Mapping Scotland’s Synods, 1560-1689

As we step up our preparations for Stage 3 — venturing out from Lothian and Tweeddale and into the rest of Scotland — we are busy scoping out the extent of the work before us (spoiler: there is a lot). We have already entered Presbytery data to Wikidata. Now we turn our attentions to Scotland’s provincial synods.

Arrowsmith’s ecclesiastical map of Scotland (1825)

Many of our readers will know about Aaron Arrowsmith’s 1825 ecclesiastical map of Scotland. A scanned version is available on the National Library of Scotland website here. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at this map, but there are two problems with it, at least from our perspective: it shows the shape of the nineteenth-century Kirk of Scotland and, unlike so many of the terrific maps on the NLS website, it is not georeferenced.

Fortunately, NLS have adopted the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) on all of its scanned map images. This means that the image can be exported to various different software viewers (ARCGIS, CanvasPanel, Mirador, Recogito, etc). Using the free website, we imported Arrowsmith’s map and started the georeferencing process. tied Arrowsmith’s map to modern map data

By using, we were able to overlay Arrowsmith’s representation onto a modern map, pinpoint known places and features, and allow the website to adjust the nineteenth-century map to accord with modern-day cartography.

Georeferencer has an extra trick up its sleeve: the georeferenced map can be taken directly to MapTiler, a service that allows users to create vector shapes on top of georeferenced maps. Translation: we could now trace the boundaries of provincial synods shown on Arrowsmith’s map and use them in modern projects.

Tracking the Aberdeenshire coast on MapTiler

This is fiddly work: you start with a pretty generalised polygon and have to edit it, by hand, to accord with coastal features and the like. There is the added complication that Arrowsmith’s knowledge of certain parts of Scotland was less-than-stellar: thankfully, MapTiler allows users to alter the opacity of each layer so one can see how the modern and historical maps compare. Of course, there are editorial judgements to be made here, especially in areas where Arrowsmith’s map lacked key detail.

We’re using Arrowsmith’s nineteenth-century map here and our project covers the period 1560 to 1689. Unsurprisingly, a number of features had changed between the end of the period covered by our project and the moment of Arrowsmith’s composition. The Synod of Ross, for example, was established in 1707, so was shown on Arrowsmith’s map, but would not have been recognised in the period covered by our project. Similarly, the Synod of Glenelg appears on Arrowsmith’s map, but was not established until 1724. Such challenges meant that it would be remarkably difficult for us to represent the area covered by the Synod of Argyll, in particular, in a single shape file. Then there are changes within the period covered by our project: the Synod of Lothian and Tweeddale includes the region covered by Biggar Presbytery, an area disjoined from the Synod of Glasgow and Ayr in 1644. To capture the complexity of these changes, we would have to create new shape files for each significant revision to the Kirk’s ecclesiastical boundaries. Our shapefiles are no-less an interpretation of provincial synod boundaries than Arrowsmith’s nineteenth century work. Nevertheless, they offer a useful indication of ecclesiastical structures.

Synod boundaries as geoJSON

Once complete, each shape file can be edited further, exported as a GeoJSON (and then possibly converted into other shape file formats) and imported into any mapping platform. Using the workflow we detailed here, we took these datafiles and created a map in Leaflet showing most of Scotland’s provincial synods between 1560 and 1689. For the reasons stated above, we felt it best to not map the Synods of Argyll and Caithness and Sutherland before obtaining further details on their precise extent in the period 1560 to 1689.

Click the thumbnail to see the shapefiles in action

For those interested in making use of these rough shapefiles for their own projects, each file can be found at one of the following links on GitHub:


Angus and Mearns




Glasgow and Ayr

Lothian and Tweeddale

Merse and Teviotdale


Perth and Stirling

These shapefiles are far from perfect — a result of Arrowsmith’s inaccuracies and less-than-perfect drawing on my part — but they represent a start in visually understanding the organisation of the Church of Scotland. And while this represents only a snapshot in time — a more fluid picture would require multiple shapefiles of each synod (especially in Argyll) — such an overview of Scotland’s provincial synods, 1560-1689, shows how scanned images can be georeferenced and then opened up in such a way as to make them machine readable. Tools like Mapping the Scottish Reformation will offer more ways to interpret this messy data.

Chris R. Langley

NEH White Paper: Mapping the Scottish Reformation

What follows is our official “White Paper” for the NEH HCRR Grant. It represents our final public facing progress report for the grant and the culmination of the pilot phase of Mapping the Scottish Reformation.

