Kirkwall and St. Ola, Orkney, Scotland Genealogy

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Kirkwall and St. Ola

Parish #21

This is a guide to the history and major genealogical records of Scotland as they pertain to the parish of Kirkwall & St. Ola. To learn more about how to use these records to search for your ancestors, go to the Scotland: Research Strategies.

History[edit | edit source]

KIRKWALL and ST. OLA, a royal burgh, a sea-port, and parish, and formerly the seat of a diocese, in the county of Orkney, of which it is the capital; 21 miles (N. by E.) from Huna, and 327 (N.) from Edinburgh. This place, which is situated in the south-eastern portion of the Mainland, is of great antiquity, and from a very early date has been distinguished for its importance. The rural district around the town, called St. Ola, and supposed to have been originally a separate parish, derived its name from the foundation of a church by Olave, the first Christian king of Norway, to whom the Orkney Islands at that time belonged. A church dedicated to St. Mary was erected; it is a neat structure containing 1000 sittings. There are also places of worship for members of the Free Church, United Secession, Original Seceders, and Independents.[1]

The New Statistical Account of Scotland (pub. 1834-45) offers uniquely rich and detailed parish reports for the whole of Scotland, covering a vast range of topics including history, agriculture, education, trades, religion and social customs. The reports, written by the parish ministers, are available online at Click on ‘Browse scanned pages’ then search the parish reports for your parish of interest. Also available at the Family History Library.

Census Records
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A census is a count and description of the population, taken by the government, arranged by locality and by household. Read more about census records.

Here is a list of the Family History Library microfilm numbers for the census records of Kirkwall & St. Ola, as well as the library numbers for any surname indexes available:

FHL Film Number
Surname Indexes
6393847 ( 4 fiche)
6086634 (2 fiche)

The 1901 census of Scotland is indexed on To use it, you must register and pay a small access fee. All available censuses, 1841-1901, are indexed on this website. It may be easier for you to pay to use the website rather than access the separate indexes through the library.

Church Records
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The Established Church of Scotland was Presbyterian. Read more about church records.
Here are the pre-1855 records that exist for this parish.

Established Church—Old Parochial Registers[edit | edit source]

Record Type
Years Covered
FHL Film Number





Condition of Original Registers—[edit | edit source]

Indexed: For an index to these records, see Scotland’s People website, a pay-for-view website. The Scottish Church Records Index is also still available at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.  Some records may also be indexed in other FamilySearch collections for Scotland.
Births: Birth registers were regularly kept throughout.
Marriages: There are no marriage entries May 1679–April 1682, December 1701–September 1705 and February 1726–March 1728, and the registers are incomplete for 1687. See also marriages listed below in the Kirk Session records.
Deaths: There are no death entries, except a few for 1708–1709, and 1681–1783.
Source: Key to the Parochial Registers of Scotland, by V. Ben Bloxham, pub. 1970. British Book 941 K23b.

Established Church—Kirk Session Records[edit | edit source]

The Kirk session was the court of the parish. The session was made up of the minister and the land owners and business men of the parish, chosen to serve on the session. The Kirk session dealt with moral issues, minor criminal cases, matters of the poor and education, matters of discipline, and the general concerns of the parish. Kirk session records may also mention births, marriages, and deaths.

Here is a list of the surviving Kirk session records for this parish:

St. Magnus, Cash Book 1655–1680, with Baptisms 1687–1688
Baptismal Counterfoils 1831–1837
Marriages 1651–1653, 1662–1677
Proclamation Counterfoils 1831–1935
Deaths 1670–1672
Burial Register 1813–1821, 1845–1871
Minutes 1626–1649, 1655–1724, 1724–1942, with gaps
Accounts 1704–1723, 1793–1925
Scroll Minutes 1669–1775, 1670–1677, 1812–1899
Seat Rent Accounts 1827–1845
List of Communicants 1639–1654
Communion Roll 1831, 1834–1842, 1857
Poors' Disbursements 1668–1679
Poors' Roll 1826–1841
Note: Available on Film at the National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh, record CH2/443.

Nonconformist Church Records[edit | edit source]

A nonconformist church is any church that is not the Established church. Read more about nonconformity in Scotland in the article on the Scotland Church Records Union List.

