Yet again, I’m extremely grateful to my fellow family historian and distant relative John Brechin, this time for making a fascinating discovery in the National Archives in Edinburgh. John has looked up the 18th century kirk session minutes for the parish of Auchterless, Aberdeenshire, and identified all the entries that appear to mention members of the Robb (or Rob) family. He has kindly sent me both electronic and paper copies, and I’m indebted to him for his time and effort.
The writing in these records can be quite difficult to decipher, but as with other contemporary accounts, they have the effect of making our ancestors spring to life from the dusty pages of history, and they provide the kind of intriguing (if not always complimentary) insights into their characters and daily lives that you just can’t get from parish registers and census records.
I’ve managed to transcribe the relevant passages as best I can, and in the next few posts I’ll be reproducing some extracts, and speculating as to what they can tell us about the Auchterless Robbs. For now, though, it might be useful to provide some background information about kirk session minutes.
Genealogist Diane Baptie describes the range of Church of Scotland records in existence:
The Kirk Session Minutes contain records of fornication, poor rolls, mortcloth accounts (good for finding deaths); some baptisms and marriages not engrossed in the Old Parish Registers […] There are also some earlier censuses, communion rolls and lists of heads of families.
The Presbytery Minutes are valuable for finding out about ministers, schoolmaster, divinity students and the church buildings as well as transgressors who were referred to them by the kirk sessions.
And social historian Leah Leneman adds the following useful context:
The Presbyterian church in eighteenth century Scotland was organised in a pyramidal structure. First there were the kirk sessions, responsible for controlling moral conduct at parish level, then presbyteries, responsible for church affairs of a group of parishes in one area, then synods, and finally the General Assembly which operated at national level. For the social historian, it is the kirk session records which are of most interest because they document the behaviour of social classes who do not normally appear in written records.
The session consisted of the Minister and a group of elders, who would be respected members of the community. They were not usually land-owners or members of the elite (the latter might involve themselves at presbytery level but rarely at kirk session level).
As the Presbyterian Church was, after 1689, the Established Church of Scotland, the kirk session in theory had jurisdiction over the whole of its parish.
How seriously did parishioners who fell under the kirk session’s authority take it? They certainly made use of it when it came to protecting their good name. Slander and backbiting were considered sinful by the kirk, and the session provided an opportunity for parishioners who felt they had been slandered to come forward and vent their grievance. Throughout the century the session acted as mediator between aggrieved parties, taking the trouble to hear both sides and reconcile fractious neighbours.
The obsession with the moral, and especially the sexual conduct of parishioners, is certainly in evidence in the Auchterless records copied by John. It’s important to remember that indiviuals would only come to the attention of the session if they had transgressed in some way – antenuptial fornication, adultery, slander and Sabbath-breaking seem to have been particular concerns – or if they were in need of parish charity (which shows the kirk in a more positive and compassionate light). This means that we inevitably get a slanted view of our ancestors’ behaviour (their good behaviour obviously goes unrecorded) and it’s refracted through the lens of contemporary values. So activities that most people today would regard as unremarkable – such as sexual relations before marriage, even with the person you had pledged to marry – in 18th century Aberdeenshire were cause for stern rebuke and even financial penalties. And in understanding our forebears’ sexual antics, it’s useful to remember that it was usual for men to delay marriage until they could afford to provide a home for their new family.
As with all records, the more you find out, the more you want to know, and having this glimpse into the lives of my Auchterless ancestors has made me hungry to discover if there are other similar records lurking in the archives. Perhaps the Culsalmond kirk session minutes might confirm whether my 3 x great uncle William Robb was indeed the parish schoolmaster before he was ordained as an Episcopal clergyman?
The good news for family historians is that kirk sessions records for the whole of Scotland are in the process of being digitised, and there are plans for general online access, perhaps via Scotland’s People, possibly as early as autumn next year.