Friday, 19 February 2016

The Kirk Sessions - More than just fornication cases!

Canonbie Kirk as it is today
We often turn to the Kirk Sessions to look for cases of fornication when our ancestors were illegitimate. If it was discovered that a child was born to unmarried parents the couple would be brought before the Kirk Session, this was a group of men who would investigate ‘sins’ and discipline congregation members. The minutes of the Kirk Session are a wonderful resource when you are tracing your Scottish family tree and by far the most frequent cases are those of fornication but they are not the only ones you may come across.

While searching the records for a client today we found an entry in the Canonbie Kirk Session which is really very sad and quite different from the usual type of case. The entry has the National Records of Scotland reference CH2/1582/1/2:

1 August 1736
Canonbie Grave Yard 
“The session being informed that several people make graves in the church yard without acquainting the Beddel [Beadle] and sometimes encroach upon the property of others And John Armstrong having apprehended Gilbert Elliott in Broomiknow makeing a grave for a child of his complained to the Minester who ordered him to be summoned to the session which summons the session sustains and they resolve to rebuke him severely for his disorderly practice for a terror to others and if they do not desist to apply to Mr Lang chamberlane [likely Water Laing, chamberlain to the Duke of Buccleuch] to use his endeavours to prevent it But understanding that the said Gilbert is out of the countrey they order him to be summoned again to the session when he returns.”

Obviously you couldn’t have people going and digging up graveyards but it makes you wonder why the bereaved Gilbert Elliot had done it in the first place. Other than the fact that we learn that a daughter of Gilbert Elliot died (it doesn’t name the daughter) there is not a lot of genealogical information but it is interesting and it could help you understand your ancestors. So perhaps next time you are in the National Records of Scotland it may be worth looking at the Kirk Sessions even if you don’t have illegitimate ancestors!


  1. It reminds me of the scene from Tess of the d'Urbivilles and Tess burys baby Sorrow herself on 'hallowed ground' despite not being baptised, so so sad.

  2. A sad story. Nice to see a different type of resource being used for family history research though, I bet you've unearthed some very interesting tales! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Very sad and I can't blame the poor man for trying. Must look for for other issues next time I'm in.