Kirkwall General Associate Anti-burgher Church[edit | edit source]

Kirkwall is a burgh town, seaport and seat of an ancient cathedral in the eastern division of Pomona, or mainland of Orkney. A prayer meeting consisting of six or seven members existed in Kirkwall prior to 1794. At about that time, Mr. John Russell, a native of the place who had served his apprenticeship with one of the members, returned from Newcastle and joined this society. At one or more of its meetings he related how he had been led to attend the ministry of the Rev. Mr. Graham, one of the Secession ministers of Newcastle, and how different were the doctrines preached by Mr. Graham from those that they were accustomed to hearing in Kirkwall. Another member, who had resided in Edinburgh, made similar remarks respecting the kind of spiritual instruction received there. As a result of these remarks and the conversations which arose out of them, an application was made to the General Associate, Anti-burgher Presbytery of Edinburgh for supply of sermon which was granted in 1795. Such was the real origin of this congregation. The permanent effects of the Secession mission to Orkney, and the numerous congregations which sprung up, were quite beneficial. A church was built in 1796 and enlarged in 1800. A new church, containing 400 sittings, was opened in 1849.
Source: Annals and Statistics of the United Presbyterian Church, by Rev. William MacKelvie, D.D., pub. 1873. Film #477618. More details may be given in the source.

Minutes 1797–1850
Other Post–1855 Records
Note: Available on Film at the National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh, record CH3/1099.

Kirkwall Free Church, King Street[edit | edit source]

Peter Petrie, minister of the second charge in the parish, "came out" in 1843, with a large number of his people. The congregation continued to use the church until it was claimed by the Established Church in 1847. In 1852 an Original Secession congregation joined with this Free Church. At the end of the year, on the minister’s retirement, the two congregations were united.
Membership: 1848, 415; 1900, 399.
Source: Annals of the Free Church of Scotland, 1843–1900, ed. Rev. William Ewing, D.D., 2 vols. pub. 1914. Film #918572. More details may be given in the source.

Minutes, Various 1843–1947
Baptisms 1843–1899, 1911
Marriages 1843–1874
Cash Book 1843–1856
Note: Available on Film at the National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh, record CH3/1100.

Kirkwall Congregational Church[edit | edit source]

On his first preaching tour in 1797, James Haldane exercised a memorable ministry in Kirkwall, thousands listened to his preaching on many occasions. As a result of his labors and those of the preachers who followed him, a congregation was gathered, and a church formed in 1806. John Black became pastor in that year. He stayed only a short time and was followed by David Ramsay in 1807. He was joined by George Robertson in 1815 and together they did a great work not only in Kirkwall but throughout all the islands. The present church building in Palace Road is the fourth used by the congregation since its constitution in 1806. It was opened for public worship in November 1876.
Source: A History of Scottish Congregationalism, by Harry Escott, pub. 1960, FHL British Book 941 K2es. More details may be given in the sources.

The extent of records is unknown. For more information write to:
The United Reformed Church, Scottish Synod Office
PO Box 189
240 Cathedral Street
Glasgow, G1 2BX

Kirkwall Episcopal Church[edit | edit source]

Episcopacy in Orkney has existed since at least the sixteenth century. In spite of the advent of Presbyterianism, the Episcopal Church survived in the islands. St. Olaf’s in Kirkwall was consecrated in 1878. A history of the Episcopal Church in Orkney was published in 1883.
Source: Episcopal Scotland in the Nineteenth Century, by Marion Lochhead, pub. 1966 FHL British Book 941 K2l

The extent of records is unknown. For more information write to:
St. Olaf’s Rectory
Dundas Crescent, Kirkwall
Isle of Orkney, KW15 1JQ

Kirkwall Roman Catholic Church[edit | edit source]

Wilson’s Gazetteer of Scotland, pub.1882, states that there was a Catholic church in Kirkwall from ancient times. The cathedral, which was begun in 1138, took over 400 years to complete. However, no pre–1855 records exist.

Civil Registration Records
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Government or civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths (also called statutory records) began on January 1, 1855 in Scotland. Each parish has a registrar's office and large cities have several. The records are created by the registrars and copies are sent to the General Register Office in Edinburgh. Annual indexes are then created for the records for the whole country.
See the article on Scotland Civil Registration for more information and to access the records.

Probate Records
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Kirkwall & St. Ola was under the probate jurisdiction of the Commissary Court of Orkney & Shetland until 1823, and since then has been under the Sheriff's Court of Kirkwall. Probate records for 1513- 1901 are indexed online at You must register on the website but use of the index to probate records, called 'Wills & Testaments,' is free. You may then purchase a copy of the document or, if the document is before 1823, it will be on microfilm at the Family History Library. To find the microfilm numbers, search in the library catalog  for the 'Place-names' of Orkney and the subject of 'Probate records.' Then click on the link to the records of the Commissariat of Orkney & Shetland.

The library also has some post-1823 probate records for Orkney. Look in the library catalog for the 'Place-names' of Orkney and the subjects of 'Probate Records' and 'Probate Records - Indexes.'

Read more about Scotland Probate Records.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Lewis, Samuel A., A Topographical Dictionary of Scotland (1846), pp. 499-514. Adapted. Date accessed: 8 August 2014.

Return to Orkney parish list.