Objectives, Accomplishments, and Challenges

Mapping the Scottish Reformation (MSR) is a database of the Scottish clergy that allows users to explore and visualize clerical careers between the Reformation Parliament of 1560 and the Revolution in 1689. Built with data from manuscripts held at National Records of Scotland (NRS), this is the first project to comprehensively chart the growth, movement, and networks of the Scottish clergy during and after the Reformation. By extracting data from thousands of pages of ecclesiastical court records, MSR tracks where ministers were educated, how they moved between parishes, their age, their families, their disciplinary history, and more. This early modern data drives a powerful mapping engine that allows users to build their own searches to trace clerical careers over time and space. As such, MSR provides crucial framing for scholarly inquiries into religious beliefs, political conflicts, and institutional change, as well as unprecedented information on critical figures for genealogical research.

The NEH HCRR Foundations grant funded the pilot phase of this project, which focused on the clergy from the Synod of Lothian and Tweeddale, a large and important region including modern day Edinburgh. Our goals for this phase of the project were threefold: first, we wanted to gather the pertinent data on the clergy from this region using the rich and voluminous records of Scotland’s ecclesiastical courts, with an eye to building our pilot user interface once this data was complete. Second, we wanted to identify challenges and inconsistencies in this data that could be used to develop editorial guidelines for the project. Last, we aimed to expand interest in and access to Scottish history in North America, as well foster transatlantic collaboration in the fields of Scottish history, the digital humanities, and genealogy. All of these objectives amounted to what we have thought of as the “proof-of-concept” phase for the project: if we could demonstrate the success of our methods for one part of Scotland, we could then seek to expand our remit to the whole of the country. 

Thanks to the support of the NEH as well as colleagues from a range of fields, we are delighted to report that we not only met but exceeded our goals for this phase of Mapping the Scottish Reformation. In early summer 2020, we completed our dataset for the Synod of Lothian and Tweeddale. Ultimately, we went through over 10,000 pages of manuscript material and gathered data on nearly 900 clerical journeys across 116 Scottish parishes, the “significant events” of 500 ministers (depositions, suspensions), information on more than 200 clerical wives, and the alma maters of over 400 clerics. As part of this work, we formulated internal editorial guidelines about how to categorize and record key parts of the clerical career. 

Thanks to the extension of the NEH grant due to COVID as well as a grant from the Strathmartine Trust, we successfully identified and implemented technologies to record and visualize our data. We entered our data from NRS manuscripts into Wikidata, thanks to the bulk upload tool QuickStatements, and ultimately, we were able to build and launch our pilot website: Since its launch in December 2020, we have had well over 1,000 users in places ranging from the US to France to Japan.

This site allows users to trace the careers of the Scottish clergy across time and space using 5 different map views: Tenures (where users can learn about the length of ministerial tenures in a given parish), Journeys (where users can trace the movements of the clergy), Education (where users can see the influence of different universities on particular parishes), wives (where users can learn more about clerical spouses, a key but understudied group), and Events (where users can learn about things like rates of depositions and suspensions during moments of political turmoil). We worked closely with the Interactive Content team at the University of Edinburgh in fall 2020 to build this site, and we are already in talks about ways to grow and rearchitect it as we expand our dataset. 

From the outset, we also wanted to prioritize open communication with the public—from historians to digital humanists to genealogists and beyond—about our project and the methods we are using. We often refer to this as “pulling back the curtain,” and to that end, we did a number of presentations to academic and family historian groups over the course of the grant period, including: the Center for Data, Culture, and Society at the University of Edinburgh, the Washington and Lee digital humanities cohort, the Scottish Indexes Society, and the Aberdeen and North East Scotland Family History Society. We also posted regular updates on our blog and on our Twitter account, @mappingscotsref. We also had two meetings with our Advisory Board and were in very regular communication with those members about our ongoing work. 

Our final objective for the pilot phase of MSR was to plan for the future of the project, and this work has begun in earnest. Moving forward, we will expand our dataset to encompass information on clerical careers across all of Scotland. Using feedback from a wide range of parties—from the scholars on our Advisory Board to internationally-based genealogists to the general public engaged with our social media accounts—we have also made tweaks to our current website, and we will be launching version 1.1 in March.

Over the course of this work we have come to appreciate the immense complexity and richness of clerical careers, which were far less straightforward then often presented in the current literature. As such, one of our challenges remains how to capture essential, machine “readable” data while remaining sensitive to messiness and intricacies of clerical experiences. To put this differently, we have been thinking through how to tell stories with our data. A more basic challenge, especially in Fall 2020 during the extension period, was building in time to work on MSR while also teaching during a pandemic. As such, we are very grateful for the support of the NEH.

