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In the Scottish Borders in the 19th Century, a significant percentage of children were illegitimate (no father was named on the birth certificate).

What sources (courts, churches, etc) exist for tracing the father, perhaps with "paternity orders" or the equivalent at the time? My main interest is in Selkirkshire in the 1870's, but it would presumably be similar for other counties.

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I notice somebody kindly edited "In the Scottish Borders" to "Inside the Scottish Borders". However the Borders in Scotland are a region (near the border with England), like "the Frontier", I don't mean "inside the borders of Scotland". – Rob Hoare Oct 11 '12 at 19:11
up vote 6 down vote accepted

You are looking for the records of the church courts known as the Kirk Sessions.

They are described by the National Archives of Scotland as follows:

Of most interest for genealogists and local historians are the minutes of the kirk sessions, which typically contain a detailed and often colourful record of the discipline the minister and kirk elders handed out to errant parishioners for offences such as drunkenness, swearing, breaking the Sabbath, quarrelling and sexual misdemeanours.

I think it is fair to say that presbyterian elders were vigorous in seeking the identity of fornicators, with special attention to those who fathered illegitimate children.

Although it is planned to make these records available on-line (by subscription) in 2013, at present you need to visit one of the archives listed at

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Thanks for identifying the type of records I need. I can wait until 2013 for these (even if it is Dec 31st), since for my research in that area they're going to be heavily used! Not at all unusual for more than half of children there to be illegitimate in some years in some parishes (mothers were young mill worker girls, milkmaids, etc). – Rob Hoare Oct 11 '12 at 19:15
Rob, I am trying to recall the details of an article (in one of the British FH magazines) that argued that lowland Scots women had sufficient economic independence that they deliberately chose to be "single parents" (to use the modern term). Perhaps someone else can locate a reference? – Fortiter Oct 12 '12 at 0:00
I can't speak to other countries or timeframes, but the early New England fornication courts weren't so much about the fornicating as they were conception that occurred prior to marriage. Even if the couple was married by the time the baby was born, if that little one came a little too early, they likely visited the court and were punished (the men and the women). For more information about the early New England fornication courts, see Melinde Lutz Sanborn's Lost babes: Fornication abstracts from court records, Essex County, Massachusetts, 1692-1745. – GeneJ Dec 5 '12 at 16:20

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