Tales from the Kirk Session

By Dr. Jean Barclay

The post-reformation Presbyterian church was governed by a hierarchy of ecclesiastical courts.  In order of precedence these were the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the county synods, presbyteries for a group of parishes and kirk sessions of ministers and elders for a burgh and its hinterland.  The kirk session took Sunday and church attendance seriously and punished those who neglected the commandment `remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy`.

Frontispiece of Dunfermline Kirk Session MinutesChurch attendance on Sunday meant sitting through sermons in the morning and afternoon and there were also fast days at troubled times and the Sacrament of the Lord`s supper which lasted several days in June.  To relieve the tedium of long sermons (and perhaps stay awake) people tried various means, including taking snuff.  And this became so prevalent that in March 1648 the session `thought fit that public admonishing should be given out of the pulpit to those that `offers and takes snising in the kirk in tyme of preaching or prayer`.

Many people found it difficult to attend church, especially those living at some distance, but few excuses were accepted.  In June 1657 for example it was recorded that the session thought fit that `the many in the landwort` who `goes home on the Sabbath betwixt sermons should be publicklie admonished out of the pulpit on the next Sabbath`.

The transgressions recorded in the Dunfermline Kirk Session minutes for 1640-1689, from where these notes are taken, can broadly be categorised under three headings: working on the Sabbath or on fast days, including making, trading and carrying goods, drunkenness and obstreperous behaviour, and leisure activities such as vaiging (wandering about), playing games, etc. Many transgressors were discovered by Sabbath visitors while others were delated (informed against) by neighbours and others.  If the judgements and punishments meted out by the kirk session seem harsh today, we have to remember that these were different times and respecting the Sabbath was deemed essential for an ordered and religious life and for salvation afterwards.


Turning to working on the Sabbath, we find that the actions of the kirk session often followed decrees of the General Assembly (Note 1).  Such work was regarded as showing lack of moral rectitude and was duly punished.

In November 1641, for example, Johne Mylne, Myllar at Lassodie was fined for grinding on the Sabbath, and in December on a fasting day John Smart, flesher was fined for selling `a carcass of beafe and having put on a rost at his fire` and William Anderson in Knockhouse was fined for buying it.

In March 1649 Elspet Walker and Helen Cunninghame of Gowkhall were admonished for dighting (working) lint on a fast day, and in April 1649 Margaret Johnstoun was found carrying a pitcher of water on ye Sabbath in tyme of sermon and Helen Walwod a burden of coal.  Both were admonished for what was their first fault.  The same applied to Jonet Mcgreggor, servant to Margaret Phillan, who was rebuked by the session in December 1655 after the visitors had found her carrying water.

Towards the end of February 1657 two Dunfermline shoemakers, Jon Watson and James Fairny, were reported by the kirk session of Kinross for travelling from Dunfermline via Kinross to Abernethie on Sunday February 1st with shoes to sell at the Candlemas Mercat there.  They appeared before the Dunfermline Session on March 17th, confessed their fault, and were ordered to be rebuked before the congregation on the following Sabbath.

People continued to carry loads on Sundays and in February 1673 Andro Wardlaw, waker (a finisher of cloth), had to make his repentance on his knees before the session, and was threatened with a public rebuke in the kirk, for bringing home a lead (load) of cloth on the Sabbath, and in January 1675 the same applied to Patrick Brown in Touch for carrying a load of meal.

In November 1683 when John Thomson in Pittencrieff was delated for sawing daills (planks) on a Sunday he explained it was for a dead kist (coffin) but still had to appear `publicklie before the congregation to testifie his repentance`.

Many brewsters (brewers) appeared before session for masking (making) and selling ale instead of attending church. In March 1647 Christian Law, one of several women brewsters, came before a meeting of the kirk session where `it was statut and actit that if she absented herself from the kirk on the Sabbath or sold drink before, during or after preaching, or intertained in hir house of any whoorish drunken lowns, she should be referred to the magistrates and stand at the tron on a setterday or any mercat day betwixt ten and twelve with a paper on her browe showing her notorious scandal to the example of others, and yrafter she shall make her publick appearance on the Sabbath before noon before the pulpett in face of the haill congregation`.