Project Team and Process 

The co-directors of Mapping the Scottish Reformation are Michelle D. Brock (Washington and Lee University) and Chris R. Langley (Newman University). We have spent the period of the NEH grant gathering and completing the dataset on clerical careers in the Synod of Lothian and Tweeddale using digital images of church court records held at the National Records of Scotland. We initially recorded this data into in Google Sheets, and then uploaded this information to Wikidata, a free and open data storage platform. We then queried the data to generate the JSON files that drive our pilot website. Working with partners at the University of Edinburgh, we built the pilot MSR website,

Mackenzie Brooks, Digital Humanities Librarian at Washington and Lee University, worked as team member on the project throughout the NEH grant phase. She introduced us to critical digital humanities methods, advised on how to best structure data, and generally provided some much-needed technical insights and encouragement over the course of this work. 

Members of the Mapping the Scottish Reformation Advisory Board include Julian Goodare (University of Edinburgh); Jane Dawson (New College, Edinburgh); Elizabeth Ewan (University of Guelph); Michael Graham (University of Akron); Roger Mason (University of St. Andrews); Tessa Spencer (National Records of Scotland); Paul Youngman (Washington and Lee University). They attended two Advisory meetings and engaged in regular correspondence with the project co-directors to offer invaluable feedback.

Robin Urquhart has been the main project contact at National Records Scotland, working generously to provide us with virtual access to the church court records containing essential data about the Scottish clergy. 

We also collaborated between August 2020 and January 2021 with Stewart Cromar and Hristo Meshinski, both part of the Interactive Content team at the University of Edinburgh, to build the pilot website. Their invaluable work on the project was funded by a grant from the Strathmartine Trust. Ewan McAndrew, Edinburgh’s “Wikimedian in Residence,” has also been an essential collaborator since January 2020, when he introduced us to Wikimedia and the technological side of the project began to take shape. 

Our entire process has been documented on our blog, where we have posted regularly about topics such as the complexities of clerical careers as revealed by the archival documents, how to work with imperfect manuscripts, the benefits of using Wikidata for a project like MSR, and our approach to transatlantic collaboration. This blog has recently been nominated for “best DH blog” the 2020 Digital Humanities Awards.

Findings and Impact 

The pilot phase of Mapping the Scottish Reformation centered on the gathering of manuscript data about clerical careers. It culminated in version 1.0 of our website, which provides quick and reliable information on previously elusive questions at the heart of understanding religious, social, and political change in Scotland. This site represents the first stage of our work, and it is our hope that as we expand the project, MSR can become the first point of reference for scholars seeking information on the Scottish clergy as well a guide to the archival documents that contain this data.

Already, MSR has proven a useful resource for scholars, students, and genealogists. Thanks to the quantitative tools on our site, users can ask a wide range of exciting questions about the men and families at the center of early modern Scottish history. We now know, for example, that the average tenure for a minister appointed in the synod of Lothian and Tweeddale between 1560 and 1689 was 12 years, but that this number was significantly lower—close to 7 years—in the first generation of clergy after the Reformation, when challenges in staffing and training persisted, and similarly brief for those appointed amid the ecclesiastical upheavals of the post-Restoration period. We also know that there were 9 ministers in this region whose careers were longer that 50 years. All of these long-serving men first took up their posts between 1560 and 1620, suggesting that career stability—and perhaps personal longevity—was more attainable for those with appointments made before chaos of war and revolution mid-seventeenth century. Expanding our dataset beyond this single synod region will test whether these tentative patterns hold for other areas of Scotland. 

More generally, our work to date has revealed that despite common assumptions about the rigidity and consistency of the Church of Scotland’s structure, there was in fact tremendous diversity over time and space in the career paths of the post-Reformation clergy. In these volatile years, ecclesiastical policy was hotly debated; parishes were created, dissolved, or united with each other; and ministers’ roles changed, from mere exhorter to preacher of God’s word. As such, our records reflect frequent deviation from the typical path from student to expectant to parish minister, and instead suggest greater informality and flexibility in clerical careers than has previously been appreciated by historians. 

In terms of the archival records, our project has provided more detail on the types of data related to clerical careers found in different records. For example, we confirmed our assumption that kirk session records—the local parish ecclesiastical courts charged with moral discipline—are more likely to contain details on clerical families and the deaths of ministers than the minutes of the presbyteries, and we have integrated some data from these records into our website. This is useful knowledge not only for our own project, but for less-specialized historians or genealogists seeking a “starting point” in exploring the voluminous church court records at NRS. 

