Friday, 2 April 2021

Scottish Marriage by Declaration - Irregular Marriage - Sheriff Court Records

While you are researching your Scottish family history you will come across different wordings in the civil marriage registers (marriage certificates) that begin in 1855. These are the ‘Statutory Registers’ which you can search on ScotlandsPeople.

You may have seen, “After Publication according to the Forms of the Church of Scotland/Free Church/United Presbyterian Church of Scotland/Roman Catholic Church”. 

You may also see, ‘By Declaration in the presence of [names of witnesses].” In these cases, you will also see, “Warrant of the Sheriff Substitute of the [name of Sheriff Court]”.

I am including an image from ScotlandsPeople, which shows both of these types of entry on the same page. What’s the difference? Why is there a difference? Will the Sheriff Court records tell me more?

Until the mid-twentieth century, you could marry in Scotland by declaration. What does this mean? Basically, you said in front of witnesses that you were married and that was it; you were married. This was also known as an ‘irregular marriage’ (sometimes also referred to as a clandestine marriage) as opposed to a ‘regular marriage’ when a minister (or clergyman) performed the service.

An irregular marriage was quicker to arrange as the banns were not read. Although used by people throughout Scotland, it was perhaps the convenience of the marriage, along with the lower age requirement for marrying in Scotland without parental consent, that made places like Gretna Green on the border with England so popular for ‘runaway weddings’.

Both of these types of marriage were legal. The Church did not approve of irregular marriages and for that reason these frequently appear in Kirk Session records, but that’s a subject for another day.

Before 1855, when civil registration began, couples could declare in front of witnesses that they were married and that was that. 

After 1855, this type of marriage by declaration continued, but how was it to be recorded? To have the marriage registered the couple went to the Sheriff Court to receive a warrant. That warrant authorised the registration of the marriage.

Looking back at the marriage register is helpful here. We often make a dash for the names and dates but always take time to look at the headings. In the case of an irregular marriage, we see under the heading ‘When, Where and How Married’, the words ‘By Declaration in the presence of [names of witnesses].’

Another column heading is ‘If a regular Marriage, Signature of officiating Minister and Witnesses. If irregular, Date of Conviction, Decree of Declarator, or Sheriff’s Warrant.” Again in the case of irregular marriage, we usually see it completed, ‘Warrant of the Sheriff Substitute of the [name of Sheriff Court]’.

Are there corresponding records kept by the Sheriff Court?

Yes. These can be helpful, but not usually. Surviving records are generally found in the ‘Diet Books’ or ‘Minute Books’ of the sheriff court and are usually quite brief. In the example shown here, we see that the only extra information we are given is a bit more detail about the witnesses. I would never say not to follow the paper trail, just don’t get your hopes up.

Of course, there are often surviving church marriage registers post-1855 too which are occasionally useful. In general though, the information in the marriage register you can easily access on ScotlandsPeople will tell you just as much, if not more, than the corresponding church records. If you are up against a brick wall and can visit the National Records of Scotland, look at everything you possibly can.

Were all irregular marriages after 1855 registered?

There is evidence that they were not. I would like to do further study into this but occurrences in the Kirk Session minutes of the parish of Canonbie have been noted where a couple were reproved by the Kirk for being irregularly married and no corresponding record can be found in the marriage registers on ScotlandsPeople. 

Keep learning about Scottish genealogy by attending our free Scottish Indexes Conferences. The next is scheduled for 22 May 2021.

Monday, 8 March 2021

A glimpse of what's lost and hope for what can be found!

Sadly before 1855 there are 'missing' birth, marriage and death records. One reason for this is that not all of our ancestors attended the Church of Scotland. This may have been because they were not very religious or it could have been that they attended a church of another faith. If that’s the case we are less likely to find their life events in the Church of Scotland records on ScotlandsPeople. Sometimes a very diligent parish clerk ensured all births were registered regardless of the parents’ religious persuasion, but sadly this is not common.

There are, of course, records of other churches. Some of these have been digitised and made available online. Even when records are online they are not 100 % complete. The ravages of time, water, dust and on occasion mice have taken their toll on these records. 

In today’s example we have something very interesting. John Flynn, as some of you may remember from an earlier post was a ‘vagabond’. John married Ann Colquhoun on 5 April 1845 but by 1859 the marriage had broken down and there was quite an extensive court case.

