Monday, 5 December 2016

Scottish Kirk Sessions

The biggest problem I have in my work is that I am way too easily distracted! Here is an example. I was searching the Tongland Kirk Session Minutes (CH2/1244/2) in the National Records of Scotland the other day and found this very interesting entry from 2 September 1869:

Voluntarily compeared Ann Bird or Morton wife of Joseph Bird, Sailor who confessed that in the month of October last she gave birth to a child in uncleanness, she having been married in the month of July previous: On being admonished to be ingenuous and to speak the truth, she declared that Jonathan Turner was the partner of her guilt and the father of her child. Her husband Joseph Bird is known to bear testimony corroborative of the statement, and although disowning the paternity of the child has adopted it as his own. Having been solemnly admonished by the Moderator she was absolved from scandal.

Tongland Kirk
A search in the birth records found the birth certificate of the unnamed child. James Morton (or Bird) was born on 1 October 1865, and it is column 4 of his birth certificate which is the most interesting. Column 4 on a Scottish birth certificate gives the ‘Name, Surname, & Rank or Profession of Father, Name, and Maiden Surname of Mother And Date and Place of Marriage’. In this column on James’ birth certificate we read: “Ann Morton, married on 22nd July last to Joseph Baird, sailor who she declares is not the father of the child, & further that he was at sea for Months prior to 18 July 1868.”

A search in the census of 1871 shows that James (aged 2) was living with his maternal grandparents. I’ve not traced this family any further as I really should be doing research for clients but if you are related I would love to hear from you.

What do we learn from this? It is important to look at as many records as possible to get a full picture of what’s going on within a family, which can take effort. Historic Scottish birth certificates are available online but Kirk Session records are not (yet). For the time being you can access them in Edinburgh and various satellite locations around Scotland, including archives in Hawick, Aberdeen, Kilmarnock and Glasgow. There are other archives who also have access to the digital images, it’s worth checking with the National Records of Scotland to see if an archive near you has access.

The fact that the Church of Scotland Kirk Sessions are digitised is a great help but there is as yet no index to most of these minutes. Having said that, I wouldn’t have found this entry if I had used an index, when you browse a volume interesting entries jump out at you. If your family is from a small to medium-sized parish in terms of population, and you have access to the digital images, I would recommend browsing the volumes; who knows what you will discover!



Monday, 28 November 2016

Scotland's Community Heritage Conference 2016

We recently attended Scotland's Community Heritage Conference 2016 in Aberdeen. It was a great day so I want to tell you a little about it.

We genealogists (professional or hobbyists) approach research looking at the people. First we gather names and dates, then we start to think about their lives. We met many people at the conference who work from the other direction, they focus on a community, thinking first about people’s lives then perhaps looking at the individual people. This means that these are the people we need to contact once we have our lists of people and dates! This is particularly true if you are planning a trip to Scotland to research your family history and have a limited time here.

One of my favorite talks of the day was given by Lorna Summers of the Portsoy Salmon Bothy. Laura has worked hard in Portsoy to not only tell the story of Portsoy Harbour but also make history live. Within the renovated bothy is a museum but they also have a lot of events going on which bring the fishing industry to life for young and old alike. The highlight of the calendar is the The Annual Scottish Traditional Boat Festival. If your ancestors were involved in the fishing industry this would be a great place to get a feel for what their life was really like.

Before lunch we experienced ‘One-Minute Mayhem: 60-second presentations against the clock. If you have met me you may well imagine that I was tempted to join in but at the same time I did have to think about what I was going to say. Jean Shirer, our dear friend from the Aberdeen Family History Society, stood up and did an excellent presentation and so I raised my hand and followed in her footsteps. Graham recorded my 60-second presentation so you can judge for yourself how well I did!

