The role of the Kirk Session in policing rural fornication in Scotland

When I was researching my great-great-great grandfather’s marriage the notice of his banns was simply an entry in the Airlie Kirk Session minute book for 1805.

When I downloaded the record, actually what I got was a copy of page 305 of the minute book. Just for fun, and I agree it’s a very peculiar idea of fun I read through the entire page, and it’s actually an interesting window into the life of the parish – microhistory even – because, buried in among the normal business of the parish – rent charged for the use of mort cloths in burials, charitable bequests, and normal business expenses, there are records of the business of the Kirk Session in its role as an ecclesiastical court overseeing the life of the parish.

Here are some extracts (I’ve expanded the contractions but left the spellings, including the use of the long s as is):

November 24th 1805

Agnes Clerk appeared in publick before the congregation for the first time for the sin of fornication with William Kermoch and was rebuked for the first time.

William Howie, Miller at Cardean paid his own and his partner’s penalty £2:15:4d

But that wasn’t the end to William Howie’s fall from grace:

December 1st 1805

William Howie, Miller at Cardean, appeared before the Seſsion for the sin of fornication with Janet Saunders and was rebuked and absolved.

So we see that the Kirk was not only acting as morality enforcers but deriving substantial revenue from it – using the UK’s Office of National Statistics inflation calculator, William Howie’s fine would be approximately £290 (A$ 420) today.

However that wasn’t the only story of rural fornication. I don’t have the complete story, but at the top of the page there is an entry that reads:

The Seſsion ordered their Clerk to write to Mr Cannan, Minister at Kirriemuir to summon the said William Watson to appear before the next Sabbath to answer the accusation of Agnes Fairweather.

November 24th 1805

The Seſsion meeting constitute. Appeared William Watson, Butcher at Kirriemuir and being informed of the accusation of Agnes Fairweather against him and being suitably exhorted by the Minister to be sincere and ingenuous in telling the truth positively denied being guilty of fornication with Agnes Fairweather or the father of her child. But she being called in adhered to her former confeſsion. The Seſsion ordered the both to attend here the next Sabbath.

December 1st 1805

The Seſsion meeting constitute. Agnes Fairweather appeared and adhered to her former confeſsion and accusation of William Watson. William Watson not appearing nothing further now done in the matter.

What is interesting is that the Kirk Session would contact ministers in neighbouring parishes to inform them of the possible misdeeds of their parishioners and request the attendance of malefactors from elsewhere to appear before the Kirk Session

When the Kirk Session met to act as a court of morality it was obviously quite a formal proceeding. The formulaic phrase The Seſsion meeting constitute appears each time in the minutes prior to the report of the Kirk Session as a court of morality. I had a little trouble with the word constitute, but the Dictionary of the Scots Language defines it as to open formally which certainly fits with the tone of the minutes.

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Madeleine Smith and marriage

I was going to leave Madeleine alone for a bit, but while I was researching the marriage of my great-great-great grandfather several things about Madeleine and Emile’s relationship clicked into place.

In her letters to Emile, Madeleine signed herself as ‘your wife’ and addressed him as ‘husband’. Given that Madeleine had also had a sexual relationship with Emile, and moreover had written about it, it could have been argued in a court of law that in fact they were married as the law stood in Scotland at the time.

This isn’t an isolated case, the Yelverton case a few years later turned on a similar point.

There are also cases of people in similar irregular relationships being made to formalise the relationship.

Therefore, if Madeleine was to marry Walter Minnoch, as her father desired, she had to destroy any proof that there was of the nature of the relationship  with Emile, which is why she wanted her letters back.

As long as he had her letters, Emile L’Angelier had a hold over her and could potentially blackmail her.

Poisoning Emile when he would not return her letters made the problem go away, or so she thought …

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Banns and Proclamations

One of the things that I like about family history is that you learn things about how a society worked.

For example I was researching the marriage of my great-great-great grandfather who I knew was named James Moncur.

I also knew that he was married because the birth record for his son from 1814 states

James Moncur in Moſside of Inglistoun had a child by his wife baptised and called James

Now as we know, the land tenancy system in the north east of Scotland was such that someone would take the tenancy of a farm for a number of years and then hire farm workers – fee in Scots – for a period of six months or a year at a time.

