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.

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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