Last, MSR has contributed to the growing intersections between the field of history and the digital humanities, particularly by helping historians think about how they can use Wikidata to record and query their data while also making this data open to the public. Our aim has been to be transparent, accessible, and collaborative at every phase of our work in order to reach the largest possible audience and provide a model for similarly structured projects (as we ourselves learn from the work of many others!). 

This is just the beginning, as this NEH HCRR Foundation grant has supported the critical first phase of a much larger project. Eventually, Mapping the Scottish Reformation will allow users to explore and visualize data about clerical careers across the entirety of the country. We hope that its importance to the fields of Scottish history, Reformation studies, and the Digital Humanities, as well as the genealogical community, will continue to grow along with the scale of our work. 

Mikki Brock

Visualization Matters: Collaborating to Show Religious Change

In December 2019, Uta Hinrichs, Stefania Forlini, and Bridget Moynihan published a reflective piece entitled ‘In defence of sandcastles’ in Digital Scholarship in the Humanities. In the article, the authors argued that visualizations in humanities projects are not only tools for end users to search through complex data, but are themselves critical research in their own right. Like much humanities scholarship, digital visualizations of historical data are the result of a set of editorial decisions. What makes these decisions interesting is that they must cross different disciplines — bringing together humanities scholars and technical specialists (data modellers, UI/UX designers, web developers etc). In what follows, I want to outline the rationale for some of the decisions behind the visualizations in the Mapping the Scottish Reformation website and to underline how the maps users can play with on the ‘site are the product of deep collaboration between different disciplines.

I want to focus on the Journeys map on the MSR website. This will keep me on track, but it is also because this particular map contained a number of editorial and technical challenges that made us reflect critically on what constituted a clerical career path in early modern Scotland. 

TL;DR: The interdisciplinary discussions around the creation of the Journeys map — a process that was part of a modern humanities project — made us reflect on the experience of being a cleric in early modern Scotland. 

For context, our current Journeys map contains the career paths of 654 ministers and includes 935 separate appointments made across Lothian and Tweeddale between 1560 and the turn of the end of the seventeenth century. At the outset, the historians on the project team had some ideas for what such a map should achieve:

  • To show clerical migration patterns
  • To be able to identify typical clerical careers
  • To understand the distances a minister might cover in his professional life

These questions are all related to longstanding discussions within scholarship of the Reformation and, as such, they represented our own assumptions about what a) users might find useful and b) what we think constitutes a clerical career.

The discussions over how to visualize these journeys forced us to reflect on these assumptions. Our original idea was that parishes in which a minister served would simply be connected by lines that would be clickable by users. These lines would be searchable in some manner. Here is an early example we built on Wikidata:

The example above had four properties:

  1. Places and years: ‘Athelstaneford (1682), Bathgate (1665)
  2. Total moves: ‘2’
  3. Name: Walter Rigg’
  4. Coordinates: [to plot him on the map]

Once the data was presented on our test website, however, it quickly became apparent that these lines would not be particularly useful for visitors to our website (for example, simply drawing lines from one place to the next offered no temporal context), but also that, from a technical perspective, applying filters to huge lines with no differentiation would be very difficult: we had exported our data as strings of text so places and years could not be read by separate filters. Also, the string of text showed a minister’s journey in any order (notice how Rigg’s career in the image above is recorded in reverse sequence). The technical limitations of our data and what this data was saying about a minister’s career forced us to go back to the database and extract a different set of values:

  1. Name
  2. Total moves
  3. Place ranking sequence
  4. Separate year for each move
  5. Year when a minister left parish
  6. Coordinates 

This change to the data model gave us a much more flexible structure for our filters to actually work, but it also allowed us to consider the direction a minister’s career could take. We could now add arrowheads to each move in a cleric’s career and red and green dots denoting the start and end point of (what could be v lengthy) careers :

This was a significant technical and user-friendly fix, but our approach belied one huge assumption we, as historians on the team, had made: our decisions to this point had privileged clerical mobility. In a project about mapping the Scottish Reformation we had fesitishized the idea of movement. 