At lunchtime there were some tours on offer, we opted for the St. Mary’s Chapel and Mither Kirk Project and the Aberdeen Archives tour. To be honest I did not know what to expect on the first tour, we had time so we went but I had done no research; we were amazed. As you can see from the photos this old church (now in trust) has been excavated and an archaeological dig has taken place. It was clear to see the remains of previous churches and graves, burials from before the time our research often takes us. As we stood looking at the bones stuck in the wall (in places they had been used as rubble when the building was redesigned) it reminded me that when we see a gravestone or a death certificates these are very very real people! One of the amazing objects to be found was a scallop shell, a pilgrim token from Santiago de Compostela, Spain! There are various open days so if you are in Aberdeen I can definitely recommend that you visit and see the place for yourself.

After lunch Amy McDonald from the National Library of Scotland gav a talk called, “Connecting Scotland’s Sounds”. She played Scottish fiddle music taken from a wax cylinder of 1909! To be able to hear something your ancestors created and/or listened to brings a whole new dimension to your family history! You can follow Amy and the team on twitter to learn more about preserving and sharing Scotland's sound heritage!

All in all it was a great day and hopefully there will be a similar event next year.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Life in the Asylum

There is no denying that asylums across Scotland varied greatly in the mid-nineteenth century. Some details that were published in the 1857 Royal Commission Report are quite sobering. Some accounts however are quite encouraging. I like the entry for Miss Campbell's House:

"MISS CAMPBELL'S HOUSE, MUSSELBURGH; Visited 2d May 1855.

A good house, in a garden. There is only one patient, an old lady, who has been here many years. She was out walking, accompanied by an attendant, when the visit was made. On a second visit she was seen, and appeared to be comfortable, and properly taken care of."

By searching our index for all entries for “Miss Campbell's House” we see that Miss F. Gordon entered the asylum on 9 December 1812, it’s nice to know that she was so well cared for. The full entry in the General Register tells us that Miss F. Gordon died in August 1869.

There are many surviving records for our ancestors who were admitted to Scottish asylums. The national series of records show the date of admission, some background information and when the person died or otherwise left the asylum. The records of individual institutions, now often deposited in local archives, can give details on treatment and sometimes even contain photographs.

From the new section of our website you can read about each Scottish mental health institution, locate it on a map and in most cases find out where the records are now held. We update our database regularly so keep checking back to see what new records we have indexed.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Finding Historic Mental Health Records in Scotland

We have been working hard over the last few months to index historic mental health records in Scotland. We have just released thousands of new records and hope to add to this over the next few weeks. The work is supported by volunteers and sponsors!

‘General Register of Lunatics in Asylums’
We are indexing the ‘General Register of Lunatics in Asylums’. This register begins in 1858 and records all patients in mental health institutions (often referred to as lunatic asylums) in Scotland.

While we have been working to index the historic Mental Health records for Scotland, we have been researching them and trying to locate more surviving records along the way.

We have been working with archives across Scotland to collate all this information into one place. You will find a page for each ‘Lunatic Asylum’ which will tell you its alternative names, its location, if any indexes exist, where the records are kept and (for asylums in operation before 1857) a description of the asylum. We hope you will all find this useful.

To learn more about our ‘Mental Health Records in Scotland’, including seeing examples of the records that we are indexing, visit our Learning Zone.


Monday, 14 March 2016

SAFHS Conference and Family History Fair 2016

We are looking forward to the 27th “Scottish Association of Family History Societies (SAFHS) Conference and Family History Fair” which will take place this year in the wonderful conservation village of New Lanark on Saturday 23 April 2016.

The SAFHS conference is always a highlight in the genealogy calendar. There is a long list of exhibitors and an interesting selection of talks. The theme for the day is "Heritage along the Clyde" so the event will be of particular interest to you if you had ancestors who lived and worked along the banks of the Clyde river.

Emma Maxwell, genealogist
at Scottish Indexes, will be speaking on the
subject ‘Understanding Our Ancestors -
 A Look at Prison Registers and Mental Health Records’
For those of you with ancestors from other areas of Scotland, many of the family history societies will be present and there will also be representatives from commercial companies such as Findmypast and Scottish Monumental Inscriptions, as well as us of course!