This meant that people did move around a lot, especially when they were younger and less likely to have acquired particular skills – for example a skilled ploughman could name his terms (within reason), but a general worker might have to scrabble to get a decent job.

So, while in 1814, James Moncur père might be living on a farm in the parish of Kinnettles, he might not be a few years previously. Equally, this was the early nineteenth century – while people did move between properties, they probably only moved a few kilometres at most as getting their next fee would depend on their reputation.

However searching for marriages involving a James Moncur anywhere in Scotland came up with exactly three results:

Screenshot 2021-01-15 153927

Notice something strange?

One record appears duplicated. This is because the banns (notice of marriage) were read in two separate parishes, most probably because one lived in one parish and the other in another.

However Kinfauns and St Madoes are adjoining parishes and some distance from Kinnettles while Airlie is not that far from Kinnettles.

So based on nothing more than wild supposition I went for the Airlie entry

marriage of James Moncur to Margaret Smart highlight

which comes from the Kirk Session minutes of 01 December 1805, and just below the notice of a Day of Thanksgiving for victory over the French and Spanish fleet at Trafalgar is the entry we are interested in:

Jas. Moncur in the Parish of Eaſsie ⁊ Mgt Smart in this Parish were procld pro tem

and further down the page we have a second entry from December 8, 1805

james and margaret second time

Jas. Moncur in the Parish of Eaſsie ⁊ Mgt Smart in this Parish were procld pro 2 tem ⁊ pro 3 tem

Marriage in early nineteenth century Scotland was based on the principle of mutual consent, and most took place in private homes, albeit usually, but not always, in the presence of a minister. As a consequence, there may be no record of the marriage, but in James and Margaret’s case they were following procedure and giving notice of their intent to marry so we might expect a record of the  marriage itself.

Normally there would be a second set of records from the parish of Eassie, but these seem to be missing – perhaps the rats got to it. If they married in Eassie, and the Eassie register is missing this would explain why there appears to be no record of the marriage itself.

And why do I think this is my great great great grandfather?



Screenshot 2021-01-15 162427

The parish of Eassie and Nevay adjoins the parish of Airlie – its about 8km between the two parish kirks. Kinnettles kirk is 10km from Eassie kirk, and these are the sorts of distances over which we might expect people to move.

Kinfauns, on the other hand is about fifty kilometres away probably more than a farmworker could easily move his family and effects …

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Inglistoun, Inglistoun, wherefore art thou Inglistoun ?

While I still had some credit left on my account with Scotland’s People, the Scottish Government’s genealogy service, I thought I’d try and find the birth record for my great-great grandfather, who was rather unimaginatively named James Moncur.

I already knew that he was born in 1814 in Kinnettles which was part of the parish of Glamis.

Finding him was relatively straightforward, and his birth date was given as August 26 1814 in the old Kinnettles Kirk register:

james moncur kinettles

As always, these records pose more questions than answers. The record reads

James Moncur in Moſside of Inglistoun had a child by his wife baptised and called James

(the weird character is a long s or ſ which was still used in Scots orthography at the start of the nineteenth century)

So, most unhelpfully, it doesn’t give either the mother’s name or the name of the witnesses, but it does give the fermtoun he was living at – it doesn’t of course mean that he was the tenant, merely that he lived there.

So where was Mosside of Inglistoun?

Inglistoun – which in Middle Scots literally meant ‘English Settlement’, toun being cognate with the Anglo Saxon tun rather than what we now mean by town – usually became Ingliston in the mid nineteenth century when the early, often monoglot English speaking, surveyors for the Ordnance Survey wrote place names down as they thought they should be rather than how they were pronounced, and indeed, there’s an Ingliston between Balkeerie and Eassie not too far from Kinnettles

Ingliston Angus

But there’s two problems – Eassie has a church and you would have thought that the birth would have been registered there, rather than Kinettles.

What’s more there’s no Mosside of of Inglisto(u)n farm nearby.

The map dates from the 1860’s, so it’s not impossible that the farm could have disappeared in the intervening years.