This extract was provided as part of the court case. The marriage register was obviously still around in 1859 and I wanted to find the original entry. A search in the Church of Scotland Old Parish Registers (or OPRs) on ScotlandsPeople showed no results. What I found curious is that there are records for the parish of Urr for this period so I kept digging. I should mention at this point, the town of Dalbeattie was in the parish of Urr, which is in the county of Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland

I looked at the register to see if there were any gaps. I did this by searching for marriages in the year 1845 for the parish of Urr. I left the name blank. I could see that page 211 had marriages from March 1845 and page 212 had marriages from April 1845 (you can see this for free). I then clicked in to see the register and it looks very complete, with no blank sections where a clerk intended to come back and fill something in. There are entries for 15 March 1845 and 18 April 1845, but nothing for the 5th of April 1845 and nothing for John and Ann.

Looking again at the extract we found in the court case I see that John and Ann were married by John Strain. Who was John Strain, which denomination did he belong to? A quick search on Google brought up the Catholic Encyclopedia and this confirmed what I was beginning to suspect, that he was a Catholic priest. That would explain why the marriage is not in the Church of Scotland records!

Both Findmypast and ScotlandsPeople have Catholic registers so I made a search in these but nothing has been found. What I have found on Findmypast using their ‘Browse’ feature is that although there are many records for Dalbeattie, including for much earlier periods than 1845, there are not very many for the period when John Strain was a priest there. 

On this occasion, we know the record was created and was still in existence in 1859 but it seems that the original is lost. 

What can we learn through this little meander in the records? Look carefully at the record, find out who created it and why. Learn more about the creator of the record and the records they created. This will help you understand what you are looking at and help you piece together your family story.

We also learn that all is not lost when we can’t find a record of a birth, marriage or death before 1855. Clues survive in all sorts of places and we’re working hard to help get more of these court records added to so you can find these treasures. There is hope for what is lost.

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Smart Searching on ScotlandsPeople

We have all been in that situation, made a 1911 census search on ScotlandsPeople only to have five or more options that could all be our ancestor!

You can save those precious credits by making some smart searches.

Although you can add a ‘Forename of other person on that census page’, which can be helpful, this is not so helpful if you are searching for Johns, Marys and Williams as the chances are those names are on quite a lot of Scottish census pages!

When you get your list of results you are given Surname, Forename, Year, Gender, Age, Ref, RD Name and County/City.

The first five columns are self-explanatory, but what about ‘Ref’ and ‘RD Name’, what do these mean?

‘Ref’ is reference, this is displayed as a number, e.g. ‘569/ 1/ 7’. The first number which in this case is 569 represents the Registration District (RD) which is in this case Kilmacolm.

Over time some places grew rapidly and the registration districts were divided, when this happened we may see a district number like 572/2 which is Barrhead and Levern.

Returning to our original example of ‘Ref’ 569/ 1/ 7, the 1 represents the enumeration book and the 7 represents the page. 

Why is this useful? All members of a standard household will be either on the same page or on the page before or following. 

How can this help? Let’s say you find a John Smith in Kilmacolm, he’s the right age but you are not sure it’s quite right. Refine your search, take out the forename and age but look for all ‘Smiths’ in the district of Kilmacolm. 

Once you get the search results up look to see who has the reference ‘569/ 1/ 7’. Also, watch out for ‘569/ 1/ 6’ and ‘569/ 1/ 8’ in case the family splits over two pages!

You have now effectively recreated the family group and you can easily work out if this is ‘your’ John Smith before you spend those credits. 

This is going to be particularly helpful for the 1911 census as it is not available on other websites. If you are struggling to find people in earlier census years use websites like Freecen and ScottishIndexes to make free searches, or if you have a Findmypast or Ancestry subscription use their search to identify the family then go to ScotlandsPeople to see the original image.

Monday, 22 February 2021

Conversations, photographs and documents; taken out of context they can all be misunderstood!

We’ve all been in that situation, having heard a conversation and got the wrong end of the story. The same can happen with documents. We look at an entry half way through a volume and misunderstand what we are looking at. 

There was an example this morning in our group, a member asked why a 1902 list of Glasgow voters were all women. Good question! It seemed odd, and there were some ideas as to why this may be, but how would we get to the truth?

I went to Ancestry where we can view the records ( and found the entry that was mentioned in our group. I then paged back to the start of the section to read the heading which read, ‘Supplementary list of persons other than Parliamentary Electors entitled to vote in the election of the Town Councillors for the City and Royal Burgh of Glasgow’. These women were therefore only permitted to vote in certain elections. Their male counterparts will have already been listed in the other lists. Interestingly this list is not all women. There are some men but predominantly women are listed.

What do we learn? Don’t take a record out of context. If you can, page through to the start of the volume or section. Find out who created a record and why. Read other entries to see the whole picture.

Join our Facebook group to join in the conversation.

