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The Scottish Kirk Session
Written and submitted by Robin Fairservice

Please ask Robin’s permission before using his material for your genealogy sites or newsletters.

Those of us, who research our families in Scotland, must become aware of the Kirk Session.  What is it, and what does it do?

First we need to look at the origins of the Church of Scotland. We have all heard of Martin Luther, and about the Reformation in England, even then all we remember might be Henry VIII and his wives, and perhaps the destruction of the monasteries.  In Scotland there was also a reformation based upon the writings of John Knox and the “First Book of Discipline” written in 1560.  This set out the structure, or form of government, for the reformed church in Scotland.  Whereas Bishops and a Pope govern the Roman Catholic Church, Elders meeting as a Session, and then Presbyteries, a Synod, and finally the General Assembly govern the Church of Scotland. As the local church is called the Kirk, the meeting of Elders is called the Kirk Session.

The original purpose was to “carry out the instructions of General Assembly, examining communicants, and visiting the sick”.  In 1592 the Presbyterian form of government was established by an Act of the Scottish Parliament.  The Kirk Session then virtually became the only form of local government.  The Kirk Session had to deal with the Administration of Discipline, drunkenness, care for the aged, the infirm and mentally ill.  Coping with orphans and foundlings, dealing with education, famine relief, marriage problems, and national charitable collections.  They also had to watch over the conduct of the Minister and family.

In 1650 the Sessions had to supply lists of men for military service, and in 1695 they were required to ensure that Elders were present at “coffining” to check that the body was in a Scot’s linen shroud.

Charles I and II tried to replace the Presbyterian form of church government with an Episcopalian (headed by Bishops) form during 1606 – 1637, and 1661 – 1690, but this did not seem to change the Kirk Session who carried on doing what they always did.  The Scottish and English Parliament finally agreed not to impose Bishops onto the Church of Scotland.

Genealogists are of course most interested in the records that were maintained by the Kirk Session of Births, marriages and deaths, so lets have a looked at these events:


Before the reformation the common form of marriage was known as “hand-fasting”, an undertaking made by joining hands. Originally this was intended as a betrothal, or engagement, to marry.  By 1707 the General Assembly required ministers to ensure that there was no hand fasting without the knowledge of the minister, or in his absence, two or three of the elders.  Hand fasting was also used as a trial marriage for a year and a day, a frequent condition being that the woman should bear a son within that time.  After that period, the couple had to decide whether they wished to marry, or to part.  Any child was the responsibility of the partner who objected to marriage.  There is a place on the Ordnance Survey map in Dumfrieshire, called Handfasting Haugh, where an annual fair took place.  Naturally, the Kirk Session disapproved, particularly when the period of co-habitation went on year after year.  Often, if there had been witnesses at their espousal, the couple considered that they were married, but the fact was that they were not.  An Act of Parliament was passed in 1579 referring to “The wrath and displeasure of God caused by the wicked and ungodly form of living among the poor by neglect of marriage”.  A relic of the practice continued up to 1855, when Civil Registration was introduced in Scotland.

The Kirks required that hand fasting be replaced by formal contracts of marriage and proclamation of banns.  Some Kirk Sessions required that the couple show some evidence of education, such as being able to recite the Lord’s Prayer, Creed, and Commandments.  If one of the couple lived in another parish, they might be required to produce a certificate to show that they regularly attended church there.


In 1562, the Book of Common Order (Knox’s Liturgy) required children to be baptized in church, but some later acts of General Assembly and Parliament allowed home baptism in certain circumstances.  In 1643, the Directory of Public Worship decreed that baptism should always be administered in public, in Church, and not at fonts at the near the back of the church behind the backs of the congregation.  Baptisms normally took place on a Sunday, often as soon as possible after the birth.  The Book of Common Order said that the father and godfather, the latter being interpreted by the Confession of Faith as “a Christian friend” should bring the child to the Church.  Many baptism records list two witnesses, but it could be more.  There never seems to be any record of the mother being there!


