Hints and Tips

Published: 4th May 2020

Hints and tips by Kate Canter and Alan Beattie

This is a regular series appearing in the Society journal Coontin Kin. This item, on parish registers and alternative sources, originally appeared as two articles in Voar and Simmer 2015.

Parish Registers and Alternative Sources

The main church in Shetland was the Church of Scotland. Like the rest of Scotland Shetland had various schisms of the church in the 19th century so that there were several different congregations. In the early 19th century Shetland was visited by a series of Methodist missionaries and several Methodist circuits were established in the isles. The Methodist movement was relatively stronger in Shetland than elsewhere in Scotland.

The county was divided into various parishes which sometimes were altered and which did not always conform to island boundaries e.g. the island of Yell is divided between two parishes with the north combined with the neighbouring island of Fetlar. The church hierarchy often did not understand the complexity of the islands: Bressay, Burra and Quarff were combined but are on three different islands. For Burra folk this caused problems as the church was in Bressay and churchyard in Burra so that funeral parties often spent a night in Quarff before crossing to Burra. The croft house where they stayed is nicknamed Purgatory!

The records of the Church of Scotland are the old parish registers (OPR). Different parts of parishes often kept separate records, especially so when they were separate islands. The quality of each register varies from place to place with some being kept well and others scrappy. There is a large gap in Delting in the mid-1770s followed by a note from the minister blaming the missing entries on the parish clerk who had failed to write up events.

The OPR do not go back as far as we might like. The earliest records are a few marriages in Tingwall in the 1690s followed by a long gap. The latest start is Nesting marriages in 1828. There are very few death or burial records. The Minister of Northmavine stated in the 1790s “A register of deaths has not yet been attempted to be kept, because of the many burial places in the parish, and the many accidents by sea”.

The original OPR are in Edinburgh (available online at Scotlandspeople) with copies on microfilm in the Shetland Archives and the Family History premises. A full list of available parish records can be found on line at http://www.scotlandspeoplehub.gov.uk and in the Society publication Pre-1855 Parish Sources by Alan Beattie.

The Tingwall, Whiteness and Weisdale records were originally written in ordinary chronological order. Later they were rewritten into a family register with parent’s names and date of marriage added.

Occasionally baptisms and marriages are to be found in the Kirk Session Records which are separate to the OPR. A good example of this is the baptisms and marriages found in the Delting records for 1709-1719. The original Kirk Session Records are kept in the Shetland Archives rather than in Edinburgh.

The earliest record of an alternative denomination was the Diary of the Rev John Hunter. He was an Episcopalian minister in Shetland from 1734 to 1745 and extracts from the Diary including baptisms and marriages were published in “The Scottish Antiquity” in 1892. The Methodists missionaries one hundred years later also kept diaries. These are more travelogues of where they walked and preached so that others could find the most accepting people to preach to. These diaries record that baptisms and marriages were performed but only occasionally give the names. Once a Methodist congregation was established records were kept in registers, not all of which survive. The earliest of the survivors is from the 1830s and they go through to after the start of civil registration. These registers are also in the Shetland Archives.

There are some records of the Free Kirk of Scotland which was a group which seceded in the 1840s. These are in the Church of Scotland records.

When it was announced that there would be national compulsory registration in Scotland from 1855 there was a catch-up for baptisms as people feared that they would not be able to be recorded once statutory registration started. As a result there were many late baptisms recorded in 1854. After 1855 there were baptisms, marriages and deaths added to the OPR in the form of a Register of Neglect Entries. These are at the end of the main register.

Problems with Shetland registers:

The Shetland records sometimes give the mother’s name in full. Women retained their maiden name even after marriage so they are of the form “July 30th 1835 John. Lawful son of Thomas Laurenson & Barbara Robertson in Millegory was born — Baptized 2nd February 1836.” – this example is from the Bressay registers. Also Shetland used patronymic surnames to about 1800 or beyond. The surname of the child is not given - so in this example he may be known as Thomason or as Laurenson.

