National Records of Scotland

Preserving the past, Recording the present, Informing the future

Old Parish Registers

Old Parish Registers

Before the introduction of civil registration in 1855 Church of Scotland parish ministers and session clerks kept registers of births and baptisms, proclamations of banns and marriages, and deaths and burials. Approximately 3500 of these Old Parish Register (OPR) volumes have survived.  They are far from complete and contain much less information than the statutory registers of births, deaths and marriages.

The earliest entry is for Christian Hay who was baptised on 27 December 1553 in Errol in Perthshire (OPR 351/1).

Baptism entry for Christian Hay, 27 December 1553, Old Parish Register for Errol in Perthshire (OPR 351/1)

You can search the Old Parish Registers as index-linked digital images on our ScotlandsPeople website, at the ScotlandsPeople Centre and at Local Family History Centres. You can also order an official extract from the registers.

This guide provides details of the gaps in the records, examples of the different types of entries you will find as well as sections on Scottish handwriting, personal names, place-names and further reading. There are separate pages for:

Scottish Handwriting

Some entries are difficult to read because they were badly written or the ink has faded over time. In older records there are unfamiliar handwriting styles and abbreviations. We provide online tuition, evening classes and a self-help pack on Scottish  handwriting. The Palaeography page has further details. The Scottish Handwriting resource on the ScotlandsPeople website provides online tuition and guidance for reading manuscript historical records written in Scotland from the 16th to 18th centuries.

The ScotlandsPeople Centre's Reference Library holds published transcripts of several early Old Parish Registers.

Personal Names in the Old Parish Registers

The spelling of surnames can vary, for example, Kinel or Kinnell; Johnston, Johnstone or Johnstoun; and MacDonald, McDonald or Mcdonald. You will also find inconsistencies in the recording of fore-names, for example, Jean as Jessie or Jane;  Margaret as Maggie;  and Elizabeth as Betsy.

Traditional naming patterns result in the same names being repeated in different generations, for example, John, James, William and Robert for boys and Margaret, Mary, Janet or Elizabeth for girls. Sometimes if a child died in infancy the parents gave the next child the same name.

Place-names in the Old Parish Registers

Our publication ‘Civil Parish Map Index’ can be consulted in the search rooms. There are gazetteers and place-name guides in the ScotlandsPeople Centre's Reference Library

Further Reading

Sinclair, Cecil, The Old Parochial Registers from ‘Jock Tamson’s bairns:  a history of the records of the General Register Office for Scotland’ (Edinburgh, 2000) (95Kb pdf)

Cameron, Anne ‘The fate of the Old Parish Registers under the Registration Act of 1854’ describes how the changeover from the ecclesiastical to the statutory system of registration took place at parish level (Published on the Scottish way of birth and death from the records of the Registrar General 1855-1939 website under detailed research)

Seton, George, 'Sketch of the history and imperfect condition of the parochial registers of births, deaths and marriages in Scotland'.  The author became the first Secretary in the General Registry Office of Births, etc in 1855 (equivalent to today's Deputy Registrar General post).

Edina, Statistical Accounts of Scotland online 1791-1845 has contemporary commentary on the state of the registers.

For information about the parish registers of other countries please go to our Useful Websites - Births, Deaths and Marriages page.