Durness, Sutherland, Scotland Genealogy

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Parish # 48

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


DURNESS, a parish, in the county of Sutherland, 20 miles (N. W. by W.) from Tongue, and 76 (N. W.) from Golspie. This parish, of which the name is of doubtful origin, anciently comprised the whole of the lands called "Lord Reay's country," a district of 800 square miles in extent, from which, since the year 1724, have been separated the parishes of Tongue on the east, and Eddrachillis on the south-west. The present parish of Durness is bounded on the north by the North Sea, and on the west by the Atlantic Ocean. The church, situated within a few yards of the sea-shore, is a plain structure erected in 1619, and containing 300 sittings. In the Eriboll district, about ten miles from the parish church, is a small church in connexion with the Establishment, built in 1804, and containing 100 sittings. There is a place of worship for members of the Free Church.[1]

The name Durness, or, as it is pronounced by the natives, Duirinish, is evidently of Gaelic origin. By some it has been derived from Dorrain, meaning storms or tempest, and nis or nen, a promontory. Others derive the word from Dubh, black; roan, field; and ness or nis, a promontory, Dubh-thir-nis. Formerly the parish of Durness comprehended the whole of the district known by Lord Reay’s Country, or as it is called in Gaelic, Duthaich Mhic Aoi, meaning, The Land of the Mackays. Since 1724, it has been divided into three parishes, namely Edderachillis, Durness, and Tongue; with the parish of Farr, it was disjointed from the presbytery of Caithness, and by Act of Assembly attached to the presbytery of Tongue. It is bounded on the north by the Northern Ocean; on the east by the parish of Tongue; on the south and south-west by Eddrachillis; and on the west by the Atlantic Ocean.

The nearest market-town is 65 miles away. There are no villages, the population all residing in hamlets along the shores, containing from 4 or 5 to 20 families.

Among the most eminent characters who were natives of this parish are: General Mackay, who distinguished himself in the civil wars in the reign of King Charles ll. Robert Donn or Calder, as he is sometimes called, Mackay, the celebrated Reay country bard, was a native of this parish.

The principal clans in the parish are, Those of M’Kay, Sutherland, Campbell, Morrison, and Gunn; the two former generally distinguished by fair hair and blue-eyes, the Campbells and Gunns, by dark eyes and dark complexion.

Crops produced in the parish are; grains of all kinds, turnips, potatoes, and hay. One of the more important changes since the last Statistical Account has been the introduction of sheep farming that has been very successful.

By a census taken in 1724, the population did not exceed 1000 souls. In 1790 the population was 1182, and by the 1831 census, the population was 1153.

The church is situated within half a mile of the manse, at Balnakiel Bay. About three-fourths of the population, who are all within six miles, attend. It was built in 1619, and the aisle added in 1629; it has no galleries, and contains 300 sittings, which are all free. The practice of burying within the walls has been discontinued for nearly a century. There are no Dissenters or Roman Catholics.

The earliest date of the parochial register is 4th of November 1764. It does not contain any register of deaths.

This account was written September 1834.

Source: New Statistical Account of Scotland for Durness, FHL book 941 b4sa, series 2, vol. 15

Also available online at http://edina.ac.uk/stat-acc-scot/. Browse the scanned pages under ‘For non-subscribers,’ then search for the parish report.

Census Records

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 Durness as well as the library numbers for any surname indexes available:

FHL Film Number
Surname Indexes
6086688 (1fiche)

The 1901 census of Scotland is indexed on www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk. 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

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

Record Type Years Covered FHL Film Number
Births: 1764-1846 0990562 Item 1
Marriages: 1765-1854 0990562 Item 1
Deaths: No entries none


Condition of Original Registers—

Index: 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.  Records are carefully kept prior to 1811. Some pages of the record are certified by the minister. Pages 447–450 contain a list of the baptisms for West Moine Mission, August 1794–December 1796 and October 1802–September 1804. No record appears to have been kept after 1846. There is a separate record for West Moine, 1808–1819 with irregular entries to 1841.
Marriages: Records are not regularly kept after 1810. At that date is inserted a list of marriages for West Moine, December 1802–December 1804. There is a separate record for West Moine, 1808–1823.
Source: Key to the Parochial Registers of Scotland, by V. Ben Bloxham, pub. 1970. British Book 941 K23b.

Established Church—Kirk Session Records

The Kirk session was the court of the parish. The session was made up of he 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:

Minutes 1764–1782, 1766–1781, 1800
Baptisms 1845–1933
Note: Available at the National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh, record CH2/876.

Nonconformist Church Records

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.

Durness Free Church

William Findlater, minister of Durness, and nearly all his people, adhered to the Free Church in 1843. At first no reply was given to an application for a site. The congregation worshiped in a tent pitched near the shore, and the minister's family had to live in Thurso. Church and manse were erected in 1845.
Membership: 1855, 300; 1900, 28.
Source: Annals of the Free Church of Scotland, 1843–1900, ed. Rev. William Ewing, D.D., pub. 1914. Film #918572. More details may be given in the source, including ministers.

Baptisms 1843–1933
Cash Book 1853–1897
Note: Available at the National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh, record CH3/852.

See also Tongue parish.

Civil Registration Records

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

Durness was under the probate jurisdiction of the Commissary Court of Caithness until 1823, and since then has been under the Sheriff's Court of Dornoch. Probate records for 1513- 1901 are indexed online at www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk. 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 Sutherland and the subject of 'Probate records.' Then click on the link to the records of the Commissariat of Caithness.

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

Read more about Scotland Probate Records.


  1. Lewis, Samuel A., A Topographical Dictionary of Scotland (1846), pp. 499-514. Adapted. Date accessed: 7 August 2014.

Return to Sutherland parish list.