However given that the birth was registered in Kinnettles it made more sense to look on the 1865 Ordnance survey map for Kinnettles, and there it was, a couple of kilometres north was a cluster of farms with the Ingliston element in the name

mosside of ingliston

including Mosside of Ingliston.

However, sometime between the 1860’s and today, the farm seems to have disappeared leaving no trace, though the cluster of Wester, Middle and Easter Ingliston still seems to be extant …

Screenshot 2021-01-12 150138

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Captain John Moncur

One thing that has puzzled me in recent years is why there are quite a few people in the Bahamas whose surname is Moncur.

Given that Moncur is a relatively unusual name, and the Bahamians with that surname are the (presumed) descendants of enslaved people, I was worried if my forebears had had an involvement in slavery.

The answer is probably not, they were simply too poor to be investors in sugar estates, and none of them seem to have had clerical jobs in the sugar trade, or indeed spent any time in the Caribbean.

But in the course of researching this I came across Captain John Moncur, who was a Royal Navy agent afloat in Caribbean in 1807 when the slave trade ended. (He also had an island off Tasmania named after him.)

(In 1807 it became illegal to trade in slaves in British Empire, but not to keep your existing slaves – slavery in all its forms became illegal in the British Empire on 01 August 1834),

As the British Navy had to do something with the captives they freed from slaving vessels, they settled them on various islands, including the Bahamas.

At the time I wondered if he had had something to do with the settlement of the captives, and that this was behind the prevalence of the surname on the Bahamas.

Well I don’t know, and I don’t even know if he is a relative.

But I thought I’d use my recently acquired MyHeritage subscription to do a little digging.

I didn’t find very much more than I didn’t already know, other than he had a wife, Katherine, who also seems to have left very little trace, and to confirm his date of birth.

So I tried something.

Knowing his birth date, I searched the Scottish Births register for boys named John Moncur born in 1743 (plus or minus a year).

There were exactly two births.

One was in the parish of Dunottar which then included the port of Stonehaven

Dunottar 177430202snip

The birth record is so brief as to be unhelpful as it doesn’t include where they were living or even more importantly the name of the mother.

The other was in Auchterhouse, which was the neighbouring parish to Glamis, where I know for definite some of my ancestors were living in Kinnettles in the early 1800’s

Auchterhouse 17430111snip

More usefully this entry gives the mother’s name as Agnes Andersen and that they were living in East Adamston, which is a fermtoun that is shown on the 1865 Ordnance survey map

east adamston

None of this of course means that either of these John Moncurs is a sibling of one of my ancestors, or indeed that either of them is Captain John Moncur – after all he could have been born elsewhere…

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And George was a liar …

A few years ago, we took advantage of a free day on Ancestry to research Judi’s grandfather. And then, having confirmed his record at Gallipoli and on the Western Front, we left it there.

However, I’ve just bought myself a subscription to MyHeritage for a year as a sort of Christmas present and given that the whole Covid thing is dragging on I reckon that I’ll need a hobby to divert me.

So, the first thing to do was import and fill out the family tree.

Now we didn’t have George’s birth certificate but we did have a copy of his army record from September 1914, which gives his supposed date of birth and his profession as an apprentice carpenter.

There’s only one thing wrong with all this – no George Henry Hill with the correct parental names was born in Victoria in 1894 (or 1893).

In fact, no person with the correct name and mother’s name was born until 1896.

And then I realised that for the first round of recruitment for the Australian Imperial Force, volunteers had to be nineteen or older and George was still eighteen.

So he’d simply added two years to his age, and no one checked, or if they did, they didn’t care.

To us, this would seem incredible, but of course then, it was quite normal. People simply didn’t have the documentation trail they have now, no drivers licences, passports, bank cards etc, etc.

And so George could simply say he was twenty. And as they never asked him for his birth certificate, he got away with it …

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Digitised diaries and class bias

Increasingly, when researching the past, we make use of digitised records, and increasingly, for the nineteenth century at least, there are a slew of  newly digitised diaries and journals.

But there’s a problem:

Most of the people who wrote and kept journals and diaries were middle class, and what they recorded and commented about were things of interest to the middle class.

