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
Many of these records are out-stored, requiring prior notification
to be given before they can be produced, and we therefore recommend that
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
The guide has been divided
up into the following sections:
High Court of Justiciary
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.
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'.
NRS website and Historical Search Room
trial indexes for 1611-31 and 1699-1720
|Diet Books (NAS ref.
JC60): manuscript lists of trials at the High Court in Edinburgh 1537-1828||Historical
‘Solemn Database’, containing full details for 19th century cases||Historical
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.
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 courtsHistorical sheriff court
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.
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 registers
- jury trials
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.
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 (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).
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.
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 courtsFranchise 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
- 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- '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.
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.
HH21/50/1, HH21/51/1-6, HH21/52/1-5, HH21/62/1-5|
Court Buildings Prison||1858-1862||HH21/7/1|
Lock-up House ||1826-185||HH21/8/1-2|
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
Other prison registers are found in sheriff court records:
note that staff in the NRS will not make speculative searches through prison records
for an individual, even for a given census year.
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)
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.
The National Records of Scotland
Crown Copyright 2012