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Poor Relief



The Poor 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, APS, iii.139).

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:

Kirk session records
Heritors' minutes
Parliamentary papers

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 Poor


Frequently Asked Questions

1. Are kirk session minutes indexed?

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

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