Scottish Records of Births, Baptisms, Deaths and Marriages

Over 400 years ago a Provincial Council of the Scottish clergy meeting in Edinburgh enacted that a register of baptisms and marriages should be kept. Later, an Act of the Privy Council, which followed a proposal of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, decreed that parish registers of baptisms, burials and marriages should be kept by every minister in Scotland. Church Ministers continued to be responsible for maintaining the registers of these events until 1854 when Parliament passed an Act ‘to provide for the better registration of births, deaths and marriages in Scotland’, thus transferring the responsibility from church to State and putting a statutory obligation on individuals to register vital events.

The 1854 Act provided for the setting up of the General Registry (sic) Office, the appointment of a Registrar General and the appointment of registrars in every parish. It also provided that the Registrar General should produce an annual report to be forwarded to the Home Secretary to be laid before Parliament containing ‘a general abstract of the numbers of births, deaths and marriages registered during the foregoing year’. The first general abstract (relating to 1855) was submitted in 1856. This was in the form of a report composed of tables and text. Many of the tables are similar to those produced for modern Annual Reports: for example, tables giving numbers of deaths by cause of death, sex, age and area within Scotland. On the other hand, the text goes well beyond what we think of as appropriate to include today. Thus, the report relating to 1855 discusses not only ‘the specific diseases which are the more immediate gateways (or trap doors) through which our race drops into the grave’ but also ‘other agencies which powerfully modify these diseases, and their action on mankind’. These other agencies included the state of trade, including the question of wages paid, and the fullness of employment, the price and quality of provisions, and the weather.

One conclusion of this first ‘annual report’ was that the year 1855 was not one in which trade was dull, or employment for the working classes scarce, as was best proved by the sums which were deposited by the working classes in the savings banks that year. There was a good deal of speculation as to the causes of illegitimacy. It was noted that in many cases the parents of the illegitimate children were ‘cohabiting as married parties and were true to each other’ much the same as today. It was also noted that, in rural areas, the smaller the average size of the farms, the greater the number of illegitimate births. It is not, perhaps, surprising that the reports were written in this way, bearing in mind that they were written at a time when statistics were increasingly being seen as instruments for social change.


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