Tuesday, 12 January 2021

Tips for finding our ancestors in the 1911 census

As many of you will know the 1911 census for Scotland is not available on Findmypast or Ancestry. The Orkney 1911 census has been transcribed and is available from the Orkney FHS.

This means that we have to use the census on ScotlandsPeople which is a pay-per-view website. If we are researching a common name in a densely populated area we may have to look at many entries before we find the right one. 

How can we save those credits?

I will be sharing some tips at our conference on 30 January 2021 but here is one for you today.

Use Street Indexes

Before the census was available to public access, street indexes were prepared for large towns and cities. These can be helpful as they tell you which streets are in each registration district and even which census enumeration book. 

For example, earlier today I was searching for someone who I knew had been living at 272 Buchanan Street Glasgow in 1909. I wanted to work out from the ScotlandsPeople index (without paying anything) if any of the possible results could relate to 272 Buchanan Street.

First I went to the census street index for Glasgow and I was told that 272 Buchanan Street was in registration district number 644/8 and the relevant enumeration book was number 29.

Sadly you can’t use these reference numbers to search on ScotlandsPeople so I needed to work out what the name of registration district number 644/8 was in 1911. For rural areas, this isn’t such a problem but there are loads of districts in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee. It can all get a bit confusing. 

I now headed to the ‘Registration District guide - Glasgow’ which told me that in 1911 (very important to look at the date column) 644/8 was St. Rollox registration district.

I could now return to ScotlandsPeople and narrow down my search to St. Rollox. You can’t narrow it down to the enumeration book but we are looking for entries from 644/8 29. 

On ScotlandsPeople you will also see a page number as part of the reference number, for example we may see, ‘644/8 29/ 26’ This is registration district (RD) 644/8, enumeration book 29, page 26.

If I had originally thought that the entry with the reference 644/8 29/ 26 was 272 Buchanan Street, Glasgow, I would now know that it wasn’t and therefore I could save my credits for another search.

There are 1911 Census Street Indexes for the following places in Scotland:




Bothkennar, Grangemouth and Polmont

Bothwell, Holytown and Bellshill







East and West Calder




Greenock, Gourock and Port Glasgow





Kirkcaldy and Dysart

Lewis and Harris


New Kilpatrick

New Monkland

Old Kilpatrick

Old Monkland - Western District, Coatbridge and Old Monkland - Eastern District

Paisley, Johnstone and Elderslie



St Ninians


The Street Indexes are free from the National Records of Scotland here:

The ‘Parishes and Registration Districts of Scotland by name’ guide (1.4 MB pdf) lists all parishes and districts in alphabetical order with the dates during which each was operative. There are also pages with further breakdowns of the cities of Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow. See:

I hope this helps you understand the referencing system a bit more and will hopefully save you some of those credits while you hunt for your ancestors. Hope you can join us at the next conference for more Scottish genealogy tips!

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Top tips from the experts to keep your precious family photos safe for future generations!

Before and After -
This is Peter Rosenkranz from We are a professional online photo restoration service with instant quotes. Our company repairs all kinds of different damages such as watermarks, scratches, cracks or even torn pieces. Simply upload your old family photo and we’ll do the rest. 

In this tutorial, I will explain to you how to properly archive your images to prevent such damage in the first place.

Around 80% of all the restoration work we are performing is related to family photos. What’s interesting about it is that around about 60% of these images have only suffered severe damage because of improper storage or display. This shows how important it is to archive your old family photos properly.

One of the first things you have to understand is that the process of decay is extremely slow. Improperly storing them won’t affect them today or tomorrow but eventually will have an impact. Just take a look at photographs from the early 20th century. It is almost impossible to find prints without any damage. Most of them have minor or even major damage. Compared to the length of your family’s history a 100 years is a blink of an eye. For saving these images for future generations to come it is crucial to apply some simple guidelines.

1. Temperature and Humidity

This one is the most important one. Your photographs have to be stored in a dry and cool place. Don’t store them like most people do, either on the attic or in the basement.
In the attic, high temperatures during summer cause your photograph to fade whereas the high humidity in the basement can lead to fungus and mould. These alterations are irreversible and can only be restored by a professional.

2. Use proper archiving material 

When buying archive boxes and sleeves always check whether they are acid and bleach free. Even paper boxes can include these harmful chemicals. Over time these substances slowly alter your photographs through chemical reactions. You might not see it straight away but think about the days and years your photographs stay in those boxes.

3. Photos only!

This sounds reasonable but you won’t believe how many times I have seen those kinds of damage. Photos have to be stored with photos only. Don’t put Grandma’s necklace or Grandpa’s ring into the same box as their photographs. Every time someone is moving that box these objects scratch the sensitive surface of your photographs. For the best protection put each photograph in an acid-free archive sleeve.