This means that what we see of life we see through the lens of the middle classes.

Studies based on digitised newspaper articles have their own problems – the articles and reports tend to reflect the biases of the readers of the newspapers, with stories of drunken servants and rural misdoings always a good standby.

Yet we know there were skilled tradesmen, gardeners and the rest who kept workbooks and journals, yet, these have either not been digitised or have not survived,

There are exceptions of course. J has the workbook of Robert Warwick, who was her great ↑n grandfather, a market gardener and seedsman in Barnard Castle in 1820 or thereabouts, and while much of it is quite mundane we have records of the gentry who did not pay there bills (Christmas Bills indeed!), and other items that tell you about the nature of society at the time.

(We have arranged, when we can travel again, to donate it to the Royal Horticultural Society in England for digitisation.)

Now there must be others, but they seem to be rare.

And personally I think that’s a problem. When I look at my own family history, I can see that those who had farms and businesses would have records that would have told us much about life in rural Scotland over the nineteenth century, but the records have all gone, as has any chance of recording the oral history of the area …


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Reading Frankenstein …

Some time ago I wrote about Mary Shelley and Frankenstein. At the time I hadn’t actually read the book (tsk, tsk), but it was an interesting little exercise teasing out some of the linkages.

I am by no means a literary scholar, but when I came to read the book, I found it interesting to see these connections play out in the text. Some of it is clearly inspired by Mary’s life events, her time in Geneva, her journey down the Rhine with Shelley, and the connection with whaling which I guess was partly inspired by her time in Dundee, and some by hearing Coleridge recite the Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

What I’d failed to appreciate was that at the time the novel was written – it was first published on New Year’s Day 1818 – arctic exploration was a hot topic and was covered extensively in the papers.

While Buchan’s Spitzbergen and Ross’s Greenland government sanctioned Royal Navy expeditions – where Ross first encountered the Inuit – did not take place until later in 1818, there had been several informal journeys of exploration by various whaling ships such as those by William Scoresby – who was later to play a life in the Brontë saga in his second career as the Vicar of Bradford – had already built up a body of knowledge about the Arctic.

I don’t know how much Mary Shelley knew of the preparations for these expeditions, but she would not only have heard stories about whaling and talk of the scientific discoveries in the Arctic.

The real surprise to me was the almost complete lack of references to galvanism – in fact her description of the assembly of the creature seems to owe more to early experiments in anatomy and physiology and the idea that life can be created, that and the reference to chemistry and ideas which may have come from hearing about Humphry Davy’s dream experiments …

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Christmas Bills


This year’s festive tweet was a little different, I’d come across the poem while researching something entirely different.

I’ve been working my way through Juliet Barker’s magisterial history of the Brontës, more as a way of understanding life in late Hanoverian England, and when I don’t understand something, I follow it up.

Now, much the early life of the Brontë siblings revolves around school, either as pupils or teachers, or as tutors to children of the gentry and that lead me to wonder exactly how common schools were, especially schools for girls, in the early part of the nineteenth century.

To do this I looked at the adverts for schools in English language newspapers in Welsh Newspapers Online between 1804 and 1843 – the dates are arbitrary, 1804 is the start of the collection, 1843 simply because it was after many of the Chartist riots of the late 1830’s and early 1840’s and society was much as it had been in the Regency.

There was no real railway network, meaning people would not travel long distances, and newspapers were still intensely local. (For example, when Charlotte Brontë travelled to Bridlington with her friend Ellen in 1839, the only part of the journey from Haworth that was done by rail was the journey from Leeds to York.)

Outside of the coal mining and iron working areas around Swansea, Cardiff and Merthyr Tydfil, society was still conservative.

Newspapers would have been expensive, and each would have sold a few thousand copies at most. And they would have been targeted at the English speaking gentry, rather than the Welsh peasantry, who were probably mostly monoglot Welsh speakers.

So, to school adverts, especially schools for young ladies.

The sheer number of adverts makes it clear there was considerable competition for pupils, as in the advert from the Cambrian in 1841


The first thing to notice is the emphasis on the healthy aspect of the school’s location – the proprietors did not want their charges going sick for the simple reason that it would be bad for business. It’s also interesting that they mention sea bathing as an option.


