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Tracing the fathers of illegitimate children in Scottish court records

Discovering the father of an illegitimate child can be difficult, and almost impossible. Often, only the mother’s name is shown on the birth record leaving the researcher no clue as to the father’s identity. For those of us with Scottish ancestry, however, there are some useful records that may help uncover the father’s name.

For children born before the middle of the 19th century, Church of Scotland kirk session minutes are invaluable. A kirk session served as the local church court and the records detail offences carried out by parishioners – drunkenness, swearing and sexual misdemeanours. Women, seeking support for their children and to be able to have their child baptised, would appear to name the father and ask for absolution. The National Records of Scotland have digitised kirk session records and while you can access the minutes in Scotland at their reading rooms, wider access is not possible. The records, however, should be available through the ScotlandsPeople website at some point soon.

Civil paternity cases were held by the local Sheriff Court and were usually attempts to make a father pay support for his child. For example, on 4May 1880, Isabella Blount – living in Noblehill in the county of Dumfriesshire and represented by her father Robert, a weaver – brought suit against George Kerr. George, a farm servant, lived about three miles due east in the village of Torthorwald with his father John. Isabella’s son is not named in the court case but we are told that he was born on 28 February 1880. Luckily for Isabella, George acknowledged that he was the father of her child and was bound to pay her £6.00 annually for 10 years to support his son (in today’s money, around £5000 per year).

A free online index to these paternity suit cases can be found at the Scottish Indexes website where you can also buy digital copies of the court decision for £5.00. The index can also be found on Ancestry’s website.

Isabella’s son’s birth certificate gives no father’s name but, due to the successful court action, there is a note indicating the paternity of the child was found by decree of court. As the original birth, marriage and death registers cannot be altered, later changes are shown on a ‘Register of Corrected Entries’. Keep an eye out for any such entries, which are linked to the certificate on ScotlandsPeople and can be viewed freely.  

So, while not all mysteries will be solvable, there are some useful tools available for tracing the fathers of illegitimate children in Scottish records. Happy searching!

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