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  My ancestor was a prisoner

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 modern phenomenon.

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 or removed.

(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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The text above is a summary of the entry on Prisons and Prisoners in the SCAN Knowledge Base. You can read this by clicking here.

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