Genealogy expert Rosemary Bigwood talks us through how to discover more about your ancestors from Scottish birth, marriage and death records. 

Since the Reformation, the concept of marriage in Scotland has differed from that held by the Church of England. There it is regarded as a sacrament, but the Presbyterian view is that marriage is a union entered into by mutual consent. In a 'regular' Scottish marriage, banns were proclaimed in the parish churches of both parties, originally on three successive Sundays. Often only one proclamation is recorded, but sometimes entered in the parish of both bride and bridegroom. Pawns or consignation money might be demanded as a pledge of good behaviour. A regular marriage was performed by a Church of Scotland minister before witnesses. After 1711, Episcopalian clergy who had sworn an oath of allegiance might also celebrate marriages and after 1834 all priests and ministers could solemnise marriages. 
Parish registers
As with baptismal records, there was no set form of entry in the parish registers for proclamation or marriage – if no indication is given as to whether it is a proclamation or marriage, it is probably a proclamation - and many registers are very deficient. One problem is that a proclamation was no evidence that the marriage took place – and clearly many did not. The New Statistical Account of North Berwick comments that often “the proclamation was duly made and recorded but the proposed marriage never took place".
Age at marriage varied, and was often influenced by the state of the local economy. It was common to find a marriage taking place less than nine months before the arrival of the first child (illegitimate children of a couple subsequently marrying were automatically legitimised). Mortality in childbirth was high, consumption was rife and many women died young. It was usual for a widower to re-marry, often quite soon after the death of his wife, to provide care for children. 
Irregular marriage
Many marriages were termed 'irregular' – disapproved of by the Church but accepted as legal by both Church and State. They rarely appear in the OPRs. The commonest ‘irregular’ marriage was marriage by declaration in front of witnesses, celebrated by someone other than the parish minister and without proclamation of banns. Promise of future marriage followed by consummation was accepted by the State but not condoned by the Church - and marriage by habit and repute could also be regarded as legal. It was often difficult to produce proofs of these unions as witnesses could disappear, though some 'professional' celebrants (including  'outed' Episcopalian ministers) might produce written evidence of the marriage. An irregular marriage often came to light around the time of the birth of a couple’s first child. Again the kirk session minutes are valuable. The parents were summoned before the session, admitted guilt, paid a fine (sometimes recorded in the kirk’s accounts) and acknowledged as lawfully married. It was a practice that became increasingly popular. South Leith kirk session minutes record over 1500 cases of irregular marriage between 1697 and 1818, and numbers grew. Few dissenting congregations kept their own marriage registers. 
Post-1854 marriages
On 1 January 1855 statutory registration of marriages was introduced in Scotland – these included those performed by a minister and 'irregular' marriages if declared before a sheriff on payment of a fine - many were not. After the outbreak of war in 1914 there was pressure to regularise marriage to provide proofs of entitlement of war widows to pensions, and in 1916 those irregularly married had to apply to the sheriff for registration. Only in 1939 was legality of marriage by consent abolished. Marriage certificates have the advantage over English ones in giving the name of the mother of both bride and bridegroom and1855 certificates include additional details. For anyone listed in the 1911 census, useful information is included such as whether the entry concerned a widow, widower or single person, the duration of marriages and number of children born. 
Divorce, dissention and separation
Disputes over marriage have been the cause of many legal hearings concerning proofs of a union having taken place, separation, desertion, divorce and aliment, cases containing fascinating details of social background and personal circumstances. Most divorces concerned the well-off but numerous cases of desertion, disagreement, failure to keep promises of marriage and parental disapproval were heard in the commissary, burgh and sheriff courts – most of which are in the NRS – though a few burgh court records are in local archives.  Kirk sessions and (after 1844) parish boards were often involved in dealing with these problems since desertion often meant that a wife would claim parish relief. For these ‘poors” records, search a local archive catalogue; some are in the NRS.
Provision for marriage
Documentation of marriage, particularly of the landed or well-off, can be found in published material or family papers. Provision for spouses was commonly made in pre- or post-marital settlements, the wife being granted a life interest in her husband’s land and this transaction would be registered as a 'sasine'. The settlement or trust deed may be recorded in the Court of Session, sheriff or burgh court, often produced at the death of either party.  
Evidence of unregistered marriages can be found in a variety of other documents – in communion rolls (found with other church records), in testaments, in court actions and in cases of debt. It is worth remembering that a married woman in Scotland may continue to be referred to by her maiden name.  
This information is taken from articles by Rosemary Bigwood published in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine in December 2013, January 2014, and April 2014.
Statutory records were reproduced with the kind permission of the Registrar General for Scotland and are available on