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News Release

150th Anniversary of the Civil Registration System

7th August 2004

The Act introducing the registration of births, deaths and marriages in Scotland was approved by Parliament 150 years ago today.

The Act paved the way for the system which continues today. Scotland was later than most of Europe, and 18 years behind England, in setting up civil registration.

The Registrar General for Scotland, Duncan Macniven, is responsible for registration of births, deaths and marriages. He commented:

Social change, especially the growth of the big cities after the Industrial Revolution, swamped the old system of parish registration. But, although civil registration began in England in 1837, the change faced a lot of opposition in Scotland.

The main problem was with the traditional practice of irregular marriages - carried out, for example, by the blacksmith at Gretna Green - which would have been swept away by the new system. As a compromise, the Government dropped the marriage proposals and irregular marriages continued to be legal - for a while. Finally, the 1854 Act gave the go-ahead for civil registration, which has lasted 150 years.

From 1551, Scotland was supposed to have a register of baptisms and marriages (and later burials) kept by the parish churches. But, by the end of the 18th Century, the system was breaking down. But if it was a fondness for irregular marriage that held back official registration, it may have been a fondness for the bottle that undermined this first attempt to map the demography of Scotland. As a history of Edinburgh published in 1779 notes:

"The register of burials is kept by people whose faculties are impaired by drinking, who forget today what was done yesterday ............ they enter not into the list of burials any who have died without receiving baptisms; nor those whose relations are so poor as not to be able to pay for the use of a mortcloth; nor those who die in the charity workhouse. .... As for the register of births, it does not deserve the name. True it is, a list is kept in the south side of St Giles' Church, where any person who choose to go with a piece of money, will get the name and birth of a child inserted."

But no attention is paid to the observation of this practice, either by the clergy or by parents.

By 1801 the Census found that, out of the 850 parishes in Scotland, not more than 99 had regular registers, the rest having only occasional entries or no register whatever. Some registers were accidentally destroyed. At Penpont in Dumfriesshire a fire which happened in the manse during the ministry of Mr Murray, consumed the parochial records prior to the year 1728, while the register for Abertarff in Inverness-shire was lost in the act of crossing a rapid stream.

Although a bill for Scottish registration came before Parliament in 1835, and several others were presented in subsequent years, they were all thrown out.

The Bills were supported by the medical profession, who realised that improvements in public health depended on knowing death rates and causes of deaths. The insurance companies liked the proposal because profitable life insurance business relied on good information about life expectancy.

The legal profession was very keen, because inheriting property can sometimes be difficult without a birth certificate or proof that parents were married. With so many young babies dying, and no death certificates, many people also worried about the danger of unwanted infants being murdered.

In the other camp were people worried about the expense of registration. Poor people could not be forced to pay for registering unavoidable events like births or deaths and the parishes objected to taking on the cost. In the end, a government grant was agreed.

There was also a great dispute about who should keep the new registers. The session clerks and school teachers, who kept the old registers, petitioned against the change because they would lose income from registration fees. So the existing session clerks were appointed as registrars for the rest of their lives.

But the main problem remained marriage. In 1847, the Scotsman said that: Everybody knows that, by the law of Scotland, the marriage ceremony can be performed with as perfect legal effect by a blacksmith as by a clergyman.

And the government wanted to end the Scottish practice of regarding a couple as married if they stated as much in front of witnesses. So Scottish Registration Bills were accompanied by Bills to reform the law of marriage. But this was opposed by the Church of Scotland, concerned that the new civil weddings would discourage people from getting married in church.

In the end, the government dropped the marriage proposals, the session clerks were paid to be registrars, and the Treasury met the cost of the new system. That allowed the bill to be passed by Parliament and approved by Queen Victoria on August 7 1854. The new system of civil registration started on January 1 1855.


Page last updated: 10 February 2005

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