Until the middle of the 19th century most Scots lived in the countryside,
rather than in towns. If your ancestors worked the land, or even
owned or rented property, then the surviving records of landed estates
may provide useful sources.
Locating surviving records for a particular locality is largely a
matter of finding out the name of the landowner of the day and then
checking the indexes and catalogues in different archives to see if
any of his records survive. You may already know the name of the local
landowner, in which case you should consult the National Register
of Archives maintained by The National Archives: Historical Manuscripts
Commission (TNA) and the Scottish Archive Network (SCAN) online catalogue.
It may also be relevant to consult the National Archives of Scotland (NAS) electronic
catalogue (most of the estate records in the NAS are part of the
Gifts and Deposits (NAS ref. GD) series).
If you do not know the identity of the landowner(s) in a particular
area, there are several publications which can aid you. These publications,
as well as others, should be available through a good library, as
well as being available for consultation at the NAS:
'Ordnance Survey Gazetteer', 6 vols., by Francis H. Groome (Edinburgh,
'Statistical Account of Scotland', 3 Series, numerous volumes compiled
by the ministers of the Church of Scotland, various editors (Edinburgh,
1791-1799, 1845 and 1987). Also available online at Edinburgh University's
'A Directory of Landownership in Scotland c 1770', edited by Loretta
R. Timperley, Scottish Record Society, (Edinburgh, 1976).
The Register of Sasines (NAS ref. RS) and Valuation Rolls (NAS
ref. VR) may also help you to identify particular landowners although
this approach may be time consuming. Further information can be
found in the relevant guides to sasines
Although the most useful records from different estates follow general
patterns, the wide variety in the geographical and chronological coverage
makes generalisation difficult. For the history of landowning families
you will need to examine the estate records such as correspondence,
legal documents concerning ownership, succession, marriages and genealogical
information. Those who rented and worked the land are mainly to be
found in the rentals (rent rolls) of estates, and the records of leases,
known as tacks, and in miscellaneous records kept by the factor, the
proprietor's estate manager and agent. The estate records may also
provide evidence for parts of an estate feued, i.e. sold off, to form
separate properties, for example in the creation or expansion of villages
and towns. Also to be found are records of agriculture, forestry and
fishing, as well as industrial activities such as coal mining.
Rentals (rent rolls)
Rentals can often simply consist of summary accounts of the annual
income of the estate without mentioning individuals. More helpful
are those which contain information such as the names of the tenants,
the name, acreage and value of the land leased, the year in which
the lease began, its duration, and payments made in cash, kind or
labour. Sometimes there are also notes on the buildings leased and
remarks about the tenant's behaviour or character by the estate factor.
Where individuals are mentioned, rentals only give the name of the
head of the house and do not list wives, children or other dependants.
Leases may provide more information than rentals, and they are often
catalogued as a separate series. Also worth exploring if possible
is the factor's correspondence, which usually contains at least some
letters from (or about) prospective tenants. Correspondence with existing
tenants often concerns requests for the reduction of rent, and a myriad
of other grievances that throw light on their personal circumstances.
As servants were not the factor's responsibility, correspondence
concerning individual maids and footmen is much less common, and usually
survives only in family letters. Household accounts can sometimes
provide evidence of their names and occupations.
The owners of landed estates often built farmhouses, steadings,
cottages, mills and even inns and other buildings on their property.
Following the break-up of many landed estates over the last century,
these have often been sold to private owners. The history of these
buildings can be difficult to trace, because the main evidence about
their construction may only survive in the records of the factor's
correspondence and estate accounts. Building accounts (sometimes including
the names of labourers and other workmen) for some estates are also
to be found in the registers of improvements to entailed estates in
the sheriff court records, c.1770-c.1880 (NAS ref. SC).
If you are researching a house that was once part of a larger estate,
bear in mind that in some cases it will simply be impossible to
trace its history.
The National Archives of Scotland
Crown Copyright 2005