By Ben Rogers |

All of us will encounter a variety of sources in our research, ranging from the hysterical to the down-right miserable. For those of us who look at the history of religious conflict in Scotland, the records of the Church of Scotland provide a valuable starting block upon which to build our projects. Though this post may be of more significance to those who study Scottish history post-1560, I hope that it will stimulate others into examining religious sources in order to see how fruitful church records can be. Nearly all the records are digitised and accessible in General Register House on Princes Street, though the handwriting within them leaves much to be desired.

In dealing with seventeenth century church records the first thing to remember is that due to the Church of Scotland’s reformed structure post-1560 (the creation of an ascending structure of power through a series of ruling authorities) is that each of these authorities possess their own records. These include the Kirk Session, the Regional Presbytery, the Provincial Synod and finally the General Assembly as the main legislative authority of the Church. Owing to the variety of business that these authorities dealt with, it is safe to assume that the records of a Provincial Synod would be more substantial than those of a Kirk Session. However, depending on what you are looking for, going through these records with a fine tooth comb is not necessary.

On average the records for each of these ruling authorities within the Church are structured in a very similar fashion. Since the Church of Scotland places strong emphasis on the importance of lay ruling elders in church governance, as well as the ministers, there is a strong sense of an active debate taking place in most of the records. A useful tip to remember is that at the start of each meeting of a Presbytery or Synod, a Fasti (attendance) was taken of all the ministers and elders who attended the respective meeting. This allows you to instantly see who was attending these meetings and if their attendance altered over long periods of time. Also, since local magnates were often ruling elders in the Church, it gives you a chance to see how much control they exercised in their locality over religious matters.

In terms of the debate within these ruling authorities, it depends on what exactly you are looking for in your project. You cannot just jump into a church record and assume that the ministers and elders are going to be automatically discussing items essential to your thesis. Patience and a bottle of eye drops are required when looking at these records. It is very easy to start on a record only to find that the ministers and elders spend three days discussing how much it costs to get the church roof fixed. They could also be investigating an adultery case which is not relevant but you end up finding very interesting because you have not watched television in three weeks, and this is the closest thing to a soap opera you will get. On average most church records will have small indicators on the side of the page giving you an idea of each individual minute of the meeting without having to read it in detail. Therefore, I would always stress that in dealing with a detailed church record, as with any fruitful source,  you need to know what you don’t need to know.

However, owing to the meticulous recording patterns of the Church, once you find a relevant point, whether it be a baptism or a blasphemy case, every individual detail and outcome of the meeting are written down, giving you loads of information to draw on. Even in my own research, with cases of religious conflict often starting in the lower levels of the Church in the Kirk Session and Presbytery. The cases are then often referred upwards to the Synod and General Assembly. This allows you to see how the Church dealt with contentious issues and individuals from a local to a national perspective.

Therefore church records can be an extremely useful source for any thesis from medieval to modern. While this post has dealt wholly with Church of Scotland records post-1560, this is not to say that church records in other countries or from other denominations would not be equally as fruitful. Since churches have always kept records of their proceedings and debates on a variety of topics, they will on average have something related to your field of research. You just have to remember what you are looking for and not get distracted by other interesting stories that the churches discuss.


Ben Rogers is a first year PhD student in Edinburgh and a contributing editor for Pubs and Publications.