Records of the Kirk of Scotland

The Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century wrought enormous changes in the way Northern European Christians worshipped, and simultaneously wrought enormous havoc on their governments and their lives. That was particularly so in Britain, when Henry VIII – whose motives were dynastic and political rather than religious – defied the Roman Catholic Pope and declared himself head of the Church of England in 1537.

In Scotland, the Reformation began in 1560, when a body purporting to be the Scottish Parliament repudiated the Pope’s authority. But there was no clear idea of what form of Protestantism should be officially adopted – Presbyterian (governed by councils of elders) or Anglican (governed by bishops, the form used in England). An uneasy blend of the two coexisted until Charles I ascended the united thrones of England and Scotland. He thought Scottish church services were too “plain.” So he attempted to force a version of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer on the Kirk (Church) of Scotland. This resulted in rioting all over Scotland. In 1638, the Kirk of Scotland rejected the prayer book, abolished bishops, and declared itself to be Presbyterian. Charles retaliated with a series of Bishops’ Wars, which resulted in his humiliating defeat in 1640, paving the way for the English Civil War and his eventual execution in 1649.

It was the bicentennial of this “Second Scottish Reformation” of 1638 that was the impetus for the publication of Records of the Kirk of Scotland. Compiled in 1838 by Scottish lawyer and historian Alexander Peterkin, it is a collection of official Kirk of Scotland records from the year 1638 to about 1649. It contains myriad reports of Church proceedings, official documents, and correspondence in 17th-Century English and Scots, with copious explanatory notes by the compiler. Its 684 two-column pages, archaic spellings, hundreds of footnotes, and lengthy index made this a truly challenging project for Distributed Proofreaders volunteers. It took 16 years for it to make its way to posting at Project Gutenberg.

So why did I decide to post-process this book, variously described in the Project Discussion as “old” and “mouldy”? The main reason was to complete the project and get it safely posted on Project Gutenberg – the hundreds of volunteer hours of painstaking proofreading and formatting spurred me on to complete it.

My first impression of the book, whilst reading snatches of it in post-processing, was that it was full of bigotry and on the whole rather unpleasant dry reading, seemingly of no consequence. Then I came to the transcripts of letters written by Charles I, as he defended his position and tried to defer his last journey to the executioner’s block at the Banqueting House in London in 1649, having been convicted of being “a tyrant, traitor, murderer, and public enemy to the good people of this nation.”

It wasn’t just kings who fell foul of the Scottish ecclesiastical courts. If a person was labelled a “witch,” she faced imprisonment and then a totally unfair “trial” ending more often than not in an agonizing execution by burning. A passage in the Records taken from the Chronicle of Fife reports, “This summer [in 1649] ther was very many Witchˢ taken and brunt in severall parts of this kingd. as in Lothian and in Fyfe, viz. in Enderkething, Aberdoure, Bruntellande, Doysert, Dumfermling.”

The Records of the Kirk of Scotland are a window onto a turbulent time in Scottish and English history, and an important historical resource well worth the effort that the Distributed Proofreaders volunteers put into it.

This post was contributed by Distributed Proofreaders volunteers Brian Wilcox, who post-processed Records of the Kirk of Scotland, and Linda Cantoni.

2 Responses to Records of the Kirk of Scotland

  1. genknit says:

    I have a feeling my ancestors were directly impacted by the period covered in this book. I have a Scottish ancestor who was Presbyterian, who left Scotland and went to Ireland in the early 1700s. His family continued to be Presbyterian, down through my g-g-grandfather, and through their migration from Ireland to Canada to Ohio.

  2. LCantoni says:

    It’s very possible! It’s fascinating to think about the impact these great historical events might have had on our forebears.

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