Monday, 13 January 2014

Finding births in the NRS - How the professionals do it!

We’re going to look today at one way to trace your family back that extra generation. We’re looking at a common scenario, no birth in the Old Parish Registers (OPRs). What can you do?

It’s not uncommon in Scotland to trace your ancestors using the census, and have an approximate year of birth and place of birth but you can’t find an entry for your ancestor’s birth or baptism in the OPRs. Of course there are many types of records you could look at, but today we’re going to focus on Church Records in the National Records of Scotland (NRS) catalogue

Civil registration began in Scotland in 1855, before that the church was responsible for keeping records of baptisms, marriages and deaths in each parish. There a number of reasons, though, why your search may not turn up any results. Here a few:

  • The record was made but it has since been lost, burnt or in some other way damaged. Unfortunately there is not much we can do about this scenario.

  • The parish didn’t keep a separate register of births, marriages and deaths for the period of time you are interested in but rather kept details amongst Kirk Session minutes or accounts.

  • The family did not attend the Church of Scotland but were members of another church. I have dealt with Quaker records before. Most Catholic registers are now available through Scotland’s People. The family may, though, have attended a ‘breakaway’ church, such as the Free Church.

One simple thing you can do is look at the documents you already have, the post-1855 civil registration birth, marriage and death certificates. On a marriage certificate, for example, according to what religious form was the marriage ceremony performed? It will usually say “according to the forms of the Church of Scotland/Free Church etc.” If a member of the family married in the Free Church after 1855 it would be a good place to start your search in the pre-1855 records.

Now it’s time to turn to the National Records of Scotland (NRS) catalogue (formerly known as the National Archives of Scotland catalogue). Remember though, it is normally best not to proceed to this is the stage until you have researched thoroughly in the civil registration certificates. You should have a good indication of the parish your family were from and the rough year the event took place.

In the NRS catalogue, record references that begin with the code CH2 are from the Church of Scotland and records that begin with CH3 are records of other presbyterian churches which subsequently re-united with the Church of Scotland, such as the Free Church, United Presbyterian (UP), United Free (UF), Relief, United Secession, Original Secession, Burgher, Antiburgher, Associate and others.

So what are you going to start with? Did your family attend the Free Church after 1855? If you believe they may have done, begin with CH3.

Go to the catalogue

In the “Search for” box type the parish or town name, lets say “Hawick” in this example. In the Reference box, type CH3 and make sure you select “Starts” in that line. This means you will only be shown records starting with CH3, therefore reducing the number of entries you need to look through. Now click Search. So what do you get? Here’s what I was shown:



You now have two options, you can either refine the search by entering dates or just go through all the results.

Either way you’ll have to start to understand the reference numbers. Click on one you like the look of, what do you see?

In my list the sixth entry looks good, it says “CH3/1151 - Hawick, Free Church, St George's - 1842-1882.”

Click on the reference number and you will be given more information.



Do you notice the bit I’ve circled (click image to see it bigger), it says “Level - Fonds”. This means that you are looking at a collection of records, there could be many items within CH3/1151, each with a more specific reference starting with the code CH3/1151. So how do we find out more about the items or volumes within CH3/1151?

What I do is open up a new tab in my browser and open the catalogue again. This time put CH3/1151 in the reference, making sure the option “Starts” is selected, but this time put nothing in the “Search for” box.

You are now shown a list of items within CH3/1151, as it happens in this case there is only 1 but it’s the one we’re looking for: “CH3/1151/1 Title - Baptismal register 1842-82, Marriage register 1843-72.”

Perfect, we’ve found a register of baptisms for the parish. Now, how can I view it?

Click the reference number to go into the detailed description: 



At the top (circled) it tells us “Volume completely imaged”. This means the images can be viewed in the NRS in Edinburgh or any archive centre that has a “Virtual Volumes” link. Also (in the second circle) it says “Repository - Scottish Borders Archive and Local History Centre” This means the original volume has been deposited with the stated Archive, you can therefore view it there too.

You can now go back to your first tab (that’s why we left it up) to work your way through doing the same thing until you have a list of Churches with registers at the NRS for the period of time you need.

The principles of this search can be extended to any parish in any county.

Follow a similar process for the CH2 (Church of Scotland records), search for Hawick within CH2, a quick search shows CH2/1122 are the Records of Hawick, Old, Kirk Session. Go back to the search and just put the reference number in (leaving the “Search for” box blank), and now look through for anything of interest. You must do this stage or you will not see all the entries starting CH2/1122! This is a common mistake

Any difficulties, just send me an email and I’ll help you out.

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