4. Ultraviolet light

Ultraviolet light is the number one reason for faded photographs. Always try to keep your original photographs out of direct sunlight. Think about how dangerous it can be to human skin, the same goes for photographs. If you like to display your old family photos in the living room or office use UV block glass or even better create a copy of that photo and store the original somewhere else.

5. Adhesives 

We have done it all at some point… I’m talking about those handy and easy to use sticky strips and other adhesives. As useful they might be as dangerous are the chemicals inside of them. Only use those sticky strips on reproductions of your photos, not the original ones.

6. Air Pollutants

Yeah, I know this one sounds silly but still it happens quite often. Don’t put your photo box in the same room as daddy stores his paint thinner or mommy her aggressive cleaning agent. What makes you dizzy makes your photographs dizzy as well.

7. Framing

This one comes in handy when you want to frame your photographs. First of all, think about whether you want to display an original print or not. If it’s an original photograph make sure to use UV blocking glass. Also, think about the possibility of the image becoming stuck to the frame’s glass. This sometimes happens because of fluctuating humidity during the seasons. And seriously this happening is pretty much the worst case scenario.
To prevent that either use frames with a distance between glass and print or put a special translucent plastic sheet between glass and image.

8. Labelling

Some of you like to label their old photographs. This actually makes sense for future generations to understand who that person is. But never use a ballpoint-pen, marker or one of these printable sticker labels. Again these all include chemicals that will slowly alter your photograph. The best and most gentle way to label your images is by using a very soft pencil.

9. Create digital copies

Last but not least create digital copies of your images, especially the ones which have already suffered damage. If worst comes to worst you still have a back up on your hard disk.

Before and After -
Apply these simple steps and you're good to go. If any of your images are already damaged and you'd love to get them repaired or colourized check out our website.

Guest blog by Peter Rosenkranz

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Breaking Down those Brickwalls: Scottish Sheriff Court Records

James Anderson - Crown copyright NRS SC5/8/434

An Amazing Discovery

We have found what may be one of our best discoveries ever! As evidence in an affiliation and aliment case (paternity case) there is an ambrotype (an early type of photograph) of the accused man dated pre-1860. It was bundled up in a box of court records.

The man pictured here is James Anderson, a wood carter who was living at Arbeadie Cottage, Banchory Ternan, Kincardineshire. (Click here to see the entry in our index - NRS, SC5/8/434). To make sure no damage comes to this amazing item the conservation branch at the National Records of Scotland have removed it from the bundle and work will now be undertaken to preserve this piece of history.

Example from another case NRS Ref: SC62/10/390

Court Records

For longer than we might expect, women have been taking the fathers of their children to court to compel them to pay maintenance for their children. In Victorian Scotland these cases were most often heard in the Sheriff Court. The most common type of case is ‘Affiliation and Aliment’, that is a case that proves ‘affiliation’ or paternity and decreed how much ‘aliment’ or maintenance should be paid by the father. If your ancestor was illegitimate their mother may well have taken the father to court.


At the end of most cases a decree would be made, this was legally binding. You could pay for an extract of the decree so that you could keep a copy. There were various reasons people might want an extract of a case but they were not always made.

From the 1830s most Scottish Sheriff Courts kept a volume of extracted decrees. So let’s say someone went to the court and asked for an extract, they would be given one and the court would write the extract into a book. We are indexing these books. See our coverage page here.


As well as the volumes of decrees the court would also keep the process, or paperwork, related to the case. These include witness statements and can include love letters. This week we found a case that included this ambrotype!

Birth Certificate

From 1855 all ‘affiliation’ cases which reached decree resulted in a correction being made to the register of births. This means that you usually know which court to start your search in. This particular case was settled, so it did not reach decree. This means that there is no note on the birth certificate naming the father of the child.


With the help of a volunteer we are indexing the volumes of extracted decrees. Although these do not contain all cases, they do contain many of them. When a client orders a pre-1860 decree we let them know how many boxes we need to search to find the court process, or the more detailed paperwork. We charge £30 to search three boxes. As we search for the client’s case, we also note all other ‘paternity’ cases in the box and add them our index. If you would like us to search some records for you please get in touch.

This is what we were doing last Tuesday when we found the case that contained the ambrotype. The case can be seen here in our index. If you would like us to make a search for you just email me.

Brick Wall

Having an illegitimate ancestor is a major cause of family history brickwalls. We hope our indexing project will help break these down. If you would like us to search some boxes for you please just get in touch, I can’t promise to find a photograph for you but who knows what we will find!

Learn More

If you would like to learn more about Scottish Sheriff Court records or our indexing project, please see our Learning Zone.