There will be four talks given throughout the day, the cost of which is very reasonable: 4 talks £16 or 4 talks and buffet lunch £20.

Speaker 1 is Jane Masters who will give the talk, ‘New Lanark Mill’
Speaker 2 is Dr Irene O'Brien who will give the talk, ‘Industries along the Clyde - Records held in the Mitchell Library’
Speaker 3 is Dr Stephen Mullen who will give the talk, ‘Glasgow, the West of Scotland and New World Slavery, 1660-1838'’
Speaker 4 is Emma Maxwell who will give the talk, ‘Understanding Our Ancestors - A Look at Prison Registers and Mental Health Records’

If you are interested in hearing one or more of the talks it is advisable to book now to ensure you get to hear it. You can book online from the conference website: http://safhs2016.weebly.com/store/c1/Featured_Products.html

We look forward to meeting many of you on the 16th of April, please come along and say hello.

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!

Monday, 26 October 2015

Smallpox in the National Records of Scotland

Smallpox is a word that has inspired fear for generations. Our ancestors suffered with little help and it was not until the 26th of October 1977 that the world’s last naturally occurring case was discovered.


We are the product of generations of ancestors who survived long enough to have children, but we know that sadly many of our ancestors’ siblings did not survive. It is rare to find detailed health records of our ancestors, so although we might theorise that they endured diseases such as smallpox we do not often have any evidence one way or the other.


Clues do exist, though, if you know where to look. One interesting source is the prison registers held by the National Records of Scotland. Victorian prison records are very detailed, and one of the columns on the registers was headed ‘Marks’. In this column, as well as finding details of tattoos or scars, we commonly see written ‘pock marked’, ‘poxpitted’, ‘pock pitted’ and even ‘Marked with small pox’. A person could become pockmarked by various skin conditions, but smallpox was a major cause of such scarring. Depending on the description used, it can be very clear that they suffered from smallpox at some point in their life, information which may not be found in any other record. The image to the left shows William Phillips and Betsy Phillips are recorded as being marked with the smallpox in an 1848 prison register; you can search an index to these records on our website.


Another source of information is the Kelso Dispensary patient records, which are also held by the National Records of Scotland. These records provide a fascinating glimpse into the history of smallpox. Founded in 1777, this charitable institution saw patients with many ailments, and smallpox is frequently seen in the records. Between October 1793 and October 1794 the Dispensary saw 29 cases of smallpox, with one case resulting in death.

Click to see image full size

The records of the Kelso Dispensary document many cases of smallpox. Above we see an entry for Thomas Tenant who died of the disease in 1797. This entry is again from the National Records of Scotland, their reference number for the document is HH71/43.

In 1796 a physician named Edward Jenner discovered that infecting someone with cowpox gave them protection from the much more dangerous smallpox. This was effective because when a person was exposed to cowpox, the human body produced antibodies which helped protect them from smallpox. This was the world’s first vaccine!

The vaccine came too late for poor Thomas, though. Just a few years later, on 10 August 1800, we see the first entry of smallpox inoculation by the Kelso Dispensary. Sadly the names of the children are not listed but these ten children surely have a place in history.

Click to see image full size

As with many new ideas the smallpox inoculation (or vaccination) was not universally accepted. Cartoons of the time depict the fear that the public had at the time, that somehow the cowpox may turn them into a cow! Science prevailed however and the results were clear. In time an improved vaccine was made and the rest, as they say, is history. This terrifying disease now only exists in laboratories, let’s hope it stays that way!

When researching our ancestor’s past we are not content with a lists of names, dates and places, we want to dig deeper and understand the people we are descended from. By looking at a variety of records you can do that too. We are working on a project to index Scottish prison and health records so that you can trace your family tree and find out more about the people behind the names, including the diseases they had to endure. Search www.scottishindexes.com for the names of your ancestors and discover more about their lives.

A page from a prison register