In our passion to convey to our developer partners that we wanted to explore movement, we had missed a huge chunk of our dataset: those ministers who had only served one parish — those who did not move. Our data modelling allowed for these individuals, but our ideas about visualization gave no place for them. Here is a screengrab of an early prototype showing James French, a minister who had served at only one parish (Penicuik):

Without a conversation with our developer partners who spotted this issue, we may have shipped a build of our website that did not show these individuals (who, btw, represent the largest proportion of ministers). But their diligence also raised the question of how, in a website about mobility, we give due credit to those individuals who dedicated their lives to just one place? Historical assumptions meet visualization questions. 

A technical solution solved the historical question: our developer partners implemented a system whereby those ministers with a parish count of ‘one’ would be listed in their parish. This would allow these critical figures to be displayed and that their service to one parish be specifically parked: in other words, their lack of mobility is marked by a specific UI element and defined by the parish they served:

These kinds of fruitful discussions between developers, UI/UX specialists, and historians can be cyclical. For example, having seen the linestrings and prompted by feedback online, we reflected on the extent to which the point to point linestrings reflected contemporary travel routes, roads, and communication networks. Using a modern route planner, we cobbled together an example for our developers:

Unfortunately, there were both technical and historical problems with this solution. First, this route planner used modern road networks. It will only really be with the fulfilment of projects like this one that would allow scholars to follow contemporary travel routes. Second, the route plug-ins for our maps platform only allowed for one route to be animated at any one time raising questions about how to implement this at scale. Finally, there was an issue of interpretation in animating lines like this: were we, again as historians, privileging mobility in clerical careers with cool UI features that were not actually representative of most clerical careers. This is an example of where editorial discussions between developers, historians, and UI designers forced us to reconsider what we were conveying with these visualizations. 

There are many more examples in our discussions over our first website where expertise in web development, historical knowledge, and UI/UX design brought about significant innovations in how we treated historical material, modelled the data, and built the website. This is just one of them. The process of iterating different versions of our maps forced us to ask questions of what we were seeing: not merely from the perspective of ‘how might a user use this’, but also fundamentally questioning what we thought we knew about the data. Our dev’ partners posed questions to the historians on the team, which in turn forced reflection, which then forced further questions about visualisation.

At their best — and I cannot emphasise this enough — these conversations are utterly energising. While the historians on the team have already been outed for their sheer enthusiasm during these meetings, the level of collaboration implicit in this process is very real and exciting. I remember several project meetings where the collaboration between the team was so fluent that we were flying through new ideas, facing interpretative or technical challenges, devising alternatives, and then watching our developer partners design and revise the website code live on a screen share on Zoom. We were watching the results of our editorial conversations between different disciplines come to life in real time.

This communication process isn’t always easy. But with a degree of candour, an understanding of what domain expertise one area brings to the project, and an ability to openly reflect on the assumptions you bring to the table, projects like ours can build data structures and visualizations that are products of collaboration in their own right, as well as tools for other researchers. 

Chris R. Langley

Entering Stage Two: Mapping Parishes in Lothian and Tweeddale, 1560-1689

With Stage One of Mapping the Scottish Reformation nearing completion, we now have a large dataset of ministers, detailing their movements and important moments of their careers. We have parsed over 9,000 pages of manuscripts from presbyteries across the region of Lothian and Tweeddale. With these significant task complete, we can now turn our attentions to how we intend to present this data in Stage Two of the project.

Stage Two of Mapping the Scottish Reformation is generously funded by the Strathmartine Trust and will see us explore our user interfaces for the first time. Up to now, we have deposited our data onto Wikidata and used the built-in tools to test our material, to see the locations of gaps, and to create quick mock-up visuals that we think users might find useful. You can read more about our use of Wikidata mapping tools and how we structure our dataset here.

A screen grab of using the mapping tools built into the Wikidata Query Service.

Followers of the project will have seen some of the demos we have been able to quickly put together that visualise the breadth of our data and hint at some of the ways we can put it to work. Critically, Stage Two of Mapping the Scottish Reformation will use even more powerful mapping technologies to create visualisations that load faster, run more smoothly and show even more data. Before we formally embark on this process, we have spent the last couple of weeks dipping our toes into some of these more powerful mapping technologies.

The Wikidata Query Service — and the SPARQL queries we write to ask questions of our data — sits at the heart of our project. It allows our data to be open for other researchers to use (and build on) in the future, but it can also be quickly exported and patched into other programmes/services. The first stage of testing more powerful maps is to take the result of a SPARQL query, add a few modifications to the code, and export it into a TSV (tab-separated values) file.