In April 1650 the visitors found Patrick Whyt not only absent from the kirk on a Sabbath afternoon but casting and turning his malt.  He also swore at the session and was rebuked and fined 20 shillings.

In the early 1650s soldiers were quartered on the town as Cromwell`s army was nearby and several ale-sellers took advantage of this.  On April 20th 1654  Christian Thomson in the Newraw was summoned for selling drink to the Inglishers on the Sabbath in tyme of sermon and Bessie Kinsman, spouse to James Cusine, appeared before session for carrying `a barrel of aill to the Inglishers in the abbay on the Sabbath`.  Bessie said the soldiers had compelled her to do so but promised not to do it again and was `sharplie rebuked and admonished for her first fault herein`

In October 1654 William Wilson was found guiltie of having meat making ready in his house and selling drink to the inglishers on the Sabbath in tyme of sermon.  He was admonished for this his first fault and `premonisht to eschew the like hereafter under great censure fra the kirk`.

A few days later the kirk session asked the provost James Reid to speak to the governor of `the Inglishe in the Abbay to stop his soldiers from profaining ye Lord`s Day by drinking in aill houses in ye toun in tyme of sermon` and for breaking the windows of the kirk.  The provost asked the captain to restrain his soldiers and he had sent `five or six of his serjants throw the toun on the Sabbath for this effect`.

On December 5th 1654 Margaret Stirk spouse to James Legat was found guilty of turning ale on the Sabbath in time of preaching and a week later John Strachan of Whitefield was sharply rebuked for coming with his horse into town to get chaff from the brewsters.  In June 1657 Katherine Raeburn spouse to John Drummond was delated for being absent from the Kirk, for brewing drink on the Sabbath and for swearing.

In February 1669 the Sabbath visitors found Margaret Smart and Isobel Stevenson, brewsters, masking ale on the Sabbath and they were admonished for it. In December 1671 the frustrated session resolved that the Act of August 1642 against masking on the Sabbath was to be intimated from the pulpit on the following Sunday.

The order continued to be evaded and Agnes Drysdaill was summoned before the session in April 1677 for masking on the Sabbath alongside William Burley and Andrew Hannan who had been `steiring the fat to her`.   Agnes `boldlie affirmed she did mask on the Sabbath and that it (is) no sin` and for her defiance was referred to the presbytery, the higher court.  William Burley confessed his fault in `stearing the fat to Agnes Drysdaill at nyt` and had to repent on his knees before the session.

The second group of transgressions the kirk session had to deal with were cases of drunkenness and obstreperous behaviour, sometimes linked. In 1643, for example Jon Murray, William Henrisone, James Dewar and Jon Hutton were convicted for drinking on Sunday in time of Divine Preaching and were fined four shillings.

 In January 1645 the kirk session minuted that `it is statute and ordaint that whosoever in this parish shall be found fra the kirk on the Sabbath day drinking in tyme of divine service of preaching or prayer` was to be fined ten shillings and the seller of the drink twenty shillings and both buyer and seller were `to make yr publick repentance before the haill congregation`.

Drinking was difficult to control and in April 1646 Robert Bull was convicted of breaking the Sabbath by drinking and swearing and was fined twenty shillings and ordained to make his public repentance before the pulpit.

William Wilson in the Nethertown was `sharplie rebuked` in June 1649 for having `vagabond strangers and beggars` in his house on the Sabbath in tyme of preaching and premonished of his danger if he continue, the danger probably being a fine and having to make his publick repentance before the congregation.

In May 1657 Thomas Turnbull was reported to the visitors for vaiging (wandering about) on the Sabbath and cursing and, when reproved by them and told to go home, of accusing `ye an the lyk of you` of having `the wyth (guilt) of so much sinne`.  Thomas was afterwards cited to appear before the session but did not turn up.

Another obstreperous person was Margaret Barclay who was accused of breach of Sabbath in April 1689 for fighting and scolding with her neighbours.  She was admonished and threatened that if she did the same again she would be proceeded against with a more severe censure.

