Lochaber Archive Series – Church Records

Drawing of Glengarry Church. d.1895 (L/D92/2/1).

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Part five of our regular series of articles written by the Lochaber Archive Centre in Fort William, explaining what it does, informing readers of upcoming events and delving into its fascinating collections.

Amongst our collections at the Lochaber Archive Centre we hold a great many records donated to us from the Church of Scotland and the Free Churches which rejoined the Church of Scotland in the early 20th century.

These relate to churches across the Lochaber area and include records of Church of Scotland Synods, Presbyteries, and Kirk Sessions minutes, financial records, baptismal registers, and communion rolls. The earliest record minutes from a Kirk Session of the Presbytery of Abertarff, is dated 1724.

For centuries the church was at the centre of everyday life in the Highlands, overseeing
schooling, poor relief, and the moral discipline of the congregation.

The majority of the church records we hold are Kirk Session minute books. These detail local church life (each Kirk Session being made up of a parish minister and a number of elders). In addition to information about sermons, money collected, early minutes contain insights into the power of the church.

They are full of reports into parishioners’ moral behaviour, with numerous references to unholy conduct, including Sabbath-breaking, ante-nuptial fornication, and violence.

In case of ante-nuptial fornication, to use the correct terminology, both parties would appear before the Session and their sins read to them. Upon confession, the guilty couple would be instructed to repent, and asked to pay a fine to the church, sometimes as alms for the poor.

Kirk Session minutes often contain the details of illegitimate births, with the names of both parents recorded. Those interested in family history might also consult the register of parishioners receiving poor relief from the church, or simply the list of attendees.

Even if no specific mention can be found of an ancestor, church records can provide very rich contextual information about the time in which they lived.

As well as all the juicy details of ill-discipline, sometimes found in these documents are
pieces of information now of national and international historical importance. For example in 1746 the Presbytery of Abertarff (later Lochaber) was prevented from meeting as usual by the ‘wicked and unnatural Rebellion which had waged till the Sixteenth day of April last, when his Royal Highness the Duke of Cumberland did entirely defeat the Rebels at Culloden…’

The Presbytery thought it safer not to meet, as Hanoverian troops were still
pursuing Jacobite rebels ‘lurking in the hills’ nearby. (CH2/7/4)

Owing to the furthering separation of church and state, Church Records gradually contain far less scandal and intrigue. However, they continue to shed light on religious operations in the Highlands and to hold contemporaneous reference to local life and people, and to historical events. They are of invaluable worth.

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