The Wikidata Query Service allows the results of queries to be exported into various file formats

We exported a SPARQL query that shows all of the parishes in the Synod of Lothian and Tweeddale between 1560 and 1689, as well as a label that showed in which presbytery each parish sat. This has the fewest values of any of our datasets so we thought it would be an easy place to start! The resulting TSV file is effectively a huge spreadsheet: and as much as I like spreadsheets, I think it would be stretch to call it attractive or user friendly. The key thing here is that we have the latitude and longitude data in separate columns and have the key bits of information we want to display to users. Our test file included around 120 lines.

The resulting TSV file is functional, if unappealing

Formatted correctly, a TSV file like this one can be imported into GeoJSON, an open format mapping service that allows users to input geographical data and show them on maps (note: have you noticed our constant use of open source and access services?!! It’s no coincidence!). Users can either add points manually or, critically for us, add geo-referenced locations in bulk. Having uploaded the file, the result is a much more appealing map that includes more attractive and comprehensive icons and the ability to select different mapping layers. We can even add different mapping tiles, using a service like Map Tiler, enabling us to test different backgrounds.

The beauty about GeoJSON is that it transforms that ugly TSV file into something more machine readable. Unfortunately, GeoJSON doesn’t allow you to automatically export your map or embed it into a website like this one. This is where Leaflet.JS comes in.

Leaflet is quietly taking over the world of internet mapping applications, but its huge functionality comes at a significant technical cost: we aren’t in the world of drag and drop or ‘what you see is what you get’ editing anymore. The benefits of a little perseverance, however, are huge.

Leaflet demands an understanding of CSS, or at least an understanding of what to swap into lines of code cribbed from GitHub and when. This process was made infinitely easier by Leaflet’s own tutorials and, in particular, by this superb tutorial on YouTube by Eduonix. The key here is to take the code generated by GeoJSON and to copy it into our HTML file (shown below in Sublime Text markup editor). You can see how the data from GeoJSON is shown just below the various lines of code for headers etc.

After generating our map, a few fairly simply lines of code allows Leaflet to then take the data from GeoJSON and display it, as well as adding a custom mapping layer and popup menus that are, in theory, infinitely customisable. The resulting map can be exported to HTML and embedded into a website. And because the database values were all pasted into Leaflet, at least for the moment, Leaflet doesn’t have to request the info each time the page loads. The result is that the embedded map loads almost immediately.

You can play with this simple demo, showing all of the parishes of Lothian and Tweeddale between 1560 and 1689, below.

Notice that we have made use of the NLS Historical Maps API to plot the points on a historical map. This dynamically adjusts to a different background map depending on how far a user zooms in or out of the map.

If this seems like a tremendous amount of effort to go to in order to embed a map, then I suppose you’re right. What’s important here is that we have demonstrated that the data we manually took from manuscripts within the National Records of Scotland, passed into Wikidata, and then queried using SPARQL and the Wikidata Query Service, can be exported, customised and presented in a way that it as visually friendly as we can make it!

This is just a test, but it reflects the process we will go through during Stage Two of Mapping the Scottish Reformation, with colleagues from our international Advisory Board and our technical friends and colleagues at the University of Edinburgh. Ultimately, this process will allow us to create a number of interactive visualisations that will distill the months we have spent looking at handwritten archival material and make it more accessible. So while we’ve been recording, storing and querying the Scottish Reformation up to now, Stage Two of this project will allow us to start intricately mapping the Scottish Reformation.

Chris R. Langley

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

Not so Fasti? Tracking clergy wives in early modern Scotland

One of the Reformation’s most immediate changes was in the Reformers’ insistence on clerical marriage and their rejection of the idea of clerical celibacy. While scholars assessing other parts of early modern Europe have revealed some interesting aspects of the lives of clergy wives (see the work of Helen Parish and Anne Thompson, in particular), only the intrepid research of Ian and Kathleen Whyte and, more recently, Janay Nugent has started to scratch the surface of this subject in Scotland. Our efforts to understand clergy wives are often stymied by one simple yet overlooked detail: we don’t have a usable catalogue of their names.

The pilot phases of Mapping the Scottish Reformation have mapped data extracted from Hew Scott’s Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae. Scott’s Fasti is a huge, daunting, multi-volume work that includes very short biographies for ministers across Scotland between 1560 and Scott’s own time. Scott’s focus was the male ministry but he would often include a note about the identity of a minister’s wife. While he recorded the identities of these women with little consistency, Scott recorded the names of two-hundred and eighty-two women who married clergymen between 1560 and 1689 in his volume focusing on the region of Lothian and Tweeddale. Put into perspective, Scott recorded the names and details of some nine-hundred and sixty-five ministers from the same period meaning that there are over three times as many men as women recorded in the Fasti.

