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Thursday 28 May 2015

Estate records


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, 1883).

'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 EDINA website.

'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 and valuation rolls.

The records

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 (tacks)

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.

Household accounts

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.

Estate buildings

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.

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