In many parishes the clerk kept a rough copy and transcribed the entries neatly into the main register. There are surviving copies made in this way, or copied out afterwards, for Dunrossness and South Yell but they do not correspond 100% with the original register. The Dunrossness kirk session transcript in the Shetland Archives covers baptisms 1775-1854 and marriages 1790-1795 and the reference number is CH2/112/5

Shetland has no land boundary with other counties and so there is not such a drift of families across boundaries to wed or baptize children. However, people did move and we can occasionally find Shetland strays in other counties where the family later returned to Shetland. Not all returned, of course, and there are some areas with prodigious numbers of Shetlanders. These are always shipping ports; Sunderland, South Shields, Leith and Liverpool had large numbers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Wapping in London was home to a large number of merchant seamen in the 17th and 18th centuries and judging by the surnames many were from Orkney and Shetland. The baptismal records of East Street Presbyterian Church in South Shields, Durham are especially valuable as the entry below shows:

“Ursula Colvin, daughter of Alexr. Colvin, seaman, native of Shetland Island, son of Walter Colvin, farmer, Sandwick Parish Shetland, and Jesse Irvine of Sandwick also, and of his lawful wife Ursula Ramsay dau. of Robert Ramsay, Farmer of Unst Parish, Shetland and Ursula Isbester of Unst also, was born Nov 3 1813 and baptised 7 December same year by the Revd. Jas. Thorburn. Robt. Tate Clerk.”

With there being so many gaps in the OPR there is often the need to look for alternative sources for births, marriages and deaths or burials. Many of these other sources will be mentioned in other articles in this series. These other sources can cover one particular family, one parish or one time period.

Family Bibles can record all events for one family, but of course can change surnames where the book is inherited by a daughter of the family or grandparents record all their grandchildren. Some family Bibles in Shetland go back to the early 19th century. Family tradition is that the Family Bible of the Oliphant family from Ure in Northmavine was taken to Edinburgh in the 1920s and lost. If the story of the Bible was true then it dates from the 18th century when the last of the Oliphant family was born.

Of course, not all family notes were made in Bibles and the Shetland Archives holds examples of records made in, for example, a notebook — SA/D7/33/38: “Notes of  register in Mathew Robertson of Camb, Mid Yell's, family bible. Copied exactly to the word and to the letter” It records family events from the marriage of Laurence Robertson to Barbara Peterson in 1777 to the death of their daughter Catherine in 1888.

People also kept wrote letters or kept diaries which recorded events, both of family events and those around them. Christopher Sandison kept a diary in Northmavine in the middle of the 19th century. He records over 100 deaths and funerals compared to the OPR for that parish which only manages one! The Shetland Archives holds many original records and we are occasionally lucky to find useful information in these but there is no index to these events and finding anything is very much a needle in a haystack. Please let the society know the information and reference of any such events so that they can be added to the database for the benefit of other researchers.

The diary of Christopher Sandison has been published but there are not many other printed books which cover such events. Newspapers do record events. Printed books and newspapers will be covered in other articles.

Wills may give a date of death or a clue as to when and where the testator died. It is not just the landed gentry who left a will, although it is rarer to find information for the less wealthy in Shetland society - see the Hints and Tips articles on wills.

Sheriff Court processes can be helpful in recording events. Deaths are mentioned when they were suspicious or sudden. Women who had illegitimate babies are sometimes made application through court for alimony from the baby’s father to support their child. The date of birth was a key factor in proving parentage and this is useful source for some children.

In Scotland it was legal for a couple to get married by declaring before witnesses that they were free to marry and were intending to live as husband and wife. This was subsequently replaced by civil weddings performed by the registrar. In Shetland there are three such marriages recorded in the Sheriff Court Deeds in the early 1800s. Why three couples chose to do so and then no more is unknown. One couple chose this method as the minister refused them permission to wed.

Many Shetland men joined the merchant navy and there are records of these from the mid-19th century which include date of birth. These are not always accurate, either in the date of birth and in place of birth. The dates of birth do not always correspond with details in the OPR. Whether this indicates that the man did not know his age or changed it to suit his situation is not clear. The place of birth on seamen’s tickets is often given as Lerwick. This is the principal port in Shetland and does not mean that the man was actually born there.

In summary, never give up hope on finding the missing dates of events however in reality the chances of finding any given event are low and diminish the earlier the date.