1851 Religious Census of Scotland – surviving returns

In the Religious Worship Census of 1851, taken alongside the main decennial census on March 30th-31st, just four years before the advent of civil registration, there were some 904 Church of Scotland congregations in the country (which had made a census return), but some 2122 congregations from other denominations that were not of the official state church.  The breakdown was as follows:

Established Church 904
Reformed Presbyterian Church 37
Original Secession Church 30
Relief Church 2
United Presbyterian Church 427
Free Church 824

Episcopal Church 112
Independents or Congregationalists 168
Baptists 100
Society of Friends 6
Unitarians 5
United Brethren, or Moravians 1

Wesleyan Methodists:
* Original Connexion 61
* Primitive Methodists 10
* Independent Methodists 1
* Wesleyan Reformers 1

Glassites, or Sandemanians 6
New Church 5
Campbellites 1
Evangelical Union 27

Isolated Congregations:
* Various 8
* Common 2
* Unsectarian 1
* City Mission 7
* Christians 7
* Christian Disciples 14
* Christian Reformation 1
* Reformed Christians 1
* Free Christian Brethren 1
* Primitive Christians 2
* Protestants 4
* Reformation 1
* Reformed Protestants 1
* Separatists 1
* Christian Chartists 1
* Denomination not stated 6

Roman Catholics 104
Catholic and Apostolic Church 3
Latter Day Saints, or Mormons 20
Jews 1

The importance of this lies with the fact that often people cannot find an ancestor’s marriage or baptism pre-1855 on the ScotlandsPeople website (www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk) – the reason being that ScotlandsPeople only hosts pre-1855 parish records for the Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church, Of the 2122 number, only 104 congregations were Roman Catholic, with some two thousand congregations missing from that period altogether on the website.

Unfortunately the Scottish returns from that census no longer exist. This is a real frustration, when you consider that not only are the English equivalents still in existence, they have actually been digitised and made freely available on The National Archives website, within the Digital Microfilms collection at http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/SearchUI/details?Uri=C8993.

As an Ulsterman, I’m long used to the idea that censuses can be destroyed by the simple whims of Government. Ireland is by far the biggest offender, but even in Scotland we have our moments – the household schedules for the 1911 census in Scotland no longer exist, for example, unlike those for the rest of the British Isles, with only the enumerators’ returns available on ScotlandsPeople. The 1911 revelation was quite a shock when I first heard of it, but I had long believed that the 1851 religious census for Scotland was a dead duck, with no surviving examples.

Except for the fact that I have now found a couple of examples! Buried amongst the kirk session papers for Speymouth are two printed census forms that have been filled in by hand. I have yet to see whether this means that they were never returned, or whether they are simple copies, but they do provide an interesting glimpse into a record largely now destroyed in Scotland. The returns are for two congregations – Speymouth, and Garmouth Preaching Station, both in Morayshire, both catalogued by the NRS under CH2/839/20.

Officially the census forms were entitled Census of the Population, 1851 Scotland: Return Relating to Public Worship. They each asked nine main questions of the person tasked with filling out the form.

1) Name and Description of Church or Chapel
2) Where situated?
3) When opened for worship?
4) How or why by whom erected?
5) Stipend of Minister?
6) The number of free sittings, and those requiring payment?
7) Estimated Number of Attendants on March 30, 1851?
8) Remarks – any observations in support of the return
9) Signature – of the Minister, Elder, Session Clerk or other duly delegated person to fill the form out.

From the Garmouth Preaching Station return we learn that it was located at Garmouth, being a quoad sacra district of Speymouth parish in Elginshire (Morayshire). It opened in 1849 “for worship in a school in the village, and designed to accommodate those unable to attend the parish church”. The station “was erected by His Grace the Duke of Gordon & others for a school”. There were 200 free sittings (no others), and normally 180 people attended a service, though none was held on that particular March 30th. Under Remarks the entry notes “There is service during 7 or 8 months of the year in this place, but not in winter owing to want of accommodation”. The entry was signed by the minister.

For Speymouth, we get considerably more detail. The church was opened “before 1800”, and “when the suppressed parishes of Dipple & Essel (sic) were united by decreet of Court of Teinds into one parish named Speymouth, about 1730”. For the salary question for the minister the grain stipend due to him was just over £82, and a money stipend just over £53. The glebe was worth £19 and money for the manse set at £8. Of the church’s available seats, only 70 were free, with some 600 other sittings to be leased. On the day of the census 212 members of the congregation attended morning service, and some 18 Sunday Scholars, slightly less than the average number, usually being 280, with 20 scholars. In the remarks section it notes “The charge of this parish is a sole one, the present incumbent has only held it for two years byegone; and the stipend is the average for these two years”.

So as with anything in genealogy, there are no absolutes. A couple of entries have survived (and if anyone knows of any more, I’d love to hear from you!), it is just unfortunate that such an interesting resource, for the most part, no longer exists.

The two returns above can be consulted at the National Records of Scotland via the Virtual Volumes computer system, or at various archives across the country via the Scottish Documents platform.

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