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Antenuptial Fornication

Antenuptial fornication was a cause for major concern in Scottish churches, especially in the Victorian era, and Kirk Session minutes for every parish are full of details of those being hauled up in front of the minister and elders to answer for their sins. Generally, it was the woman who was summoned, usually once advanced pregnancy brought her sin to public knowledge. She was rebuked sternly, and persuaded to name her partner in sin, if this was not an obvious boyfriend. He too was then summoned, to repent of his sin, and to make some sort of reparation, or to offer support for the child, if he acknowledged it. If the putative father was reluctant to acknowledge paternity, and the Session were equally convinced that he was responsible, they would keep on summoning him back to subsequent meetings, to try to ‘persuade' him further!   A married couple whose first child made a too-early appearance were also called to confess their sin retrospectively.

The system wasn't quite as gratuitously sanctimonious as it might seem ( although some elders do seem to have gone about their duties with an unholy zeal!) as it did generally ensure some acknowledged paternity for the child, and possibly some financial support for the mother, too.

  One interesting feature of the records for the parish of Kilconquhar, Fife is that, where he was known, it seems generally to have been the man who was called to account – an early blow for equality, perhaps!

In many parishes, the couple were then asked to make some contribution to the Poor Fund, in atonement, and this is documented in the parish accounts.

This interesting example comes from Kilconquhar -

From the Register of Marriages -


“To be proclaimed on Three Sundays - John Raeburn, parish of Dunbarney and Agnes Roger of this parish, married by Dr. Ferrie 3 rd Oct. 1846”

Their son, William, had been born on 13 August, and baptised by Dr Ferrie on 2 October – the day before the wedding.

On the day after the wedding, 4 October, the Kirk session minutes note –

“Kilconquhar Session House   4 th Oct.1846

Which day the Session being met and constituted

Sederunt the Moderator, John Wood John Watson Robert Norrie,

Archd. Robertson & Jas. MacLaurin Elders

Compeared John Raeburn (Mason) Confessing the sin of

Antenuptial fornication with Agnes Roger his wife – was rebuked

and absolved from Scandal

                                                Sederunt closed with a Prayer.”

[‘sederunt' = they were seated – i.e. those present

‘compeared' = appeared, in a court or similar – old Scots legal term]


One Fife girl, possibly a relation of John Raeburn, doesn't seem to have had much success in calling the child's father to account although he was, presumably, known, since the child was given a different surname from the mother –

Christina Raeburn,   Largoward, had a daughter from fornicating born 9 January & baptized 30 June 1854 by Rev. W.A…….(?)   named Issit (Issie/Isabella?)Reid Borthwick .

In the case of John Raeburn and Agnes Rodger, both were born and brought up in Fife, and appear to have lived the rest of their lives there. However, on his marriage entry, John is given as being a mason, and being from the parish of Dunbarney, which is near Bridge of Earn, in Perthshire.

It may well have been that he had gone there to work on some project, leaving Agnes back in Fife, and unaware that she was pregnant. When he heard of the birth, he came back ( or was brought back by her father, perhaps?!) to rectify matters – first of all by getting the baby christened, then getting married, then making his peace with the Kirk – quite a busy few days!

In any case, Agnes must have been confident that John would ‘do the right thing' by her, as she had already called the child William (which was John's father's name) following the traditional naming pattern.

Frequently, the Kirk Session records note the complaints of those parishioners whose pew was under a leaky part of the roof - then, as now, a major preoccupation of every Kirk Session was the vexed question of repairs which needed to be carried out to the church roof. Records tell how they agonised over how to finance this work, and how to ensure that wayward tradesmen carried out the work to the Session's satisfaction – some things never change! However, it is difficult to imagine a present-day Session trying to discipline all those within their parish whom they suspected of pre-marital shenanigans – and just imagine the reaction they would receive if they did so!

Kirk Session records often give a wonderful insight into the social life of the time, and can be a great source of information for the family historian.



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