Learning Zone - Scottish Paternity Index

The Scottish Paternity Index includes cases from three different sources; Sheriff Court decree volumes, Sheriff Court processes and the records of the Kirk Sessions. You may find your ancestor in any, all or none of these. See our coverage page for a breakdown of what we have indexed so far.

Only in a few cases is the child in question named in these records. The date of birth and sex of the child is usually given, though, so you should be able to identify the correct entry. Children born to unmarried parents are often referred to as ‘illegitimate’; you may also see the wording ‘natural child of…’ in historical records. If you see a term like this it’s a clue to search the Scottish Paternity Index.

The Sheriff Court cases are civil cases heard in the ‘Ordinary Court’ of the Sheriff Court; as opposed to the criminal court. A woman could pursue the father of her child for aliment (maintenance payments). Most of the women were unmarried and many were given poor relief to fund the court action. The men were not necessarily wealthy, many being farm labourers, apprentices or factory workers. You can find people from all parts of society in these cases.

The Sheriff Court processes are the most detailed and can include love letters, photographs and exciting testimony from witnesses. The Sheriff Court decree volumes contain briefer entries, which tell us the outcome of the case and may give some extra information.

Kirk Session records vary greatly. These record cases which were heard before the Kirk Session (a church court). A woman who was found to be with child or having had a child would be questioned as to who the father was. Both the father of the child and the mother would be called before the Kirk Session to be disciplined before a fine was paid to the church and then they were ‘restored to church privileges’. If both confessed, the minutes may be brief. If, however, one did not, the case can be lengthy. Either way, the information can help us discover long-hidden stories and unlock our family story.