When we dive deeper in Scott’s findings we see that his data is remarkably consistent. Sixty-five of the women he named were from Dalkeith Presbytery, an area with seventeen or so parishes. Appropriately, at the other end of the spectrum, Dunbar Presbytery, an area with only ten parishes, contains the fewest surviving names. Scott’s findings for the densely packed parishes in Edinburgh Presbytery are more surprising. The area contained around twenty parishes but Scott was only able to identify forty-three clerical wives. While this is certainly puzzling at first glance, the fact that the intramural parishes of Edinburgh Presbytery often contained entries relating to ‘second charges’ (junior ministers) whose marital status would remain unrecorded until he was appointed to a more significant post.


Clergy wives in four Lothian presbyteries, 1560-1689


Wills and testamentary data confirm the names of clergy wives found by Scott. Using a resource developed by our partners at National Records of Scotland, (subscription required), one is able to quickly confirm the names of the clerical wives in Scott’s sample. allows users to search all of the surviving wills and testaments that passed through Commissary Courts across Scotland in any given time period. Adding the keyword ‘minister’ to a query will produce a long list of all of the relevant documentation left behind by ministers. A manual search then allows the user to find entries that relate to widows and children of ministers (with phrases like ‘relict of’, for example). Searching through for clerical wives between the years of civil war and occupation between 1637 and 1660, documentation from forty-five women, either wives to living ministers or widows to ministers who had already died, survives. Almost all of these women were recorded in Scott’s Fasti.

Despite Scott’s remarkable attention to detail, a great many questions remain.  First, it is important to remember that Scott’s findings for Lothian and Tweeddale were far more detailed than any of his work for other areas of Scotland. Moreover, the data Scott collected  on the ministry before 1600 is atrocious. Over three quarters of the data assessed here was for the period after James VI’s accession to the English throne. With this in mind, while we have now systematically collated the names of these women as part of MSR, one needs to search for them in a wider range of manuscript source materials across a much wider geographical area.


An initial search of the site suggests that we could find out a great deal about clergy wives outside of Lothian and Tweeddale through the use of will and testament papers (including details of individuals in areas with otherwise low levels of record survival like Angus and the Mearns and other underrepresented areas like Orkney).


Surviving will and testament data, 1637-1660


The next stage of Mapping the Scottish Reformation will make a start to this process by parsing through surviving manuscript records from presbyteries elsewhere in Scotland to find out about the activities of these women, to ascertain the degree of agency they exerted in lay and ecclesiastical matters. Now we have the names of these individuals, separate projects will search for these women in civic court papers — like the court of session, for example. We expect MSR to facilitate more insights into future research paths as the project progresses. 

While Mapping the Scottish Reformation is a prospographical analysis of clergymen, the project’s exhaustive use of manuscript sources from synod and presbytery records will recover the identities of these largely forgotten women and start to explain more about their own networks and connections. We are only just at the beginning of this process but it is quite clear that mapping the interests of the clergy in early modern Scotland must also say something about the women who lived in the manse, and offered suffered for the Reformed faith, alongside them. 



Chris Langley

Mapping Clerical Training: Ministers and their Alma Mater, Lothian and Tweeddale, 1560-1689

The Reformed Kirk of Scotland contained over a thousand parishes. Scattered among rural, urban, coastal and ‘landward’ areas, parishes in early-modern Scotland varied in shape and size: a great many still adhered to boundaries established centuries before by the Catholic Church. As with all polities during the Reformation, authorities were increasingly concerned with ways to provide high-quality religious services and spread the Reformed message around the country. Unlike the dual university system south of the Border in England, there were five universities in early-modern Scotland: two colleges in Aberdeen and one each in Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews. Using data collected in the early stages of the Mapping the Scottish Reformation project, we can tentatively reconstruct the impact of each of these institutions on the character of the Scottish ministry.


The initial dataset was based on the research of Hew Scott in his multi-volume work the Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae. In what amounted to a lifetime’s work, Scott travelled around the country recording biographical details about the ministers that staffed the established Kirk of Scotland from 1560 to his own time. The Fasti (literally, the ‘Scottish Church Calendar’) remains an important resource for a range of scholars. By using volume one of Scott’s work, we created a rudimentary database of ministers from the area known then and now as the Synod of Lothian and Tweeddale: an area of two and a half thousand square kilometres that included Edinburgh as well as the rural areas of Peebleshire. We recorded the names of ministers, their respective parish appointments and, importantly, where they had been educated. We then georeferenced both the parishes and the universities to create a point-to-point representation of the ministers’ careers when plotted on a map. The results represent the first visualisations of the Scottish ministry in any period.