Sea bathing was very much a thing in Regency Wales – a search for the term brings up innumerable adverts for both sea bathing establishments – essentially a hotel with a private beach and bathing machines, and houses for rent for the summer in locations such as Oystermouth and Tenby which emphasis their proximity to sea bathing beaches and resorts.

The other thing that come out from the adverts is the importance of quarter days – the days when rents and bills came due – hence ‘Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year’, Christmas being one of the quarter days, so as well as a time of celebration is was a time to settle that quarter’s bills, or indeed move to a new property.

The poem was Christmas Bills was lifted by the Glamorgan Monmouth and Brecon Gazette from the 1837 edition of the Comic Almanack, which was published between 1835 and 1843.

(A compilation version of the annual is available on Google Books and contributors include William Makepeace Thackeray, Albert Smith, Gilbert Abbott À Beckett, Horace Mayhew. Henry Mayhew with illustrations by George Cruikshank.

It’s clear, however, that people, or the gentry at least, did have fun at Christmas, with adverts for balls and recitals, meaning that it was not all bills and invoices.


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The precariat of the nineteenth century …


Today, we often talk about the precariat.

However, there’s also a subtle shift underway in meaning – rather than simply gig workers such as Uber drivers and Deliveroo riders – increasingly the term precariat is applied to people in formerly solidly middle class jobs such as university researchers, teaching adjuncts, paralegal staffers, relief teachers, contract IT workers and so on and so on. People who would once have had a secure job but are now on endless rolling low paid contracts.

This has been ascribed to many reasons, among them supply and demand – too many law and IT graduates for example, but the effect is that you end up with a class of low paid skilled people who live from paycheck to paycheck, and never manage to build wealth and acquire the trappings of middle class life. Often, this is described as the hollowing out of the middle classes.

Of course, there have always been middle class occupations that have been precarious – music teachers are one example and there are doubtless others.

What we forget is that the solid respectable financially secure middle class has only really been with us since the latter half of the nineteenth century with the growth of recognised professions.

Darwin, for example, had the money to become a gentleman naturalist. Alfred Russell Wallace did not, and had to earn his living finding interesting insects and birds to stuff, kill, and sell to rich collectors.

And of course, the first half of the nineteenth century is marked by middle class people living in straitened circumstances. Patrick Brontë, who was a self made man struggled throughout his life with an ecclesiastical living that paid almost, but not quite enough, and of course that income would evaporate with his death, which is why his son, who tried and failed to be a professional portrait painter, became a railway official, and why his daughters had to seek work as governesses and schoolteachers to support themselves, work that was often poorly paid, but which was sufficiently genteel to allow them to maintain some social cachet.

And with no marriage portion to speak of, life for the Brontë sisters would have been hard, with an income just enough to keep themselves, and the fear of losing their position. Probably the best they could hope for was marriage to someone a little more financially secure than themselves.

This is of course reflected in the literature of the times with governesses being seduced by the master and then cast aside once they became pregnant, or murdered by suspicious wives. Obviously some escaped the poverty trap one way or another – one example who broke the mould was Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, but even she came to a bad end.

And hence the obsession with property and wealth from novels of Jane Austen by way of the Brontës and Dickens to Wilkie Collins half a century later.

Wealth and property was important, because they brought security. An army commission, for a man, might bring an income, but for a junior officer was often less than required.

For someone with a junior position in the public service the situation was just as bad – as outlined for example Trollope’s The Three Clerks, and possibly drawing on his own experience as a junior post office official. Barely enough to live on, not enough to marry, or even to aspire to a home of his own.

And even in households with property this was often the fate of younger sons and daughters, when the wealth of the family was not enough to be sensibly subdivided. The old saw about younger sons ‘one for the navy, one for the army, one for the church’ was uncomfortably true.

And in the case of the clergy – and in this case we really mean the Anglican clergy in England – we can see the poverty of genteel life – a curacy and then perhaps a poor living, and then maybe a slightly more prosperous one, always trying to keep up appearances but in reality desperately poor and threadbare, scrimping and saving …

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