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Saturday 23 May 2015

Crime and criminals



The National Records of Scotland (NRS) holds many records relating to crime and criminals. Ironically, you are more likely to find information about someone who committed a crime than those who were respectable, law-abiding citizens. Information about crime and criminals may be found in records of the inquiries into the criminal cases, the records of criminal courts, and prison records.
Indictments from 1836

Many of these records are out-stored, requiring prior notification to be given before they can be produced, and we therefore recommend that you contact the NRS to check the location of records before visiting.

Many criminal records are not indexed, and you should note that NRS staff will not make speculative searches through un-indexed records for enquirers.

The guide has been divided up into the following sections:

High Court of Justiciary
Lord Advocate's Department
Privy Council
Sheriff courts
Admiralty Court
Burgh courts
Justices of the Peace courts
Franchise courts
Criminals and prisoners
Further reading

High Court of Justiciary

The principal source for information on crime and criminals are the records of the High Court of Justiciary, Scotland's supreme criminal court (NRS ref. JC). The court has exclusive jurisdiction over serious crimes, in particular murder, rape, treason, heresy, counterfeiting and crimes of a sexual nature. It sits permanently in Edinburgh, and travels on circuit throughout Scotland. The court also acts as a court of appeal from criminal proceedings in the sheriff (or inferior) courts. Prisoners who were sentenced to be transported were always tried in the High Court.

The NRS normally receives records from the High Court when they are more than 10 years old. High Court trial records less than 75 years old are restricted, and not open to public access without the permission of the Court.

The main record of a High Court trial is the bundle of case papers known as the 'process' or 'small papers', (also 'case papers' or 'sitting papers') (NRS ref. JC26). They usually include a copy of the indictment, which sets out the charges against the accused, depositions, confessions and other information on the accused and the crime, together with information about witnesses and jurors. You may also find statements by the accused and other papers produced as evidence, but case papers do not include transcripts of trials.

Finding records of individual trials depends on the date. All case papers from 1800 onwards are in the process of being fully catalogued, allowing them to be identified on our electronic catalogue by searching under the name of the accused. The period from 1840 has been completed and the period from 1801-1839 will be added to the electronic catalogue gradually. Case papers not catalogued in this way are stored according to the year and location of the trial, and it is necessary to search through them to find individual records. For some cases more than 100 years old it is possible to identify records by searching our electronic catalogue under the name of the victim of the crime.

Further trial records are found in the High Court's minute books, which provide summaries of proceedings in court. There are minute books for Edinburgh cases since 1576 (NRS ref. JC6-JC9), and for circuit cases since 1655 (NRS ref. JC10-JC14). Additionally, there are the books of adjournal, which contain copies of indictments with brief summaries of trial proceedings. There are books of adjournal for Edinburgh cases since 1576 (NRS ref. JC2-JC5), and for circuit cases since 1890 (NRS ref. JC15). There is also a small series of selected trial transcripts from 1888 onwards (NRS ref. JC36), details of which will shortly be added to our electronic catalogue.

Some trials have been printed in 'Pitcairn's Criminal Trials in Scotland, 1498-1624' (Bannatyne Club, 1829-31), 'Selected Justiciary Cases, 1624-1650' (Stair Society, 1953, 1972 and 1974) and 'The Records of the Proceedings of the Justiciary Court, Edinburgh, 1661-1678' (Scottish History Society, 1905). Some of the more sensational trials are covered in William Roughhead's series of 'Notable Scottish Trials'.

Finding aids

Finding aidsAvailability
Electronic catalogue The NRS website and Historical Search Room
Typescript trial indexes for 1611-31 and 1699-1720 Historical Search Room
Diet Books (NAS ref. JC60): manuscript lists of trials at the High Court in Edinburgh 1537-1828Historical Search Room
The ‘Solemn Database’, containing full details for 19th century casesHistorical Search Room

Lord Advocate's Department (AD)

The main records from the Lord Advocate's Department (NRS ref. AD) are the precognitions (NRS ref. AD14-AD15). Precognitions are the documents containing the written statements of the witnesses and accused about a crime, and they are put together before a trial to prepare the case against the accused. As precognitions provide a snapshot of the local community they are a wonderfully rich source of information about individuals, economic conditions, contemporary attitudes and even language.

The precognitions relate to serious crimes tried at the High Court in the 19th and 20th centuries, though few survive before 1812. They can be identified by searching on our electronic catalogue under the name of the accused. Precognitions less than 75 years old are closed to public access.

If a precognition is available there will usually be a record of a trial at the High Court too, although cases do not always come to a trial. Similarly as records do not always survive, beware the temptation of concluding that there was no trial if you cannot find a precognition.

Privy Council (PC)

Many criminal cases were dealt with by the Privy Council before its abolition in 1708. Most men and women who appeared before the council were of some social standing, rather than ordinary criminals, but the Council also heard cases of people accused of witchcraft and seditious practices. 'The Register of the Privy Council' for 1545-1691 is published in 35 volumes. The published volumes are fully indexed and available for consultation in the NRS search rooms, as well as in good reference libraries. The unpublished Privy Council records, from 1692-1708 (NRS ref. PC), are not indexed, and can be consulted at General Register House.

