Justice System



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bulletThe Justice System
bulletExamples of Crimes and Punishment


The Justice System

There was no regular civil administration of justice, or enforcement of criminal laws. This meant that those committing crimes were largely unpunished, unless dealt with by the church courts, so the Presbyterians assumed responsibility for the administration of both criminal and civil law.

They prosecuted all sorts of criminals, concerned themselves with brawling families, and breaches of the peace, and in every church the Kirk-session exercised (peculiar) jurisdiction in dealing with breaches of moral law. 

The church was a house of prayer, where the gospel was preached, and where civil and ecumenical issues occupying the public mind could be explained. But it was far more than that! Within the church building, Sunday after Sunday, delinquents performed penance and were rebuked and admonished before the congregation.

Each church had a 'serker' or searcher, whose duties were almost the same as those of a Roman Inquisitor. Their job was to seek out those who in any way flaunted or broke civil or moral standards.  Cases which would now be brought before a Police or Sheriff court, were reported to, and judged by the session. 

April 15th 1690: Elders were appointed to go through ale-houses in the Clachan and district after ringing of the last bell on Sunday afternoon, to see if any people could be found drinking there. They also checked houses to look for residents not attending church.

The following are some examples of crimes and punishments:

bulletDelinquents had to appear at the pillar of repentance in the church, or at the church door, sometimes bareheaded, barelegged and barefoot, or clothed in sackcloth, or in penitential white linen sheet.
bulletThey usually had to appear for 3 Sabbaths, having absolution pronounced on the 3rd occasion. At times, such appearances caused the members of the congregation to be grieved, but the frivolous were often entertained by such appearances.
bulletAround 1794, the penalty for fornication consisted of two (2) days of public penance in the church, and each guilty party had to pay a one crown fine to the poor.
bulletOn January 19th, 1812, a 15/- fine. levied for irregular marriage, was devoted to buying a new pulpit bible. 
bulletIt was not unusual for Rev. Lapslie, immediately after he had pronounced the benediction, to

           accost a member of the congregation, saying, "Jamie, ye'll bring a cart o' coals the morn." 

           Perhaps the price of silence for some small misdemeanor?

bulletParents requiring private baptism for their children had to pay half a crown to the poor.



On June 4th 1690, a public intimation was made from the pulpit, to heads of families, that no new servants be received into houses from other congregations without testimonials. Testimonials were also issued to people wishing to obtain employment, get married, or even move to another district. For example,

July 25th 1691 - Janet Provan, appeared and required a testimonial. Found to be free of public scandal, she was granted her testimonial.

Margaret Forsyth, appeared, demanding a testimonial to go to Ireland.

It appears that the use of Testimonials ensured the Church had maximum power and social control. 


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