When it came to the third group of Sabbath transgressions, partaking in leisure activities, many activities were deemed unseemly. Putting on plays and other entertainments was naturally frowned upon and in the late 16th century the General Assembly had made decrees to this effect, including one specifically referring to Dunfermline (Notes 2 & 3).

Playing games was forbidden and in June 1646, when Jon Buist was caught breaking the Sabbath by playing at his kylls (ninepins) in tyme of preaching, he had to make his publick repentance before the pulpett and was fined twenty shillings. In December 1650 Robert Cunninghame, a boy servant to James Mudie, maltman, was sharply rebuked for `playing in his malt barne in tyme of preaching`.

In August 1650 when Cromwell was threatening to invade Scotland with his army there were many strangers in the town.  They were difficult to control and in August 1650 it was minuted by the kirk session that `It is thot fitt that the ministers and magistrates meet every Sabbath in the kirkyeard after the afternoon sermon to go throw the towne for remarking and suppressing the enormities in the streets on the Sabbath, manie strangers being in the towne who fled from the south parts for fear of Cromwell who were walking up and downe and not regairding the Lord`s day`.

The local people were sometimes no different and in May 1656, after the visitors had found many on the Sabbath after sermon sitting at doors and walking on the streets, in the yards, about the fields `at ye worldlie discours`, session decided that a former act of synod concerning the restraining of such abuses should be looked at and if necessary intimated to the population.

Church attendance must have sometimes seemed uninviting on a summer`s day and in August 1666 Andro Watson and William Belfrage were delated for going to the woods to seek nuts on the Sabbath.  Coming before the session in September they confessed and named eight others, all of whom were ordained `to sitt doun on their knees before the session and to seek pardon of God of ye fault`.

In July 1667, still facing the problems of absenteeism from the kirk and people not taking the Sabbath seriously, the session felt obliged to ratify the former acts, not only against masking and brewing beer on the Sabbath, but also against persons `vaiging abroad and sitting or walking openlie on the streets or fields`.

If it was hard to keep adults to the straight and narrow on the Sabbath think of the problems faced by the parents of lively children.  In May 1684 session felt obliged to intimate from the pulpit `yt parents shall restraine yr little an young children from running up an doun the streets on the Lords day in time of or efter sermons` and those that did not were to be censured for yr children

Reports by the kirk session about breaches of the Sabbath continue to the end of this volume of minutes (and into those to come) and in February 1688 it was reported that complaints had been made that there were `many idle persons in the toun who neglected the serving of God on the Sabbath day and committed many abuses in time of divine service in drinking in ale houses and in vaiging through the streets to the dishonour of god and great scandal of religion` and therefore it is ordained that intimation be made from the pulpit that these scandalous abuses be amended.

One almost feels sorry for the ministers and elders of the kirk session in their uphill battle to persuade the Dunfermline folk not to profane the Sabbath but to keep it holy.



  1. In 1596 the General Assembly decreed that `salt panes, mylnes (mills), and uther labouring, quhilk (which) drawes away innumerable people from hearing the word of God, sould not be permittit, and the violators to be debarrit from the benefites of the Kirk quhill (until) they make their repentance and the continuers therein to be excommunicat`.
  2. In 1574 the General Assembly passed a decree against `clerk-plays, comedies or tragedies made upon canonical Scriptures, either New or Old, on the Lord`s day or upon a week-day or face the discipline of the kirk`.  This reason for this censure against plays featuring biblical characters (which seems strange) was that if they became over-familiar in popular amusement, religious reverence for the Bible might be destroyed.
  3. Plays not based on scripture might be permitted if they had no immoral content but not on the Sabbath.  In October 1576 the General Assembly refused `to give libertie to the Bailzie of Dunfermling to play upon the Sunday afternoone a certaine play quhilk is not made upon the Canonicall parts of the Scripture in respect of the act of the Assemblie to the contrair` and the Baillie was exhorted to request `the toun to keep the ordinances of the Assemblie`.



Dunfermline Kirk Session Minutes, Volume 1, 1640-1689.  National Records of Scotland Ref. CH2/592/1 (digitalised version).

The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Session 6 October 1576, in Hogg`s Instructor, Vol. 8 (1852) – internet.