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Scottish counties and parishes



Counties were administrative areas in Scotland from later medieval times until 1975. Initially the unit was a judicial one, the sheriffdom. Sheriffs were local judges and crown officials appointed from the 12th century until the present day. A sheriffdom consisted of a group of parishes over which the sheriff had jurisdiction. In the mid-nineteenth century the boundaries of some counties and sheriffdoms were to diverge. Many important series of records in Scotland are arranged by county. For information about another administrative unit, the stewartry, see the FAQ opposite.

Scotland has been divided into parishes since early medieval times, but there have been many boundary changes, amalgamations, changes of name and abolitions. It is important to distinguish between civil parishes and ecclesiastical parishes. Initially parishes were areas of land, whose inhabitants were compelled to pay a proportion of their produce or income (in Scotland called teinds) to support the Church. These were ecclesiastical parishes. By the seventeenth century the crown divided the country into burghs and sheriffdoms (or counties) and into parishes for the purposes of taxation. Between 1845 and 1860 elected parochial boards were formed in most parishes. These were known as civil parishes. The boundaries of many civil parishes and ecclesiastical parishes diverged after 1845. The civil parish was a unit of local government between 1845 and 1975. Many classes of historical record are arranged by parish, including valuation rolls, tax records, church records, poor relief records and education records.

County and parish government

Until 1975 the county was the largest unit of local government in Scotland. The most important local authorities and other bodies which functioned on a county wide basis are listed below (click on one for more detail):

County authorities
Commissioners of Supply
County Councils
County Road Trusts
Justices of the Peace
Lieutenancy and Militia
Local authorities under Contagious Diseases Acts
Medical Officers of Health and Sanitary Inspectors
Police Committees/Standing Joint Committees
Statute Labour Trusts
Turnpike Trusts

Parish authorities
Kirk sessions
Parish Councils and Parochial Boards
School Boards
School Management Committees

Other authorities
Education Authorities
District Committees
District Councils (1930-1975)
District lunacy boards/District boards of control
Joint hospital boards/fever hospitals etc
Special drainage, water supply, lighting and scavenging districts

Ann E Whetstone, Scottish County Government in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (Edinburgh, 1981); Cecil Sinclair, Exploring Scottish Local History (Edinburgh, 1994)


Frequently Asked Questions

1. What was a stewartry?

2. Are kirk session minutes indexed?

3. Where can I find kirk session records for a parish?

4. Where can I find heritors' records for a parish?

5. Where can I find parochial board, parish council and poor relief records for a parish?

6. Why might the information in a register of the poor contradict information in other records?

7. Where should I look for information on poorhouses for a school project?

8. I have seen the term 'General Register of the Poor' used. Does this refer to a central register of the poor, kept nationally for the whole of Scotland?

9. If poor relief registers do not survive for a parish, is it worthwhile looking in parochial board/parish council minutes for information on a pauper?

10 How can school board minutes help me trace the title to a school building?

11. Do parochial board/parish council minutes contain information about individual paupers?

12. How can valuation rolls help me prove I was a council tenant for a number of years (for example, to claim a discount when purchasing a council house)?

To find out which parish and county an island belonged to, enter the Gazetteer.