Sheriff courts

Historical sheriff court records
The local sheriff courts deal with both criminal and civil cases. Sheriff courts trials are for lesser crimes, commonly theft and assault, and the NRS receives the records once they are more than 25 years old. The exceptions are Kirkwall and Lerwick Sheriff Courts, whose records are held at Orkney and Shetland Archives respectively. Contact details for these archives can be found on the Scottish Archive Network (SCAN) website.

The electronic catalogue lists the records we hold for each sheriff court, although criminal trials are not indexed and it is necessary to search through records to find individual cases. From the 19th century onwards most of the courts kept criminal records separately from civil case records, but in the earlier period you will often find these records mixed together.

There are different types of sheriff court trials. More serious cases are heard before a sheriff and jury, and are known as 'solemn' trials; depending on the court, records can be called a number of different things, including:

  • criminal court books
  • criminal records
  • criminal registers
  • jury trials
  • libels
  • indictments

Less serious cases are heard before the sheriff alone, and are called summary trials. Records of these are normally called 'criminal and quasi-criminal roll books' or 'records of summary trials'. For most of the 20th century there were also separate trials for juveniles.

Recent sheriff court records
If you are looking for information about your own conviction bear in mind that the NRS only receives trial records from sheriff courts once they are more than 25 years old. Before this date they are found at the court where the trial took place. However, in the modern period the main record of summary cases is destroyed after 10 years, when the conviction is considered 'spent', and there may only be a brief record in a criminal and quasi-criminal roll book or in summary court sheets. Contact details for all of the sheriff courts can be found on the Scottish Courts website.

If you require evidence of your conviction you can contact Disclosure Scotland, who will produce a 'basic disclosure' showing all unspent convictions on payment of a fee. If you need to show both spent and unspent convictions you should contact your local police force and make a 'subject access' request for this information under the Data Protection Act 1998. You can find contact details for all of the Scottish forces on the Scottish Police Forces website.

Admiralty Court

The Admiralty Court (NRS ref. AC) dealt with crimes committed on the high seas or in harbours, including smuggling, piracy and trading with the enemy. The records of the court cover the period from 1557 to 1830, when the court was abolished. They include criminal trial reports for the period 1705-1830 (NRS ref. AC16). The earliest surviving court records were published in 'Acta Curiae Admirallatus Scotiae, 1557-1561/2' (Stair Society, 1937).

Burgh courts

Minor offences within royal burghs were tried by the burgh courts, and the NRS holds some of the royal burgh (NRS ref. B) records; others are held by local archives. The NRS's electronic catalogue lists the surviving burgh court records and shows whether they are held at the NRS or locally. Burgh records are not indexed. A list of Scottish archives can be found in the Scottish Archive Network (SCAN) directory on the SCAN website.

Justices of the Peace courts

The Justices of the Peace courts (NRS ref. JP) also dealt with minor offences. The NRS holds some of these records and others are held locally. The records are listed on the electronic catalogue and their location shown. Justices of the Peace records held by NRS are not indexed. A list of Scottish archives can be found in the Scottish Archive Network (SCAN) directory on the SCAN website.

Franchise courts

Franchise courts were local courts where a person, usually the local landowner, held a franchise from the crown to administer justice in his area. The courts had both criminal and civil jurisdiction. There were 4 different types of court:
  • regality courts
  • barony courts
  • stewartry courts
  • bailiery courts

With the exception of the barony courts, they were abolished in 1747, after which the barony courts quickly declined. The records are mainly in a separate series (NRS ref. RH11), which are available at General Register House, some of which have been digitised and are available on Virtual Volumes in the NRS search rooms. Others may be found scattered among private collections, and in sheriff court (NRS ref. SC) and burgh (NRS ref. B) records. Selections of franchise court records have been published by the Stair Society and the Scottish History Society.


Information on prisoners sentenced to be transported can be found in the registers for the local prisons (see below) serving the courts where they were sentenced. However, because prisoners were shipped from England there is often further information in the Home Office records at The National Archives, London (TNA). These records include the transportation registers, 1787-1870, microfilm copies of which (NRS ref. RH4/160/1-7). The registers are arranged chronologically by the date of departure of each ship, and the information given is the name of the convict and where, when and for how many years he was sentenced. The State Library of Queensland has indexed these registers and compiled a database which is available over the internet and includes over 123 000 of the estimated 160 000 convicts transported to Australia during the period. The database can be accessed via the link under 'Other websites' on the left-hand side of this page.

A small series of transportation papers (NRS ref. JC41) can be found in High Court records for the period 1653-1853. The early period mainly consists of certificates of transportation for convicts to America in the 1770s; the latter papers date from 1837-1853, and consist of lists of convicts and extract sentences of transportation.

The criminal trials for individuals sentenced to transportation can be found in the papers of the High Court of Justiciary. Information on these records can be found in the section on the High Court of Justiciary above.


