Protestant NonConformity (1)


Protestant NonConformity in Scotland
An Introduction, Part One


by Sherry Irvine, CGRS, FSA (Scot)

Failure to find a record of a baptism, marriage, or burial in the records usually results from one of three reasons:

  1. the event was recorded in the register of another denomination
  2. looking in the wrong place and/or time period
  3. missing registers or a gap in the records

It is the first of these that is discussed here, in particular where the family in question belonged to the congregation of another Presbyterian church, or of another Protestant denomination. What needs to be considered is how likely our ancestors were to stray from the mainstream, what other options were available to them, and what records have survived to record their religious choice. Before addressing these questions, it helps to summarize the main events of religious history in Scotland.

In 1560 the Roman Catholic Church ceased to be the Established Church; it was replaced by the Church of Scotland. When King James VI of Scotland succeeded Elizabeth I in 1603 and became, as well, James I of England, he began a long and cautious struggle over the matter of church governance in Scotland. James favored the Episcopal structure of the Church of England, but he died leaving the situation unresolved. His son, Charles I, lacked patience and political skill, and his determination to introduce change in Scotland resulted in the Bishop's Wars (1639 and 1640). Charles' need for funds for these wars forced him to recall the English Parliament, which had not sat in 11 years. It was the beginning of an inevitable progress towards the opening battle of the English Civil War in 1642. Scotland entered this conflict on the side of Parliament late in the following year -- a decisive act, and one aspect of the agreement was that the English introduced a Presbyterian church structure into England. This lasted until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

Charles II and his government declared any law passed since his father's time to be invalid, which effectively restored the Episcopalian church to a position of supremacy. This was unacceptable to a large part of the Scottish people, and the next 25 years or so were turbulent, at times violent. William III brought stability by restoring the authority of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland in 1689. As one church or the other went in or out of prominence, it imposed restrictive laws on other religions. There were penalties for being married according to an "opponent's" rites; in fact the church authorities may have been more concerned with this than with "irregular" marriages, those by consent before witnesses (see D.J. Steel, National Index of Parish Registers, Vol. 12, Scotland, 1970).

In Scotland, other Protestant denominations never attracted the kind of support they had south of the border. It may be that the efforts that went into the struggle of the Presbyterian Church with the central government in England was part of the reason for this. Whatever the cause, it is not as likely in Scotland that our ancestors belonged to the Methodist or Congregational or other dissenting faiths. As for the Episcopalian Church, it was proscribed for nearly a hundred years, and its members were regarded with particular suspicion after the 1715 and 1745 Jacobite uprisings. In his essay on ecclesiastical history, Francis Groome (Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland, 1883-85) reports the number of adherents of the main nonconformist faiths at that time:

  • Episcopalians: 294 churches, 84,664 members
  • Baptists: 89 congregations, 8,643 members
  • Congregationalists: 86 congregations, numbers not given
  • Methodists: 99 preachers, 6,000 members and another approximately 500 primitive Methodists

More significant was the secession of congregations of the Presbyterian Church. The first major split occurred in 1733 and by 1745 the Secession Church numbered some 46 congregations. This group broke into various factions: at first, known as the Burgher and Anti-Burgher, but there were later splits as well. Subsequently they became the major part of the United Presbyterian Church in 1847; in 1884 it had 558 congregations and 178,195 members. The other large breakaway group was the Free Church, dating from 1843 when its followers withdrew from the Church of Scotland. In 1884 they had 1,104 congregations and 300,000 members. In the dozen years before civil registration, there were more people worshipping outside the Church of Scotland than within it.

What this bit of history means is that from 1733 the possibility grows that an ancestor attended something other than the local Church of Scotland, and that from 1843 until 1855 when civil registration began, there is a better chance that the event was recorded in a different church register. There were also a significant number of irregular marriages which were not entered in parish registers; a reference may be found in kirk sessions or in sheriff's court records.


Groome, Francis H. The Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical, Historical. 6 volumes. Edinburgh: T. C. Jacks, 1883-1885.

Irvine, Sherry. Your Scottish Ancestry: A Guide for North Americans. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1997.

Moody, David. Scottish Family History. London: B.T. Batsford, 1988 and Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1990.

Steel, D. J. National Index of Parish Registers, Vol. 12, Scotland. London: Society of Genealogists, 1970.

Go to part 2 of this article.

Written by Sherry Irvine, CGRS, FSA (Scot). Previously published by Julia M. Case and Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG, Missing Links: RootsWeb's Genealogy Journal, Vol. 4, No. 17, 23 April 1999.