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Paths to the past

By 12 February 2012No Comments

Illegitimacy (next only to Irish ancestry) is the most common barrier to successful Scottish genealogical research, but Alex Wood’s insights will help you follow the path to the past.
From the beginning of statutory Scottish registration until 1919, the statutory birth entry of an illegitimate child had “illegitimate” entered under the name and surname.  A typical example is the birth certificate of my grandmother, known throughout her life as Mary Ann Sinclair (and the daughter of Ann Anderson) but whose birth certificate (see illustration) records her as Mary Ann Sinclair Anderson.  Like all illegitimate children whose fathers did not record their births, no father’s name is given on the birth certificate.  The child therefore takes the mother’s surname but may have as a middle name, and been subsequently known by, the father’s surname.
Illegitimate births may however be recorded by both parents, in which case the child took the father’s name.  James Fowler, my great-grandfather, was born in 1866, the illegitimate son of David Fowler and Mary Scott, both of whom signed the birth certificate.
Birth certificates will also indicate situations where the mother is married but has explicitly declared that her husband is not the father of the child.  For example the birth certificate of John Morans or Josephthall, shows the child as having been born in Bridegeton, Glasgow, in September 1918, the son of Margaret Morans, wife of Benjamin Josephthall (Private 2nd Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers) who she declares is not the father of the child.  John died six months later and, again, his death certificate notes him as John Morens (sic) or Josephthall, with no name given for his father.
A similar phenomenon arises where the child is born some time after the death of the mother’s husband.  The birth certificate of William Kinnear Thomson (shown) notes his mother as Nancy Thomson, Widow of Arthur Thomson, Fisherman who died upwards of Four years ago.  On the 1891 census however, Nancy and her son William, now known as William Kinnear, are residing with Nancy’s new husband, Peter Kinnear, whom we may guess to be young William’s father.  Nonetheless, if searching for this young William Kinnear, no birth certificate in that name would have been traced.  Again the key is to use the mother’s name.
The subsequent marriage of the parents of an illegitimate child would legitimise that child, but only if the father had originally signed the birth certificate.  In such cases, or where the mother pursued a legal claim against the father, there is a marginal note indicating a Record of Corrected Entry,  (see FT, February 2009 issue).
Illegitimacy of course long preceded statutory registration and the records in the Scottish Old Parish Registers (OPR) are at times highly informative but not always so.  In 1785, prior to his marriage to Jean Armour, Robert Burns fathered, Elizabeth, the first of his several illegitimate children.  There is no specific mention of the child’s illegitimacy but it is clear that in this parish it was obviously not the norm to note the name of a child’s mother on the baptismal record.  The unusual fact that in this case the mother’s name is given indicates that something was noteworthy in this particular record.
Much more common, in OPRs, is for the illegitimacy to be explicitly recorded, as in the baptism of James Ramsay (shown), in 1829, in Birse, Aberdeenshire.  On 13 July 1829 Andrew Ramsay late servant in Ramahaggan had an illegitimate child James.  In this case the other baptisms on the register (all of which are legitimate), as well as noting the father, note the mother as ‘his wife’, thus indicating the legitimacy of these children. The birth of the young James Ramsay was also recorded however in the Minutes of the Session of Birse Parish Church when his parents were disciplined for their laxity.  Andrew Ramsay and Christian Grant were discmissed from the Church and censured for the sin and scandal of antenuptial fornication.  Penalty paid £1.
In some pre-1855 cases, the baptisms of illegitimate children will be noted in the OPR with no reference in the Session Minutes, in some cases there will be no baptismal record but a note in the session minutes and in some cases, reference will appear in both.  Session Minutes of the Church of Scotland and of some of the free and secession churches, can be found in the National Archives of Scotland and provide a detailed source of superb information.
One other source of information on illegitimacy can be family wills.  In the testament of Jean Smith or Fowler who died in 1855, for example, she leaves a bequest to £2 10s to ‘Mary Fowler, reputed daughter of my son Alexander Fowler’.
So although, illegitimacy may be the end of the research line, as it is hard to identify the father, in some cases the documentation proving paternity is readily available and in others can be unearthed with minimal digging.
The above article was first published in Family Tree in July 2011.

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