Important although they new proper disposal of the dead to be, the early Presbyterian Church took a stark attitude to the matter of burial, making it entirely secular for reasons which are implicit in the instructions “Concerning burial of the Dead” decreed in the Directory of Public Worship which was drawn up in the mid-1640’s:

When any person departeth this life, let the body, upon the day of burial, be decently attended from the house to the place appointed for public burial, and there immediately be interred without any ceremony.  And because the custom of kneeling down and praying by or towards the dead corpse and other such usages, in the place where it lies before it be carried to burial, are superstitious: and for praying, reading and singing, both in going to and at the grave, have been grossly abused, are no way beneficial to the dead, and have proved many ways hurtful to the living; therefore, let all things be laid aside.

Howbeit, we judge it very convenient, that the Christian friends, which accompany the dead body to the place appointed for publick burial, do apply themselves to meditations an conferences suitable to the occasion; and that the minister, as upon other occasions, so at this time, if he be present, may put them in remembrance of their duty.  That this shall not extend to deny any civil respects or deference’s at the burial, suitable to the rank or condition of the party deceased, while he was living.

For many years, there were no burial services, except during the periods of Episcopalian Church in the 17th century. It was not until the mid 19th century that Burial services became common.

The bodies were often buried inside the church, under the floor.  This was common in England as well, and if you are inside one of the great cathedrals you will see gravestones in the floor.  In the 1960’s, was involved with the excavation of an Abbey in Faversham, Kent, and two skeletons were found under what had been the floor.  In 1978 one church in Scotland, found 24 bodies under the boiler room floor.

The early churches had earthen floors and it apparently not uncommon for bones to be sticking out of the floor!  In the heat of summer, there may also be some strong odours.  Various General Assemblies tried to outlaw this practice, but the payment of special fees could often persuade the Session to allow burial within the church.

In examining Scottish parish records, one can see reference to “Mort Cloths”. These were coverings that were put over the plain coffin as it was taken to the church, and might have covered a body if a coffin could not be afforded. These belonged to the Session and were rented out.

The Poor

In 1574, an Act of Parliament involved the church in the care of the poor.  The Session had to prepare an annual roll of the old, poor, and unfit, who had been born in the parish, or had lived there for seven years. The Session collected money, or food, weekly, to be shared among them. If the Session could not raise enough, then they could be given licences to beg around the houses. Young people could be placed into service, as either farm servants for the boys, or house servants for the girls.

In 1845, the Poor Law Amendment Act took this responsibility away, and it became a local government activity. The Poor Law records for Glasgow and Lanarkshire have been indexed, and make interesting reading. There is a lot of genealogical information in those records, if your ancestors were unfortunate enough to receive relief then.

Foundling And Orphans

The Heritors (landowners) were responsible for orphans and foundlings, but usually the Session did this work. Children were looked after until they were 14 years old. They tried to find a family who would look after them and would assist financially. In the early 1700’s there was an Orphan Hospital in Edinburgh, which had 160 children from all over Scotland. The Session paid for any children from their parish.

Foundlings were baptised by the churches, and often named after the parish; i.e. Robert Glasgow, or Arthur Lesmahagow.


Well into the 18th century, the Session provided medical help such as finding a nurse.


In 1496, an Act of Parliament said that parents should send their sons to Grammar School to learn Latin and then three years to schools for Art and Law. Obviously not many families could afford this. In 1579 Parliament ordered that “Sang Schools”, or schools for singing, be established in each Burgh. In 1616, the Privy Council ordered that there should be a school in each parish, and an Act of 1633 provided for Taxation.

Most parishes were able to provide schools, and schoolmasters, who taught the children Maths, English and Latin.  By the end of the 17th century education was common through out Scotland.


The Kirk Session was a Court of the Church, and could make enquiries, call witnesses, and call a suspect to interrogation. The term for this was “to Compear”.

As the body responsible for caring for the poor, and responsible for the morals of the parish, illegitimate children were a major concern.

Other Works

So that the parishioners could get to church, the Session built bridges, and operated ferries.  In the1600’s, the Session built a bridge across the Clyde at Lanark so that people could get to the market n Lanark.


So, when you start to read that microfilm of a Scottish Church’s records, you may see references to some of the activities referred to in this brief story.

I obtained much of this detail from a book by Anne Gordon, entitled “Candie for the Foundling”.

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