Mapping Parishes, c.1560-1689

Mapping the Scottish Reformation is all about tracing clerical careers. Central to this project is the parish as a node: a place where ministers can travel to and depart from over the course of a career. While one of our early blog posts discussed ministers’ moves from university upon graduation to their first parish, I want to discuss some of the spatial aspects of parishes: how we plot them, what digital representations of them can tell us, and where we go from here.

Detail from Aaron Arrowsmith’s Ecclesiastical map of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1825)

As you may have seen from some of our recent posts on Twitter, one of the earliest maps that shows the ecclesiastical structure of Lothian and Tweeddale (indeed, all of Scotland) is Aaron Arrowsmith’s map of Scotland from 1825 housed in the National Library of Scotland. As you can see from the image above, Arrowsmith visually represented the boundaries of presbyteries and synods in which they sat. The coloured outlines are very helpful here. Unfortunately, while individual parishes are recorded here, they are largely ephemeral to Arrowsmith’s project: a map of this scale can never show the tightly-packed intramural parishes of Edinburgh, for example.

From our initial work with Hew Scott’s Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae and from our use of relevant presbytery manuscripts housed in the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh, we have created parish lists for each parish in all of the seven presbyteries that made up the 2,500 square kilometres of the Synod of Lothian and Tweeddale. Lists like the one found in the November 1659 meeting of the Synod of Lothian and Tweeddale list the names of parishes, as well as giving us a useful note of their minister (or if they sat vacant). The final list consists of 119 parishes of differing size, density and settlement type.

Extract from the Synod of Lothian and Tweeddale record book, housed in the National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh

To allow us to locate these parishes for some form of spatial analysis, we need to create a point for them using latitude and longitude coordinates (‘lat,long’ in the table below). One can easily find such data using a free-to-use online resource like this one. Some parishes, however, are easier to locate or ‘pin’ than others. For example, Greyfriars kirk in Edinburgh, remains, unsurprisingly, in situ today. A handful of other parishes (like Keith-Marischal in Haddington Presbytery) no longer exist and require more generalised coordinates. After a lot of searching, we were able to provide approximations for all 119 parishes.

Detail of location data for some parishes of Edinburgh Presbytery

Running these coordinates through mapping applications (like Palladio, shown below) allows the ‘lat,long’ coordinates to be plotted onto a modern two-dimensional map.

119 parishes of the Synod of Lothian and Tweeddale, 1560-1689

It is only with this kind of basic visualisation that we are able to see the dispersal of parishes in the Synod of Lothian and Tweeddale. First, while the map shows great similarity in overall shape of the region presented in Arrowsmith’s 1825 map, it shows where parish density is greatest and, perhaps more interestingly, the locations of more sparsely populated areas. Second, we can see how topography affects parish distribution. So, the Pentland Hills (and the modern A702) form a natural boundary that separates the Synod from the neighbouring Synod of Glasgow and Ayr (in the shape of Lanark Presbytery). The amount of coastal parishes in the region is also quite striking (especially the clustering in West Lothian).

The distribution of parishes also reflects how the presbyteries of Peebles (and then Biggar in 1643) were remarkably remote. In many ways these parishes, while under the same synodal umbrella as the rest, would have had a very different experience of ecclesiastical authority. I’m struck that the distance between the northernmost parish in Biggar Presbytery (West Linton) and the southernmost in Dalkeith Presbytery (Penicuik) was over thirteen kilometres. The gap between the two parishes is highly visible on the map. We have already seen how this geographical distance could affect the types of graduates who would work in these areas. It is curious to consider what impact this might have had on journeys to Synod meetings that took place in Mid- or East Lothian (spare a thought for the minister of Glenholm on the southernmost tip of Peebles Presbytery having to journey seventy kilometers or so to Dunbar on the East Lothian coast for the Synod meeting in May 1657!). It begs the question if, to the early modern mind, these distances even mattered if they had no effect on day-to-day business (in May 1657, for example, all of the ministers from Peebles Presbytery were present at the Synod meeting in Dunbar!!). Such findings may also allow us to consider ideas of clerical and godly sociability.

Basic mapping like this also allows us to see more densely populated areas in greater detail. Edinburgh Presbytery, for example, shows this remarkable clustering of parishes around its medieval centre but one can see how the parishes in Leith would have drawn parishioners well into areas like modern-day Newhaven and Granton. The placement of these parishes tells us a great deal about the growth of Edinburgh since the end of the seventeenth century and opens the way for further studies of ecclesiastical discipline in the capital.

Geographic distribution of the parishes of Edinburgh Presbytery (and the west of Dalkeith Presbytery), 1560-1689

These visualisations pose more questions than Mapping the Scottish Reformation intends to answer. It is quite clear that: 1. GIS mapping of Scottish parishes over time is an urgent project. 2. Our understanding of how parish and regional finances created such an ecclesiastical landscape is very much lacking. 3. How did these parish density patterns compare with population density? Were these parishes more a reflection of Scottish life in the late-medieval period than the seventeenth century? 4. How did contemporaries think about space and how parishes related to one another?

Above all, however, having these points located in space for us in this manner allows us to develop the first stage of Mapping the Scottish Reformation. With universities already mapped in an earlier phase, we can now go about tracing clerical careers through time and space. And while much of the attention on our project will focus on these journeys, let’s spare a minute to consider the parishes that form the backbone of MSR.

Verbs and the Clerical Life Cycle in Early Modern Scotland

Historians of Scottish Church history often plough into the tomes of Hew Scott’s Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae and move past the innocuous-looking abbreviations page without a second glance. It is, however, worth pausing for a moment to take them in.

