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.

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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

Good news!


We’re delighted to be able to share with you that the next phase of Mapping the Scottish Reformation will be supported by a HCRR Level 1 Advancement grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. You can find out more about our grant at the NEH website. We are humbled to be in such good company.

The next phase of our project will begin in May 2019 and use manuscript material in National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh, to extend the dataset that forms the backbone of MSR. Please stay tuned for more updates.

Until then, we’d like to thank all of you for supporting this project so far. We’re excited about what the next stages of MSR will bring!