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Help and advice for County versus Parish

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County versus Parish

The rather messy parish list for Banffshire shows up the limitations of the "Parish, County" system of classifying OPRs, BDMs, Poor Law Records, Census returns and many other records of interest to the genealogist. The problem arises because "Parishes" and "Counties" actually belong to two entirely different organisational systems, which existed independently of each other for centuries, and were only brought together (rather untidily) in the mid-19th century.

On the one hand is the system set up by the Kirk of Scotland after 1560, whereby every inch of Scotland was assigned to a geographically-defined parish. For organisational purposes, these parishes were then grouped together into Presbyteries, and the Presbyteries into Synods, an arrangement which exists to this day. On the other hand there is the system, in part even older, in part newer than the Kirk's setup, for organising the Crown's affairs. This was based on a division of the country into Counties, for military and judicial purposes, and for the registration of land ownership.

Since these two administrative systems operated largely independently of each other, their boundaries seldom coincided, and Banffshire is split between two Synods and three Presbyteries. This did not matter much until the middle of the19th century, when, in the course of just 25 years, three of the Kirk's traditional responsibilities (for Poor Relief, for the Registration of Births, Marriages and Deaths, and for Schools) were brought under the direct control of the civil government. The early "civil servants" who set up the new systems employed a mixture of what today would be called "top-down" and "bottom-up" strategies. They tended to see the country as a collection of counties, and set up their systems of control and inspection accordingly. But at the same time, they sensibly tried to tap in to existing local expertise, which meant recruiting their Poor Law Inspectors and Registrars from among the Schoolmasters and Session Clerks in the parishes.

So first the Poor Law and then Civil Registration came to be based on territories that were initially identical with the Kirk parishes, but which were managed in county groupings. To make things worse, in response to population growth and shift, the Kirk continued to create new "quoad sacra" parishes, while the civil authorities set up extra Registration Districts (or "quoad civilia") parishes. Needless to say, the boundaries of each were not coordinated. The result was frequently the sort of muddle that we see with the parishes of Banffshire, which persisted until 1891, when a Boundary Commission abolished many (but not all) of the anomalies. And to complicate matters further, there were two major reorganisations of Local Government in the latter part of the 20th century, and these, too, have left their mark.

Why should any of this matter? Because it means that when we are looking for our ancestors in the historical record, we may have to look in a number of quite different places, depending on which authorities they originally had to deal with, and on which modern archives may have fallen heir to their documents. To take an example:

Suppose you had an ancestor who was born around 1830 in the hamlet of Auchenhalrig, which lies a couple of miles east of the river Spey, and the same distance from the coast. Auchenhalrig was then deemed to lie in the Parish of Bellie. This was one of many "split" parishes, but Auchenhalrig lay in the part which belonged to Banffshire. So if you want to find the record of his baptism, you would look under Banffshire?

Well, no. As a result of later boundary changes, the Parish of Bellie is nowadays reckoned as belonging exclusively to the county of Elginshire or Moray. (Although the lead-in to the LDS Microfilm of the Bellie OPRs suggests that the parish belongs to the County of Nairn!).

Your ancestor, still living in the house where he was born, grows to man's estate and, some time in the early 1850s, takes a wife, one of his neighbours in the village. So we would look for their marriage in the OPRs for Bellie, Elginshire?

Well, no. A few years after his birth, the area round his local kirk became a "quoad sacra" parish, called Enzie, so from about 1835, we need to look for the record of his doings there. The parish of Enzie is regarded, in modern usage, as belonging to Banffshire.

With the start of Civil Registration in 1855, Enzie became a Registration District under Banffshire, so we would expect to find their children in the Banffshire BDMs?

For once, yes. The pre-1900 Civil Registers for Enzie are held in the "Area Repository" at the Banff Registrar's. And the family's Census returns are also classed as belonging to Banffshire. (Although some of the early Enumerators were not quite clear on this point.)

Sadly, your ancestor dies before he reaches the age of 30, leaving his widow with a young family to support. So presumably we will find a record of her application for relief under the Poor Law in the records of the Poor Law Board of Enzie?

Well, no. For some reason, Enzie, although both a "quoad sacra" Parish and a Registration District, does not appear to have qualified for its own Inspector of the Poor. Instead, claims from folk in Auchenhalrig are processed by the Parish of Bellie, whose Poor Law records will be found with the other parishes of Elginshire/Moray. Although, as a result of 20th-century reorganisations, these are now held by Aberdeen City Archives.

This is perhaps an extreme example, but it is by no means unique. It underlines the need to look behind the simple "Parish, County" label.