Monday, 2 September 2013

Sheriff Court records

If you have been doing genealogy for more than five minutes you will have discovered that our Victorian ancestors were not quite as well behaved as we may have have been led to believe. The number of children born outside marriage, or within weeks of the marriage astounded me when I began researching.

This can present a real challenge to the family historian. In Scotland a marriage certificate after 1855 will sometimes give both parents’ names even in a case of illegitimacy. Sometimes, though, even with a name of the father, finding him can be more than a little challenging, as so little information is given about him. This can lead to the inevitable brick wall.

There are various ways to overcome this, one being the Kirk Session records of the Church of Scotland and other Presbyterian churches. These were well explained in the episode of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ featuring Annie Lennox. These are certainly a very sensible first port of call.

As the nineteenth century progressed, the Kirk Session records tend to decline in usefulness as fewer people are recorded in them, especially in the larger towns. This also means a record of baptism naming both parents is unlikely.

There is however another, often overlooked, source available and that is the Sheriff Court records. The Sheriff Courts deal with criminal and civil cases, and in looking for paternity cases we generally begin with the records of civil cases. A good place to begin is the decree books, where these exist. These are usually neatly written volumes, covering at most a few years at a time. The decree records the outcome of the case and will be helpful in giving us a brief summary of the facts as established by the court. The disadvantage has been is that these records are often time-consuming to search. The National Records of Scotland (NRS) hold them, but as they are not stored in the same building as the search room they must be ordered in advance a day or two before your visit. All of this is could seem quite a hassle and you have no guarantee of finding anything.

That is why I am so pleased to tell you that we have uploaded a new set of records to our website: Paternity Cases in the Decree Books of Jedburgh Sheriff Court. Our index to these records has been produced with the kind assistance of Margaret Hamilton. The books have been searched for paternity cases where the mother of an illegitimate child is taking the father (or his relatives) to court to receive aliment for the child.

You can search our court records page by mother or father and see if there is a case relating to your ancestors:

You can search by mother’s name alone, or by father’s name alone to see if your ancestor is in the database. You can also search by year to narrow down the results. Once we expand the database I will prepare some ‘how to’ guides. Follow me on Twitter to keep up-to-date @maxwellancestry


  1. That's a truckload of data you're going to have there! And probably hundreds of these intersecting with each other. How does one begin to sort this out, heh. You're going to need a good database for that, and massive storage for all the variables involved. Good luck there!