Hew Scott’s “Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae”, 1 (Edinburgh, 1915)

Most of Scott’s abbreviations relate to events within a minister’s career that were quite distinct components of a clerical vocation: ‘admitted’, ‘appointed’, ‘inducted’, ‘instituted’, ‘presented’, ‘translated’. All words relating to a clear and identifiable action.

These verbs are replete with meaning for clerics, and we can see from individual entries in Scott’s Fasti how these events formed the backbone of his narratives of clerical lives. The example of Archibald Row, minister of Stobo between 1603 and 1618, is fairly typical: his ordination to the parish of nearby Drumelzier, his presentation there, his transfer and admission to Stobo. Entries like this all suggest that these stages of the clerical life course were distinct and can be assigned a date with some precision.  

Scott, “Fasti”, 1, p. 290.

Such clarity would be ideal for building a Digital Humanities project like Mapping the Scottish Reformation. Unfortunately, our scoping of presbyteries of the Synod of Lothian and Tweeddale between 1560 and 1689 suggests how informal and profoundly messy the ministry actually was, both in terms of lived experience and how clerical information was recorded in the records. Historical discourse often presents the clerical career as a very structured, straightforward path, with obvious steps of training, installation, and movement from parish to parish. But as we’ve learned from going through the records, the path to a given pulpit was often circuitous and unclear. 

For example, installation in a parish—often viewed by historians as the pivotal moment when a new minister officially becomes part of the club— is sometimes recorded informally and months after the fact. Sometimes, a newly admitted minister would simply give his presbytery a letter noting the date of his installment. In the case of John Barclay, his installation as minister of Cocksburnspath in 1682 was casually noted by the Dunbar Presbytery clerk in parentheses in that day’s roll call.

Moreover, we’ve learned that the presence of an admission date does not necessarily mean that was the precise moment when the minister actually took up his post. Take, for example, the case of Gilbert Tailor. Scott notes that Tailor was appointed as minister of Manor by the brethren of Peebles Presbytery at some point in 1596. Unfortunately, while formally admitted, it seems that Tailor was not active in his parish, as the presbytery wrote in January 1597:

‘The quhilk day gilbert tailyeor being present The brethren ordaines him to cum with his familie and mak his residence at the kirk of mennar with his parochinaris betuixt this and the first day of maiinixt to cum uthwyse thay will use the sensure of the kirk againes him’

Rather problematic is that Tailor’s ‘presentation’ to the parish of Manor isn’t recorded anywhere in the manuscript, Scott only assumes that his presentation was the previous year. Without this note of Tailor’s difficulties in moving his family to the Tweeddale parish, one would never know he was present. 

A modern image of the current parish church at Manor, Peeblesshire

Later in the century, Dunbar Presbytery would have to write a similar letter to David Sterling to ‘hesten’ to his new charge at Cockburnspath. The note here that the presbytery was ‘informed’ of his installation is telling and suggests that records of installations relied on word of mouth, rather than formalised, written, records.

Records of Dunbar Presbytery, housed in the National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh.

In other instances, clerics appear one day in the records listed as minister of a given parish, as in the case of Gavin McCall, who was apparently second minister at Peebles in 1600, but was never noted as having been formally admitted. Later in the century, John Darngavel was recorded in the minutes of Dunbar Presbytery as having received ‘collation’ to Prestonkirk in 1670, but there is no reference to his installation/admission. It is possible that these words lacked the precision ascribed to them in Hew Scott’s time: even if these words meant very distinct things in theory, they could be used interchangeably by seventeenth-century scribes in practice.

Further complications arise when we consider the many clerical expectants who passed their trials and ended up in a pastoral no-man’s land of going to presbytery meetings and occasionally giving sermons there, but having no permanent post.  Some went on to become readers, schoolmasters, and domestic chaplains– all critically important to the spiritual life of a community– but never official minister of a parish. Do we record their careers as we would other clerics, or should they occupy a separate category? Such questions generated by the data-gathering phase of this project are encouraging us to expand and rethink some of our fundamental definitions of and expectations for the clerical profession.


Scott’s terminology — of ‘admitting’, ‘instituting’, and ‘transferring’ ministers — was one of a distinct profession. And these terms perfectly suited the Church of his own time, with its developed sense of procedure, and professional etiquette. Unfortunately, by applying such terms to the early modern ministry, we may be transposing a system and language of formality that just wasn’t there (in concept or practice) or was in an embryonic state. Historians elsewhere have identified the early modern period as the moment when clerics started to develop the sort of esprit de corps and formality that defines any modern profession, but few scholars would go so far as to argue that the ministry was totally professionalised by the end of the seventeenth century. A failure to comprehend the shifts in language around ministers may blind us to the significant changes experienced in this period. 

Such questions of categorisation are highly pertinent to our project. According to the work of Townsend, Chappell and Struijvé, Digital Humanities projects cannot (and should not seek to) ‘convey every nuance of the original’ documents that form the backbone of the study. They should, however, have a clear sense of ‘how and why decisions were taken’: in other words, understanding editorial methods. Scott’s obsession with the verbs of the clerical life are more reflective of his position in the early twentieth century than the realities of ministry in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Unfortunately, these terms are frequently deployed by historians of earlier periods (including the authors) with little critical appraisal. Mapping the Scottish Reformation has to present answers to these questions that remain sensitive to the shifting context of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, while also creating a sustainable resource that will have the shelf life of Scott’s Fasti

Michelle D. Brock & Chris R. Langley