If your ancestor was a
prisoner in Scotland and you think prison records
might contain useful information, you should firstly
consider the difference between 'remanding in
custody', where prison is a means of incarcerating
those awaiting trial or punishment, and imprisonment
as a judicial sentence. The latter is a relatively
The modern prison system
took shape in Scotland from 1839 onwards. Before
1839 the most important form of prison in Scotland
consisted of cells in the tolbooths of burghs.
Prisoners in these were usually held for short
periods before trial, or between trial and punishment,
or until a fine or debt was paid (imprisonment
for civil debt was abolished in Scotland in 1880).
Historical Records relating
to prisoners in Scotland fall into 3 main types:
(a) warding and liberation books for burgh prisons;
(b) prison registers, mainly for post-1839 prisons;
and (c) Prisoner of War records.
(a) Warding and liberation
books for burgh prisons before 1839 record the
incarceration and release of individual prisoners
with few other details. In most cases they are
held by local authority archives and libraries.
However, there are important exceptions (such
as the warding and liberation records of Edinburgh
tolbooth, held by the National Archives of Scotland).
(b) The main series of
prison registers is in the National Archives of
Scotland, among Home and Health Department records
(HH21), but there are some others among Sheriff
Court records. These mainly cover the period from
the early 1800s onwards, and consist of registers
maintained by over 49 prisons, generally containing
name, date of admission, committing magistrate
and court, age, height, where born, nationality,
occupation, religion, health, offence, particulars
of trial, sentence if convicted, and date liberated
(c) Since the eighteenth
century PoWs were the responsibility of government
departments based in London and their records
are primarily held by the Public Record Office.
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