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Wills and Testaments

Wills and testaments are an invaluable primary source of information for the family, local and socio-economic historian. They provide an insight into the lives of people from all walks of life in all areas of Scotland through the centuries in a unique way.



While wills (variously termed ‘last will and testament’, ‘latter will and testament’, ‘settlement’ and ‘disposition’) tell us the wishes of our forebears with regard to the disposal of their possessions after their death, testaments tell us what these possessions actually were and even how much they were worth. The latter can (perhaps somewhat fancifully) be regarded as a camera, giving us snapshots of a way of life long gone.

However, you will soon discover when you read through these documents, the earlier ones especially, that they are written in the Scots language and contain many words and expressions with which you are probably unfamiliar. Also, you will notice that spellings were at all times erratic, the use of capital letters was indiscriminate, and punctuation, as we know it, was virtually non-existent. And you may have a few problems with the handwriting. But do not be put off! The answers to the Frequently Asked Questions opposite have been designed to give you some understanding of this fascinating source.

Alternatively, go directly to the Scottish Wills microsite.

Image 1
image of testament
Inventory of Robert Peacock (National Archives of Scotland,
reference: CC20/6/10)

 Image 2
image of testament
The first few paragraphs in the testament of the engineer, Thomas Telford (National Archives of Scotland, reference: SC70/1/53).


Margaret Fox (SCAN)



1.Will I be able to read a testament?

2. If I am struggling to make sense of a testament where can I go for help?

3. I have been tracing my family tree using statutory registers of births, marriages and deaths, the Old Parochial Registers and census returns. I would like now to widen the scope of my research. Will I be sure to find a testament for my ancestor?

4. Am I right in thinking that, in Scotland, there was a difference between a will and a testament?

5. What is the difference between a ‘testament testamentar’ and a ‘testament dative’ ?

6. What exactly will I find in a typical 16th - 18th century testament?

7. Is one type of testament ‘better’ than the other from a genealogical point of view?

8. Are testaments a useful source for social and economic history?

9. Does a testament tell whether the deceased owned land and buildings?

10. Does a testament testamentar include the names of all the deceased's children?

11. Are 19th century testaments different from those of preceding centuries?

12. If I know the date of death for someone, should I restrict the search for his or her testament to a few years on either side of the date of death?

13. Is there any point in searching for the testament of an Englishman or Englishwoman in Scottish records?