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Language and structure

The formulaic language and internal structure of session records.
© National Records of Scotland

As we have seen, the extant kirk session minute books are the foremost record of the parish in early modern Scotland.

Having considered the nature of the these records and the information they contain, we will now focus more closely on their structure.

As your palaeography skills improve and you familiarise yourself with the records, you will begin to observe generic, formulaic or repetitive features that become instantly recognisable upon further reading.

Despite the idiosyncracies of each minute book, these features can be found across the early modern records, therefore allowing you to identify useful information quickly. Even where a minute book differs substantially from another, you will become sensitive to its own internal structure and the eccentricities of the clerk doing the recording.

First to be recorded in the minute book was the location and date of the session meeting. As spelling had not yet been standardised, be aware that the spelling of the location (almost always the parish church) can vary. Lessons on reading dates and discerning place names will be provided in week 3.

Meetings then opened with a sermon and/or prayer and the sederunt. The term originated in Latinate records and was used to introduce the members of a council, court or committee. In the minute books the sederunt introduced the minister, elders, and, in certain instances, any additional members of the kirk session, such as deacons. The minister is usually listed first and will be specified as such. Similarly, the elders, deacons or magistrates will be labelled accordingly.

The session then proceeded to business.

The amount of business conducted per meeting and the extent of each entry pertaining to individual cases can vary significantly. Some entries may provide no more than a sketch, others may give lurid detail. Depending on the matter discussed, some cases were resolved in one meeting while others required further investigation or consultation across several sessions. Indeed, some cases could take months or even years to conclude. The entry will usually note whether the case was to be considered at the next meeting.

Of particular help when sifting through the records are the clerks’ use of marginalia. Many minute books contain brief synopses of cases in the margins, thereby allowing the reader to ascertain quickly the business of each session meeting. As well as the nature of the case, the synopses will occasionally note the protagonists involved.

In those parishes which did not keep separate minute and account books, you may also come across weekly collections taken from the congregation. They were most often used for poor relief. In some instances the name of each parishioner as well as their offering will be recorded. As with place names, the spelling of Christian names and surnames may not be consistent. For help with numerals, see activity 1 again. Additional guidance will be provided in week 3.

Each kirk session minute book is different from the next.

However, just as familiarity with the structure of the records can help us identify useful information more quickly, so a consideration of the language used by the session will enhance our ability to transcribe the records more accurately. To be sure, no two books were the same, but the session clerks drew upon a shared vocabulary which we can learn. To get you started, see the glossary of common terms below:

Actis formal decisions or statutes

Anno Domini in the year of our Lord

Baillie/Bayly a burgh magistrate or administrative officer of a barony or regality

Caution give surety

Compear to appear formally in person before authority

Delate accuse, charge, denounce or inform against

Depone declare, testify or make a formal statement

Duply a defendant’s rejoinder to a pursuer’s reply

Dyet meeting

Gaol jail

Gif to give

Humiliation (day of) fasting and prayer in response to divine judgement

Interrogat to be interrogated or questioned

Lord’s day the Sabbath, i.e. Sunday

Moderator those nominated to preside over the deliberations of a session

Paroch parish

Presbyterie ecclesiastical court above the kirk session

Preses/Preces see Moderator

Professour someone who professes the Reformed faith

Quilk (or qlk) day which day

Sederunt (or ‘Sed:’) list of kirk session members

Synod ecclesiastical court between the presbytery and general assembly

Testimoniall an attestation of truth or conduct

Umquhile deceased, formerly, late

© University of Glasgow
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Early Modern Scottish Palaeography: Reading Scotland's Records

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