Entrants to the Ministry, Edinburgh Presbytery, 1560-1689


Using Stanford’s web application Palladio, we were able to assess the impact of individual universities on certain areas of Lothian and Tweeddale. First, we mapped the ministry of the Presbytery of Edinburgh – made up of some of the smallest, but most prosperous, parishes in the country. Unsurprisingly, the town College of Edinburgh provided the greatest number of graduates for this area but St Andrews was not far behind. Indeed, from the visualisation one can see the parishes of Edinburgh Presbytery being bombarded by graduates from St Andrews – especially those entering into the wealthy intramural parishes of Greyfriars, St Giles and St Cuthbert’s. More surprising was that, at least in the data Hew Scott collated, Edinburgh Presbytery contained more graduates of the Aberdonian institutions (King’s and Marischal) than those who had studied at Glasgow. Only two ministers in the sample were educated outside of Scotland – one in Oxford and the other at the renowned Protestant seminary at Saumur.


Entrants to the Ministry, Dalkeith Presbytery, 1560-1689


We observe slightly different patterns when analysing the education of ministers in the more rural parishes of Dalkeith Presbytery to the south and south east of Edinburgh. It is quite clear from this sample that the (usually) poorer parishes around Dalkeith drew overwhelmingly from the local seminary in Edinburgh. Of the sixty-four ministers for whom Hew Scott collected such information, thirty eight were educated in Edinburgh and only sixteen from St Andrews. This means fifty-nine percent of the ministry of Dalkeith Presbytery was drawn from the graduate pool of University of Edinburgh. The figure may be much higher when considering that Scott was unable to track down information on the education on at least a third of the ministry of this area.


Entrants to the Ministry, Biggar and Peebles Presbytery, 1560-1689


Looking further south in the Synod region, the very rural parishes of Biggar and Peebles presbyteries show a different trend altogether. Here, the University of Edinburgh remained dominant in furnishing graduates for the ministry, but the University of Glasgow played a much greater role than elsewhere in Lothian and Tweeddale. Much of this was to do with the fact that Biggar Presbytery was erected in 1643 and effectively took possession of lands that had once been part of the neighbouring Synod of Glasgow and Ayr. This jurisdictional change opened up this part of the Synod of Lothian and Tweeddale to far greater influence from the University of Glasgow.


On the other hand, parishes around Biggar and Peebles seemed to have had little desire or inclination to appoint graduates of the Aberdeen colleges with only two appearing in this dataset between 1560 and 1689. Interestingly, these two men were appointed to the neighbouring parishes of Traquair and Stobo. It is tempting to speculate how the patron obtained his connections with the schools in Aberdeen when no other parish in the region showed even a remote interest in alumni of the Aberdonian institutions.


The most obvious conclusion one can draw from this data is that the Scottish university system was effectively churning out graduates to man the Scottish ministry. A selective search of the Clergy of the Church of England Database shows remarkably few Scottish ministers entering the English clergy. That very few graduates were drawn from universities elsewhere in Europe to serve in Scotland should not surprise us.


Other conclusions must be more tentative. The early stages of MSR raise a great many questions for us to ponder. For example, there’s the local perspective: did certain parishes and patrons prefer graduates from certain institutions? What was the personal role of patrons and neighbouring ministers? Then there’s the idea of change over time: Did graduates from some institutions make a significant impact at key points – like the Covenanting Revolution of the mid-seventeenth century – only to fall away at other junctures? Did some schools fall out of fashion after the Restoration when any whiff of fanaticism was likely to be rebuffed? Did some parishes continue to carry a radical torch by appointing clerics from trusted sources?


This analysis has been fruitful but it is based on the selective efforts of Hew Scott’s Fasti. As such, there are a great many details that we do not have in this current dataset. For example, were graduates of one university more likely to be hounded out of office? Were ministers from the colleges in Aberdeen more suited to charges in the north east? What were the push and pull factors drawing ministers to certain areas or discouraging them to go elsewhere? Did these ministers marry local women? To answer these and other questions, our dataset will shortly move onto assessing extant manuscript material – adding details that Scott missed or thought unimportant. Only then will we be able to more accurately map the contours and character of Scotland’s early-modern ministry.


Chris R. Langley

Senior Lecturer in Early Modern British History

Newman University, Birmingham, UK