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Punishments were dealt out by the church court

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Thurso's Heritage by a Thirsa Loon

The remains of the Session House, where trials were held and punishments given.
The remains of the Session House, where trials were held and punishments given.

The surviving records for Old St Peters date from 1647 and are preserved in the National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh.

My duplicate set has caused me to spend quite a few hours looking through them. They cover a variety of subjects that the church court, managed by the kirk session, had to deal with.

The session, which consisted of the minister and church elders, also dealt with matters such as education and poor relief.

They held their meetings in the session house, above the chancel, on the east side of the church. This room, which had a fireplace, was accessed by the tower stair. Mentioned throughout the minutes are subjects like breaches of the sabbath, poorly kept school facilities, blasphemy, swearing, children born out of wedlock, adultery and more.

The last week of March 1732 shows it must have been a tricky business for courting couples. Donald Manson, a sailor, and Christian Nicol were reported for the “scandalous behaviour” of walking together late at night. They were seen sitting near the Pennyland Chapel between 10pm and 11pm, Donald wrapping his arms around Christian’s neck.

The kirk session questioned the two on the 29th of the month, who acknowledged that the accusations were accurate. Andrew Miller, the church elder, heard their case, where they said they had met to discuss their upcoming marriage.

They escaped punishment as nothing could be held against them, and what they had done “may be allowable to persons that intend to marry”.

Besides those charged with inappropriate behaviour, the details of those who do good are mentioned. On June 13, 1733, for the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, George Sinclair and John Dunnett collected from the porch door, James Ogilvie and John Donaldson manned the town’s aisle door, with John Gerrie and James Nicol at the choir door. They were paid £3 4s.

The session used the collection for such matters as church maintenance, helping “needy objects” (the poor) or paying salaries. They paid the coble men who transported people back and forth across the river £1 4s. For precenting in the churchyard, James Smith received £3 while the schoolmaster got £6 for doing likewise but in the church. John Taylor was paid £1 4s, though what he was doing wasn’t recorded.

Later that year, Hugh Munro, Angus McKenzie and John Munro of Easter Ross were guilty of violating the sabbath through drinking and fighting. They were severely interrogated and made to stand in sacco (sackcloth) the following Sunday until the divine service was over. If they failed to appear, the kirk session would send a letter to their parish minister, Donald Beaton, so that “church discipline may have its course against them”.

Two years later, in May 1736, Margaret Murson was questioned about frequently entertaining in her house, especially on the Lord’s Day. After investigation, she was found guilty and “gravely and sharply rebuked”, with the warning to “guard against the like behaviour in time coming”.

The records reveal the terrible practice of collecting water on the sabbath. Households relied on water collected from wells, the river, streams, barrels and other containers.

As several townsfolk had been seen carrying large quantities in stoups or large water kitts, the moderator gave testimony to all the public present against such a “profane practice” from the pulpit.

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