Witchcraft was a criminal offence between 1563 and 1736. Witchcraft trials are found in the records of the High Court of Justiciary (NRS ref. JC), the Privy Council (NRS ref. PC), and local Kirk Sessions (NRS ref. CH). In addition to the main series of High Court papers, JC40 contains a number of indictments, summons and verdicts in witchcraft cases , c.1572 -1709. An online database of Scottish witchcraft cases ("The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft") maintained by Edinburgh University has superseded the best source available in print 'A Sourcebook of Scottish Witchcraft', compiled by Christina Larner and others (Glasgow, 1977) which is available in larger libraries and General Register House.


The publication 'Registers of the Privy Council' contain names of covenanters and others banished to the North American colonies in the 17th century, in particular the 3rd series, volumes VI-X, 1678-1685. Details of proceedings against covenanters also appear in the records of the High Court of Justiciary (NRS ref. JC). In addition to the main court papers, NRS ref. JC39 is a series of 115 bundles of papers relating to actions against covenanters, 1679-1688. These contain lists of the accused and depositions of prisoners and witnesses.


The trials of Jacobites captured after the 1715 and 1745 rebellions took place in England and any records regarding these are held by TNA in London. However, the High Court of Justiciary records include material on Jacobite treason trials, 1748-9 (NRS ref. JC7). Useful printed works include:
  • 'A List of Persons concerned in the Rebellion' (Scottish History Society, 1890);
  • D Dobson, 'Directory of Scots Banished to the American Plantations' (Genealogical Publishing Company, 1983);
  • 'The Prisoners of the '45', edited by B G Seton and J G Arnot (Scottish History Society, 1928-1929); and
  • T B Howell, 'A Complete Collection of State Trials' (London, 1816) vols. XV and XVIII.

Criminals and prisoners

The NRS holds prison records from the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) and earlier bodies which had responsibility for prisons, including the Prison Commission for Scotland and the Scottish Office Home and Health Department. The main records are the prison registers (NRS ref. HH21), which generally note particulars of the trial and sentence for each inmate as well as personal details such as place of birth, occupation, age, height, and religion. A small number of prison registers contain photographs of prisoners. These have been digitised and are available on Virtual Volumes in the Historical Search Room and the ScotlandsPeople search rooms.

Few prison registers are indexed but basic details are found on the NRS electronic catalogue. A list of prison registers is given below. Note that the dates given are covering dates, there may be some gaps in the records, and recent records remain exempt from release under Freedom of Information.

PrisonDates NRS reference
Aberdeen1809-1960HH21/66/1-25, HH21/67/1-2, HH21/68/1-2
Barlinnie Prison, Glasgow 1882-1960 HH21/70/1-157
Dumbarton 1828-1883 HH21/31/1-4
Dumfries1841-1964HH21/49/1-14, HH21/50/1, HH21/51/1-6, HH21/52/1-5, HH21/62/1-5
Edinburgh (Calton) 1841-1874HH21/5/1-17
Edinburgh (Calton) Bridewell1798-1840HH21/6/1-15
Edinburgh (Calton) Jail1817-1821HH21/6/14-15
Edinburgh (Calton) Prison1856-1870HH21/25/1
Edinburgh (Saughton) 1922-1996 HH21/71/1-68
Edinburgh Court Buildings Prison1858-1862HH21/7/1
Edinburgh Lock-up House 1826-185HH21/8/1-2
Edinburgh Police 1841-1842HH21/9/1
Edinburgh Tolbooth 1816-1817HH21/6/13
Fort William 1849-1880HH21/11/1
Glasgow (Duke Street)1845-1955HH21/32/2-166
inverness1923-1967HH21/63/1, HH21/64/1-3, HH21/65/1
Kirkcudbright1841-1883HH21/53/1-4, HH21/54/1, HH21/55/1
Leith Police1840-1848HH21/10/1-2
Paisley1841-1883HH21/32/1, HH21/39/1-9
Perth (General) Prison1846-1913HH21/47/1-8, HH21/48/1-5
Perth1902-1961HH21/47/9-25, HH21/48/5-6
Port Glasgow 1840-1846HH21/41/1
Wigtown1840-1878HH21/24/1, HH21/60/1-3, HH21/61/1

There are warding and liberation books from the Edinburgh Tolbooth for the period 1657-1816 (NRS ref. HH11); selected entries have been published in the 'Book of the Old Edinburgh Club', edited by J Fairley (vols. 4- 6, 8, 9, 11 and 12).

Administrative records for Scottish prisons (NRS ref. HH12) occasionally contain references to individual prisoners, and there are also a small number of prisoner files (NRS ref. HH15), details of which are found on the electronic catalogue.

Other prison registers are found in sheriff court records:

PrisonDates NRS reference
Fort William 1893-1936SC28/32/1

Please note that staff in the NRS will not make speculative searches through prison records for an individual, even for a given census year.

Further reading
'Guide to the National Archives of Scotland' (Edinburgh, 1996)

'Tracing Your Scottish Ancestors: A Guide to Ancestry Research in The National Records of Scotland and ScotlandsPeople’, ed. Tristram Clarke (6th edn, Birlinn, 2011)

'Handlist of Records for the Study of Crime in early Modern Scotland' (to 1747), compiled by P Rayner, B Lenman and G Parker (List and Index Society, Special series vol. 16, 1982).

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