Law in Scotland Before 1845
Parliamentary legislation concerning the
poor began in the 15th century. Early statutes were mostly for the
suppression of idle beggars, but gradually two important principles
emerged. All parishes were to be responsible for their own poor,
but only certain categories of poor were proper objects of poor
relief. A statute of 1579, which remained the basis of the poor
law until 1845, firmly established these rules. Its twin aims were
that 'the puyr aiget and impotent personis sould be as necessarlie
prouidit for', and that 'vagaboundis and strang beggaris' should
be 'repressit'. Those entitled to relief through age, illness or
otherwise, were to go to the last parish in which they had lived
seven years, or failing that the parish of their birth (1579, c.12,
The parish authorities responsible for the poor were inevitably
the kirk sessions and the heritors. The 1579 act also provided that
parishes might levy a poor rate, but in practice this was unusual.
Even in the 1790s less than one hundred of the 878 parishes in Scotland
imposed a rate, although by then the number was growing. For the
most part the parishes relied on church collections, seat lettings,
charitable mortifications and other sources of income. The system
suited rural society reasonably well but was ill-adapted to the
large industrial towns of the early 19th century, where the poor
tended to be congregated in slum areas. The Industrial Revolution
also brought cyclical trade depressions, with large numbers of able-bodied
unemployed, who were not entitled to poor relief. In any case a
church-based system could not be justified when so many had seceded
from the established church. In 1843 a Royal Commission of Inquiry
was appointed, whose recommendations led to reform two years later.
Poor Relief Records
The survival of records at a parish level
relating to poor relief is complicated by the overlapping responsibilities
of kirk sessions, heritors and (after 1845) parochial boards. The
most likely source of information at parish level is the records
of kirk sessions, but heritors minutes should be consulted too.
Parochial Board records sometimes include pre-1845 material, which
began life as heritors' or kirk session records. Examples are minute
books (of the heritors or of a heritors' committee on the management
of the poors fund), poor rolls, registers of poor persons, and accounts.
Anyone researching poor relief (and other parochial matters) is
strongly advised to look at the catalogues to the records of all
three of these bodies (kirk sessions, heritors, and parochial boards)
for any given parish. In this period the classes of record which
are mainly used by researchers are:
Bibliography and Links
R Cage, The Scottish Poor Law 1745-1845 (Scottish
Academic Press, 1981); Anne Gordon, Candie for the Foundling (Edinburgh,
1992); Cecil Sinclair, Tracing your Scottish Ancestors (Edinburgh,
1997); J A Haythornthwaite (ed.) Scotland in the Nineteenth Century:
An Analytical bibliography of material relating to Scotland in Parliamentary
Papers 1800-1900 (Aldershot, 1993). The National
Archives of Scotland website has a fact
sheet on the subject of the Poor.
Other Knowledge Base entries on Poor Relief
Poor Law after 1845
Registers of the
Are kirk session minutes indexed?
Where can I find kirk session records for a parish?
Where can I find heritors' records for a parish?