registers. Paupers were exempted and so many people were entered as such although they were not.

The statutory registers include deaths in Scotland from 1 January 1855 when civil registration replaced the old system of registration by parishes of the Established Church (Church of Scotland). From 1855, registration became compulsory, regardless of religious denomination, and followed a standard format for each record type. More information was required in order to register an event, particularly at the start of the new system. 1855 death records show the date, time and place of death, deceased's name, sex, marital status, age and occupation, cause of death, duration of last illness, doctor's name and details of the informant. In addition, they show the usual residence, the deceased's place of birth, spouse's name, parents' names, occupations and whether they were deceased, names and ages of children or age and year of death if the child died before the parent. Up to 1860, the place of burial, the name of the undertaker and when the doctor last saw the deceased alive, were also included. As with births and marriages, this amount of detail had proved difficult to maintain. The deceased's birthplace was removed from 1856, as were the names of any children. The spouses name was also not required from 1856, but was reinstated in 1861. These can be viewed at www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk.

The 16th and 17th centuries saw many outbreaks of plague, including the Black Death or bubonic plague, which called for very quick internment often in unmarked lime pits away from the town. Other killer diseases which flourished in the heavily populated and unsanitary slums of towns and cities were cholera,† typhoid and smallpox. These took a terrible toll, especially among the children Ė over half of all children died before they were twelve years old. Adults were commonly dying in their early forties overtaken by sheer hard work of eking an existence, probably suffering from bouts of consumption (Tuberculosis) and the gravel ( stones in the urinary tract) which was very common through poor diet. Throughout the 17th century tens of thousands died from military service, both killed in battles and from `camp fever` (usually typhus), imprisonment and deportation as prisoners of war.


Statutory Deaths Index
The Statutory Deaths Index contains entries from the paper indexes to the civil registers of deaths for all Scotland, from 1855 until 2006. The index does not include the full date of the event because only the year was captured when the indexes were compiled, although the full date is present on register entries themselves. The old paper indexes for the years 1855 to 1865 did not record the age at death, although it is present on the actual register entries. The GROS is gradually adding the missing ages to the indexes. These can be viewed at www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk.

You may occasionally come across records with a note in the left margin 'RCE' or 'Reg. Cor. Ent.' followed by a volume number, page number and date. RCE stands for Register of Corrected Entries, or, after 1965, Register of Corrections, Etc. If, after an entry in a register had been completed, an error was discovered or some other amendment was required as a result of new information, the original entry could not be altered. Instead, each registrar kept a Register of Corrected Entries in which such amendments were written, originally after they had been approved by a sheriff. Corrections might be to name, residence, identity, or as a result of a precognition from a procurator fiscal giving additional or amended information on cause or circumstances of death. When an extract certificate is issued of an entry to which an RCE relates, the extract must reflect the amendments recorded in the RCE. These can be viewed at www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk. Use the information gleaned from a statutory deaths entry to further your search. The age recorded for the deceased can narrow down the search for their birth, but bear in mind that all the information in the entry is dependant on what the informant knew about the deceased. Look up the names of the deceasedís parents in the marriage index. Use the details of the informant to confirm any relationship with the deceased. Use the addresses of both deceased and informant to confirm census details and track remaining members of the family in earlier census returns. Remember that place of death and usual residence may not be the same. Use the date of death to check for gravestone inscriptions, newspaper obituaries, or a will.

Scottish Wills
The Scotlandspeople.gov.uk index is free to search. Register a free account and you will gain access to over 600,000 wills and testaments dating from 1513 to 1901. Each index entry lists the surname, forename, title, occupation and place of residence of the deceased person, the court in which the testament was recorded and the date.

The Minor Records
The minor records comprise records of births, deaths and marriages of Scottish persons outside Scotland. The following indexes to deaths in the minor records are available at www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk.

  • Air Register (from 1948) includes deaths on British-registered aircraft, where it appears that the deceased was usually resident in Scotland.
  • Consular Returns (from 1914) comprise registrations of death by British consuls relating to persons of Scottish descent or birth.
  • Foreign Returns (1860 - 1965) the Register of Deaths in Foreign Countries, which comprises deaths of Scottish subjects, entries being made on the basis of information supplied by parties concerned and after due consideration of the evidence.
  • High Commission Returns (from 1964) relate to the returns of death of persons of Scottish descent in certain Commonwealth countries.
  • Marine Register (from 1855) includes deaths on British-registered merchant vessels at sea, where it appears that the deceased was usually resident in Scotland and deaths at sea of Royal Navy and Royal Marine personnel during wartime, including Royal Naval Reserve, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and RNLI. Cause of death for RN personnel was recorded in the register as a number (1, 2, 3 or 4).
  • Service Returns (from 1881) include Army returns of deaths of Scottish persons at military stations abroad (1881-1959), and Service Departments Registers of deaths outside the United Kingdom of persons ordinarily resident in Scotland who are serving in or employed by HM Forces, including families of members of the Forces (from 1959).
  • War Returns include registers of deaths of Scottish soldiers in the South African War (1899-1902); Scottish persons serving as Warrant Officers, Non-Commissioned officers or Men in the Army (not officers) and Petty Officers or Men in the Royal Navy in World War I (1914-1918); Scottish members of the Armed Forces in World War II (1939-1945).

    Monumental inscriptions (MIís) may contain a variety of useful information about the deceased and the family. These are recordings of the details of gravestone information. Not everyone could afford a gravestone. Many stones have fallen or are weathered, and are now unreadable. You may find details on the following - birth date and place, death date and place, maiden name for women, marriage information, military service information, parents' names, family relationships, religious affiliation, fraternal organization memberships, personal details, financial status, occupation and employer details and the cause of death. This service is especially helpful for pre-1855 research.

    It was in the early 17th century that marker stones became more common amongst the relatively well-to-do in Scotland. Against the background of plain and simple burials, the grave stones in the early 17th century were mainly flat stones or - `thruch stanes` as from medieval times. Then upright slabs appeared with some details incised into the face of the stone. A common practice in Scotland was to engrave the initial(s) of the christian name on the left and the surname initial on the right. Tablestones, a flat stone set on four or six pediments, first appeared around 1643, and were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. The increase in the number of memorials after the Reformation perhaps reflects the growing importance of individual identity as well as personal wealth.

    Towards the end of the 17th century there was considerable use of tools of trade in the memorials and reflected the growth and eventual primacy of the Guilds over the merchants. However, their use, died out in the 18th century.

    Cemetery inscription lists are usually available for sale through local family history societies, and can be viewed at local libraries and The Mitchell Library in Glasgow. Many inscriptions are available free online by individuals and sites such as HappyHaggis.co.uk.

    Newspaper death notices
    These notices generally mentioned the husbandís name if the wife had died, but no mention of the wife if the husband died. Sometimes the cause of death and age is mentioned, and often the address. If you need help searching for a newspaper death notice, or newspaper story, we offer a search service. Please visit www.happyhaggis.co.uk/HHHelp for more information.

    Old Parish Records (OPRís)
    OPR records offer a very sparse coverage. Since there was no requirement to record these, a great many parishes simply did not bother and of those that did, many have not survived. Often the only record that a death has taken place will be implied in the payment of a fee to the parish for the hire of the mortcloth or pall which was draped over the coffin or the body itself for the funeral. Some people were not buried in the parish in which they were living. They were buried in the parishes of their family or fathers.

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