Back   Click to Print
montage of images
Poor Relief



Scottish Poorhouses
Poorhouses or almshouses have existed in Scotland since medieval times, principally in burghs. Between 1845 and 1930 over 70 poorhouses were constructed in Scotland, many serving a number of parishes (called 'poor law unions' or 'combinations'). They were built following the Poor Law (Scotland) Act 1845, which established parochial boards in rural parishes and in the towns, and a central Board of Supervision in Edinburgh. The poorhouses were for those categories of paupers who did not receive 'outdoor relief' (normally in the form of small weekly sums of money). The regime, diet and living conditions in poorhouses were austere, partly to discourage applications from those who could rely on family support instead. On the other hand poorhouses provided medical and nursing care of the elderly and the sick, at a time when there were few hospitals and private medical treatment was beyond the means of the poor. In 1948 the poor law was abolished and replaced by the modern social security system, and by then hospitals had largely replaced the medical function of poorhouses. Many poorhouses, indeed, expanded to become hospitals (for example Govan poorhouse, which formed the nucleus for the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow). Others became old people's homes or social work administrative offices.

Poorhouse records
The Board of Supervision issued detailed regulations for the records to be kept by poorhouse governors. They included a register of inmates with details, including the religious persuasion of each, a journal, which was an official log book or office diary, and a report book of offences against the rules of the poorhouse and punishments imposed. For many poorhouses all that survives are minute books of the managing committee or board, and these usually survive among county council or civil parish records held by local authority archives. Substantial records survive for a few poorhouses, most notably those for Kyle Union poorhouse in Ayr, whose records (held by Ayrshire Archives) contain registers of inmates, financial records, punishment books, and plans. Where a poorhouse became a hospital, records (including registers of inmates) may survive among the records of the hospital concerned, held by the appropriate health board archive.

The National Archives of Scotland hold sets of architectural plans for 40 Scottish poorhouses in the RHP plans series. Most are in large portfolios, which makes handling awkward, and photocopying impossible. Typically these portfolios include plans, sections and elevations of a new poorhouse, along with drawings for later additions and alterations, ranging from the mid 19th century to the 1920s. The records of the Home and Health Department (HH), in the National Archives of Scotland, contain the minute books and other records of the Board of Supervision and the Local Government Board for Scotland, which supervised civil parishes in Scotland. These include annual reports and financial accounts of poorhouse committees.

Poorhouse records, where they survive, are used by a variety of researchers, including school and university students and teachers looking at the treatment of the poor and the history of medical provision (since poorhouses operated hospital wards). Poorhouse admission registers are not, in general, very useful to the genealogist, since they contain few personal details of each inmate, except they may refer to the parochial board or parish council to which the pauper applied, in turn leading the researcher to the appropriate register of applications or general register of the poor.

For a list of Scottish poorhouses, drawn up in 1902, click here.

Other SCAN pages on poor relief

Poor Law pre-1845
Poor Law post 1845
Registers of the Poor
In the SCAN Virtual Vault you can see examples of poor relief records from Scottish archives.

Bibliography and Links
One of the topics in the website of the Heatherbank Museum of Social Work is poorhouses. A website with information on workhouses is The Workhouse, but bear in mind the differences between English workhouses and Scottish poorhouses. There is some useful information, and illustrations, in an archaeological dissertation on pottery from Craiglockart poorhouse.


Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is the difference between a poorhouse and a workhouse?

2. What do the terms 'indoor relief' and 'outdoor relief' mean?

3. What is meant by the terms 'test case' and 'test ward'?

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

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

The former Kyle Combination poorhouse in Ayr, now a social work office.

In the SCAN Virtual Vault you can see examples of poor relief records from Scottish archives, some of which relate to poorhouses.